Luckily, I spent last night reading about this 3-in-1 fortress, palace and city, whose 2.4 million visitors a year make it Spain’s most visited monument. I know that if you haven’t purchased your tickets in advance, there’s a super secret queue next to the gift shop for people who can pay with credit cards. Tell your friends.
Ticket in hand, I prance past the hordes of less informed people feeling rather proud of myself. Then I realize that I’ve forgotten to rent an audio guide.
I spin around and head for the information counter.
The security guard steps in front of me and shakes his head: no re-entry. I smile. I beg. He glares. Years of professional rule enforcement have obviously rendered him immune to the incredibly transparent charms of desperate tourists.
Naturally, I remember very little of last night’s history lesson about the gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site that I’m entering. I’m a child of the Internet age; most of my skills lie in finding the information, not retaining it. I’d hoped that the audio guide would give me the context necessary for a deeper appreciation of my surroundings.
New plan: Eavesdrop on the English- and French-speaking tour groups.
Camera carefully held over my face, I loiter strategically and learn that the Alhambra, which has been around since the 9th century, has a history as colourful as its gardens. Used first as a fortress, then expanded upon and beautified by the Nasrid emirs, it eventually fell to the Catholic monarchy. Between 1812 and 1870, its red walls survived explosions (thanks, Napoleon) and hosted convicts, slaves and squatters before finally being recognized as a national monument.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have ever overlooked the significance of this place. Every inch of the walls and ceilings is covered in carvings or mosaic. Long pools and shallow fountains reflect the Andalusian sky. The flawless symmetry of the rooms, hallways and landscaping is almost overwhelming.
Inside the Nasrid Palaces, I notice a dark-haired guy about my age who appears to be engaging in similar tour-guide-stalking behaviour. He introduces himself- his name is Cory, and he’s also visiting from Vancouver. The coincidence doesn’t surprise me as much as it should; this is exactly the kind of place where magic lives.
We stroll through the rest of the palace and into the Generalife, stopping periodically to focus on our conversation. It covers everything from book recommendations to travel tales about close calls with gangsters in Moroccan barber shops. He has to remind me to take photos.
“I knew I’d spend my birthday with you,” he says, as we part ways.
My half-day general admission ticket has almost expired, and I still haven’t seen the Alcazaba battlements. I don’t mind. I feel like I’ve gotten the most authentic experience of the Generalife possible. These gardens were designed as a place for royalty to relax and enjoy their surroundings, and thanks to Cory, that’s exactly what I’ve done.
If you’re heading to the Alhambra, check out this website for lots of great tips (and a video!) about how to plan your visit.