Cat in a Hot Tin Box

It is too early to be called morning. Back in England it is six. I pull myself upright leaving my brain drowsing. Lizy bounces pale awake determined to please me. She rises ungraciously usually. But today she knows the tale and understands deeply enough to honour it.

My father travelled. As a boy he learned languages, taking them off to war with him in 1939. So he saw France, until that desperate retreat across the burning, machine-gunned sea. He returned to Normandy in June 1944 and thence spent a year achieving Germany.

From those beginnings dad saw many of the world’s wonders. The Opera House in Sydney, Kyoto in the Spring, the Golden Gate, Red Square, San Sofia, the Blue Mosque. I share his fascination for Islamic buildings. This marvellous sidestep from rigid classical exemplars. Dad loved Spain. He walked the corridors of the Prado in Madrid, saw the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, strolled the old streets of Cordoba and Seville, but left one wish unfulfilled. My father dreamed of the Alhambra, the northern palace of the Moors.

For over 700 years, Islam held sway in Andalucia. A time which would encompass our own culture from these times to two hundred years before Shakespeare. Dynasties rose and fell. Chrisitians converted and were dubbed renegados by their erstwhile coreligionists. The word lives still when we speak of renegades.

The Alhambra is the palace and city of the last Muslim king of Andalucia. It was the last ornamented palace of the African Islamic kingdoms which elsewhere were caught up in a new Puritanism. The palace hill overlooks Granada, the romantic city of Falla and Lorca.

Lizy springs awake. I photograph dawn over the globe street lights and the perpetual white walls of our holiday village. Ben smiles and shifts. Only exhausted Tom is slow. Last night we ate at La Fonda, a splendid courtyard restaurant in Nerja. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we overstayed the shops and have little for breakfast. I peel a carrot for Lizy and eat another myself. Tom sets about gorging the remaining bread. I rescue a piece for Ben. I collect fragments to add to the carefully packed bags. Lemonade, orange juice, oranges, three bananas, a few slices of the local Bimbo bread for Liz. A poor harvest.

We creep out into the becoming morning. The supermarket is closed. Our supplies must sustain us. We wait by the tiny postcard fountain of the Nerja Club Hotel.

Printed on our ticket is ‘dietary requirements’, by it the tour rep has written ‘warm layers’. We are wearing pullovers and jackets against the cool air.

The guide arrives. Her hair is modelled and she hides behind foundation. She interrogates me about Lizy’s age before leading us to the 15 seater bus. We have the back seats. The headrest barely reaches my shoulders. The seat is curved. There is little leg room.

The guide reads her script in a soft Spanish accent through a thankfully inadequate PA. We hear scraps of population details, about the excellent restaurant built on a rock, about the ‘factories of sugar’, the birthplace of the ‘famous guitarist’ Segovia and a bizarre story about swear words which she cannot say. Under Franco, when a man was cuckolded he would leap from the cliff we have by now passed. We rise above glittering sea, white villages, fields of sugar, avocado and orange trees, huge dirty polythene tubes where presumably vegetables grow. The landscape reminds the guide of Cuba. It reminds me, brown crumbling hills and all, of California.

This takes a cramped hour and a half. Lizy feels sick. Ben is too early morning glum. I wish my bladder was not so insistent.

We stop a few minutes short of Granada. A tanned, bald northerner in his 70s says he must tell us all something before we enter the café. I wait the certain statement that Jesus is Lord. Instead he asks angrily ‘Did your reps tell you that you’d be bumped around the whole morning in a tin box?’ A polite English silence follows.

I decide that servicios means aseos and am right. I wade through Germans before placating my bladder for another couple of hours.

We pass the barrier and drive past a sign which says excepto bus in glorious Fast Show Spanish. Before us a typically Californian tourist ticket building. The flowers around the parking lot are exuberant. Tall pines and slender cypresses point to serene blue sky.

Our new guide strides up sporting a brown leather overcoat. She counts us in and leads us to the Generalife gardens. I have been forewarned. This is not General Life the insurance company, but Henera-lifé. The guide explains that the name is a contraction of Granada-al-life, this last being the architect’s name. Originally the garden would have been walled, but in rebuilding it was decided to use square cut cypress. Here the sultan came to escape the court on the opposing hill of the Alhambra. The gardens are small, but the blossoming wisteria and the waters are welcome.

