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.
Smack in the midst sits an unremarkable church, built in the 16th century. A much nicer reconquista touch is a few blocks away, in the 14th-century Alcazar, a fortress whose gardens lined by pools and rippling fountains mirror the centrality that water has in Islamic architecture.
The whitewashed homes around both monuments, covered by decorative iron grilles and bright potted plants, were part of Cordoba’s Jewish quarter, called the Juderia, a center of Jewish intellectuals before the Catholic takeover. The great philosopher Maimonides was born in Cordoba in the 12th century, and a modern statue of him is located in the quarter near a 14th century synagogue. But Maimonides did not die here; he fled to Egypt as the persecution of Jews began under the Catholic regime. Digging deeper into cultural fusion: The Roman philosopher Seneca was also born in Cordoba, and a restored bridge from around his time still crosses the wide river behind the Mezquita.
Less than 100 miles to the southwest, Seville’s grand cathedral also incorporated a Muslim element: La Giralda, the former 12th century minaret, now bell tower, nearly identical to towers still standing in Rabat and Marrakech.
Next door is another much embellished Alcazar fortress, this one too visited by Fernando and Isabel as well as Columbus. Its style, called mudejar, is all about fusion, reflecting the taste and workmanship of Muslim artists in Catholic Spain.
Around it is the former Jewish neighborhood, the barrio de Santa Cruz, centered on small, orange-tree lined squares with homes and palaces whose doors and windows are often bordered in blue and gold.
Seville is the region’s largest, most cosmopolitan city. But my Andalusian favorite is Granada, framed by the improbably snowy Sierra Nevada mountain range. It’s a university city that is small enough for the tradition of free tapas with each drink (think giant chorizo sausage and heaping plates of fried whitebait for the price of a 2-euro frosted glass of beer). But its attractions are outsized — not only the Alhambra, arguably the most impressive secular medieval monument from the Muslim world, but its ideological counterpart, a triumphant cathedral with its royal chapel preserving the marble funeral monuments of — who else? — Fernando and Isabel.
I most enjoyed my night visits to the Alhambra’s Nasrid Palaces, where every inch is covered in Koran and poetry inscriptions, star-patterned tiles, and gravity-defying ceilings decorated with pointed ornamentation called muqarnas, all deflecting light with a soothing, awe-inspiring effect that plays on the motto written all over: “Only Allah is victor.”
In the many marbled patios and sprawling Generalife gardens farther uphill, water fountains seem to trace in the air the same curves as Arabic script, bubbling and flowing with precise patterns.
On the opposite hill is the Albaicin, the much restored Muslim quarter of whitewashed homes hiding scented gardens, or carmenes, watered by medieval cisterns, whose only outside signs are overflowing purple bougainvillea and austere cypress spires.
Nearby, two more churches show off Roman-inspired triumphalism, the convent of San Jeronimo with its giant altarpiece and the Cartuja’s small Baroque sagrario, which theatrically swirls with chubby angels and saints in a profusion of red marble and gold.
That Christian humanism sitting next to Islamic intellectualism is Andalusia’s own enchantment.
Back in the Generalife, a guard watched me linger by water jets arching into a long pool. She was the daughter of a watchman there who raised his eight kids in a house on its property, and she’s worked in the Alhambra for 31 years.
“Magico, no?” she whispered. Three days later, I got back for visit number four.