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Volume 41, Number 5September/October 1990

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Escape From a Troubled World

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland

If you have a patio, you possess your own piece of sky," said Maria Luisa Llorente as I admired her manicured, flower-filled patio in the center of Seville.

Said a friend in Granada, "The patio is the heart of the house; it is where friends come to talk. And it is also the lungs. The plants and the running water clean the air."

"The antechamber of heaven" is what some Andalusians call their patios, with a characteristic sense for poetic phrasing - and poetic license - no doubt inherited from the great poets of their Muslim past.

Reflecting on visits to a hundred or more patios across Andalusia, I was suddenly struck by a fact that says volumes about the spiritual influence of these outdoor living rooms: I did not see a single television set in a single patio, even in this land of television addicts.

The Andalusian patio is automatically associated in people's minds with the traditional Arab house. This is correct as far as it goes, since the ultimate refinement of the patio was indeed achieved by the Muslims in Andalusia during their six centuries of rule; the Patio of the Lions and the Patio of the Myrtles at the Alhambra in Granada are the high points of this development, and the most famous patios of all. The Corral del Carb6n - an ancient funduk, or Arab inn, now turned into a center for artisans - is almost as well known. The Albaicin quarter of Granada also has a number of beautiful patios. At the villa Carmen de los Martires, only about a hundred meters from the Alhambra, there is a jewel of a restored Arab-style patio and a fine old Persian/ French garden - very peaceful in contrast to the Alhambra itself, which has about two million visitors a year. The Parador San Francisco, a hotel, also has a lovely Andalusian patio and an Arab garden.

The predecessors of these patios date back thousands of years, to ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. It was simply a natural way of constructing a home: Dwellings surrounded and protected a central open space where a family lived its life and where the outdoors, its rigors tempered, could be enjoyed in complete privacy.

The Muslim Andalusians, though highly urbane, remembered the blazing deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, which was the heritage of some of them. Consequently they had a great love of beauty, nature, and growing things, and a positive passion for running water - qualities evident in their art, architecture, and, above all, in their patios.

Traditional Muslim Andalusian patios were secretive, enclosed - even had a jealous quality. It was nearly impossible, from outside a house, to find out what was going on inside: The eye met blank walls. If there were any windows at all, they were high up, so that people could see out but not in. A front gate would open onto a passage that turned at right angles and only then gave onto the patio, protecting the family, especially the women, from curious eyes.

Many older Spanish homes are still this way, and the layout of more modern homes, when they are built with patios, is basically unchanged - rooms open onto a central patio which is often surrounded by an arcade. What differs is the entrance from the street. Instead of a blind passage, only a decorative wrought-iron gate prevents someone from walking in, and seems positively to invite spectators.

Taking advantage of this new openness, people line up in front of particularly attractive patio gates in the old Santa Cruz section of Seville, for a glimpse inside. That quarter, in the center of the city, is full of patios, and two notable ones, one now a restaurant, are on the very short Callej6n del Agua (Water Lane). The main patio of the Alcazar, Seville's 14th-century royal residence, is also impressive.

Cordoba is the best place to see a great number of superb patios very easily, especially in May, when they have fiestas and patio flower-decoration contests. The Palacio de Viana has no less that 14 different patios, and the Patio de los Naranjos of the Great Mosque is magnificent.

Simple and natural as the idea of the patio is, the actual constructions vary greatly according to the taste and pocket-book of the owner, and the use to which they are put.

Palatial homes may have enormous marbled patios with tall, splashing fountains, statues, ornamental plants and flowers. A country home might have orange and lemon trees as well as a vegetable garden in its patio, in addition to the usual geraniums, roses, jasmin and vines. Everywhere, the murmuring or splashing of the water and the scents of flowers and trees are as important as the visual beauty.

In poorer quarters of the cities of Andalusia there are the corralas - joined two- or three-story houses or apartment buildings looking onto a large rectangular or square patio, "pressing the center of life for several families, rather than just one. Chairs and tables are put out in front of each home. At the very least, a few pots of geraniums hang from the walls.

On Santiago Street in Granada there are two colorful, decayed, 16th-century apartment buildings, four and five stories tall, with interior galleries on each floor that look down into a rectangular patio. Partly built of wood, the buildings have miraculously survived years of smoking in bed and past attempts at modernization. But one elderly resident told me that the government was now going to restore them-something the tenants regretted, she said, since they would have to move out.

"Now, when people really need them," laments Maria Luisa Llorente, "the patios are disappearing."

Tor Eigeland, a Norwegian free-lance photographer now based in London, lived in Spain for more than 20 years.

This article appeared on pages 2-10 of the September/October 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1990 images.