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2005-10-11 Let's take a leaf from Granada book

I have always found it astounding that the lyricist of a song which almost ended up as our National Anthem never even visited our island nation. Fred Weatherley wrote the timeless words to the "Derry Air" ("Danny Boy"), but never actually set foot on Irish soil.


One of Spain's most celebrated songs, in honour of one of its nation's most alluring and enchanting cities - Granada - was penned by a Mexican composer:  Agustin Lara. Having sung the song for years, I had nurtured an unfulfilled desire to travel to Andalusia's "must-see-city".


Driving in this city of a quarter of a million people is a nightmare, primarily due to serious traffic restrictions, so I was well-advised to park my hire-car in a city centre carpark, right by Granada Cathedral. I wheeled my suitcase through the warren-like maze of ever-narrowing one-way streets to the private hotel I had chosen as lodgings for my brief stay. Thanks to I had found "Carmen del Cobertizo", a converted convent in the old Moorish Albayzá­n Quarter.


A "carmen", I learned, was not simply a cigarette factory tart with a death-wish, but rather an old townhouse with an enclosed courtyard and vegetable garden.

Strangely, I was the only guest for the duration, and was treated royally, and otherwise had this delightfully tranquil ex-nunnery all to myself. In the morning I followed the Lonely Planet guide's suggested stroll through the Albayzá­n district, where Granada's Moorish ancestry was all too apparent. The steep, sinuous, cobbled alleyways continually revealed churches, squares, convents, monasteries, bath-houses and museums. The quasi-Bohemian Mirador San Nicoláˇs offered picture-perfect views of the Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada, while a Spanish guitarist, shading from the early morning heat, plucked appropriate airs.


Granada's Gothic/ Renaissance Cathedral is undoubtedly impressive, but size isn't everything, and its vastness leaves one feeling a little cold on several levels. Nextdoor, the Capilla Real was constructed to house the remains of the Catholic monarchs Isabella and Fernando, and their daughter "Joanna the Mad". A wrought-iron screen dividing the chancel and the nave impresses beyond words.

But the reason I had wanted to visit Granada was to experience the romance and mystery of the Alhambra. I had sensibly booked online from home, and so avoided the disappointment of not getting in. This fairy-tale palace, dominating the Granada skyline was home to Spain's last Muslim dynasty - the affluent Nasrid Dynasty from the 13th to the 15th centuries - and was their attempt to create paradise on earth, by the dazzlingly ingenious use of plaster, timber and tiles, and the exotic and sensually indulgent employment of space, light, water and decoration.


The ancient red fortress walls of the Alcazaba rise above tall swaying cypresses. In the Nasrid Palaces, I drifted open-mouthed beneath lovingly-carved marquetry panels, and richly-decorated geometrical stucco ceilings, one representing the seven Muslim heavens. I stood transfixed in the Patio de Arrayanes, inhaling the scent of myrtle hedges, and marvelling at how in the Alhambra water becomes an art-form in fountains, water-stairways, channels and pools. In the Patio de los Leones, over one hundred slender marble columns support ornate arches, shielding the rather chubby marble lions.


It was upsetting to imagine Napoleon's forces abusing the Alhambra as a barracks, and almost blowing it up. Thankfully, the 19th Century Romantic movement set the stage for its restoration, and transformation into a tourist hotspot. See Washington Irving's eloquently written "Tales of the Alhambra".

Generalife was designed as the Alhambra's country estate. It rests above the Alhambra and the Alcazaba, and the exquisite layout of its patios, pools, terraces and gardens, combined with the uninterrupted sound of running water, brings one closer to heaven on several levels.


At sunset, I sat outside the Benedictine monastery, high up on Sacromonte, storing in my memory this city and its impressive crown. The Nasrid Palaces were already etched on my memory - the jewel in the Alhambra crown. I brought to mind the Ambassador's Hall, and its nine alcoves. Each wall in each alcove had detailed plants and flowers, each plant's leaf had carefully carved veins. The detail on detail of the leaf, on the plant, in the wall, in the alcove, in the hall, in the palace, in the Alhambra, was mind-blowing.


In Granada, Catholic, Islamic, Jewish and Roman architecture co-exists happily; isn't it sad that our world can not somehow take a leaf from Granada's book?