Sunday 11 May 2014

Granada and the Alhambra

It was actually Granada, specifically the Alhambra, that had got me interested in Andalusia back in 2006. The plan had been modified in the 8 years with places being added and then dropped. Barcelona, Madrid, Toledo had all rubbed shoulders once and eventually Malaga had sneaked in, but the only place that retained its place throughout was Granada. I was not disappointed.

I woke up at half seven with my alarm (Andalusia Part I - A long awaited trip to Southern Spain). It looked still dark out there. The lady on the lower bunk was all ready to move and she rushed me up as I was feeling a bit lazy. I freshened up and was on my way to Maria Zambrano bus station by 8am. I decided to skip the breakfast at the hostel, which didn't turn out to be a good idea as none of the shops had opened yet. It was a 2 hour trip to Granada on the bus. Fortunately, I found something to chomp on at the bus station. However, finding the bus station became a small piece of adventure in itself. I had missed one of the roundabouts I was to use as marker (later, on my return trip, I figured out that the place was all blocked up by construction, hence very easy to confuse an already confused mind). When eventually I reached I had no idea if it was the Bus or the Train station as both were adjacent and nothing obvious to distinguish the Estacion, so asked a taxi driver waiting in the queue for confirmation. He pointed towards the back of the station for the Bus service. When I walked in there, was told to go back to the front one as I was now in the Train station. I ended up being told that the Bus station is where you can see the buses! Should have known that taxi drivers are not much different even when they are not charging - a detour is always welcome.

I got the tickets on the 9am bus to Granada. As I was sorting some of my papers, I had kept my purse on my bag in front of me. An elderly lady watching me warned in Spanish to be careful with my purse. She then enacted what could happen - someone picking it up and running away. Thankfully I was put on my guard for the rest of my trip. The Alsa bus service to Granada arrived a few minutes before departure and we boarded. I was not aware that we had allocated seat numbers and just took a seat, but was rudely overthrown by an American gentleman in his fifties - "That's our seat!" he screamed. Well, I apologised, after all I was a tourist as well finding my way. He didn't care. Well, we don't always get to meet the nicest people after all or maybe he was just hard of hearing. I found my seat and parked myself in.

The bus left precisely at 9am and gradually moved out of the city centre. As it left Malaga and geared up towards Granada, the scenery started to change. The flat land was interrupted by rolling hills and beautiful valleys. There were miles of orange and olive plantations and then the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada started to appear. A beautiful 2 hours worth of journey.

We reached Granada bus station just after 11am. From here I was to take the bus number 3 or 33 and get off at Jardines el Triunfo. Bus 33 came in first and while I got my single ticket for 1.40 Euro, I mentioned my stop to the driver. I have no idea what he responded back with but his body language did not seem promising. I prayed for luck. The bus started filling up fast and I got farther away from the driver. Soon after a Chinese girl got on and the driver's answer to her questions were met with laughters throughout the bus. Within all these commotion the person standing beside me asked me to get off as it was my stop. I obliged. Asked a girl standing at the stop if it indeed was my stop and she answered in affirmative. I was staying at the Hostel El Granado which was a 5 mins walk from the bus stop. The place was easy to find and I was welcomed in by Debra. As I was waiting to be checked in, the Chinese girl from the bus arrived. She was pretty flustered and said she had left her luggage on the train from Seville and had to go back and pick it up later in the afternoon. She called herself Scarlet (as that was easier to remember) and she was a student travelling from Bath. We were put up in the same 4 bed dormitory. As we were settling in we were twice paid a visit by a young Japanese girl, she could not find her room and was looking around! Later she told me that she had her purse stolen earlier in the day with 100 Euros and cards and I was very surprised to find how calm she was about it, can't say I was impressed.

