Unesco-listed Alhambra in Andalusia is an architectural marvel

The fortified Moorish palace of Unesco-listed Alhambra in sun-kissed Andalusia is simply amazing, writes Putri Zanina IT'S hard to begin this story on the Alhambra.

But it's easy to understand why millions have been awed by this 13th Century Moorish architectural marvel. The beauty of this fortified palace with exotic gardens is the pinnacle of Moorish art and architecture. For centuries, it has lured poets, filmmakers, architects and writers, the most famous of whom was Washington Irving, who immortalised it in his book, Tales Of The Alhambra. Irving, who lived in the palace in 1828 while writing the book, was credited for reintroducing this ancient site to westerners. The beauty of the Alhambra was such that even an eminent writer such as Irving did not believe that his writing would ever do it justice.

He wrote: "How unworthy is my scribbling of the place." Now, how can I do justice to this beauty called Alhambra, described by Moorish poets as "a pearl set in emeralds" and whose literal translation is "the red (female)", to reflect the colour of the red clay used for the outer walls. Through the ages, the red clay has turned a peachy hue but appears crimson orange when swathed in the light of the setting sun.

Over the ages, even mathematicians are mystified by the classical symmetry of the ancient tile patterns. These are hailed as remarkable for they noticeably contain 13 plane symmetry groups, perhaps more, or even all of the 17 mathematically possible symmetry groups, which is a tremendous feat in world architecture. Its mathematical precision is intertwined with the poetic beauty of water gardens, gurgling fountains, scented blossoms, and shadowy walls and archways that lead to reflecting pools. So it's not surprising that in modern times, more than three million people visit Alhambra every year.

That's more than 8,000 people per day. Imagine the size of the whole complex and the queue at its entrance and the crowd within its walls that snake around al-Sabika Hill. It overlooks the lovely city of Granada in Andalusia - the jewel of Spain with the spectacular backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Encapsulating Andalusian history dating back more than 800 years ago, the Unesco-listed Alhambra is indeed one of the most remarkable sights of Europe.

BASTION OF MUSLIM DYNASTY

Surrounded by greenery, the Alhambra was the home of Nasrid sultans who ruled Granada from 1237 until 1492 when the Muslim leaders were pushed out by Catholic monarchs. The Nasrid Dynasty was the last Muslim dynasty to rule in Spain. Founder of the dynasty Muhammad 1 al-Ahmar started the construction of the Alhambra in 1238.

There are three inter-connecting palaces - Mexuar Palace, Comares Palace and Palace Of The Lions - built by the Nasrid kings of different periods. A common feature is the lovely mix of manmade structures and water gardens. Royal abode and council halls alternate with courtyards adorned with columned arcades, flower-shaped fountains, hanging vines, creepers and flowering plants that evoke the images of the Garden Of Eden.

This paradise on Earth is even more dazzling indoors. Fascinating details are everywhere - on the walls, the floor, the roofs and just about anywhere you look. Verses from the Quran are intricately carved on the walls, which are also largely decorated with inter-locking glazed tiles in the predominant shades of greens, blues, reds and blacks.

The gaps between the Arabesque lattice work are also painted in various colours. Geometrical patterns on creamy plaster reliefs flow in one continuous line that ends only at the edges. Another outstanding feature is the inlaid cedar ceiling of the Ambassadors' Salon, which served as the grand reception room. The sultans' throne was placed opposite the entrance with views of the landscape. Then there's the intriguing Abencerrages Hall (named after the powerful Abencerrages noble family) with its lofty dome honeycombed with stalactite-like cells said to number 5,000. The sight of it is mind-boggling.

The "stalactites" served as some kind of fortification of this hall where royal banquets were held.

DAZZLING POOL, CHIMING BELL

Moving on to the Court Of The Myrtles, you'll see a rectangular pool with shimmering greenish waters capturing the reflection of the plain white walls and the dazzling blue of the Andalusian sky.

The patio in the Palace Of The Lions has a central water feature with 12 lions pouring water into channels. Surrounding the patio are 124 columns in the shape of date palms.

Cross a bridge outside the palaces through Torre del Agua gate and you'll see the fortified gateways, excavated residential remains and Arab-style bathhouses with star-shaped openings in the roof. Next, you'll reach the oldest part of Alhambra - the Alcazaba citadel dating back to the ninth century. It has three square towers with sweeping views of Granada, Sierra Nevada, Vega and beyond.

