New tales from the Alhambra

After a decade of restoration, the official re-opening of the Court of Lions is only a few days away. EL PAÍS revisits the heart of the most visited monument in Spain

Two operators maneuver one of the restored lions back towards its place around the Court of the Lions fountain.
Two operators maneuver one of the restored lions back towards its place around the Court of the Lions fountain.M. Zarza

On this suffocating morning in the first half of July, there is a mixture of emotion and nerves in the Court of the Lions. As early as 7.30am, Carmen Tienza, a restorer, is already at work, perched on one of the most famous fountains on the planet.

The fountains were constructed sometime around 1370 at the height of Muhammad V, the Nazrid sultan's rule. The courtyard, which has been in the process of restoration over the last 10 years, is at the heart of the Alhambra. The Andalusian fortress and its exhibition rooms surpassed the Prado Museum in number of visitors last year at over three million, and Carmen, together with the other 278 workers at the fort, is more than aware of the responsibility.

A team of builders are putting the finishing touches to the new marble pavement. It will replace the gravel which has covered the courtyard for the last few decades. Pedro Salmerón, an architect, examines the details of the recently installed hydraulic system. The pressure, temperature, and even the level of chemicals in the 5,000 liters of water that flow through the fountains and canals, are now easily controllable.

Today is a historic day. In a short time, the "test of the water" will take place. For 15 years, a variety of problems, followed by the restorations, has meant that all 11 fountains of the palace have not worked simultaneously. "Once again, the water will run through the whole courtyard," says Salmerón.

Carmen is working on one of the large bowls of the fountain, which was inscribed in its day with verses by the vizier, Ibn Zmrak.

See how the water spills over... it is a lover whose eyelids overflow with tears"

"Do you not see how the water spills over the bowl, only to be hidden at once by its spouts? It is a lover whose eyelids overflow with tears..."

Indeed, the Alhambra is an immense, live-in book; its walls and squares are filled with prayers and poems as delicate as its architecture.

Carmen Tienza has been working at the site for 20 years. She has dedicated half of this time to restoring the fountain of the lions, and one could say that she is on the verge of concluding the most important project of her career. In addition to overseeing a team of nine restorers, she has also worked with engineers, geologists, chemists, microbiologists and architects.

Over a hundred people have taken part in the process since 2002, when the first lion, affectionately named Felix by the workers, was removed. "The layer of dirt was so thick that upon cleaning it, it looked more like a cat than a lion."

The official inauguration will be complete by the end of July. Visitors will then be able to access the courtyard after the most important remodeling of the area in a century. Carmen can hardly believe the time has finally arrived.

It is 8.30 in the morning, the time at the Alhambra opens up to tourists each day. Newlyweds Luis and Victoria, impeccably dressed, walk through the Door of Justice, with photographer, make-up artist and parents in tow.

They are followed by a Middle Eastern family, the mother dressed in a burqa whilst her daughter dons a Barcelona soccer top. An abundance of women in niqabs visit the Alhambra, a stark contrast to the stereotypical American tourist in shorts, with fannypacks and bottles of water.

After 15 years, water sprouted from the Alhambra lions. Before the 1-year restoration, the fountain had not worked for five.
After 15 years, water sprouted from the Alhambra lions. Before the 1-year restoration, the fountain had not worked for five.M. Zarza

It is extraordinary that throughout the restoration, the Alhambra has remained open to visitors - a feat when one considers that 8,400 entrance tickets are sold daily (and not one more, a policy aimed at preserving the monument). Access to the palaces, where the Court of the Lions can be found, is restricted to 300 people each half hour.

"The first to arrive are usually the Japanese," says Antonia, who has been cleaning the floors and walls of the Alhambra for the last 25 years. As she enters at dawn with her mop and bucket, accompanying her is a privilege. The silence is almost absolute and our footsteps resonate in the Court of the Myrtles; there are bat droppings to be cleaned before the space is opened. "Only water is used to clean - nothing with chemicals," she adds.

The Alhambra and its gardens, the Generalife, are spread over 400 hectares of land, with 400 varieties of plants and 200 animals. For obvious reasons, the ones that pose the greatest problems for Antonia are those that fly: bats, pigeons, herons and swifts which nest in the plasterwork in spring and summer.

After her years of service to the Alhambra, Antonia Martínez may well be considered a restorer; she knows when to scrub a tile or leave it alone, when to clean the walls under constant assault from backs, hands and backpacks, and when to call Ramón Rubio, the head of plasterwork maintenance in case of any misbehavior. Not too long ago, a Swiss woman inscribed her initials in the Court of the Golden Hall. The two letters she managed to write were enough to land her in jail for the night.

