An avid traveller, it didn’t take me long to combine my passion for globetrotting with my long-held dream of being a novelist. While a holiday in Zanzibar provided inspiration for my first novel, my second novel was conceived long before I got on the plane to visit the Spanish city of Granada. Capitalizing on my husband’s love of Spain, I had devised a driving tour through the southern regions of the country, ostensibly to visit the small town of Zafra which he had discovered while on work assignment, but in reality, for me to visit the legendary Moorish castle, The Alhambra, featured in Philippa Gregory’s The Constant Princess. As if one book wasn’t enough inspiration for me to start packing my bags, it was the recommendation that I read Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra that made me decide, even before I darkened the door of a jet, that I was going to use the Alhambra as the backdrop for my second novel.
Needless to say, it was with great disappointment that I toured the cavernous rooms of the Alhambra’s palaces, barely more than ruins, with little evidence left of the ostentation that would have befitted what was, many centuries ago, one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe. Hoping for inspiration to strike like a bolt from above, all I felt was a sense of sadness that what I was seeing was but a poor facsimile of what had once been. And yet, it was this feeling, combined with a sleepless night on my return home, which sowed the seeds for what would become my second novel, Dreams of the Alhambra, a time travel tale of mystery, forbidden love and family betrayal.
It wasn’t until my second trip to Granada a year later for further research, that the magic began to happen. After mining Irving’s’ Tales of the Alhambra for a story on which to base my novel, I had settled on ‘Legend of the Three Beautiful Princesses’. It was a tale of triplets born to a king of Granada who, following the death of his wife and acting on advice from his astrologers, sequestered his daughters in a castle located in a coastal town far from the intrigues of court life in the Alhambra.
Imagine my surprise when I realized that the Spanish villa in which I spent a week with friends prior to going to Granada, was located in the very same coastal town in which the Princesses had spent the formative part of their lives. Having undergone a series of name changes during its long history, Salobreña became a key setting in my novel.
After enjoying the luxury of a car rental while on the coast, my decision to continue to Granada on my own meant that I had to use the bus to journey from Salobreña to Granada. Having already taken a day trip to Granada using the modern highway that snaked up and over the hilly terrain between the city and the coast, it had crossed my mind to wonder how the Princesses had managed to make a similar journey on the backs of donkeys and palfreys.
Lady Luck was once again by my side, as I had unknowingly chosen the scenic bus route through small Spanish towns and rugged mountain passes, as opposed to the faster drive along the highway. It didn’t take long before I realized that what we were following was likely an ancient travel route, one which followed the meanderings of a river as it snaked its way from the interior to the coast, curving its way through lush green valleys shaded by towering walls of granite. Here then, was a more likely explanation of how a caravan of women and children would have made its way between Granada and the coastal city of Cora Elvira as Salobreña was then known. Once again, I had stumbled upon a setting for what became one of my more adventure filled scenes.
The magic continued during my stay at the Alhambra. I attended a night tour of the palaces, where white lights casted eerie shadows ripe for melodrama, and reflections of a full moon in pools of black water created settings made for romance. I was also lucky enough to tour the very tower, only occasionally opened to the public, in which the Princesses were sequestered upon their return to the Alhambra as burgeoning young women.
My most magical memory of that trip, however, was being at the Alhambra over the weekend, when it became apparent that, late in the day, locals replaced the tourists, be it joggers, families pushing strollers or people walking their dogs up to the historical complex that overlooked the city. It was a surreal moment when I rounded a corner to see a bride and groom in their wedding finery, a photographer clicking away on his camera. Then a few minutes later, church bells pealed and a bridal party emerged from the doors of a church occupying the ground where once, centuries before, a muezzin would have called from the minaret of a mosque. High on the romance of the setting, I floated toward the parapet, drawn by the golden light of a setting sun, only to do double take after double take as I caught glimpses of a second, then a third and fourth wedding couple. Feeling as if I had dropped into a Spanish equivalent of the Thomas Crown Affair’s ‘The Son of Man’ moment, I briefly wondered if the Spanish did mass weddings. Then the penny dropped. The grounds of the Alhambra was, understandably, a very popular setting for wedding pictures. As the sun set over the Vega, I watched one of the wedding couples having their picture taken against a sky streaked with bright salmon clouds. When they moved on, a couple, with hands entwined, stepped into the vacated spot, their white hair a testament to a lifetime spent at each other’s side.
And then it hit me, that the magic of the Alhambra knew no boundaries of age, race or time. That it casts its spell over young and old alike, drawing all creeds, religions and races to its doors, a standing testament to a time when Muslim, Jew and Christian lived together in relative harmony in this fabled city. It was a magical setting that in no small way helped craft a story based on the struggle to live side by side in peace, a struggle we sadly still face today.