One of the towers is the Watch Tower (Torre de la Vela) with flag poles and its iconic giant bell. In the past, the bell was used to wake up the farmers in Vega at different hours of the night so they could water their farms. It was also used to alert the people of oncoming danger. Today, it chimes only on Jan 2 every year to commemorate the date when the Catholic monarchs took the city.

The monarchs also stamped their mark at the Alhambra. So amid all its Moorish grandeur is the garishly different Palacio de Carlos V, built by Emperor Charles V in 1527. This palace is defiantly European and Renaissance with cold, massive blocks, brick squares and bronze lions' heads.

There's a galleried circular courtyard surrounded by colonnaded pathways. One of these leads to the Alhambra Museum, home to the many treasures found through the different periods.

ARABIAN SANCTUARY

A perfect ending to my Alhambra visit is the quiet sojourn to the Generalife which used to be the summer retreat of the sultans. It's the best historical example of an Islamic garden in Europe. Perched on a hillside, it's a delicate composition of pavilions, patios, reflecting pools with perfectly synchronised jets of water, lush green cypresses carved into Moorish-style arches, and streams of water gushing down channelled banisters that flank stone staircases. It's here that I slip deeper into a daze, dreaming of the pleasures of Arabian Nights and absorbing all the wonder that is the Alhambra.

Travel tips Getting there: There's no direct flight from Malaysia to Spain. You may fly to London or other European cities and then take the flight to Madrid. From there, either fly or rent a car to Granada, 418km or four hours' drive away. You can also take the bus or train. Both journeys take about four hours. Granada is served by efficient and regular bus service. Take bus no. 31 or 32 which runs every 10 minutes from Plaza Nueva to the Alhambra. The ride costs about €0.70 (RM3).

Best time to visit: January to March, with bright, sunny days and colourful blossoms. Average temperature during spring lingers around 15°C. Summer is hot while winter can be extremely cold.

Buy tickets ahead: Alhambra now strictly limits the number of visitors to 6,600 people each day, with only 300 allowed to enter the Nasrid palaces every half-hour. It's best to buy tickets in advance online (www.ticketmaster.es or alhambra-tickets.es) to avoid long queues on day of visit or worse, to find out that all tickets are sold out when you reach the counter.

Get there at 8am when the ticket office opens and the chances of getting tickets are good. Tickets can also be bought up to three months ahead through Caixa Bank, Spain (Tel: 902- 100095) and printed out from Caixa machines in Granada or at the Alhambra entrance.

Ticket prices: Varies, depending on the package and time of visit. There are seven packages to choose from including Alhambra General and Alhambra At Night Palaces. Price starts from €14.30 per person. Some parts of the Alhambra are accessible without tickets including the colonnaded courtyard of the late 15th-century Palacio de Carlos V, the church and the craft shops.

Allocated times: The back of your ticket states what time you're allocated for the visit to Nasrid palaces. You'll not be allowed to enter if you miss the time allocated to you. If you insist on entering, you'll have to buy new tickets. If you book months ahead, you can choose the half-hour slot that you want. Keep your ticket as it will be checked and scanned at the various sections.

Plan your visit: There are 67 key spots in the Alhambra with 13 must-not-miss sights including the mosque baths, Alhambra Museum, Torre de la Vela and Patio de los Leones (Court Of The Lions). If you come with a guide, then you'll be taken to the various spots with the guide explaining the significance of each. If you are on your own, rent an audio guide service unit (€6.50), at the entrance pavilion next to the ticket office or at the Palace Of Charles V. The audio gadget provides explanation in various languages including English. You push the numbered buttons on the gadget, which correspond with the numbers on information boards put up at the different spots. Don't forget to collect a map of the Alhambra at the entrance that shows you all the numbered spots. Do keep your receipt for the audio rental, as you need to show it when you return the gadget and collect your deposit.

Tips: The order in which you visit the many parts of the Alhambra will depend on the time allocated for you to enter the Nasrid palaces. I find it ideal to start with the palaces first by booking ahead and getting in by 8.30am and finishing with the Generalife area where you can linger and rest before exiting.

Opening times: March 15 to Oct 14: 8.30am-8pm. Oct 15 to March 14: 8.30am-6pm. For night visits, there are different time slots depending on the season. It takes a good half day to visit Alhambra and longer if you wish to discover all its wonders, so plan ahead.

Contact: Alhambra Head Office - Calle Real de la Alhambra, s/n, 18009 Granada, Spain. Tel: +34 958 02 79 71. Website: www.alhambra-patronato.es