For the third time in a week, I’m touring the Alhambra, one of the most popular sites in the world’s fourth most-visited country, and finally I have it all for myself.
Not a pushy guide but a bullfrog in one of the fountains is the loudest sound on a late May night in this hilltop Islamic palace complex in southern Spain.
I linger to stick my nose into the cabbage-size roses lining the pathways and to gaze over the floodlit red-tinged ramparts. Their massive simplicity belies the infinite intricacy of the palaces inside, and I can easily believe the legend that the last Muslim ruler wept as he left Granada. Centuries later, we can be grateful that the conquering Christian royalty left this masterpiece nearly intact.
Nowhere in Europe is the complex coexistence between Islam and Christianity more etched in historical landscapes and current customs than here, in Spain’s Andalusia, a vast region of snowy mountains, olive-studded valleys and desert coasts whose tip sits less than 10 miles from Morocco.
For nearly 800 years, caliphs ruled Andalusia. In 1492, the Catholic king and queen (and ultimate power couple), Fernando and Isabel, ended the last Islamic stronghold in Europe — a few months before signing off on Christopher Columbus’ trip to the new world, which also started here.
I’ve traveled through the region in fall, winter and spring to admire the Muslim-Christian monuments in the major cities of Granada, Cordoba and Seville. But this year, on a longer trip, I found the mingling of cultures in everyday life. In Granada, I bought almond cookies and orange wine through a wooden rotating tray from an unseen cloistered Catholic nun in a convent near re-created Arab baths, where I sipped mint tea and spent a silent hour steaming and soaking feet sore from climbing cobblestone alleys.
And it turns out that tapas are a classic example of the region’s cultural fusion, having originated in Andalusia centuries ago, even though internationally they have come to symbolize trendy modern Spanish cuisine.
Of course, Andalusia also offers all the other experiences that draw tourists to Spain: Channeling Hemingway at a bullfight, getting goose bumps from a wailing flamenco singer, mingling sacred and profane at the Eastertide processions and fairs, gorging on jamon iberico and whole fish baked in sea salt, and joining throngs of sunburned Northern Europeans on Mediterranean beaches.
But what’s unique about Andalusia is the trail of Islamic conquerors who arrived in the eighth century, and the Catholic monarchs who imposed their reconquista (reconquering) centuries later — vanquishing not just Islam but also eventually the Jews who had flourished under the Muslims’ tolerant rule.
Begin your visit with the earliest masterpiece, the bizarrely repurposed great mosque, now a cathedral, of Cordoba.
From its massive size and horseshoe arches, the Mezquita’s exterior gives some hints that this is not your usual medieval cathedral, but walking in still stuns. Out of the darkness pierced by low-hanging lights is a multiplication of two-tiered arches in all directions, disorienting like a house of mirrors.
This forest of shiny columns and red-and-white arches, together with the kaleidoscope of golden mosaics, Arabic inscriptions, and carvings, show off what I see as the hallmarks of Andalusian Islamic art. Geometry and repetition play with light to create flowing motifs that both overwhelm with their richness and seem weightless.