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Wheel Adventures: Listening to ghosts at the Alhambra

Over long distances, our group spreads out along the road according to each person’s natural rhythms, by which I mean leg cramps, neck pain and aversion to developing terrible piles.
The Alhambra, showing off its ramparts, barracks and armament storage.

Over long distances, our group spreads out along the road according to each person’s natural rhythms, by which I mean leg cramps, neck pain and aversion to developing terrible piles. And also according to each person’s desire to embrace the kind of solitude that only develops under such big, blue skies. My rhythm is slow, and my desire for solitude is great, so I am alone, a wheel-man-wheel shadow moving slowly across the horizon.

Cycling out here on the Andalucían plains — far from everything I know — reduces me. I hear the soft hum of bicycle tires on hot asphalt, the regular creak of my frame and my tired breathing on the hills. That is all.

It is during these times — when you are small and quiet — that ghosts become real.

Spain is full of ghosts, and they call to us. The modern Spain we cycle through — alongside 300-year-old olive tree orchards and, possibly, 300-year-old men herding goats with sticks on the roadside — sings to us softly of a beautiful, colourful, quiet people we do not know.

But other ghosts call to us, too: those of ancient al-Ándalus, the name given to the Iberian Peninsula under eight centuries of North African Muslim rule. This song is old and strange and wondrous. Moorish al-Ándalus ebbed and flowed under rival factions and various flavours of Islam from 711 to 1492, during which science, art, poetry, music and learning flourished.

The ghosts of ancient Al-Ándalus are everywhere. You see them in the design of the oddly curved arches and doorways, in the colourful tiles on the teterias (“Moorish tearoom”) walls, and in the white-washed fortress towns built on hilltops across Andalucía, each honeycombed with narrow, baffling streets, and crowned with an alcazaba (“castle”).

Throughout Spain, there are ghosts from a thousand years of Moorish rule, clinging to the land and sky long after the Christian kingdoms drove them southward to the sea. But perhaps nowhere more so than in Granada, where finally, on Jan. 2, 1492, Emir Muhammad XII surrendered the Emirate of Granada to Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, completing the Christian Reconquista of Spain.

It happened here in Granada, in the shadow of the magnificent Alhambra, the red fortress and palace complex built for the last Muslim emirs in Spain during the decline of the Nasrid dynasty.

The reddish stone of the Alhambra runs along a rocky hilltop above the Darro River. Walled on the high ground, and protected by the dark and looming Sierra Nevada mountains to the south, it’s the perfect place for a fortress — which was its original purpose when constructed in 889 AD. Perfect-ish.

A cursory read of any history book will convince you that no fortress, plan or people is perfect. Eventually, as is the way of things, things were said, mistakes were made, kingdoms waxed and waned, and the Alhambra fell into disrepair. I’m summarizing the excellent narration provided by the history headphones I rented at the entrance.

Where was I? Oh yes, after years of neglect, the Moorish king of Grenada renovated the Alhambra in the 11th century, and in 1333, Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, converted the complex into his royal palace. But then … more waxing and waning … after the Catholic monarchs conquered Andalucía in 1492, parts of the Alhambra were used by the Christian rulers, and eventually the mosque was replaced by a church. In 1527, the ringed palace of Charles V was built within the complex as a permanent residence for the monarch.

Centuries of building projects and renovations have led to a rambling mix of styles, the overall effect of which is: wow. Think lofty ceilings ringed with Arabic admonitions about where power really comes from; grand hallways whose walls are covered in intricate arabesque decorations; and open courtyards with narrow pools lined with myrtle. The disrepair is still part of the Alhambra, but now it is charming rather than a serious military problem.

At one point, it was inhabited by vagrants, various semi-legit and totally-not-at-all-legit feudal lords, and was even used as soldiers’ barracks during Napoleonic times. On their eventual retreat from Granada, Napoleon’s forces turned their cannons on the walls and buildings within.

The news of this desecration floors me.