The El Granado hostel is owned by Freddie and Debra, both lovely people and full of tips on how to make a visit worthwhile. I will consider El Granado as one of the best hostels I have stayed in not only its owners and location, but also the facilities. Armed with a map and directions jotted down I trotted along the narrow paved streets of Granada. The hostel is less than 5 minutes walk from the cathedral, so I was soon in the heart of the tourist centre. The old historic town is filled with plazas and narrow streets which reminded me of Venice sans the canals. It's very easy to get lost in here, but unlike Venice, here the streets meet so I soon got back on track after missing a few turns. And unlike Venice, there are cars on these narrow lanes. I have spent many minutes staring at them manoeuvring the sharp corners in the narrow lanes, their wheels screeching on the paved roads. Even the walking boots keep on squeaking while I walked. I was embarrassed till I found squeaking boots all around me and soon got used to it.
My first stop was to collect the Alhambra tickets from the Alhambra book shop by the Plaza Nueva. I then came back to the Plaza Trinidad near the cathedral and visited the old silk market at Alcaeiceria. This place now hosts souvenir shops selling items at a premium price - a tourist trap.
I decided to take a break for lunch. Debra had suggested to try the Tinto de Verano as the drink. It is made from red wine and lemonade and served with a lemon wedge and ice - extremely refreshing as I came to know and was my favourite drink through the trip. Here in Granada every drink is served with a tapas at no extra cost. Extra tapas may be ordered for an additional 1.50-2 Euro. At all other places in Andalusia I had to buy even the first tapas. Debra had said this is how it works in Granada and had also asked me to avoid the tapas bars by the river, they are quite mean with the first tapas, serving only a couple of olives and making the tourists buy the tapas. She went on to explain that the word tapas comes from the small plates that were used to cover a drink to keep away the flies in summer. A small amount of food was put on these plates to accompany the drink and hence the tradition of tapas. A very nice tradition I should say. I got to taste a variety of food and it did not cost me more than 6 Euros in Granada for a lunch or dinner.
After lunch I walked around to watch the gypsies singing at the Plaza Nueva and a passionate flamenco performance.
With the music still playing in my head and a strong will to not tap my feet I started to walk by the river Darro, the Alhambra towering above.
The path would take me to the old Moorish quarters of Albazyn with its cobbled stoned streets and white buildings. Every house has its own courtyard with jasmine trees. The houses are built on the hilly terrain with winding roads and stairs connecting the paths. The air was heavy with the smell of jasmine and I was surrounded by the chirping of the birds. A beautiful place indeed but I was asked to be careful with my camera in these parts of the town, though nothing was obviously alarming around there. It is better to stay away from these parts after dark as well Debra had warned. However, at that time of the day, it was a charming place to be in. There were tourists and locals, children playing in the courtyards, people were having their lunch in the plazas under the white umbrellas while the gypsies played their music around.
I stopped at Mirador de San Nicolas which gives a majestic view of the Alhambra and the surrounding. It is possible to go up the bell tower of the San Nicolas church for 2 Euros, but the gates were closed and no information on when they would open.
I spent a while listening to the gypsies singing and taking in the view and surroundings before walking back to the centre which passed through another shopping area for the tourists.
I had to plan my travel to Seville next day so went over to the train station to get my tickets. The only train in the afternoon was at 5:40 pm and would take 3 hours. I got my tickets and returned to my hostel. It was already about 7pm and I had to get ready for the night trip to the Alhambra. Freddie suggested to go to Om Kalsoum for my food. It was a local favourite and being for non-tourists opened only at 8pm. He suggested trying the Mosto which is non fermented grape juice. He also asked me how much Spanish I knew so made up a few phrases in Spanish to take me through, first say "Hola" then "Un Mosto por favor" and when they bring in say "Gracias" nicely and if you want extra tapas, say 'Tapas extra por favor" and they will think you are Spanish! Well, it didn't work out that way because for ordering food I needed a little more than that. It was another challenging exercise, however the owner was a very pleasant man and despite our language barrier figured out that I wanted him to suggest which is the best and I had one of the nicest meals in Spain.
I was a bit worried about the night trip to Alhambra, especially the return, but was told it should not be a problem as there would be other people around as well. That's where I found my solace, for now.
I walked the uphill path to the Nasrid palace entrance, quite a tedious task after my fulfilling dining but even by taking it slow I was there by 9:15pm.
There were a few more people around and we waited. At about 10pm a sudden flurry of activities started and I found myself standing at the end of a very long queue. It took me about 30 minutes to enter the palaces. And very soon it hit me why this place vies to be on the list of seven wonders of the world.

Definitely there is a lot of material about this amazing piece of architecture available on the internet and books and sites dedicated to the Alhambra. To the layman's eyes, it is a beauty that has to be seen to fathom. Every inch of the palaces were covered in intricate plaster work, the walls, the beams and with equisitely carved wooden ceilings. Though these are all restored work with the originals dating back to the 11th and 12th century AD. It was quite evident that these palaces were a stronghold of the Moorish empire and they had used the terrain to carve out the place. It was only next morning that I would get to see the Garden of Paradise - the Generalife, but the intensity of the place was already seeping into me. Water was the main theme all around. There were fountains in the courtyards and inside the palaces. The intricate architecture worked magic with the reflections - it was indeed a magical place and more so at night. Soon, it began to rain.
Some photographs selected from the night, I took numerous ones
By the time I exited the palaces, it was close to midnight. I had hoped to join my fellow tourists on the way back but for some reason, everyone was waiting for the taxis or bus and there weren't any in sight. Fortunately a couple decided to walk and I started to follow them. The path was dimly lit by street lamps but there were dense trees on both sides and the whole area was quiet and deserted. Even a rustle in the bushes sent a chill down the spine. Moreover, since it was raining it would have been a stupid idea to come back on my own, I realised. Maybe I was following the couple too closely and with my hood up against the rain I had made them apprehensive. They started to give me suspicious glances and so I put down my hoodie and gave them a smile and tried to convey that I needed company. I think they understood because once we came within the city limits they waved at me and we said our goodnights "Buenas Noches". It was well past midnight when I went to bed. Apart from Scarlet and me, the third bed on my lower bunk was occupied. Came to know next morning that she was Belgian and was visiting Andalusia over the holy week of Easter and was going over to Barcelona the next day. When she was not gardening for her daughter, she was out travelling. I asked her if she travelled on her own and she asked me back "But don't you too?" I loved her spirit, especially at her age, she would be in her late 50s or early 60s.

