‘Unique architectural masterpieces astound in Granada and Córdoba’

Dec 19, 2020
Bird's eye view of Granada, from the Alhambra Palace. Source: Liz Sier


Granada is a popular tourist destination among the cities of Spain, and I was keen to explore it. Famous for its Alhambra – a Moorish citadel and palace – and conveniently located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, it was only one hour inland from our route along the coast. Its history goes back to 5500BC and vestiges of Roman occupation can still be found. Jews and gypsies have also left their legacy but the most influential culture in this region was that of the Islamic rulers who occupied the area for more than 700 years, leaving a wealth of Spanish-Islamic art and architecture. From the top of the tallest tower in the citadel of the Alhambra we had great views across to the city and the Cathedral of Granada.

The Alhambra is a sprawling hilltop fortress complex that comprises several distinct areas: the Alcazaba, a citadel with a watchtower; the Palace of Charles V, a Christian building that houses the Fine Arts Museum; the Generalife, a leisure residence and gardens; and the Nasrid Palaces, the heart of the Alhambra and home of the sultans. Visiting the Alhambra took a bit of planning, as there are daily limits to the numbers of visitors and also limited time sessions for visiting parts of the complex. We bought our tickets in advance via the online site, choosing our preferred time, and on the day we took the bus up from the city as parking was limited as well. There is so much to see over a vast area, we tried not to spend too much time in any one section, apart from the Generalife.

Starting with The Gate of Wine as the entrance to the complex, we wandered throughout, admiring the wonderful Moorish decorations around arches and doorways, as well as the tranquil gardens and shady courtyards. We decided to skip the Renaissance neo-Roman style Palace of Charles V and headed straight to the Alcazaba to enjoy the views. This citadel is the oldest part of the complex, dating from the 9th century. It is made up of several towers and the remains of the living quarters of the elite troops and their families. Here we strolled through courtyards, such as the Court of the Myrtles and the Partal Palace, with artfully laid out gardens and pools enclosed by rooms with intricately moulded stucco walls, beautiful tiling, carved wooden ceilings and elaborate stalactite-like decorative vaulting, all worked in mesmerising, symbolic, geometrical patterns and Islamic inscriptions, such as the beautiful Patio of the Lions.

Patio of the Lions (1) Edited
The Alhambra’s mesmerising Patio of the Lions. Source: Liz Sier

The Alhambra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. This was extended in 1994 to include the district of Albaicín – the mediaeval Moorish area of narrow winding streets. We spent an enjoyable afternoon wandering around the shops and cafes, though it was quite steep and tiring. Within that district is the neighbourhood of Sacromonte, where the Romani or Gitanos (gypsies) settled in Granada after the Christian conquest of the city in 1492. It is one of the most picturesque neighbourhoods, full of whitewashed caves cut into the rock and used as homes, cafes and bars. This is where tourists go to take in colourful, exciting flamenco performances and the stimulating guitar music. While the best view of these neighbourhoods can be seen from the Alcazaba, the best view of the Alhambra is from the Mirador de San Nicolás in front of the San Nicolás church, across the Rio Darro. There we were able to sit and relax with a coffee, taking in the magnificent vistas, while around us a wedding party was in full swing.


Ask anyone who has been to Córdoba what is the most important attraction and they will tell you it’s La Mezquita! This was one of the most impressive mosques in Spain during the occupation by the Moors. So beautiful, in fact, that when the Catholic Church regained dominance in the city, they decided to keep much of the structure intact, creating a Christian cathedral within its walls. Back in 2010, when we first toured Spain by car, we arrived in Córdoba after the Mezquita had closed for the day and we had no other opportunity to see it. So when years later our cruise on HAL Rotterdam called into Málaga and offered passengers a day trip to this wonderful city, I jumped at the chance.

Córdoba was founded by the Romans and due to its strategic importance as the highest navigable point of the Guadalquivir River, it became a port city of great importance, used for shipping olive oil, wine and wheat back to Ancient Rome. Near the town hall stand the Corinthian columns of a Roman temple, whose foundations and altar remain intact, and once honoured the emperor Augustus who lifted the city out of poverty. The Romans also built the mighty bridge crossing the river, now called Puente Romano. At the northern end, the Puerta del Puente is a triumphal arched gate, originally of Roman and later Moorish construction, but rebuilt in the time of Philip II of Spain in the 16th century. The Tower of La Calahorra rises up at the southern end of the bridge, the far end from the city centre. It is a fortified gate originally built by the Moors and extensively restored during the Middle Ages. Our tour bus dropped us off near the bridge – the closest bus access to the Mezquita.

We made our way to the northern end of the huge rectangle of walls that enclose the Mezquita, to the Calle Cardenal Herrero where we found the main entrance to the cathedral precinct. Once inside the wall we were amazed to find ourselves in an orange tree courtyard dominated by a tall belfry that encloses the former minaret. Inside the mosque itself it is truly a sight to behold. The oft-photographed arches grace the prayer hall, while deep in the centre of the complex you are suddenly transported to an ornate Renaissance cathedral. The cathedral can actually trace its origins back to the time of the Visigoths. Built over the remains of a Roman temple, the basilica of San Vicente was in turn destroyed by the Moors, who began construction of the mosque in 785 and continued expanding and decorating it for about 200 years. The striking red-and-white striped arches, employing 856 columns made of marble, onyx, jasper and granite, form the main structure of the prayer hall, with an ornate mihrab or apse – unusually – at the southern end. This prayer niche is richly gilded with mosaics depicting geometric and flowing designs of plants.

La Mezquita Prayer Hall (zullah) (1)
The Mezquita’s Prayer Hall. Source: Liz Sier.

Following the reconquest of Córdoba by King Ferdinand III in 1236, the cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Assumption. Subsequent kings advanced further renovations and additions, the most notable being the creation of the main chapel, transept and choir, begun in 1523. Just as the previous occupants had incorporated Hispanic and Roman features into the mosque, so now the Mudejar features were integrated within the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. The Renaissance main altar stands out in contrast to its surroundings, while the Baroque choir was covered in a vault inspired by the Sistine Chapel. Various chapels and altars are to be found around the walls, containing the remains of kings and other wealthy patrons. On the exterior walls of the complex are a number of highly decorated doors, most left in their original design, unlike the Puerta del Perdón (the Door of Forgiveness) – the main entrance – which had been decorated with frescoes of Jesus and the archangels.

After a lunch of seafood paella in a pretty courtyard restaurant, we were taken on a walking tour of some of Córdoba’s more interesting streets. The city is very proud of its courtyards and gardens and has an annual competition, which is taken very seriously. The Calleja de las Flores is the most famous, as the cheerful pot plants and whitewashed houses frame a view of the cathedral’s bell tower in the distance. Then there was just enough time for some souvenir shopping before heading back to the ship in Málaga. It was a long day but I was very pleased I had made it to La Mezquita at last!

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