Granada and I got off to a bad start. Our coach arrived five minutes ahead of schedule (a welcome contrast to the Sevilla-Cádiz disaster) and we quickly found a bus to take us into the centre. We even overcame the slight obstacle of having no further instructions than ‘get off at the cathedral stop’ – vague to say the least. We decided to embrace the sheep mentality and jumped off when a large proportion of our fellow passengers seemed to be heading for the door. We acquired a map and marched purposefully in the right direction. Which is when the problems began. When we were almost at the hostel, we heard the familiar banging of drums coupled with a whiff of incense. It could only mean one thing: our path was blocked by a procession. Disgruntled but unsurprised, we studied google maps and found another route, which brought us to the main road through the city. This plan was also thwarted by the enormous crowds spilling out onto the pavements as they waited for the procession to pass them by. Frustrated, we decided it would be easier to jump in a cab and promptly flagged one down. The cab driver waited until we had got our bags in the boot and were sliding onto the backseat before informing us that he couldn’t take us where we wanted to go. Apparently the road was barred to both people and traffic. By this point, we were sweaty, exhausted and very, very grumpy. After lugging our bags out of the car, it took us another half an hour to barge our way through the procession using the ‘head down, elbows out’ school of walking, work out where the hell we were and finally (FINALLY!) we found our hostel. Which, as the crow flies, was only about ten minutes from the bus stop.
Luckily for the man on reception (who, as the first human we had verbally interacted with since the incompetent cabbie, would have been on the receiving end of an overemotional rant), the hostel was beautiful and stunned us into impressed silence. The hostel is designed like an Arabic house with dark wood fittings and open corridors overlooking a mosaicked central foyer. As it was very newly opened when we stayed, the price was incredibly low for the quality (€12 a night) but I have no doubt that the price will begin to rise as word spreads. We had booked into a four-person room, but miraculously had it to ourselves for the duration of our stay. This was particularly lucky as the room was clean but small, the perfect size for us but potentially very cramped with two strangers. It also had an en-suite bathroom with an enormous shower. Undoubtedly the Marriott of the hostel world.
We were starving after all that unexpected exercise, so headed straight back out in search of nourishment. Whilst the majority of bars in Andalusía are slowly heading the same way as the rest of Spain and charging for tapas, Granada is still infamous for handing out free food with your drinks order. The knack here is not in finding the free stuff, but the GOOD free stuff. We settled for the nearest likely looking bar, and ordered glasses of Rioja from the moody barmaid. Partly to wind her up and partly because we were hungry, we developed the tactic of buying drinks ten minutes apart, so that she was obliged by the unspoken ‘one plate per order’ rule to give us individual portions. The problem with free tapas is it inevitably inspires food envy; on more than one occasion we stared longingly across our neighbours chowing down on some delicious looking meat stew and so eagerly ordered another drink, only to find a plate of dodgy looking gulas slapped down in front of us. Like most things in life, the quality of the food comes down to a combination of luck and who you know. After multiple tapas and glasses of wine, we were ready to drop and so gracefully retired.
The following morning, we each spent so long in our luxury shower that we missed the free breakfast on offer at the hostel, and grabbed a ‘cafe, zumo de naranja y tostada‘ deal at a nearby cafe (you can find this for between 2.50-5 euros in almost every cafe in the South). Our plan for the day was to explore the city on foot and take in as much as possible before heading up to the Alhambra at 18.30. Tickets for the Alhambra sell out well in advance and come with an allotted time slot (thankfully we had been warned about this, so booked ours a month or so before our trip).
Our hostel was very close to the Cathedral so we headed there first, dodging the swarms of gypsy women forcing ‘lucky heather’ onto passers by. We walked down a little gated passageway and admired the external architecture of the cathedral, but didn’t go in as they were charging a fortune in entrance fees. Instead we strolled around the outside of the building, peering into shops and down alleyways. We quickly became distracted by the colourful glass lanterns glinting in the sunlight, which decorate the Arabic market, known as the Alcaicería. The musky scent of leather mixed with warm clouds of spicy incense wafted down the alleyway to greet us. In a trance, we wound our way through the piles of goods,as faces appeared in doorways, calling out the prices of their woven satchels and beaded slippers and painted tiles and bags of tea. It’s a truly magical, evocative place.
