Everyone dreams of Granada. Since schooldays we have read that the Alhambra is the crowning achievement of Moorish architecture, and the most beautiful collection of palaces, courts and towers in the world.
I was determined not to get lost in Granada. I had learned in Seville that the way to find one's hotel was to hire a taxi to lead the way. But I was afraid the Alhambra would be too far out of the city for this. I would simply follow the signs and bypass the ciudad central. Alas, before I knew it we were trapped in that inevitable maze of narrow streets.
Lost again. We circled hopelessly, only to come out exactly where we had been. I turned into a one-way street that had cars parked along one side and barely room for a small car to squeeze through. Halfway into the block I came upon an impasse.
A man was hosing down the cobblestone street. His little cart was parked on the tiny sidewalk, jutting out into the street directly across from a badly parked truck. I realized that I could not make it between the cart and the truck.
The man hosing down the street paid me no attention. A car pulled up behind me. Another pulled up behind him. "There is no way," I told my wife, "that I can get between that cart and that truck."
The man behind me honked. I honked at the street cleaner. He scowled. He nodded to me that I should come on through.
"I can't do it," I told my wife.
She said nothing. It was out of her hands.
I looked around at the cars behind me. They were waiting for me to go on through. "Well," I said, "here goes."
I put the car in gear and crept through the opening. I am actually very good at clearances. I have a good eye. I stayed as close to the cart, on my left, as I dared, on the theory that you stay as close as you can to the side you can see.
Suddenly I heard a grinding sound. The sickening sound of metal on metal. A man who had been walking down the narrow sidewalk loomed up over the cart and pointed down to my left side and grimaced. My heart sank. I had creased the car.
The street cleaner went on hosing down the street, pretending not to notice.
"Don't let it ruin your day," my wife said as I finally cleared the cart and eased on through. Evidently there had been an extra inch or two of clearance on the right side. I opened my window and felt the side of the car. It was the lightest of scratches; paint deep. I had miscalculated by only a 32nd of an inch.
But I had failed. I had betrayed the faith. I was ill.
Two hours later, looking at last on the glories of the Alhambra, I wondered how my values could have become so distorted that I would let a minor car scratch shadow my appreciation of these incredibly lovely works of art.
Old pictures from schoolbooks came back to me as we stood in the Court of the Lions, admiring its exquisite proportions. It was a-crawl with tourists, but I took a picture of my wife standing by the fountain, beside a sculptured lion, and tried to imagine what it was like when the caliph's wives took the sun in that patio, trailing their fingers in the water.
Our guidebook said the Alhambra "can not be described," so I will not try. To me the most incredible fact about the Alhambra is that so much of it has survived earthquake, war and vandalism.
Like the cathedral in the mosque at Cordoba, the Renaissance palace of Charles V seems out of place among the Moorish delicacies. The emperor thought the Alcazar was not majestic enough for his person, so he built what some think is the finest example of its style in Spain. He naturally taxed the Moors for its construction, which was interrupted by an uprising. Alas, I'm afraid it contains some rubble from the Alhambra.
We stayed near the Alhambra in the Alhambra Palace, a hotel that falls just short of the Alcazar itself, at least in its intentions, with its Moorish arches, ornately decorated plaster, and tiled walls.
That evening we walked into the bar to find a young man playing "As Time Goes By " on a Yamaha simulator. It seemed to be the theme song of the tourist trail.