Today I’m writing about a book that has a title which makes you think of the tales of Scheherazade – and which in places reads like it too.
Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving is neither a travel book, nor a novel, nor even a collection of short stories. It’s all of those things: an eclectic string of essays, character sketches, legends, descriptions and travel anecdotes, soaked in the moods and spirit of the Moorish palace of Alhambra in Granada. These disparate elements are held together, chronologically and spatially, by the thread of an actual journey: Irving travelled from Seville to Granada in 1829 and was granted access… more than access, residence in the Alhambra.
A Digression, En Route
One of the reasons why I love reading travel books penned more than a century ago is because people then still had time to immerse themselves in their surroundings: the rate of travel was slow and mixing with locals and fellow travellers was common. Nowadays you can’t experience the same, unless you choose to go on foot – and even then, the Camino de Santiago, for example, is famous for meeting new people just as much as the South West Coast Path in England is not. Even if you travel by train or coach rather than car, approaching a total stranger to engage him in conversation would be still thought, at the very least, eccentric. And as for immersing yourself in anything as you hurtle past at 60 mph or more – forget it, all you’re left with is fleeting impressions swirling in your mind.
Irving went on horseback and the journey from Seville to Granada took him five days. Five days in which not only he had time to observe the land around him but to meet the locals. A few years ago, the same journey took me three hours and the only interaction I had with a local was with the train conductor. That same night I was back in Seville; Irving on the other hand was sitting in a Spanish inn in a small town with his landlord’s pretty sister, her admirer (believed to be a smuggler), two distressed Asturian merchants who had been robbed and left half-naked in the road earlier that day and an old man who had overcome six French troopers with his sable during the Napoleonic wars – not to mention the Russian diplomat he was travelling with:
I sat until a late hour listening to the varied themes of this motley group, who mingled together with the unreserve of a Spanish inn. We had smuggler songs, stories of robbers, guerrilla exploits, and Moorish legends. The last were from our handsome landlady, who gave a poetical account of the Infiernos, or infernal regions of Loxa, – dark caverns, in which subterranean streams and waterfalls make a mysterious sound. The common people say that there are money-coiners shut up there from the time of the Moors; and that the Moorish kings kept their treasures in those caverns.
And these are the kind of stories, the ones mentioned above, that constitute the ‘tales’ of the Alhambra; the stories which flesh out what would otherwise be a short, straightforward 19th century travel narrative.
The Jewel of Granada
The Sabika hill sits like a garland on Granada’s brow,
In which the stars would be entwined,
And the Alhambra (God preserve it)
Is the ruby set above that garland.
From the first moment he saw it, Irving was captivated by the Alhambra: the views from its balconies, the historical figures haunting its halls, the people inhabiting the ruins. The governor of Granada, perceiving the celebrated stranger’s interest, offered him his uninhabited and run-down palace inside the Alhambra for his accommodation during his stay. Inspired by the atmosphere, Irving wrote about the history of Granada and its rulers, lamented the neglected state of the palace (his book is said to have been instrumental in drawing attention to the plight of the Alhambra), described its architecture and the landscape around it. He then went on recounting Moorish and Spanish legends, romances, folk tales about buried treasures, princesses in love, battles between Christians and Moors; stories about beggars, one-armed governors and Arabian astrologers…
An Image to Remember
Irving stayed in Granada for half a year, and when he had to leave, this was the image he wished to remember:
“I will hasten from this prospect,” thought I, “before the sun is set. I will carry away a recollection of it clothed in all its beauty.”
With these thoughts I pursued my way among the mountains. A little further and Granada, the Vega, and the Alhambra, were shut from my view; and thus ended one of the pleasantest dreams of a life, which the reader perhaps may think has been but too much made up of dreams. The End.”
Links: If you want to visit the Alhambra, you'd be well advised to book tickets in advance. For those of you who'd like to experience travel at less breakneck speed than is customary nowadays: the Camino de Santiago and the South West Coast Path. The walls of the Alhambra are decorated with inscriptions, many of which are poems: Epigraphic Poems in the Alhambra.