Palaces and politics

I spent days eyeing off the Alhambra from every level. From the narrow street below. From the view of St Nicolas, from the terrace of my accommodation. I ‘eyed it off’ at all times of the day and night. I had walked beneath its shade and past it on the hop on/hop off bus/train. I went up to go in, only to see the ‘Sold Out’ sign – and again walk beneath its shade through the forest back home. From all of those levels, whatever time of day it looks like a fort. Its walls a golden orange colour in both sun light and in moon shine. The thing about the Alhambra is – that it is not a fort. It was once a great city. A city to approximately 2,000 people. Now it is a tourist attraction that caters to over 9,000 visitors a day. Little wonder the ‘Sold Out’ sign is on permanent exhibition.

Finally, I was there. Ticket in hand at 7:30 am. It was still dark. I had caught a taxi up from the main square, rather than walk up through the forest in the dark. After all, when Nina had gone up in the dark to experience a night time festival, she and her guide heard the Civil Guard shooting at people. By the time our group got through the gate it was after 8:00 am and the sun was beginning to shine. Our first stop was the Generalife – the Sultan’s summer palace. We walked through the most beautiful gardens to get there. These are not the original gardens but came much later and in the style of Versailles – except a lot smaller. There were pathways and alcoves. Pines cut into the shape of walls and archways. Coloured flowers everywhere. There were huge, old magnolia trees, it would be magnificent to see them in flower. The Generalife itself is beautiful. Totally white with carved timber ceilings, faded tiles and Moorish door ways and windows. We see rooms that are merely alcoves off the halls, open to the air to catch the summer breeze. The Sultan and his wives would have slept in these rooms during the heat of the relentless Spanish summer. The gardens with their fountains and ponds would give cool respite during the day.

We then walked into the Alhambra. Past the stone footings of old houses that villagers lived in. Nina refers to the Alhambra as an “airy, fairy palace” that has a “bijou quality, slightly irritating because of its childishness artistically. And there is bad taste too, especially in the colouring of the tiles that decorate the walls – in their really in-artistic greens and blue and browns which must have been even worse before the centuries toned down the crudeness of the colours. (And if you consider this a heresy, you must please forgive me and go and have another look for yourself!)”. Oh Nina! Later redeeming herself – in my eyes – by writing “I hardly know which is more potent at the Alhambra, the charm within its walls or the lure of looking beyond them through the fairy frames its window make – those narrow, arched windows sometimes in pairs separated by a slender and diminutive column of alabaster and bordered with a white stucco embroidery of jasmine-flowers and tiny shells and the lovely, fluent, ancient script whose rhythm seems one with the sound of the fountain’s flowing”. The script she refers to is in Arabic and translated it is “There is no conqueror but God”. Strange in a land that has been conquered and has been a conqueror.

Nina wrote that is “is possible to ‘do’ the Alhambra in an hour. I don’t think so. You would see hardly anything as there is so much to see and to feel. Like Nina, I also believe that you need time “to stand and to stare”, or as I preferred to find a seat and to stare.

Nina had her own guide in Granada who took her around and showed her the sights of the town and the Alhambra. He was a young Socialist who told her that the Spanish revolution was not far off. He told her how the people were hungry and that despite the strictest laws against the possession of firearms, every worker had a gun hidden somewhere. The intention, he told her, was “to aim at a bloodless revolution, but if that ideal were not realized the firearms would have to talk”. It was from this man Nina learned of the bitter hatred the people bore towards the Guardia Civil. I learnt of the peoples hatred for the Civil Guard many years later through Spanish friends and families. Many people here in Spain have not forgotten the Civil War. Stories of horror and atrocities are passed down through the generations. Recent television footage of the Civil Guards beating people in the streets of Barcelona, was abhorrent yet not surprising to many Spaniards. During Nina’s time, if a “man’s politics might be troublesome; he would be arrested on some trumped-up charge, and the next thing you heard was that he had been shot by the Civil Guard while attempting to escape”. Usually, the guards would tell the man, his arrest had been a mistake and he was free to go. The moment he turned to leave, they would shout after him, take aim and shoot him in the back. I had heard a story of a pregnant woman who would not reveal to the Guardia where her husband was. He was suspected of being a republican during the Civil War. As she would not tell them where he was, they poured olive oil into her throat. Her husband was indeed a republican but she honestly had no idea where he was.

I have thought about Nina’s politics as I have read through her journey. She was a trail blazer for her time. One day she was sent to report a meeting of the Senate at Melbourne. The Usher of the Black Rod spied her in the Press Gallery and sent a messenger asking her to ‘withdraw’. Apparently, a friendly pressman intervened with an explanation that she was a journalist and so ended the “unwritten law that a woman should not penetrate to the Senate Chamber”. She worked on newspapers, travelled alone as a woman, started the Argonauts Club on the ABC, which some baby-boomers may remember. I would have thought Nina to be a feminist and an education liberal. Yet again, she was a product of her times. Nina was first and foremost a citizen of the British Empire and when her young guide told her “The Government must be made to see all these things … There must be dole for the unemployed. The children must be properly fed and properly educated”, Nina was “afraid some of the things which he secretly pleased my hunger for the picturesque will be swept away if he ever gets his way in Spain”. Perhaps more of a political conservative than I had imagined.

During my tour of the Alhambra I was surprised to find something Nina did not mention in her account, the Palace of Carlos V. Carlos wanted a residence befitting an emperor. It is a large palace out of sync with the rest of the Alhambra. It is a much more modern, Renaissance building. Large stones make up the outside square shape of the building. Inside there is a courtyard yet it is round, like a bull-ring. The palace was never completed, its rooms never decorated. Carlos V and his wife, Isabella, never lived there. It is a folly. Carlos V abdicated, left Spain bankrupt and retired to live alone in a secluded monastery. I suspect Nina – unlike me – was also a monarchist.

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