Of all the Andalusian cities I have visited (Sevilla, Cadiz, Cordoba, Malaga), it was Granada that stole my heart. If Sevilla were magical, then Granada gave me the fairy tale. Sitting underneath the shadow of the Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada (“snowfall mountains”) with its steep, labyrinth streets of the Islamic neighborhood Albaycin, now a UNESCO site, filled with tall white buildings and orange roofs, merging with the caves of the Spanish gypsies (or Gitanos/Romani), Granada was a crossroads of time, culture, taste and smells. In the Shadow of the Alhambra
Before visiting, I had heard from a few people that Granada could be done in a day, and that the one thing to see is the Alhambra. This proved to be completely false. In one day, it may be possible to see the Alhambra, but you would miss the vibrant markets and the tetería, the windy walks through the Albaycín into the hillsides for a panoramic view of the city; flamenco in the caves of Sacromonte (entire post dedicated here); the tapas filled walk along the River Darro below the Albaycin district; the amazing tastes of free (yes, free) tapas with each cañe or tinto de verano; and of course, the incredible natural parks and snow capped mountains surrounding Granada. A short, 50 min drive to the sea and 60 min drive to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, Granada sat between mountain and ocean, making it possible to ski and sunbath on the beach in the same day.
Of course, the Alhambra is unlike any other castle I’ve seen, but Granada could easily take a week or longer; I could see myself staying there for months. So hopefully in just a few paragraphs and photos, I can try to capture the essence of my favorite Andalusian city and perhaps even my favorite European city to date.
Markets, Teterías and Spices
I was lucky enough to stay in the Albaycín district of Granada and could, on morning walks, see the markets filled with spices, teas, soaps and beautiful lamps from regions of the world, blended together and now an Andalusian trademark.
The entire neighborhood smelled so differently than any others I’ve encountered so far. Spices like paprika, masala, and ginger mixed in with the shisha smoke coming from tea houses, or teterías, that lined the stoned, hilly walkways. Markets bring a community alive for me. Not only do they exhibit the livelihood and precious creations of its merchants and artists, but they also allow human bonds to form. I imagine how similar they were, even hundreds of years ago, providing the basic ingredients for an evening spent together, laughing, cooking, eating and drinking, and most importantly, telling stories.
At sundown, the lights of the market would flicker on, and the smells of sautéed garlic would mix with the shisha smoke. The air would cool, and you could hear the vibrant song of the sunset call to prayer from the mosques in the hills just above, the best sunset view of the Alhambra.
Those would not be the only sounds.
A seeming mecca for guitarists and street musicians, the night brings with it the sounds of the Spanish guitar and vocals, sometimes with the distant foot beats and lyrics of flamenco merging in and out from the canyons along the valley that the heart of Granada sits in.
A clatter of plates, laughter, chinking of wine glasses, and the evening has begun.
You would be missing out in Granada if you did not go to a tetería, perfect in the afternoon after a hot day of touring and hiking. There were two I enjoyed the most, one in the market on Calle Caldereria Nueva, “Tetería Kasbah” where you can order a refreshing lemonade, tea, Moroccan styled lunch or a number of different coffees. At night, you can come back after a siesta to smoke flavorful shisha before beginning on the must-do tapas tour.
My other favorite tetería for a wide selection of herbal, floral or black teas, shisha and dessert was La Tetería e Banuelo, hidden and off the tourist path in the residential area of Albaycín. Along with a much-needed quietness, the tetería also hides an incredible garden-like terrace with views of the Alhambra.
After a hard run in the morning and afternoon siesta, it was here that I came to reflect and think, ordering an Andalusian tea and a flakey, “chocolate y mantequilla de mani m’hencha” while watching the swallows fly across the sky.
(Click on the photos for larger views). After the rather disappointing hot and dehydrating tour of the Alcazar in Sevilla, I approached the Alhambra with controlled expectations. While my Company and I usually avoid visiting cathedrals of any kind (perhaps ignorantly, but they do all look the same inside), we have soft spots for castles and fortresses. Learning from the Alcazar mistake, I purchased tickets in advance online (here is the official website), and selected the General Ticket. This includes a viewing of the Nasrid palaces along with the palace gardens, which you must schedule a set time to visit. Each day, they only allow a certain number of tourists to go into the Nasrid palace and limit the number of spots during each viewing. So if you miss your time slot, you’re hard out of luck. We arrived about 30 minutes early and went through the general entrance at the far Eastern side of the Alhambra, which is at the center of a beautiful, large park open to the public (and great for running). We also tried best to follow the guidelines: don’t touch anything, whisper in soft voices, and generally be respectful of the gardens, fortresses and museums.
The Alhambra was built in 889AD by the Romans as a fortress, created into a beautifully and intricately architected palace by Nasrid emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar, and then elevated to become the royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I the Sultan of Granada. During this time, the windows, arabesques, walls and ceilings were architected with stunning arabic designs and patterns, while mathematically perfect tiles lined the walls. The shadows created murals of their own across the floors and walls.
