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Tales of the Alhambra
In 1829, a very young Washington Irving went to Spain, a country not often visited by Western European or Anglo-American foreigners in those days. It was considered too dangerous.
But although the country reputedly abounded with all manner of bandits, robbers and outlaws, Irving describes a pleasant, even idyllic, journey on horseback from Sevilla to Granada.
People argue about whether it is better to read the Tales of the Alhambra before or after seeing the Alhambra for real. I saw the Alhambra first, and I think that was backwards. I would like to have known in advance what to look for, to compare with his descriptions, and what to photograph. Whichever way you do it, you can't help being struck by the way the monument today fits the place he described 176 years ago.
In favor of going to Granada first and reading the Tales afterwards, it is remarkable how you find that you responded to the place just as he did, before you read his description. When we reached the balcony of the Hall of the Ambassadors, we peered down and watched people and found our hotel below us. He says:
Besides the magnificent prospect which it commanded of mountain, valley, and vega, there was a little busy scene of human life laid open to inspection immediately below...
There was a considerable suburb lying below the Alhambra, filling the narrow gorge of the valley, and extending up the opposide side of the Albaycin. Many of the houses were built in the Moorish style, round patios, or courts, cooled by fountains and open to the sky; and as the inhabitants passed much of their time in these courts, and on the terraced roofs during the summer season, it follows that many a glance of their domestic life might be obtained by an aerial spectator like myself, who could look down on them from the clouds.
That's from page 85 of the Escudo de Oro (Barcelona) edition that we bought in Granada. I am sure the city did not extend so far into the view back then, and of course this shot is not sufficiently panoramic to capture the mountains to the right (north) or the plains to the left (south).
Irving used a little telescope to observe the city life below him. We, too, spent quite some time peering down on the square below and the houses on the hillside of the Albaicin. At left, zooming in a bit, you can see the open courtyard of the Hotel Casa Capitel de Nazarei (where we stayed). See the little open square near the top?
With the permission of the Governor of Granada, who preferred his quarters in the town, Irving moved into the deserted quarters once used by the Spanish court of Phillip V and Elizabetta of Farnese. The "retired little garden" of Lindaraxa (described on page 60 and pictured below) was not in bloom for us (see: the beds lined in box have only tiny seedlings planted in them), but when I read about the garden in the Tales, I knew exactly what he meant.
The creator of the headless horseman got a good fright on his first night alone in the palace, hearing "howlings...low moans...stifled shrieks and inarticulate ravings," which turned out to be the work of the palace caretaker's maniac uncle, who was kept in the basement. (P. 64.)
Irving stayed on through the summer and spent the warm nights sitting at his window,
inhaling the sweetness of the garden, and musing on the chequered fortunes of those whose history was dimly shadowed out in the elegant memorials around.
(P. 73.) The result is a collection of fanciful stories of princesses and magic steeds, enchanted knights and scheming Moorish philosophers.
Now, see that fountain? It is not pumped. It is almost spooky that the fountains ran in 1829 just as they do now, powered by the water streaming down from the "snowy mountains" - the Sierra Nevada - and just as they ran for the beautiful Lindaraxa herself, a thousand years ago.
NOVEMBER 2004: SPAIN
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