The solitary rider stops when he reaches the summit of the tallest of the foothills. In the valley, the Andalucian plain is endless. His horse sidesteps the sparse brush and rests his hooves in the soft earth. The rider turns in his saddle to stare at the mountains behind him. Although the day is turning dark there is enough light for him to see a beautiful balcony of white snow. The rider strokes gently the long neck of the horse. The horse hears his name being repeated by the rider and he relaxes and recovers. Eventually, the breathing of the horse becomes quiet. The rider wipes his hands and face, smells his own sweat and the sweat of the horse. Below them lit torches reveal the red walls of the Alhambra Palace. The rider thinks of the simple ride down the hill to the Palace. He hopes his horse will remember where they are and will relax and, like his rider, know that they are now both safe and will soon be nourished and comforted.
The rider leaves his horse in the stable and is led by an admiring maiden to one of the pools in the many courts inside the Palace. He lets her cradle his head and wash the dirt away from his face. He listens to her laugh but he refuses to talk about what happened on his long ride from the Iberian coast. She feeds him dates and he savours the sweetness of the fruit and contemplates the ornamental tiles on the plain walls that surround the rectangular pool. The rider listens to the sound of her hand disturbing the water in the pool and he thinks about what they might do when her hand stops and the water becomes still.
And so it may have been.
There are people who fall in love with the Alhambra, believe its combination of simple structure, detailed decoration and ornamental gardens and pools make it transcendental and mystic. The Alhambra is a beautiful building but without the ornamental walls the gardens are not the delight that the devotees claim. They have appeal but only meaning for modern day flora and fountain freaks. When I visited a week ago the temperature was stubbornly attempting to clear the forty degree mark. I had first visited the Palace twenty years earlier. Then the Palace was cooler and less crowded. The Alhambra is an essential visit but too many of us visit these days. We transform what may have been mystical into something that is often hellish. Caravans of tourists walk around blank eyed. Their drained sunburnt faces have the ability to convince anyone watching them that wilful blindness extends beyond Rupert Murdoch and is part of the human condition. The groups of bewildered adults are only exceeded by the restless parties of school children.
Within the Palace there is a courtyard that is always ten degrees cooler than the rest and where it is still possible to imagine it empty. I will not mention its name because it is not normally mentioned in the guide books and I am able to imagine its appeal is personal to me. I sat on a bench in a favourite spot whilst a fourteen year old boy walked past with his mother and said, ‘All we’re doing is staring at walls.’ As Sean Connery almost said in ‘The Untouchables’, ‘There goes the next world famous British architect.’
But the kid does have a point because without the serenity and the evocation of history, which only reveals itself when you are alone, La Alhambra is not much more than a series of walls. It is, though, a beautiful building and most people will not respond like the budding British architect. They will think about its grandeur and why certain men and women need monuments to justify themselves. La Alhambra is important not because we think of the past as soon as we see one of its walls or hear a fountain spout but because of what it tells us about human nature. La Alhambra defines ambition as a sly mix of romance, fastidious gluttony and narcissism which is why it is easy to imagine an accomplished but vain Moorish warrior recovering in the arms of a flattering female.
It is very rock and roll and very Elvis as is the Catedral de Granada. The two buildings compare like rhythm and blues and rockabilly. The Islamic Palace is more extensive and has deeper roots but the Catedral also responds with urgent claims against posterity. Overshadowed by the triumph of Moorish architecture, the Catedral is ostentatious even by Catholic standards. The tabernacle alone consumes a ton of gold. La Alhambra may represent a rich culture and a way of life but the Catedral has defiant ambition and a singular glory. This connects to Elvis. His musical roots in rock and roll, although rich, were not as extensive as a rhythm and blues artist like, say, Ray Charles. But like the architects who designed the Catedral in Granada he understood glory and the moment and like the Catholic architects he was defiant. Later, glory and defiant ambition became inadequate and he explored his own roots even though that meant he would have to leave rock and roll. He understood that La Alhambra did not belong to him. Of course, rhythm and blues and rockabilly were never as independent as the purists pretended. La Alhambra has its own Catholic Cathedral and ironically the heart stopping moment is the sight of the Palace de Carlos V. This was added in 1617, so much for purists.
La Alhambra has within its history the inevitable legends. These were documented by an American writer called Washington Irving. The book still sells to those who visit La Alhambra. Irving is not an accomplished stylist. Edgar Allan Poe described Irving as ‘overrated’ and many of the visitors who impulsively buy the book put it to the side quite quickly. The legends are not necessary. All we need to note is how La Alhambra defines ambition and what often accompanies a breakthrough – the romance, fastidious gluttony and narcissism. It is a dangerous mix but it has produced some fine moments and Elvis exists as evidence as to both its potency and danger. There was a moment in Granada when I told myself these thoughts were only heat induced fancy but that evening I found myself in a restaurant that has on its wall a picture of Marlon Brando. Many years ago Brando was filming in Andalucia and visited Granada. He ate a three course meal in the restaurant. The meal has now become a permanent feature on the menu. Elvis, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, Granada, Brando, the ambition of La Alhambra and the determination to conquer what was once Spanish Catholicism – all required romance, fastidious gluttony and narcissism.
‘I hope Spain win the Championship,’ he said. ‘But I am not going to watch the football. I prefer the bullfight.’
‘If you have La Alhambra then you will need something more ambitious than football.’
‘That is how I see it,’ he said. ‘Do you like the bullfight?’
‘No, I like football,’ I said. ‘I like football and Elvis.’
‘I like Elvis, too.’
I was not surprised. The bullfight may be savage but romantic narcissists with appetites need to conquer. Hemingway understood and so did Elvis.
If you want to read about Elvis, rock and roll and much more click here.
More travel writing from Howard Jackson can be found in ‘Innocent Mosquitoes’, in the shops soon.