Gardens of the Alhambra at NYBG

When I read about the New York Botanical Garden's re-creation of the Alhambra Gardens I was raring to go – and, not having been there before, was not aware that the exhibit's installation in the Haupt Conservatory necessarily imposed particular limitations on its extent (notably a restricted space and floorplan). Consequently my minds-eye view of its potential was, perhaps, a bit lofty (read: entirely impractical) and possibly I should have read more about it before I went (which is precisely why you peruse my blog, to find this sort of thing out ahead of time! Except not in this case, because the show is gone now).

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The Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Image courtesy of nybg.org. All photos by author unless otherwise noted.

Teased by images like this of the Alhambra itself, it was hard not to feel a smidgin of disappointment when I saw just how unreasonable my expectations had been, but this was soon overcome as I admired just how evocative this presentation was and how well it made use of available means.

I didn't start off in the Conservatory, however, but rather in the corresponding exhibition entitled Historical Views: Tourists at the Alhambra housed in the Mertz Library. The reason for this was, well, mostly because I had problems figuring out where I was on the map and I simply walked to the nearest building, which turned out to be a fortuitous decision.

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A lovely introduction, this single room contained historical information about the palace and a smart selection of various works on paper – most of which were gleaned from the collection of The Hispanic Society of America (their Curator of Prints and Photographs organized this segment of the show) – effectively exemplifying perceptions and aesthetic appreciation of the Alhambra over time, from 16th-century maps to 19th-century photographs. One display case was devoted entirely to Washington Irving, illuminating his significant contribution to popularizing the Romantic conceptualization of the palace and containing such treats as the diary he kept when living in Spain, the notebook in which he practiced Arabic, and original drawings by Felix O. C. Darley for the first edition of Irving's Alhambra (1851).

Meanwhile, in the Conservatory, was Miss Scarlet with the revolver. No, was a wonderful array of Mediterranean plants and an assortment of architectural allusions to the palace. While one could not entirely lose sight of the reality of one's surroundings, the space was nonetheless transportive, complete with appropriate ambient music. Choice placards immersed among the vegetation described not only a given plant's origin, but also addressed its medicinal uses, flavor, potential culinary preparations, and interesting facts about its history. For instance, I learned that fig seeds were ostensibly brought from Byzantium to Spain in 840, inadvertently, in a stack of books. I like them even better now!

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I know this is not a fig. But it is pretty!

Several fountains represented the importance of water to the palace complex, as well as its renowned and innovative hydraulic systems. Additional plaques encouraged visitors to listen to the sounds of the falling water and to smell the fragrant plants, urging the type of multisensory experience we are told is central to the conceptualization of the Alhambra gardens. Further information was also provided regarding the development of Islamic gardening and architecture, thereby continuing to extend perceptions of the Alhambra grounds beyond the glass-enclosed space in which visitors stood. Well done, NYBG!

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While unfortunately I was not able to take advantage of it myself, a wide variety of public programming (including flamenco performances and food tastings) was offered in conjunction with the exhibition to develop these themes yet further. And the third component of the show, the "Poetry Walk" set up along the Perennial Walk outside the Conservatory, displayed large scale reproductions of beautiful poems by Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), born near Granada, offered a thoughtful and contemplative introduction to, or transition out of, the Conservatory exhibit.

The rest of the NYBG grounds are extensive and beautiful, and well worth another visit; I intend to go back when the 3,000 azaleas are in bloom. I saw a good number of the Benenson Ornamental Conifers and understood immediately why they are discussed and presented in terms of an art collection. I would highly recommend a visit to the rock garden, which I could tell was cool though I barely stepped inside – beware, they start shooing you out twenty minutes shy of closing time! Perhaps most exciting for me was the swath of New York forest, in fact 50 acres of the native growth that once upon a time covered all of New York City. An exercise in imagination and simply gorgeous, I will definitely be headed back there soon. And, once again, don't leave that one til the end, at least not in the summer – the insect life is a nightmare.

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Lo, native New York

Located at 2900 Southern Blvd in the Bronx and accessible by public transportation, the New York Botanical Gardens are open year-round, Tue. – Sun. (and Mon. federal holidays) 10am – 6pm. The All-Garden Pass includes admission to the grounds seasonal gardens, special exhibitions, the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, Everett Children’s Adventure Garden, Rock Garden, and Tram Tour: $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and students with ID, $8 for children ages 2–12, free for children under 2. A considerably less expensive Grounds-Only Pass is available, but does not include admission to special exhibitions or the aforementioned attractions: $6 for adults, $5 for adult Bronx Residents, $3 for seniors and students with ID, $1 for children ages 2–12, free for children under 2. Grounds-only admission is free all day on Wed. and Sat. from 10am – 12pm.


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