Exploring Malaga, Granada and the Alhambra

Part 7 in a series about a January trip to Barcelona and a Western Mediterranean cruise on NCL.

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Spain was once again the destination for the final stop of our Mediterranean cruise. We docked for the day in Malaga, the heart of the Costa del Sol and, for us, the gateway to Andalucia. We spent only a few minutes in Malaga to pick up a pre-reserved rental car, and then off we drove to Granada.

Granada Then and Now

Granada is burned in Western memory perhaps most strongly as the site of the Moors’ last stand before falling to Catholic Spain in the seminal year 1492. Over the prior centuries of Islamic rule, Granada became a wealthy economic and political center, falling into decline by the fifteenth century that only abated with the influx of travelers in the last two centuries.

Although there were some minor snafus upon leaving Malaga in our rental car– why the sign announcing the proper highway onramp appeared after the turn-off to the ramp had already passed, we never knew—we had little trouble reading Granada once on the road. Our first stop, stowing our rental car in the easily accessible Alhambra parking lot, was the Royal Chapel.

The Chapel is attached to the larger cathedral, but here it is the famous inhabitants, not the architecture, that is the main attraction. Here are interred the great Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, along with other family members, in a crypt in simple coffins behind a screen. The cathedral, which was built over two centuries beginning after the Royal Chapel was completed in the sixteenth century, is an interesting blend of Gothic and Renaissance styles, and also houses a museum of artifacts from the monarchs’ lives and religious art.

We wandered through the drizzly old streets before stopping for lunch at a restaurant filled with locals, picked at random. With my high school Spanish background, I offered to help translate the menu for our friends—which worked out well for them. However, my mistaking the meaning of “croquette” meant that I ended up with something kind of like mozzarella sticks, but vaguely fish flavored, and breadier. Mmm.

Visiting the Alhambra

Next it was back up the hill to the dreamy Alhambra. My mother had last visited the region when she was 16 on her first trip to Europe, and she remembered fondly the vast, rosy colonnades and arches of the Alhambra…and by the Alhambra, she eventually realized, she meant Cordoba. She had never visited the Alhambra. So it was afresh that we wandered through the vast palace complex.

We had reserved our tickets weeks in advance—a must, especially if traveling during peak season or if you’re on a specific timeframe—and at our appointed entry time zipped right into the complex for our self-guided tour. Less a palace and more a sprawling town from which first the Moors and later Isabella and Ferdinand ceremonially ruled, the Alhambra certainly earns its reputation as one of Spain’s greatest sights. Especially in contrast with another great work of Islamic architecture, the Hassan II Mosque that we had visited in Casablanca a few days prior, I was so impressed by the intricacy and detail that was possible on such a large-scale level with so little technology and machinery.

I’ve studied Western European history and architecture in some detail, and my final sense of the Alhambra was both familiar and jarring at the same time. The grand halls and spectacularly placed fountains are too numerous to remember, and the intricate details and patterns are unlike anything else I’d seen. But he overall sense of how controlling and constraining space stands for a show of power—delineating halls that lead into halls that belong to figures of successive importance—was not dissimilar at all to other palaces and castles I’ve seen.

Malaga Highlights

We had additional time remaining after leaving Granada before we had to be back at the ship, so we enjoyed a quick tour through the best of Malaga to finish our day. The Museo Picasso Malaga is one of the city’s more recently built attractions and houses a great collection of works by its native son, donated by his daughter-in-law and grandson. For me, especially when dealing with an artist like Picasso, I find a fair amount of curatorial detail helpful—clues into interpretations, background into the artistic process and inspiration, etc.—especially when printed on placards or labels. This was something that the Malaga museum did not have, in contrast to the Barcelona Picasso Museum that we had visited a few days prior and that focused on this type of approach in documenting the artist’s life and works. But of course, the Malaga museum was beautifully presented and was still a treat to see.

We strolled through the compact, older part of the town and finished our Malaga visit at the cathedral. Gothic features, completed early in the cathedral’s long construction, juxtapose with playful details on the Baroque façade, like BOXES beneath windows that feature a break in the middle, are the hallmark of the overwrought Baroque style, It’s fun, too—you know the designers must have enjoyed their work and been bemused by their own re-evaluation and tampering with the more austere motifs of the Renaissance. The cathedral was never completed to plan, with one tower standing solemnly over the façade without a matching mate.

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