When we emerged from the market (naturally in a completely different place from where we had entered) we were near an old monastery. Two old men stood outside its gates putting the world to rights, blending into the scenery as naturally as if they had been there for years. We turned into Plaza de la Universidad and stumbled upon an old nearby hospital, arranged around a courtyard with intricate painted designs and letters fading from the crumbling walls.
Granada is a fascinating clash between ancient and modern cultures. As we walked around the city, I lost count of the amount of times I saw graffiti covering stately buildings or magnificent houses lying open to the curious public. Almost nothing seems to be closed off or behind glass, and yet the city has the strange effect of making you feel as if you are catching a glimpse of something sacred and untouched.
We did a giant loop, walking back up Calle Reyes Católicos to Calle Cárcel, a small, hilly street, filled with bright Arabic shops and teterías. We powered on further and further up the hill until the scenery began to change. The houses became narrower and were all painted white. The paths were steep and winding. The views were spectacular. This is the Albayzín.
The Albayzín (or Albaicín) is one of the most recognisable parts of Granada. A district raised some 700-800m above sea level on a hilltop to the East of the city, it is easy to see why it is a World Heritage Sight. The streets have retained their Medieval Moorish design and many of the original houses still stand. The district is infamous for housing a population separate from that residing in the rest of the city – over the years it has housed Moors, Jews and Romany gypsies. Now the district is a popular tourist destination, not only for its beautiful architecture, but also for the wonderful view of the Alhambra, which stands on a hill directly across from it.
After climbing for some time, we rested on a wall in a small park, gazing down at the city as a funk band had an impromptu open-air practice behind us. We then continued on up until we reached an even better view. As we were balancing precariously on a wall, attempting to get a good shot of the incredible scenery, a man – clearly a local – approached us, cleared his throat to get our attention and informed us that the viewing point was about 50 m to our left. We thanked him and rounded the corner, only to discover (to our embarrassment) that we had been right next to Mirador San Nicholas, the most famous viewing point in Granada, where hundreds of tourists stood photographing the Sierra Nevada and the Alhambra. No wonder the man had looked at us like we were insane.
When we had posed and snapped away to our hearts’ content, we moved on. Just round the corner is barrio Sacramento. During the day, this district looks like a stunningly beautiful but relatively quiet continuation of the Albayzín, but at night it becomes the heart of Granada’s flamenco scene. Having seen a flamenco performance in Sevilla, we didn’t attend a concert here, but I have heard wonderful things and apparently it is a very special experience.
By this time, we were starving again, so we began the long descent to the city centre. En route, we saw our first silent procession; lines of people in funeral dress were traipsing along behind an enormous statue of the dead body of Jesus, and as we passed they entered a small church at the base of the hill. We crossed Plaza Nueva and looped back round to Calle Cárcel, having passed a tetería that was offering a tempting menú del día. The place was called Kazbar and it was decorated in the usual Arabic style, with low tables dotted with the occasional shisha pipe, jewel colours, and tiled surfaces hung with mirrors. Although the vegetarian food was delicious, the most memorable thing about Kazbar was the ever-so-slightly insane waiter who served us. He kept hiding around a corner and jumping out at us, forgetting our order and so having to come back and giggling hysterically at his own attempts to speak English (despite the fact that we were ordering in Spanish). In one particularly memorable incident, my friend – who has a mild nut allergy – asked if the falafel contained peanuts. He looked at us scandalised, saying ‘Whaaaaaat you say?’ When I repeated the question in Spanish he giggled and said ‘Oooohhhhh, I hear something else!’ Ten minutes later his grinning face appeared around the corner and he reported back ‘Yes, it does contain…penis?’ He seemed so proud of his English that I didn’t have the heart to correct him.
