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Enter eden in Alhambra

Sheila Kumar, Bengaluru, Nov 23, 2014, DHNS:
Spanish gardens

                                        ALL PICS BY SHEILA KUMAR

                                       The gardens of heaven

If the Alhambra palace in Spain is a beautiful diadem, Sheila Kumar finds the Alhambra Gardens the jewel in this crown

Blame it on the window views. There I was, taking the tour of the Nasrid Palace in the Alhambra, stopping every few feet to admire the honeycombed ceilings and intricate canopies, the ornamentation  on tile and stone, the soaring arches, the pristine marble columns. And listening to the tour guide, Enrique. Our Enrique was one witty guy. ``You Americans know all about Al Capone and Al Pacino,`` he said. ``Now, get to know Al Hambra.`` Which statement instantly grabbed the fragile and wandering attention of our tour group, which comprised mostly Americans.

The 14th century al-kalat al-Hamra, the Castle of Red Earth,  was marvellous, there was no gainsaying that. And the Nasrid Palace was just one of the gems in that diadem, the others being the Alcazaba and the Palacio Generalife. It’s just that every time we stopped to marvel at something, my eyes wandered to the gleaming plate glass windows, to the vistas beyond. For vistas they were… of dun- coloured courtyards, neatly laid flower beds sprouting a riot of colour (we were there in early summer), fat, well-manicured hedges, softly murmuring fountains. At least, I presume the last lot were softly murmuring, the windows were soundproofed so I could hear nothing.

After I’d stopped at a simply gorgeous mirador, a turret window, to inhale sharply in delight  at the sight of an orangery outside, I decided I needed to get my priorities right. Which was how I slowly, stealthily, slipped outside, through the first door I could.

To cut a long and glorious story short, I spent the next hour in a state of suspended bliss, walking from arbour to fountain to allee to courtyard. After a while, I climbed the spur of the  adjoining hill and found myself in another kind of Eden, otherwise and locally known as the Generalife gardens. The name is derived from the Arabic Jannat  al- Arif or `garden of the Architect,`  in what could possibly be a poetical reference to god the creator, the architect. The sun shone but not too brightly, I could hear bees buzzing (or maybe they were wasps), and the air was very definitely scented with the fragrance of a thousand blooms; 267 species and 20 hybrids and counting, I was informed.  

The Low and High Gardens here contain a veritable riot of flowers. Rows upon successive rows of lavender blossom, jasmine in bloom suddenly evoking memories of my garden in Bangalore, crepe-myrtle,  carnations, violets, stocks, irises, spilling out of giant ornamental stone planters and containers or sitting neatly in orderly beds.  Huge damask roses shone a gorgeous red from pergolas, water lilies glowed white from small circular tanks. I walked past fragrant herb gardens with oregano, lemon balm, mint thyme, rosemary,  I walked past hedge after thick hedge of myrtle. And as I walked, I had an epiphany. A lot of sightseeing in Europe involves admiring things totally and radically unlike anything we find in our own backyard. That was not the case with these gardens. The layout, with channels of running water dividing carefully arranged plants, the architecture of the buildings, all evoked Mughal architecture at its prettiest; in fact, the Generalife in parts put me in mind of the three beautiful gardens of Srinagar, the Chashma Shahi, Nishat and Shalimar.  

One could hear the soft gurgle of flowing water, the best outdoor muzak ever, wherever one was in the gardens. The immaculately laid out gardens, the wide stone-flagged promenades, the arresting view of the sienna coloured Nasrid Palace in the near distance, all seemed like a panoramic cliché come alive, a sharp composition of beautiful hues. The dull green of the olive trees, the sharper green of the naranja (orange) groves with small bright fruit slowly ripening on them. Blue skies, scudding white clouds, the sun on the tall lines of cypress, on the shorter stands of fig trees.

The gardens of Andalusia, I later read, were laid out following the irrigation system brought to the region by the Romans; the plants, though,  were not all indigenous to the area, some came from distant parts of the Islamic empire, taking root and soon becoming an intrinsic part of  the Spanish landscape. Given that the Alhambra has suffered some damage through the years through explosions and fire, and underwent extensive renovation, too, experts have concluded that some of the plants now seen in the gardens would have been unknown in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Actually, don’t just take my words for the Alhambra gardens. Federico García Lorca, who was born near Granada, was intoxicated by the Alhambra, so intoxicated he used to play at fancy dress, dressing like a Moor and wandering through the gardens. Washington Irving wrote paeans to the place, as did Salman Rushdie, Philippa Gregory and Paulo Coelho. These guys sure knew a good thing when they saw it.

Back to my guidebook. `` The best and most-famous late-Medieval castle gardens in Europe,`` it says. Even as I nod in assent, I hear Enrique calling. It’s time to go back inside the magnificent palace. I’ve had my time out. 

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