One of my favorite parts of a vacation is learning about a new city or country's literary tradition, and visiting places where it was forged. A highlight of my recent stay in Spain was a trip to Genada's Alhambra, a spectacular Moorish palace that dates to the 13th Century as a royal residence (and has sections that are even older).

I had bought a copy of Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra" at a second-hand bookshop in Madrid, and spent several days reading the remarkable stories, including a recollection of boys who baited fishing rods with flies and tried to catch sparrows from the castle towers. Irving's book provides an interesting chapter in the long history of the Alhambra, when it was far from the popular tourist attraction of today.

"I have often observed that the more proudly a mansion has been tenanted in the day of its prosperity, the humbler are its inhabitants in the day of its decline, and that the palace of a king commonly ends in being the nestling-place of the beggar," he writes (the book is available for free online). "The Alhambra is in a rapid state of similar transition. Whenever a tower falls to decay, it is seized upon by some tatterdemalion family, who become joint-tenants, with the bats and owls, of its gilded halls, and hang their rags, those standards of poverty, out of its windows and loopholes."

The room where Irving wrote, in a newer section of the palace, is open to the public today. Tourists can wander around the towers and other rooms that he describes -- and marvel at the  transition from neglect to a model of preservation.