After the hilarity of lunch, we went for a nose around Plaza Nueva to wile away the couple of hours before our slot at the Alhambra. We walked up an alleyway just off the plaza and paused to gaze at posters with painted Arabic names hanging outside a small shop. Meanwhile, unseen by us, a figure was creeping out of the shop and moving to stand behind us. Suddenly sensing a presence, I swung round to see an Arabic man, I’d say in his mid-sixties, small and rotund, in loose printed trousers and a waistcoat, grinning broadly at us. Immediately expecting an enthusiastic sales pitch, my natural instinct was to smile politely and move away. However, something in his tone encouraged me to listen, and as my ears adjusted to his heavily accented Spanish, I realised he was pointing out the different kinds of calligraphy he had used for the posters and relating the history behind each one. I was unintentionally drawn in to what he was saying, and before long we had followed him into his shop and agreed to let him paint our names in Arabic. We settled onto woven stools and chose our preferred paper and ink, as he expounded on everything from the history of the Spanish conflict between the Christians and the Moors to why we never judge potential lovers by their religion, passport or CV (to use his words – ‘Sólo piensas “Qué guapo!”’ roughly translated as “You only think ‘Hey there, good-looking!”’). Every so often he would interrupt himself to ask our opinion on his design or get us to trace a dot-to-dot of our names in Arabic, and once a younger man who owned a neighbouring shop came in to speak to him, and was told to leave and seek permission to enter from the ‘princesas’ (us, apparently). I have no idea how long we spent there, but when the final flourish had been added to the calligraphy and the last drop of ink had dried, we paid him a couple of euros (more for the conversation then for the work itself) and he sent us on our way with a blessing and bow.
We had spent so long philosophising with the shopkeeper that it was almost time to go to the Alhambra, so we began the commute uphill from Plaza Nueva. The Alhambra lies at the top of the hill al-Sabika, to the west of Granada. A steep woodland path begins at a huge stone gate on the edge of Plaza Nueva and winds its way upwards to the equally enormous gated entrance to the Alhambra. The word Alhambra comes from the Arabic ‘qa’lat al-Hamra’ meaning Red Castle and the building is so named for its reddish walls.
For those who are unaware, the Alhambra was originally built as a fortress in the 9th century and was later converted into a palace by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, used by the last rulers of the Nasrid dynasty. Because of this divided heritage, the Alhambra is comprised of a complex of buildings rather than being the one enormous structure that I had imagined. Parts of the Alhambra are open to tourists for free – anyone can wander around the grounds and visit the Charles V Palace – whilst others require a ticket and a specific time slot. Our tickets were valid from 18.30 and we optimistically arrived almost an hour early, hoping that the time slot was more a guideline then a steadfast rule. After queuing for 20 minutes, we discovered that this was apparently the one place in Spain where punctuality applied and were unceremoniously told to wait.
Luckily there was plenty more to occupy us; we admired the Charles V Palace (notable for the circular courtyard inside a square building) and climbed the Justice Tower, which provided the most exquisite panoramic views over the city and the hills and plains beyond.
When our turn came, we re-joined the queue and entered the Nasrid Palaces. We followed the crowds round the rooms in awe, as a hall opened onto a courtyard which turned into a bedchamber and then back into a hall, all marked by calligraphic carvings in the stone, too intricate to capture on camera, although many people tried. From the Palaces, we wandered into the gardens of the Generalife -in Arabic, the ‘Garden of the Architect’- which were predictably luxurious, with fountains spilling into long pools and engraved terraces overlooking the hillside.
When we had absorbed all we could of the spectacular scenery, we set off back down the hill and to our hostel for a rest before dinner.