I’m a New World Man, which is to say the Old World’s ample supply of cathedrals, castles and pyramids is well outside my experience. The “old buildings” back home were put up (not very long ago) by the Hudson’s Bay Company to sell mittens and fur hats. So I’m easily impressed by actual ancient architecture, and the thought of firing canons into the beautiful Alhambra strikes me as a particularly vile and vindictive act of vandalism. Like spray painting gang graffiti on a cathedral. Only with exploding cannonballs. I can’t help but think that Napoléon Bonaparte — Emperor of the French, King of Italy, Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine, etc., etc. — was a bit of a dick.

The Alhambra sprawls over 100,000 square metres along the hilltop above Granada, and is more than fortress, palace and cathedral. With its 2,000-metre-long wall, 29 towers and seven gates, it was a city in its own right with roads, baths, residences and the wonderful Generalife, a medieval-style Persian garden.

Pro-tip: in Spain they speak Spanish (OK, and Basque and Catalan and Galician and …). My point is that when a word looks like English, it’s not.

To wit: the Alhambra’s magnificent Generalife gardens is not the English “general life” but “heneral-eef-ay,” which is the Spanish approximation of the Arabic Jannat al-Arif (“architect’s gardens”). I only tell you this, gentle reader, so that you avoid any embarrassing public pronunciations. Isn’t language fun?

The Alhambra was rediscovered in the 19th century by scholars, writers and adventurers, ultimately drawing the world’s romantic attention. In preparation for our Andalucían adventure, I mostly read perhaps the most famous work about this place, Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra. I saved the last chapter to read in the Alhambra. I know: I’m a lit fanboy nerd.

The room that Irving stayed in while visiting in 1829 is still there. I stand in front of the simple, wooden door for a while, wishing that I had the key. It would be cool to see the ceiling he stared at while reliving the fantastic tales of ghostly Moorish armies and beautiful-but-gullible princesses he heard during the day.

My reverie is broken when a fat pigeon-like bird — later to be identified by guide Genci, when pressed, as “I don’t know” and “maybe a fat pigeon” (complicated explosive noises) — flies past on a warm updraft from somewhere below. The breeze carries with it the cooler, green smell of the river below, and the sound of gypsy musicians playing in the style of Jean “Django” Reinhardt.

It is evening, time to leave the ramparts and fantastic sunset views of Andalucía, and to find our way down and across the river to the shops and houses of the Albaicín, the ancient neighbourhood on the hillside opposite the Alhambra.

Moorish Albaicín is as beautiful and frustrating as an M.C. Escher drawing. Bring all the maps you like, you will still get lost in its maze of 12-foot-high whitewashed walls. The walls modestly cloak homes, businesses and shops so that, at least from the street, everybody appears of equal standing.

Alas, this pleasant Arab convention frequently results in loud, echoing declarations along the lines of “¡Estamos perdidos otra vez! ( “We’re lost, again!”).

The steep, narrow, winding streets of the Albaicín more often than not lead in the exact opposite direction of where you want to go. Its occasional street signs mock the very concept of wayfinding on an epic scale, designed to confound rather than to direct.

In truth, the Albaicín is singularly frustrating because I really, really have to pee, and it is difficult to be objective on a full bladder with no signs of an exit. Eventually — by luck or fate — we take the right sequence of turns and are deposited at the bottom of the hill. There is a patio restaurant, with bathroom and beer, and gypsy jazz musicians. All is well.

The Canuck’s Last Sigh

When I look up to the Alhambra above us, draped over the cliffs in the nighttime sky, I see a fat yellow moon crest the ramparts and wash the fortress in golden light. Here, especially, the ghosts still call to me. Believe me when I say that it does not take much imagination to hear the Moor’s last sigh, when Boabdil, the last sultan, turned in his saddle for one final look at what he gave up in the name of peace.

This is the strange thing about listening to ghosts in foreign lands. Their song is a gift, but nonetheless requires payment. The gift is learning a little more of the beautiful, colourful people who lived here long ago.

The payment is leaving a little of your heart behind with the ghosts, another voice to haunt the place that will now forever haunt your memories.

It’s a fair trade, I reckon, and worthy of a sigh as I turn in my own saddle, and prepare to leave the Alhambra, and Andalucía, and Spain for home.

I am not the same, having seen the moon rise over the Alhambra.

Next week: Hitting the road in Cuba, and finding an odd tribute to John Lennon.