Even after 1492, when the Christian Reconquista concluded, Ferdinand and Isabella maintained the Alhambra and added Renaissance style to it. This would explain some of the suddenly Catholic rooms spread amongst the palace and Islamic gardens.
Unlike English and other European gardens, which are designed for walking, Islamic gardens – with the central fountain, plenty of shade and seating – is designed for quiet, reflection and peacefulness. On a hot, southern Spanish day, these gardens delivered in the spirit of their desire.
The Alhambra, seated on the hillside against the Sierra Nevada and towering over the town, did not disappoint; it held up to its reputation as a representation of Granada, a city – like other Andalusian ones but more vibrant and colorful – which was a merging of places, a home for beautiful artistic expression and a stunning view of the land on which it was built.
Unlike any other Spanish city we’ve thus been to, Granada stood out with its distinct tapas culture. You get a free tapa with each drink, and this isn’t some sad, small bowl of olives or a few pieces of stale bread or a handful of pretzels. This was some of the best catch-of-the-day fish, grilled vegetables, cured ham with cheese or pub food like chicken wings, bocadillos and kebabs. We never had to go to a restaurant to sit down for dinner and instead went tapas touring, sitting for a drink at each new place and enjoying the Andalusian flavors that accompanied it. Apparently Granada and some places in Madrid, are the only towns in Spain who still offer free tapas with a drink (this can include non-alcoholic ones as well). We went to about a dozen places total based on recommendations and research, and our favorite places are below (click on each photo for an enlarged view):
Los Diamantes was crowded and busy, and I could see why. Similar to the quality of Las Flores in Cadiz the seafood was out of this world. Before coming to Andalusia, my impression of fried fish was the thick, crunchy fried fish of British pub food or of a fish shack in Maine, where the breading is a lot thicker for deep frying. The adobos, or pescaito, of Andalusia is lightly floured, quickly fried and salted with some lemon, maintaining the freshness and tenderness of the fish, shrimp or octopus while offering multiple textures when you bite in. The fish was so fresh and light, you could taste the ocean without the fish actually tasting, well, fishy. The portions were generous, and you could see the chefs in the back cooking your tapas. The best seat in the house is at the bar, and the wines were top quality.
Late night tapas at Bar La Riviera (open until 1:30am) gave some interesting and probably the widest selection of tapas, from bocadillos (small sandwiches) to kebabs. It also had a very wide selection of beers, if you get tired of the Spanish lagers.
Late night tapas at La Buena Vida (open until 1:30am) also allowed selection of the massive tapas. This was definitely the largest portion of food. Bar La Trastienda (photo on the right) specialized in ham and cheeses, and had a wide variety of mixed drinks in addition to a large wine selection. Here, you could get the traditional jerez (sherry), the most famous drink in Andalusia other than sweet dessert and orange wines, but probably not my favorite compared to the more easily drinkable tempranillos and riojas.
Taberna Los Trastos had the best jamon and cheeses, followed with fantastic red and white wine selections (they put a sweetened white grape in your glass of blanco). You could hear the crowds from a block away, and if there’s no outdoor seating left, there’s usually a spot inside. The tapas were also surprisingly varied, though usually included some delicious form of very fancy cured pork.
Perhaps the most striking and memorable of our days in Granada was the flamenco show we saw in Sacromonte. Instead of writing about it here, I have dedicated an entire blog piece about the art found here.
Mountains, Cave Hippies, and the Outdoors
The Rivers Darro and Genil flow through Granada, and both are lined with beautiful restaurants, coffee shops and tapas bars. My favorite was the paved walkway along the River Darro right beneath the Alhambra. You can walk here, have a drink or cup of tea, enjoy the flow of the small river with the view of the Alhambra above and people watch.
One of my favorite parts of Granada was the access to wildlife and large, beautiful parks. The entire town is surrounded by forests and mountains, and just walking a block, I was able to access the large park just east of the Alhambra. It was here I did some of my toughest runs and saw some really interesting communities. I’m definitely not a great runner, but Granada’s nearly washed out trails, altitude and technical hills really challenged me. You can cover over 700 feet of elevation in less than 3 miles, and in 90+ degree heat, this will give your lungs, heart and legs some good burn.
The runs into the wilderness are worth it though. Where else will you find highly educated cave dwelling hippies who can speak Spanish, English, French and German? Who will jump out of their caves and encourage you to go faster and reply to you as you try to speak English? I’ve never seen so many dreadlocks, jeanie yoga pants and guitar-wielding twenty-something-year-olds since Santa Cruz or Nevada City, California. What is it about these small mountain towns, close to the ocean and full of sunshine and good food that attracts these peace-loving, nomadic, highly educated yogie types, and what am I missing that prevented me from doing this earlier?
For more adventures, you can easily get to the nearby Sierra Nevada (see here) to take a hike through the hanging bridges of Monachil or to snow capped peaks, rock climb the famous caves and canyons, or trek through ice cold rivers. In the end, I felt exhausted from all the activities and yet I knew I barely scratched the surface of it all.
Granada, with its natural wonders and cultural beauty, will certainly be another place I will visit again.