Spain is the world’s second most visited tourist destination. This is not surprising. It has a mild Mediterranean climate, colourful history and world-renowned relics, monuments, museums, bullfighting, flamenco and delightful seaside resorts, all of which have magnetic appeal to tourists. But, above all, they come to see the stupendous Islamic monuments built by the conquering African Moors especially in Serville, Cordoba and Granada during the heyday of the Islamic civilisation. They colonised a large part of that country from 711 to 1492 CE before being expelled by the Christian Spaniards.
The creme de la creme of these historical treasures are the 8th century mosque at Cordoba, the third largest in the Muslim world and the magnificent 13th century royal palace complex named Alhambra at Granada. Cordoba and Granada, successively capitals of Moorish Spain, were then the most sophisticated centres of learning and opulence in Europe, far ahead of Paris, Rome or London. Its legacy is still evident in Spanish culture, architecture, language, place names, cuisine and influenced the development of flamenco.
Among Cordoba’s Moorish heritage, the crowning glory is the Mezquita, the Great Mosque, whose sublime beauty surpasses all other Moorish or Christian buildings of that era. It took 200 years to complete. The first sight of it almost took my breadth away. I was awed by this architectural wonder, with its aura of spirituality, tranquility and perfect proportions.
Its gigantic worship hall has a unique labyrinth of 850 pristine granite, marble and jasper pillars,painted in harmonising red stripes and supported by double horseshoe arcades. These pillars are of uniform height and divide the entire hall into 19 north to south and 29 east to west aisles, with each row being supported by a tier of open arches of the same height. These arches and pillars greatly enhance the sanctity of the mihrab, the prayer niche, which is the centre piece of the mosque. It is dazzlingly ornamented with the finest mosaic and stone craving works all around it. A gilt copy of the sacred Koran is placed in the niche. In ages past, the devotees would circle it seven times on their knees as a gesture of reverence. Words are inadequate to describe the mosque’s aesthetic assault on one’s senses and its impact has to be seen to be truly appreciated. It seems to me that these artistic outpourings must have been inspired by supernatural forces!
Lamentably, the original character of the mosque was irretrievably impaired by the subsequent erection of a Christian cathedral in the centre of it, with numerous chapels being added along the sides of the vast quadrangle courtyard. To top it all, a 100 m belfry was built to replace the the original minaret. The Spanish Emperor, Charles V was so shocked by what he saw that he angrily remarked to his officials: “You have destroyed something unique in the world with something that can be found anywhere.” Fortunately, the saving grace is that the Mezquita wasn’t demolished to make way for a Christian church, as were the fate of numerous other mosques after the Spanish reconquest.
Several hours’ drive from Cordoba takes my wife and I to the Alhambra (Red Castle) royal palace complex, which sits atop a hill and dominates the skyline of Granada. Home of the reigning Moorish sultan, it is Spain’s, and possibly Europe’s, number one tourist attraction. During the peak summer months admissions are by time slots to avoid overcrowding and for comfort of viewing. It was once called the most romantic structure in Europe, with its numerous buildings, gardens, a royal mosque, a citadel and even a hotel within its high walls. From the outside, it resembles an impregnable castle, complete with fortifications and 13 watch towers. But, once inside, it is serendipity! This ingeniously conceived and skilfully constructed architectural masterpiece is Moorish craftsmanship at its best. Most of its countless palace rooms and parlours have intricate marble carvings, stained glasses, colourful mosaic tiles, and other ornaments on their windows, arches, walls or ceilings.
The rooms were built around the many courtyards, which are enhanced by flowering trees, hedges of myrtle, fish ponds and whispering fountains. Some of the the grand reception rooms have stalactite vaulting on their ceilings, giving them a cave-like effect. Their arcaded alcoves afford one a panoramic vista of the cityscape below. One of the reigning Spanish monarchs liked the Alhambra so much as his summer home that he ordered part of the Moorish palace complex demolished and built a sumptuous Italian Renaissance-style palace in its place, unmindful that this was wholly incompatible with the ambience of this unique edifice.
Alhambra’s extensive parks, with its many buildings which were once the summer residences of the sultans and their households, are ideal for strolling and family picnicking. Although its original design and layout had been substantially altered throughout the centuries, it is still pleasantly planted with roses, orange trees, myrtles and other botanical species. A special feature is a dense wood of elms which gives a striking effect of a lordly English country estate. Like all great houses worth their salt, Alhambra , too, is replete with many ghost stories of unusual sightings. A favourite tale is that when a Moorish sultan caught one of his favourite harem concubines having an affair with a courtier, he had him and his family executed. Their ghosts still haunt the palace rooms and grounds, especially on misty nights.
If this travelogue inspires you to visit both the Cordoba Great Mosque and Granada’s Alhambra, you should set aside at least two days in each place to savour these and other famed attractions that these two ancientcities have to offer.
Several international airlines, including Singapore Airlines, have regular scheduled flights to various European cities, with connecting flights to Madrid and Barcelona. From there, one can reach Cordoba and Granada bytrain, car or coach.
Food in Spain is expensive by Singapore standard but will suit Singaporean taste.
Shopping is fun but prices are high too.
English is not commonly spoken except in hotels and establishments catering to tourists.
Pickpockets and handbag-snatchers abound in major cities and so be keenly aware at all times.
The best times to go are in spring or autumn when the weather is ideal for touring.
Avoid going in summer as hordes of tourists from all over the world will descend there and popular tourist spots are always hopelessly overcrowded.
Lam Pin Foo