My alarm did not go off or I must have slept through it. It was about 9am when I found myself sitting at a cafe in Plaza Trinidad waiting for my order of ham, cheese and tomato toast and a black coffee. I did not yet know I was going to get a visual shock. As the girl got my order it dawned on me why they had ham and then cooked ham on the menu and also a half toast and a full toast.
Fortunately it tasted much better than it looked. The ham was cured and I liked it as long as I was not looking at it. The full toast would keep me satisfied till I had the chance of my next break, I hoped.
The night tickets allowed access to the Generalife and the rest of the Alhambra for the next day and so that was my destination. I walked up to the Nasrid Palace entrance. It was a completely different story from the night before. It was extremely busy and looked like a school excursion was on going. The Sierra Nevada was glistening in the sun as I took in the views from the Alcazaba.
Some photographs from the day visit
It was almost 1:30pm when I started to walk back towards the city centre. The plan was to get some food and then visit the cathedral before going back to the hostel. Freddie had mentioned it is possible to go to the roof of the hostel and I was looking forward to it. As I walked past the cathedral, realised it was closed between 1:30pm and 4:00pm. I had to leave for the train station by 5pm so was not even sure if I could see it but thought would give it a try. I had started to realise that a lot of places remain closed for long hours in Spain and it requires a bit of planning beforehand to make a seamless visit.

I decided to try the Churros y Chocolate today at the Plaza de Bib-Rambla. This was high on Debra's list of must eats. Fried stuff and Chocolate, where can it go wrong and I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed as the flavour did not quite hit me the way I hoped. Soon I was so full that I had to leave my food unfinished and even my chocolate cup half full. I was not sure if it wasn't made right or if it wasn't to my taste. However, they filled me up enough to not need any further food for a while.
I walked around the historic town and then decided to put my feet up on one of the benches on Plaza Trinidad waiting for 4pm in the balmy sun. I had decided that I did not want to miss the cathedral.

The gates were to open at 4pm and a queue was already in place when I reached. It was just about 4:30pm when I managed to get through the gates and immediately thanked myself for deciding to come in.
The cathedral was beautiful. After an overdose of Moorish art and architecture since last night, the Renaissance art felt very refreshing. I am not a connoisseur, but the difference was pretty obvious. I literally ran through the cathedral covering as much as I could in 15mins, barely spending more than a few minutes anywhere at all till I made a full circle and found myself back at the entrance. This was not the exit and I asked the staff operating the gates for the "Salida". It was at the other end and I started to run.

Where the exit took me out added a few more minutes to my way back to the hostel. I raced back and it was close to 5pm when I rang the bell to the reception. I had checked-out in the morning and did not have my keys any more. There was a new girl at the reception and she assured me I had enough time to get to the station but should start immediately. I had planned to repack before I left but did not have time so just filled up my water bottle, said my farewell to Debra and Freddie and started for the train station. It was a 10 minutes walk from the hostel and fortunately took me no more than that. I wait with a view of the snow capped mountains was short as the train soon rolled in. I was off to my next destination in my Andalusia trip - Seville.

It can be difficult to go around with the general tourist map if someone wants to venture around as it does not show all the streets properly and a lot of guesswork will be required. An official street map, much more detailed, is available for free at the tourist office.

The entry time on the Alhambra tickets are for entry to the Nasrid palaces only. The rest of the place does not have any time restriction and can be entered at any time with a valid ticket for the day. I had purchased my tickets to Alhambra 2 months in advance and the only slots available were the 10pm and the 10:30pm ones. It is possible to purchase tickets on arrival as well however the entry slot for the Nasrid palaces may not be available depending on demand. When I went to collect my tickets found the only slots left were the night ones and then 8:30am the next day.

Though the Nasrid palaces are advertised to be best viewed at night and indeed they do look magical, however the place is not illuminated enough to see the intricate artwork properly. A day visit is preferable.

Temperature in Granada is slightly lower than the rest of Andalusia and especially at the nights and more so if it rains as I had experienced. Carrying a summer jacket is always helpful.

The train to Seville takes 3 hrs from Granada and costs 30 Euros. Though I was under the impression that the bus takes longer, I came to know that it takes almost the same time as the train and is much cheaper around 23 Euros. However, it was too late by the time I knew that, the tickets were already purchased.

For the rest of the trip and other stories, follow on Facebook Breaking out Solo