We arrived in Granada in the afternoon, having taken the bus over as it was cheaper than train, but there wasn't so much to see out the window – dusty plains, more endless fields of old olive trees, occasionally new olive trees, less commonly still stubble burn-offs which I presume mean they run a cycle to control disease. The towns along the route didn't look like they have much going for them these days, high in the hills and appearing full of white walls, old landrovers, and not a lot else. Granada looked interesting though – the city centre had wide streets, old buildings, trees, lots of people.
Our first priority when we got in to Granada was to secure tickets to the Alhambra, poor Melissa having spent the morning running around Córdoba trying to find a non-suck netcafe at which to buy tickets, losing the battle against the broken booking site, and then trying to sort it out on the phone (which proved impossible even for someone with my basic Spanish – even the tourist job workers in Spain don't speak English).
We settled for the city's ‘Bono Turistico’ which is a kind of multi-pass (mul-teh-pass!) giving access to all sorts of stuff, but most importantly the Alhambra – and unlike all the other tickets you can buy presale, this one lets you choose the time you want to take the tours, which is great. Really, we chose it because it was the only confirmed-access option available the day before we wanted to go in, as tickets sell out ahead of time; some sources say that they reserve 30% of the day's admissions to sell at the gate in the morning (get in quick), but other sources say they reserve none – so we decided not to take the chance.
The Bono Turistico was not cheap, especially as it turned out that when you pick it up from the central-city kiosk we picked it up from (having found all the other branches that sell them closed) as it turns out that there it comes with the city audioguide, but which they add to the price of the tourist card. Anyway, it worked out OK – more expensive than we wanted, but that's what you get for not being able to organise your tickets months or at least weeks in advance anyway.
We foolishly took the directions of one bus driver as to which bus to take to go where we wanted, to our hotel – which turned out to go up the wrong side of the hill we were staying on, and only to the top (actually where the Alhambra is). So, a long hot walk with packs ensued back down the other side of the hill to our cheap hotel – Melissa liked the walk, I was very over it very quickly.
That night having taken the bus back down to town we had not-bad tapas (many free, which is what's really supposed to happen – you get them when you order a drink, though you may just keep getting potato salad ;)) and very very good muscatel at a busy bar; the muscatel was orangey and I loved it even more than the very raisiney one we had in Córdoba. If I understood them rightly it was their own special thing, and they had it in their cask – would happily have taken one home with me :).
The next day was the main event, a wander around the impressive Alhambra, the palace home of the Emirate of Granada in the time of Al-Andalus – the Muslim empire that held the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) for centuries, and latter was a vassal state under the Christians, paying tribute and helping subdue more rebellious Muslim groups.
The complex has several parts built a different times by different rulers or even cultures, and the sections aren't really integrated in any way, not even aligned on common axes. The most impressive parts are the Nasrid Palaces and the Generalife, which when the empire held the city were said to be essentially a recreation of the Muslim heaven on earth.
Like many buildings from Islamic culture, the palaces were quite plain and un-ostentatious from the outside. Inside however, they are striking; the large calm pool in the courtyard of a Nasrid palace would be exceptionally impressive in such a dry climate, a clear display of the wealth and power of the rulers that they could maintain such a thing.
It's the decorations on the walls throughout the Alhambra that are most impressive however. Almost every surface is covered in carved plaster, tile, or or inlaid wood, with complex geometric patterns forming the basis for the designs and beautiful Arabic script (“Allah”, etc.) fitted in the shapes and inscribed along the walls. Every room seemed to have a different design, all striking, and the decoration extended many meters up the walls to the ceilings.
The ceilings too were epic, plaster carved in a kind of stalactite honeycomb that Melissa calls “nutch”. The color on these (like the colored-in background of the carved plaster on the walls) was originally deep blues, reds, and golden yellows, but has over the centuries since faded to be almost invisible, but traces remain; the rooms would have been incredible to see when they were fully colored.
Fountains are a recurrant theme also, ever-present in the inner courtyards and helping cool the air. One unusual reversal had a fountain inside each of the rooms around the courtyard, with a channel running out through the middle of the doorway you enter through, to the center of the courtyard. Sadly, some of the pieces have been away for years in the process of restoration, in particular the apparently-great Court of Lions, but there's plenty there to fill up on.
The grounds are extensive, and it's not all palace. There's a number of towers, some functional, some just to give people romantic views out the window. At the “prow” of the hill, looking over Granada city now, is the alcazaba, the citadel of the complex from which defense was mounted against the attacking armies.
There's also more recent additions such as the western-style palace started by Carlos V – this is some time after the Christians beseiged Granada and took the city.
(There's a great story about this – as the last Muslim ruler and his group left the city heading into exile, having lost the war and signed the surrender, he is said to have turned to look at the now-lost paradise on earth, and shed a tear. His mum is reported to have scolded him “do not weep like a woman for that which you could not defend like a man!” Harsh.)
Constrained in funds it didn't get very far in his time, and in fact it's never been finished – it wasn't even roofed until the 20th century! The palace has a square footprint, but the center of it is a large circular patio lined with columns, showing clear Roman architectural influences. As it was never been finished in olden times, there's not much decoration to see here, but frankly I think that's probably just as well as it could never stack up next to the incredible varied detail and workmanship of the Islamic palaces.
