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Author Jane Johnson talks about setting in “Court of Lions”

5th February 2018

Court of Lions

Through January and February 2018 the #TFBookClub is reading Court of Lions by Jane Johnson, you can still join us on this link, where you can leave your comments. And Jane shares with us here her personal experience of writing the book and visiting the setting, the wonderful Alhambra. Over to Jane who also offers her top tips for a visit…..


I first visited the Moorish palace-complex in Granada known as the Alhambra over twenty years ago and like everyone who walks beneath its graceful arches and gazes upon its serene pools and lacy, geometric stonework, fell under its spell. I never planned to write about it: I was just a tourist.

That was long before the Moors captured me, dragging me out of my comfortable London life to take up a new life in a remote mountain village in Morocco, much as they had my ancestor, Catherine Tregenna. In 2005 I had travelled to Morocco to conduct research for my novel THE TENTH GIFT, about the Barbary corsairs and their raids on the Cornish coast in the 17th century. The research took place on the north coast, near Rabat: but I ended up climbing the Lion’s Face on the Djebel Kest some 600 miles away, enduring an epic near-death experience on the mountain, and marrying a Berber tribesman. As you do. (We’ve just celebrated our twelfth anniversary.)

My new life in North Africa made me intensely curious about Moorish history and I set about reading voraciously. Three big Moroccan novels followed (THE TENTH GIFT, THE SALT ROAD and THE SULTAN’S WIFE) before I decided to tackle the really big subject in Moroccan history: the fall of the kingdom of Granada, the last foothold of Islam on the Iberian peninsula in 1492, that great hinge-point in history, when Isabella and Ferdinand drove the Muslims out of Spain; when Columbus – flush with the spoils of the conquest – was dispatched on his epic voyage; and the Inquisition took root.

The producer who was interested in making a film of THE SULTAN’S WIFE told me about a discovery by restorers in the Alhambra palace in Granada, where the last Moorish sultan had lived. While moving one of the great doors they had come upon a scrap of paper that had been hidden deep in the intricate latticework of the wood. It appeared to be an ancient love letter: but the provenance of the note and the identity of the scribe remain a mystery.

The movie deal sadly stalled but the story was a gift to a novelist looking for an interesting way into her subject, and I remembered Lorca’s quote: “In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead in any other country in the world”. I had visited Spain many times as a climber – mainly to climb in the sunny south – at Toix and Calpe and Sella – but it was time to go back as a novelist with an exciting project to pursue.

I flew from London to Seville in early June 2016 on a cheap EasyJet flight from Gatwick and made friends on the flight out with a group who just happened to be staying in the same hotel as me – the excellent Casa 1800, right in the centre, within a two-minute walk of the gorgeous Alcazar and cathedral. We ate wonderful tapas and drank Rioja al fresco in the central square, watching the bats flitting around the stately minaret, lit golden by the antique lights. It was a magical reintroduction to Moorish Spain.

The next day I took a train from Seville station and watched as the landscape opened out before me, by turns flat, cultivated and tamed – through the river plain of the Guadalaquivir to the dusty plateau – the Vega – stretching for long miles; past the original Santa Fe, where Isabella and Ferdinand built an army camp of permanent stone within sight of the Alhambra, literally to put the fear of God into their enemy, now an unprepossessing modern sprawl, until at last the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada could be glimpsed and we drew into Granada’s central station.

Because I wanted to be as close to the Moorish palaces as could be – and because I was not rich enough to stay at the Parador de Granada, once the Covent of San Francisco, where Isabella and Ferdinand’s bodies had once lain in state – I stayed at the Hotel America, just 50 yards away, a charming traditional hotel where I sat writing the final chapters of COURT OF LIONS sitting on a balcony with the scent of roses and jasmine in the air, sustained only by a massive pile of cherries bought in the market in the Albaicin, a jug of tinto de verano and a loaf of fresh bread, scribbling like a madwoman till I had wrestled the task into submission.

Jane writing…

Top tips:

  • If you visit the Alhambra book your tickets in advance (my hotel did this for me) and try to go twice, because there’s so much to take in – not just the palace complex but its glorious gardens. I’d advise seeing the palaces by night as well as by day: tickets are limited and you can wander at will and find quiet spots to appreciate the serene artistry of the Moorish architecture, the moonlit pools and shaded arcades.
  • Tapas is still free at many bars in Granada! And the local beer – Alhambra – is excellent.
  • Walk up to the top of the Albaicin – the old Arab quarter of the city – to get wonderful views of the red fort, and to enjoy its characterful alleyways and markets. There’s a great little Moroccan restaurant just beside the mosque where you can eat grilled chicken kebabs and salad beneath a striped umbrella.
  • Visit the Dar Aysha – the palace the old sultan’s wife escaped to when he spurned her in favour of his new love, a captured Christian slave. It’s simple but beautifully restored, and you may – as I did – find yourself the only visitor.

Thank you so much to Jane for such wonderful and personal insights into the writing process and sharing personal insights for our readers!

Photos © Jane Johnson

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  1. User: JustRetiring

    Posted on: 06/02/2018 at 3:31 pm

    What a wonderful post from Jane Johnson, giving such a rich insight into how Court of Lions came about and her approach to researching the book.

    Is marrying a Berber tribesman to understand more about Moorish history the extreme literary equivalent of ‘method acting’, do you think? A lovely story though, and the image of Jane scribbling away on a roof terrace, within touching distance of the Alhambra, just reinforces the strength of TripFiction – where reading a book so meticulously researched helps you to see a location through an author’s eyes.