Set against the vast and empty Plains of Camdeboo, abutted by the Valley of Desolation and surrounding mountains, the small Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet seems dwarfed, vulnerable, a fragile human outpost, more so when storm clouds gather.
Yet there is a beauty in the landscape, something stark and wonderful.
The Alhambra sits high on a hill – opposite, below, is the heart of the old Moorish city of Granada, the Albaicin. At night, you look up, and there on the ridge is the looming bulk of the great fortress and citadel – perhaps with the moon rising behind it.
A warren of steep and crooked streets and alleyways, the Albaicin is bounded, at the foot of the Alhambra, by a winding stream and the ancient, cobbled Carrera del Darro. Narrow as it is, and thronged with sightseers, pedestrians, shopkeepers, buskers, taxis and cars nose through their way through it, and even buses. You squeeze yourself up against a wall, or back to the stone parapet overlooking the river, to allow the vehicles to go by – and then the throng closes like water over the gap they have created, and the busy human world goes back to its business again.
Along the Carrera del Darro are the inevitable Moorish baths, at El Banuelo, and museums – here, in this image, is one of those geometric water features, in a quiet courtyard, that seem to me the embodiment of stillness, perfection and an almost spiritual simplicity.
Start your exploration of Albaicin, I’d suggest, by following the winding path of the Carrera del Darro, then turn up the hill and follow your instincts.
The Alhambra in Granada is both fortress and palace – and, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a custodian of memory, Spain’s rich history and the history of civilisations physically embodied in tiles and script, archways and gardens, the quiet flow of water and ceilings that mirror the star-studded sky. It is magnificent.
No matter that parts of it are crumbling, that the historic site has been witness over the centuries to a few ill-judged renovations and repairs, that the flow of tourists is endless and unstoppable. The Alhambra is one of those living monuments – poised imposingly above the town, with elevated views that must have uplifted sultans and kings – that you simply have to see, at least once in your lifetime.
A photographer’s Alhambra
The Alhambra, also, is a photographer’s nightmare and dream. A nightmare, because there is simply so much of it to see, to learn about, to interpret and photograph, so many rooms, gardens, structures, passageways, arches, hallways, histories, legends – and because getting a clear view is almost impossible in the endlessly milling throng. A dream, because the Alhambra manages somehow to be both magnificent and poetic, delicate and monumental, brutal and sensitive, all at the same time.
This first series of images shows something of the monumental side – if you will, Alhambra The Fortress.
Water to cool and delight
Much as you will enjoy the sheer monumentality of battlements and walls, the views over the parapets of Granada, far below, you should take time too to absorb and appreciate the smaller details – the colour and geometry of small enclosed gardens, the use of water – as in the two contrasting images below – to cool and delight, the myriad details.
Take time for the details
In this last set of images, it is the details I have focused on – pushing them, where I can, to a state almost of abstraction, of pure pattern: a creative impulse, I’d like to think, that the sultans would understand.
Ode to Spain
If you’ve enjoyed this post, you might enjoy some of my other posts on our travels in Spain, including posts on Madrid, Sevilla and the pueblos blancos, not least the wonderful little town of Ronda, where we enjoyed an evening of the most marvellous flamenco.
This red-billed teal shaking its feathers, lifting its wings in the early morning light, seems to me a fitting way to say to you all – family, friends, readers, colleagues – may you have a wonderful New Year, filled with peace, light, grace, happiness, health, good fortune and the company and friendship of those you love.
May the New Year see a lessening of hatred and division, a restoration of decency and justice, the dignity of all, tolerance and inclusion.
We are all of us a mere speck, hurtling through space on Spaceship Earth, so let’s take care of our planet, too, okay?! It’s the only one we’ve got, and preserving it intact is the biggest responsibility we have to our children and grandchildren.
In Sevilla we heard, live on stage, in a modern, airy, wood-panelled auditorium, the fabulous flamenco guitarist Paco Jarana: a wonderful masterclass that blew us both away. To see flamenco dancing, however, we went to Ronda, to the Restaurant Cinque on the Paseo Blas Infante – a small, dark stage, with three red chairs for the handclapper-singers and the guitarist and just space enough for a single flamenco dancer.
The guitarist was not the great Paco, by any stretch, but he was pretty good; the singers and hand-clappers, likewise, were not in the league of Paco’s accompanists, but what they had was the raw intensity and the enthusiasm that the performance demanded.
And the flamenco dancer – offstage, just a slight, ordinary-seeming young woman – on stage, commanded your absolute attention. Entering silently, down a darkened staircase, she stepped out into the light, and from then until the show ended had us utterly entranced – no, not just entranced, completely riveted.
I chose on this occasion to take the Leica D-Lux, not the Nikon, as the Nikon would have been too large and intrusive. I asked if it was okay to take photographs and was told yes, so long as I didn’t use flash.
Back, then, from Paternoster, and back to Spain: Ronda, to be precise. Retracing our steps for the next couple of posts, to pick up on these images from our hotel rooftop before – in an upcoming post – sitting down in a small tapas bar for some foot-stomping flamenco.
To wrap up the series on Paternoster, here is the first photograph I took, around 5.30 that morning, on my way to the beach: a row of cottages at the end of the road, the rain still glistening on the tarmac, a silver sliver of moon showing between the hurrying clouds.
I wrote in a previous post about fulfilling a long-standing wish of my mother’s, to visit the little fishing village of Paternoster, on the Cape West Coast: most of the time was family time, an extended celebration of her 87th birthday, but on the last morning I made sure I had some time for myself.
I rose early, at 05:00, and let myself out before dawn, and headed down to the beach. It had been raining, and the tide was out; the skies were cloudy and grey, and the dawn broke only weakly through. Here is a first series of images – the sweep of the beach, the distant cottages, the light almost monochromatic except where it is suffused with soft yellows and pinks.