There's gardens throughout the whole complex, providing welcome shade and color. Some are just plain old European trees (apparently many bought in in the 1800s), some are huge unusual fruit trees, some form a working vegetable and herb garden, and there's a large and attractive flower garden attached to the Generalife, which together with healthy-looking roses included unusual flowering plants such as a purple one whose inflourescences (fancy word c/o Sarah for multi-flower things) looked like they were styled into spikey arrangements with hair product, and my new favorite, the red brain flower.
Incidentally, the complex did have these many fountains and gardens way back when, and it was quite a feat, since the hill doesn't have a hell of a lot of water naturally – apparently they had a kind of aqueduct thing to bring water across, and I think they must have pumped it up by hand. Then, as today, water was a great luxury (especially in a hot country, where a fountain has a very desirable cooling effect on the building).
Distributing the water around to all the various fountains and so on required a lot of works, such as the pipe-sized channels carved into a stone bannister alongside steps going from one level to the next up the hillside (I do have a photo of this, but I have been banned from posting it on account of the person in it walking up the steps. In future I will wait the necessary time until I can get a photo with no-one's butt in it).
After a good solid wander around the Alhambra, and a wander down the nice treed streets zig-zagging up the hill to it, we went down to the town and took care of various bits of business – postcards, burning photos to backup disc etc.
As evening fell we got some crappy overpriced cheesecake in a square, then wandered to find dinner, me in particular searching out paella, which Melissa has been told is best in Granada – though I wish I'd been feeling more up to going to a restaurant in Madrid, where they are crazy about seafood.
There's a trick to getting a good paella, as some places just heat up pre-made or pre-packaged standard dishes, obviously not as good as fresh: you ask how long it would take to prepare. If they say 15 minutes, they're heating it; if they say 50 minutes, they're cooking it. (It's actually considered a slow-lunch food rather than a dinner item, but you'll find some places doing it then anyway.)
We settled in at a table in the street by an alright-looking place and ordered paella, fish, salmorejo (garlicy gazpacho) – and briefly ran an amusing translation chain to the German couple who soon sat down next to us, as we figured out what most items on the menu board were with a fair bit of consulting my dictionary, asking, and guessing. Again, I was very glad that Melissa and I are quite happy to just give random things a try and eat what turns up – not a lot of people I can travel with that are keen to take the risk!
The paella was not bad, but didn't blow me away – it turned out to be quite oily, very yellow, and although not lacking in flavour in the rice, was somewhat plain and unexciting in my opinion. Incidentally, paella is not traditionally “mixed” – ie. seafood plus chicken plus chorizo, such as we tend to get it here. They do make it in some restaurants, and maybe that's common in one or two places in Spain, but it's not normal. Usually, it's a chicken paella, or a seafood paella, not both.
It's not all about the Alhambra in Granada, impressive though it was – though you will get sick of the number of tourists like yourself thronging through it.
Melissa had really enjoyed her walk on the first morning up into Sacromonte, where a number of people live in caves in the hill – albeit many fewer than at one time, a natural disaster or two having made it seem less desirable – and a bit of a centre for gypsy, flamenco kind of stuff. I had a wander up the next day but it was fucking hot – so parched even the prickly pear cactus trees were dehydrating visibly.
Although there were quite nice looking houses along the main road, many of the people living in the suburb were clearly not well off; I walked up the hill to a large cross, around where there were bare cinder-block houses with a sack for a door, a school uniform hanging on the line outside. A few churches, more big crosses – I know it's the centre of a lot of people's life, maybe even a thing that keeps them going, but it still seems like a waste to me.
Back in town we met up for lunch, going to the best place recommended by the friendly woman at the hotel, who had given Melissa the run-down on what the quintessentially Granadian foods were that she had to try. Melissa had already been hunting out some of these previously, with a lot of wandering around trying unsuccessfully to find her “tortilla sacromonte”.
It turned out the place was very expensive, but it was only lunchtime so we settled for a few entree portions to share, which worked out nicely – we got to try their paella, which was again nice but nothing stunning (more like a paella here interestingly – had prawns as well as chicken), eggplant made extra-tasty with liberal application of sea salt and oil (actually I suspect they just deep fried it… awesome), and Melissa got her much-sought-after tortilla sacromonte.
There's no nice way to say this, so I'll just say it. It's brains. It's a soft, squishy omelette, with brains. And tomato sauce on the top.
I was not a big fan of the texture of it, and as I considered how much effort Melissa had put into looking around for it specifically, I couldn't help but think of zombies. I can however report she did not eat my brains that night, so false alarm.
After lunch we wandered past the stalls around the cathedral, which was closed but whose square in front was filled with busy food vendors, great clouds of smoke rising from their barbequeues, fields of sausages and pig on a spit.
But we didn't really have too much time to dawdle, we needed to get back to the hotel and then take our series of busses to get to the train station, where we buy our tickets and are relaxingly early (well, I find it relaxing – Melissa would have liked to try and squeeze something else in!) and hop on the line to Algeciras down on the southern coast.
There was the usual seemingly-rainless plains with olive trees, solar panels, low wind farms on the ridges, locals returning to their towns from a day in the city, old olive-pressing factories and grain elevators crumbling in disrepair as small towns become irrelevant.
But I really enjoyed the trip actually, and not just because I always find it oddly comforting to see humanity's artifacts slowly returning to their soil: it was a welcome few hours of calm, and later on the sun set slowly and beautifully, and I was looking up out the window at just the right time to see that our train was “buzzed” by a microlight, following along the path of the train until we sped out of its reach.
The next day, we went to Gibraltar.