The Alhambra's Generalife: The gardens of Islamic paradise can be found in Granada
The Generalife Palace and Gardens that form part of the historic summer home of Nasrid kings can be found on the slopes of the Hill of the Sun, bordering the walls of the Alhambra and spread out like the dream of a parched wanderer in the desert. It is no wonder that the second sultan of the dynasty, Muhammad II—whose ancestors came from arid lands in North Africa—, ordered the construction of this lush orchard of water and greenery, akin to an Islamic Garden of Eden, in the 13th century. In fact, Yannat al-Arif, the Arabic name that was subsequently Hispanicised, means ‘the architect’s garden’, referring to the architect of Creation. Walking through this ‘earthly paradise’ filled with fountains, gardens, courtyards, irrigation canals and an array of fragrant flowers is as close as you can get to stepping into the tale of One Thousand and One Nights.
Discovering the mysteries of the Generalife Palace
Paseo de los Cipreses, which was built in 1862 for the visit of Queen Isabella II, is today the official entrance to the Generalife Gardens. Along the way, we can appreciate the rose gardens and the rambling New Gardens, which were built in the 20th century when the Granada-Venegas family, a noble lineage of convert descendants of the Nasrid dynasty, gifted the property to the state in 1921 after three centuries of ownership.
We will soon reach the entrance of a building whose exterior seems more like that of a humble country property but the interior houses its true treasures, and although they may not boast the sumptuous and dazzling zeal of the rooms at the Alhambra, their simplicity is in line with the palace’s intended purpose: a retreat with a peaceful atmosphere. Through the Patio of the Dismount, where visitors would step off of their horses, we reach the heart of the Generalife: the Water Channel Courtyard. Built around the Royal Canal that it crosses to take water to nearby orchards, this space has lost some of the intimate character that defined it during the Nasrid era, when its only connection with the outside world was the central lookout point in the back. It is universally known for the beautiful scene of water emerging from its fountains.
In the far end, crossing the lovely plasterwork in the Royal Chamber, steps lead to what is known as the Courtyard of the Sultana’s Cypress Tree. This intimate space, presided by a reservoir surrounded by a myrtle hedge and water fountains, is the protagonist of an ancient forbidden love. According to legend, Morayma, the wife of King Boabdil, would meet her lover, a gentleman of the Abencerrajes tribe, under a tree in the courtyard. When the sultan discovered his wife’s infidelity, he ordered the death of her lover along with the top leaders of his North African family. The dried trunk of the old cypress tree still stands in a corner of the courtyard.
To the High Gardens along the Water Steps
Steep steps ascend to the 19th century Generalife Gardens, where the Medieval Moorish style gives way to a small botanical garden that represents the best of European landscaping tradition. Halfway up, however, the steps transform into an element that seems to be taken straight from a fairy tale. On the Water Steps, one of the oldest parts of the Generalife, the handrails become sonorous channels through which water from the Royal Canal flows. It is said that the sultan ordered the construction of this stretch under vaulted laurel trees to reach a small chapel at the top of the hill. As a result, the steps were designed as a sahn or a space in which to perform rituals of ablution before praying. The top of the hill—the former site of a Muslim oratory—is crowned with a romantic 19th century lookout point in a neogothic style that serves as a pleasant contrast with the property’s Nasrid architecture and offers gorgeous views of the estate and its surroundings.
Under the stars in the Generalife
When the sun goes down, shadows take over the gardens and the scent of more than 600 plant varieties in the Generalife bring back memories of forgotten summer nights, forbidden loves under the stars and other fantasies inspired by One Thousand and One Nights. This tale can be relived thanks to the evening tours organised by the Board of Trustees of the Alhambra and the Generalife in the gardens and the palace interior for a more peaceful and introspective experience with which to connect with the spirit of this magical garden under the stars.