Enter eden in Alhambra

spanish gardens

Enter eden in Alhambra

Blame it on the window views. There I was, taking the tour of the Nasrid Palace in Alhambra, stopping every few feet to admire the honeycombed ceilings and intricate canopies, the ornamentation on tile and stone, the soaring arches, the pristine marble columns. And listening to the tour guide, Enrique. He was one witty guy.

“You Americans know all about Al Capone and Al Pacino,” he said. “Now, get to know ‘Al Hambra’.” This statement instantly grabbed the wandering attention of our tour group, which comprised mostly Americans.

Floral colour palette

The 14th century al-kalat al-Hamra, the ‘Castle of Red Earth’, was marvelous, there was no gainsaying that. And the Nasrid Palace was just one of the gems in that diadem, the others being the Alcazaba and the Palacio Generalife. It’s just that every time we stopped to marvel at something, my eyes wandered to the gleaming plate glass windows, to the vistas beyond. For vistas they were of dun-coloured courtyards, neatly laid flower beds sprouting a riot of colour (we were there in early summer), fat, well-manicured hedges, softly murmuring fountains. At least, I presume the last lot were softly murmuring, the windows were soundproofed so I could hear nothing.

After I’d stopped at a gorgeous mirador, a turret window, to inhale sharply in delight at the sight of an orangery outside, I decided to get my priorities right. Which was how I stealthily slipped outside, through the first door I could.

Entering eden

To cut a long and glorious story short, I spent the next hour in a state of suspended bliss, walking from arbour to fountain to allée to courtyard. After a while, I climbed the spur of the adjoining hill and found myself in another kind of Eden, locally known as the Generalife Gardens. The name is derived from the Arabic Jannat al-Arif or ‘garden of the architect’, in what could possibly be a poetical reference to God the creator, the architect. The sun shone, but not too brightly, I could hear bees buzzing (or maybe they were wasps), and the air was definitely scented with the fragrance of a thousand blooms; 267 species and 20 hybrids and counting, I was informed.

The Low and High Gardens here contain a veritable riot of flowers. Rows upon rows of lavender blossom, jasmine in bloom (evoking memories of my garden in Bengaluru), crepe-myrtle, carnations, violets, stocks, irises spilling out of giant ornamental stone planters and containers or sitting neatly in orderly beds. Huge damask roses shone a gorgeous red from pergolas, water lilies glowed white from small circular tanks. I walked past fragrant herb gardens with oregano, lemon balm, mint thyme, rosemary, I walked past thick hedges of myrtle. And as I walked, I had an epiphany. A lot of sightseeing in Europe involves admiring things unlike what we find in our backyard. That was not the case with these gardens. The layout, with channels of running water dividing carefully arranged plants, the architecture of the buildings, all evoked Mughal architecture at its prettiest; in fact, the Generalife, in parts, reminded me of the three beautiful gardens of Srinagar — the Chashma Shahi, Nishat and Shalimar.

One could hear the soft gurgle of flowing water, the best outdoor muzak ever, wherever
one was in the gardens. The immaculately laid out gardens, the wide stone-flagged promenades, the arresting view of the sienna-coloured Nasrid Palace in the near distance, all seemed like a panoramic cliché come alive, a sharp composition of beautiful hues. The dull green of the olive trees, the sharper green of the orange groves with small bright fruit slowly ripening on them. Blue skies, scudding white clouds, sun on the tall lines of cypress, on the shorter stands of fig trees.

The gardens of Andalusia, I later read, were laid out following the irrigation system brought to the region by the Romans; the plants were not all indigenous to the area. Some came from distant parts of the Islamic empire, taking root and soon becoming an intrinsic part of the Spanish landscape. Given that the Alhambra has suffered some damage through the years through explosions and fire, and undergone extensive renovation as well, experts have concluded that a few plants there would have been unknown in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Don’t take my words for Alhambra gardens. Federico García Lorca, who was born near Granada, was intoxicated by it, so intoxicated that he dressed like a Moor and wandered through the gardens. Washington Irving wrote paeans to the place, as did Salman Rushdie, Philippa Gregory and Paulo Coelho. These people sure knew a good thing when they saw it. Back to my guidebook. “The best and most famous late-Medieval castle gardens in Europe,” it said. Even as I nodded in assent, I heard Enrique calling. It was time to go back inside the magnificent palace. I’d had my time out.

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