It started out as a way to pass an idle moment, and quickly became a habit. Every afternoon during a recent visit to Granada, the onetime capital of the last Islamic emirate in Spain, I climbed the high, rugged spur that serves as a pediment for the Alhambra, the fabled palace of the sultans. There, in a terraced garden, I would sit for several hours and read. The time of year was late February, but the temperature was always in the high 60s or low 70s. Vernal lushness was a month away, but the boxwood and the sculpted evergreens proved amply fragrant.
To one side, a few hundred feet below, the tiled roofs of the city gave way to a plain stretching hazily westward. To the other the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra Nevada took on a mellow tint in the declining sun. And across a sharp defile, immediately ahead, rose the crenellated walls of the Alhambra, a delicate marble confection within a fortified shell, half a mile from end to end. The ancient Iberians once occupied this ground, and then the Romans and the Visigoths. The walls and towers look more or less the same as they did when Washington Irving took up residence in the Alhambra in 1829, a literary squatter who would go on to serve as the U.S. minister to Spain. For that matter, they look more or less the same as they did in 1492, when the conquest of Granada by King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile brought all of Spain under a unified Catholic monarchy, and put an end to nearly eight centuries of Islamic rule. In Tales of the Alhambra, a pastiche of history and legend, Irving adopted an elegiac tone: "Such is the Alhambra—a Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land, an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West, an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people who conquered, ruled and passed away."