We went to Calle Elvira for dinner that night, infamous as Granada’s go-to street for nightlife. We picked off bars, judging them by the quality of the tapas (we had a particularly nasty experience with some dodgy deep-fried squid tentacles which put us off one bar for the rest of the trip). Eventually we stumbled across a gem. Although it seemed to attract a slightly older crowd, the drinks were cheap and it was a food-lover’s dream – large portions, constant variety, impeccably presented, the taste of a high-end restaurant and completely free. We were given a variety of tapas, from melted goat’s cheese and tomato relish on toast to a spicy lamb crepe.
On Thursday morning, we had breakfast in Gran Vía café (a place recommended by my guidebook which, unusually for Lonely Planet, was nothing special) and discussed our plans for the day ahead. After studying a map, we came to the realisation that we had walked almost the entirety of the city the day before. However, we had luckily left ourselves a few spots to check out and so set off at a gentle pace towards El Parque Federico García Lorca in the South. The park is about a 15-minute walk out of the city centre and is home to Lorca’s summer house, Huerta de San Vincente, now a museum dedicated to the writer. We found the little house quickly, but had somehow managed to miss the fact that today was a Puente (one of a numerous list of Spanish bank holidays) and so sadly the museum was closed. Although we didn’t get to look inside the building, the outside was beautiful. It took little imagination to picture Lorca as a young man in the sweltering summer heat, sitting at a desk in the white house with green shutters, absent-mindedly gazing at the Andalusían countryside through a window crowned with vines. Once upon a time, the house was surrounded by fields, but now the park is the only stretch of green in a landscape dominated by concrete.
After a dose of literary history, we walked in a diagonal line across the city, ending up in a North Eastern area infamous for graffiti. One wall in particular is covered from head to foot in enormous, elaborate paintings. The mixture of designs and styles seem to indicate that a variety of artists have contributed to the display over time. Although the visual impact is undeniable, the burst of colour feels surprisingly appropriate amongst the historical setting.
For lunch we were feeling paella. We found it on a small pedestrian street, at a roadside café that provided excellent people watching opportunities. The paella was enormous and delicious, if somewhat tricky to eat. The challenging element arose from the shellfish piled high on top of the rice. I acquitted myself reasonably well with the smaller models of prawn, but try as I might, I couldn’t get past the razor sharp claws and armour-like shell of the langostinos. After finishing everything else on my plate, I managed to scrape out a teeny-tiny amount of pale flesh from beneath the rock-hard surface and savoured it with triumph. By the end of the meal, our plates resembled an animal graveyard, covered in broken pieces of shell and little prawn legs. The smug grins were wiped off our faces when we received the bill; naively, we had read the menu as saying paella for 15 euros, but on a closer re-reading, it was 15 euros per person. Not the bargainous meal we had been expecting but oh well – the seafood was undoubtedly fresh and undeniably tasty.
In the afternoon, we returned to the Alcaicería for a spot of shopping. To my immense pride, I successfully haggled a leather bag down to half price (no small feat for me, the girl who punctuates every disagreement with a chorus of apologies) and walked away from the market with a satisfying sense of achievement.
The final evening of our holiday was suitably eventful. We went back to Calle Elvira and began another tapas bar crawl, before being realising that nothing was living up to the food at the bar from the previous evening. Inevitably, we went back. After eating our fill, we tried out another place, where the bartender was a lovely man dressed all in black who recommended his handmade sangria and allowed us to choose the music. We were also gifted a free shot of ron miel (honey rum) before we left, a delicious Andalusían special.
We also got chatting to a group of guys from Santander, who miraculously allowed to us to speak to them in Spanish rather than attempting to practice their English – something that never happens in Madrid. We went with them to a bar playing incredible soul music (which was criminally empty) and spent an hour or so chatting about all manner of things. At about 3am, as we were making our way back to the hostel, all the late-night noises suddenly fell away and we realised that we had stumbled across another silent procession. This one was much larger than the one we had seen a day earlier, with crowds of people squashed onto the pavements to pay their respects. It was a wonderful final flash of the Andalusían spirit; in that moment, with people of all ages watching in silence as a line of mourners trickled down the street behind the inevitable statue of Jesus, there was really nowhere else in the world that we could have been.