As Europe’s historic monuments face unsustainable crowds, the issue of how to control visitation levels becomes critical. Drawing over two million visitors a year, this great Spanish castle in 2005 instituted a new policy: timed admission tickets to spread each day’s crowd of 7,500-plus visitors more evenly through the day.
The Calat Alhambra—the name means Red Castle—looks forbiddingly somber, looming on a rocky outcropping above the city of Granada in southern Andalusia. But get within and you’ll discover a Moorish fantasy, a perfect expression of Spain’s Muslim past. While a portion of the original rugged 9th-century fort still exists at the core, the castle was transformed starting in 1238 by the Nasrid princes. (Of course, after the Reconquest, in 1526 Holy Roman Emperor Charles V inserted a new Renaissance palace in the middle of this Moorish stronghold.)
The extravagance and sensuality of the Nasrid lifestyle seems diametrically opposite to the fortresslike exterior. Around the arcaded Patio de los Leonares (Court of the Lions), with its immense fountain resting on 12 marble lions, every room tells a story; and now that the press of tourists has been reduced, you can actually view these rooms at leisure. In the Sala de los Abencerrajes, with its richly adorned honeycombed ceiling, the last emir, Boabdil, staged a banquet for his most powerful rivals, only to have his guards massacre them in mid-dinner. In the Sala de los Reyes (Hall of Kings), a great banqueting hall with an exquisitely painted leather ceiling, one sultan beheaded 36 Moorish princes because he suspected one had seduced his favorite wife. The Hall of the Mexuar was once the sultan’s main council chamber; Spanish rulers converted it into a Catholic chapel in the 1600s.
There’s even more outside the Alhambra’s walls: The Generalife, the sultans’ summer retreat, where they used to spend their summers locked away with their harems. Look for the Escalera del Agua (Water Staircase); an enclosed Asian garden, Patio de la Acequía, with water jets arching over its long central pool; and Patio de la Sultana, the secret rendezvous point for Zoraxda, wife of Sultan Abu Hasan, and her lover.
Book your ticket in advance through any branch of BBVA . Come here at night, when floodlights bathe the exotic gardens and palaces—it’s a sight you’ll never forget.