"This is nothing new," says Jesús Bermúdez, a technical advisor in archeology and author of the official guide to the Alhambra. He grew up in the monument as his father was the founder of the Alhambra Archeological Museum. "For a long time, the Alhambra was considered an extra neighborhood of Granada," he explains. American writer Washington Irving spent several months in rooms designed by Carlos V, and spoke of the fortress' famous children and verses.

The Alhambra used to be considered an extra neighborhood of Granada"

Outraged by the constant "attacks" on the walls, Irving and his friend, the Prince of Dolgorouki, gifted a book to the Alhambra for guests to write in instead. As Jesús explains this, he points to the name of the English author and illustrator Richard Ford (1796-1858), etched into the very same Fountain of the Lions with a pen-knife. According to Jesús, the book was "one of the first methods of preservation," and consists of 351 pages, starting in 1829 with Irving's signature and ending in 1872. It is kept in the archives along with several other volumes containing the signatures of Henri Matisse, Santiago Rusiñol and Granada's celebrated son, Federico García Lorca.

The Alhambra has many faces, and Jesús has the master key to areas that are usually restricted. The Court of the Harem, situated at the top floor of Abencerrages hall, is one of the scarcely visited parts of the fortress. One can see the Fountain of the Lions from here, and the view is spectacular. The hammam never fails to dazzle visitors: they can enjoy the steamy baths while the star-shaped star lights create playful effects.

Jesús recounts the story of how only blind musicians were allowed to perform at the baths due to the sultan's nudity. Indeed he knows every story and twist of the Alhambra, where he says he learned to walk.

The Peinador de la Reina is an incredible viewpoint open to the Albayzín and Sacromonte, both neighborhoods of Granada. From there we head to the Tower of the Captive, the jewel of the Alhambra according to Jesús. An old tales says that a woman in a white tunic appears there on full-moon night - even today, some attest to sightings of her. Constructed over the north wall, the tiling of this tower-palace is amongst the most beautiful of the fortress, with unique purple pieces and praise verses by Ibn al-Yayyab.

The Alhambra is self-financing amd one of Spain's most lucrative visitor sites"

Then there is the palace of Carlos V, described by Irving as a "vain intrusion" aimed at "eclipsing the residence of the Moorish kings." Thankfully, the Spanish emperor did not succeed, and neither has Torres Hurtado, the current mayor of Granada. Hurtado recently proposed the unification of the Alhambra with a street across the river, the Paseo de los Tristes, using belts and a lift. This would allow tourists access the fortress more easily. Not a rock has been moved, and the patrons' board, which is dependent on the Andalusian regional government and is under the management of María del Mar Villafranca, managed to halt the madness before it had begun.

Aljibe square, situated between the Alcazaba and the palaces, was the point at which the proposed elevator would have arrived. The only privately-owned shop at the Alhambra can be found here. It is owned by Antonio Guarida, and has been in his family since it was first established by his grandfather, Rafael, in 1906. In those days, it wasn't uncommon for water carriers to ride up on donkeys in search of water for Granada's neighbors, and loaders were still making the journey well into the 1980s. Adhering to tradition, they took breaks to refresh themselves with water, liquor and sugar lumps.

From his time at the Alhambra, Irving recalled the Court of the Aljibes as a sort of eternal congregation consisting of invalids, the aged, idle men and those simply curious to see the fortress. There was talk of events at the Alhambra, water carriers were asked about the latest news from the capital, and there were general discussions on every topic imaginable. In a way the same sort of gathering takes place in present times; between 10 and 11am, security guards, gardeners, builders and other workers meet for their breakfast break from the hordes of tourists.

I recognize the lions with my eyes closed, like I would my children"

One of the most challenging visits the Alhambra has had to deal with was that of the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, and her daughters two years ago. The fortress was closed to the general public for three hours and taken over by a hundred agents. They forcibly removed the memory card from the official Alhambra photographer's camera, and went as far as denying the director of the monument herself entry. A stark contrast to British Prime Minister David Cameron's visit last year. Accompanied by his wife, the pair bought their entry tickets like everyone else, without ceremony or extravagant security demands.

The Alhambra is self-financing and one of the most lucrative monuments in Spain. Its budget for the year is 25 million euros, an increase of 11 percent from last year. In addition to the revenue from ticket sales, there are other sources of income such as donations and sales of books and merchandise.

The rehabilitation of the Court of Lions has cost 2.2 million euros. Francisco Lamodla, the head of the monument's conservation service, gives a shout and the Court of Lions lights up, water starting to flow from its nine fountains. Restorer Carmen Tienza is watching.

"I recognize them with my eyes closed, like I would my children," she says as water pours through the lions' mouths. The water originates six kilometers away in the so-called Sultan's reservoir, as it did 600 years ago.

Cristóbal has already watered the rosebushes of the Generalife, and later on there will be a concert in the Court of the Myrtles where the bats have already started their mischief. Carmen has already left, as there is work to be done tomorrow.

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