At last we cross the bridge – the 1972 bridge – to the palace grounds.. First we see the circular courtyard of Charles V’s palace. Charles – the mightiest man in the world, well known to me through Titian – Holy Roman Emperor, overlord of Austria-Hungary, the German states, the Netherlands and Spain. King of Naples and of Spain. Charles was married here to Isabella adding Portugal to his unwieldy empire. Isabella complained that their apartments in the Alhambra were unworthy for her royal personage. With the characteristic stupidity of Emperors, Charles ordered the new palace built. Neither he nor his wife saw the never completed circle within a square.

Then the Alhambra itself. We are rushed on timed tickets. We enter through the Court of Lions, where a thousand year old fountain still flows. The incredible carved wedding cake decoration, which sings Allah’s praises, has survived 600 years. And it is made of plaster. Fountains and narrow pools keep the courtyards cool. The ceilings rise in tiers pierced near the top by bright skylights. These domes and arches known only to the Islamic soul.

Here the four principle wives lived. In Winter they dwelt above in the warmer rooms beyond the balconies. We enter the twilight of the Court of the Ambassadors where the sultan sat elevated above his visitors. Who can tell the splendour of colour which then surrounded him? In this daze, Lizy quietly asks if I have put on my father’s eyes to see this place for him. The intricate Cedar of Lebanon ceiling supposedly composed of a factor of seven pieces – over 8,000 to represent the seventh heaven longed for by Allah’s servants. In the middle is a roped square of floor which must have been taken from a wall, the guide says, because it contains the name of Allah, which could never be put where it could be walked on.

Again I imagine this when it was still full colour, not these beautiful frail bones of the glorious court. My father’s eyes fill with tears. I fulfil that awkward communion.

We walk a corridor. The guide explains her favourite spot. There are three alcoves. The ceiling of each – a small domed lozenge – houses a mediaeval painting. Their preservation is a miracle. Pictures kept carefully in museums have wilted. These, exposed to open air and on leather not panel, are still fresh. The guide explains that the first of these pictures may be the earliest depiction in Europe of the Indian game of chess. Played by ‘two blondie ladies’.

Another alcove ceiling shows the meeting of ten Islamic kings. Two have green eyes and red beards. The guide explains that the king who ruled here was called ‘the red’ and that Alhambra itself probably means the red king’s palace.

Into a dank room where joiners scrape away rotten casements. A heavy oak ceiling, made more solid by the delicacy that has preceded, is set upon a pediment boasting the glories of the Imperial Caesar Carollus. This is the unfitting bedchamber of Charles and Isabella.

Back into the light and my camera fails. We sit in sparkling sun overlooking Granada; which means pomegranite according to our leathercoated guide.

The cramped bus takes us to the swelter of Granada and the Corta Ingles – a department store where we eat a dismal and overpriced lunch. But they have aseos for which I am grateful.

We walk through overheated streets past vendors. Lizy is backached and we sit ten minutes in a cool side street, watching a security guard flirting with anyone in a skirt. Tom tells Ben about Luther. I add footnotes. How much more appropriate the story of Ignatius Loyola would be.

Before travelling a friend joked that I should bring her back a furry donkey. We have taken to calling all the gewgaw parlours ‘furry donkey shops’. An arcade of them surrounds the cathedral. Overpriced frocks, cheap inlaid boxes, castanets and plastic fans.

The cathedral is closed. Gypsies press torn strands of rosemary upon me. I reject the first. The next – huge, largely toothless – manages to put a twig in my hand. ‘No money, no money’ she urges and catching my eye explains ‘for amor’. Then her supplicant hands beg coin. I give her the rosemary back and feel the shame she draws upon her people.

The cathedral has three clear styles – post-gothic, renaissance and 18th century. The first I find the most interesting. Architects lost all humility in the renaissance. The bombast repels me. The cathedral is crammed into its surroundings, like ourselves on the bus which soon picks us up. We go to Cristobel Point and then, too hot, too cramped, return to Nerja and the complaints book so conveniently carried – in triplicate – by all tourist buses. And I am embraced in the love of family, carried forward by completing my father’s unmade journey.