When visiting the Alhambra, think shoes

Waiting in line to see the Alhambra, one of the most impressive sites in Europe, all I could think about were shoes.

We tourists are an interesting lot when it comes to footwear. But I'm fascinated by the idea that when planning a trek through an ancient, steep, dusty -and wet - Moorish fortress, some travelers think first of an attractive pump.

Perhaps they are just showing the proper respect, this was once the home of royalty, after all. But it is definitely not a place where you should be preoccupied with looking down.

The royal palace is the fortress's key site and dates back to the 14th century. Inside is an unforgettable blend of colored tile and carved stucco. Its serene rooms and courtyards pulse with water, a commodity the Moors tapped from nearby rivers to give life to their stronghold.

"It is forever appealing to your sense of surprise," Eric Holmquist, told me after he, his wife, Ragnhild, and I visited the site high above Granada.

The fortress lured us from Rota, a city four hours west, where we were volunteering (see story, page 18). We took the advice of our US guidebook and bought one of the "helpful" Alhambra books at the on-site souvenir shop.

Though its map wasn't much use, the text provided a few laughs. Here's what it said when we got to the popular Courtyard of the Lions:

"It has been reproduced innumerable times in photographs and engravings, and it is familiar to men all over the world."

Moral: Skip the souvenir book.

In the absence of good information to read, I spent a lot of time looking around and touching the exquisite walls - imagining how much time it took to craft them all those years ago.

One of the most impressive rooms is the Saln de Embajadores, or Hall of the Ambassadors, the largest in the Alhambra. First sultans and later royals Isabel and Ferdinand (after the Christians took over Granada in 1492) used it as an audience room. Columbus reportedly saw the inside before his New World trip.

The Alhambra is a must-see as an example of Islamic architecture in the West. But don't plan to go without a good guide -and a bad pair of shoes.

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