March 2022 – destination no. 2
Granada has been on my bucket list since 2019, when I visited Andalusia for the first time but missed out on tickets to the Alhambra. This time around, we pick up where we left off in my previous post, having caught a bus from Malaga to Granada. I spent three nights in this city and I’d happily give it another visit if I have the time and money for a relaxed weekend getaway. Before revealing everything I did in the city, I think it would be appropriate to bore you with some background info (several centuries’ worth, to be exact), as it make it easier to understand just why the historic sites are so…historic.
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A very very very brief but hopefully mostly accurate history of Spain
After a chaotic and disorganised Visigothic period, the Iberian peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal) was captured by Muslims in the early 8th century, when it was named Al-Andalus. At this time the kingdom was hugely powerful and the city of Cordoba acted as provincial capital. Over more than 100 years, Christians challenged this rule, with Cordoba falling to Ferdinand III 1236. The final city under Muslim rule, Granada, was taken by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella after months of seige in 1492. These also happen to be the pair responsible for funding Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the West Indies and as a result the three characters pop up frequently in Andalusian history. At this time and continuing afterwards, various other expeditions set sail to the Americas, including that of Hernan Cortes, who was responsible for the fall of the Spanish Empire, and Francisco Pizarro, who was instrumental in the Spanish conquest of Peru.
As a result, despite the region being a relatively inexpensive destination nowadays, it’s possible to see remnants of former grandeur all over what was once one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world. In most historical places Roman foundations can be seen, extending to pillars and walls, alongside decadent Arabic architecture which left not one inch of surface unadorned with detailed inscriptions. After the Christian conquest, a lot of these buildings weren’t destroyed as one might expect, rather, they were adapted into Christian buildings, by extending them, or building Catholic naves inside mosques, for example. All of this comes together to create a wild mix of styles throughout the cities across the south of Spain.
Accommodation & getting around Granada
We were (mostly) incredibly lucky with our hotels on this trip, Granada included (althouth we did deliberate for an incredibly long time, so maybe it wasn’t luck). We were slightly concerned about being isolated from the city itself, which is in the valley below, but assumed there would be an easy way down since the Alhambra was such a popular attraction. And worst case scenario, the walk didn’t seem too horrible?
We stayed at Porcel Axilares (hotel website, for the Booking.com affiliate link click here) – clearly a popular choice as the taxi driver knew exactly where I meant before I even got the words out. It was a lavishly furnished hotel, with friendly staff on reception 24/7, a good buffet breakfast and a restaurant/bar that I can’t comment on as we didn’t end up using it. The pool, also, didn’t feature in our trip, which was a shame as it is a defining feature of most of the hotel photos online. But, we knew from the booking process that there was a chance it wouldn’t be open, and although it was a shame to see the terrace empty, it didn’t take away from the lovely views from our hotel window. We were quite literally a five minute walk along the road from the Alhambra, which couldn’t have been more perfect, and we were right about transport: a several buses run from the Alhambra to the city, and there are restaurants along the street as well. The hotel was so cheap (~£35 pp per night) and conveniently placed that I had absolutely no issue being out of the city itself. The only downside I can find is that it was particularly quiet – almost isolated – on an evening, but that barely registered with me at the time. I only noticed when we moved to our next destination and the contrast struck me.
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The flagship attraction, the Alhambra, whose name means “red one” or “red fortress” depending on where you read, is a Nasrid fortress built in 1238 and altered through the years. The main attractions are the Alcazar, which served as the old fortress, the beautiful Generalife gardens, and the Nasrid Palaces, but it’s clear to see that the Alhambra was once a city in itself. There are buildings that were once residences, roads, gardens, palaces and Hammam public baths. I completely underestimated the scale of the site, assuming that we’d find the fortress, the Nasrid Palaces and the gardens dotted around, not expecting them to be enclosed within the old city walls and for the other buildings to have been converted into hotels, convents and shops.
It’s notoriously difficult to get tickets to the Alhambra, and indeed as I mentioned, I missed out the first time I visited Andalusia. But this time around, either due to the different season, or covid, or both, it was much easier than anticipated to find tickets and (very cheap) accommodation. A day visit, which included the whole site and the gardens, cost only around £15 – so cheap I was almost certain I was mistaken. You can take all day if you want, to visit the site at your leisure. As long as you enter the Nasrid palaces at your allotted time slot, the rest of the day is yours to plan. The ticket barriers were somewhat confusing as there are several control points, so even if you think you’ve arrived in plenty of time, be aware that it may take some minutes to get through the control points, and then another 10-15 minutes to walk all the way through the site. We were reminded several times that our entrance time to the palacio was 10:30, and it was written on our tickets, so like a dilligent traveller I rushed us through the old city to make sure we arrived on time to…the fortress.
I rushed us through the Alhambra, to the Alcazar. Which is not a palace, in English, Spanish, OR Arabic.
I was furious with myself.
Luckily, my travel companion (I have been with my boyfriend on these recent trips, not just using the royal we/referencing other personalities) is always very patient with me and, after letting me beat myself up for a while he ushered me back to the tourist info centre we’d spotted, where the lovely gentleman there helped us buy tickets for the night visit, for only 8 euros. I’m sure we heard him speak at least four languages while we were in there, and not once did his enthusiasm wane.
So, after a stop for coffee from a vending machine, we continued our visit. Even the vending machine coffee was delicious, apart from our first attempt which seemed 50/50 coffee and sugar – how were we supposed to know the vending machine would add it by default?
But, before we reached the palaces and discovered my blunder, we’d been happily exploring the Alcazar – the fortress/citadel, which would have housed the soldiers in its heyday. It was like the Malaga Alcazaba on steroids. There are three towers, the foundations of walls of living quarters, and evidence of underground dungeons. At the top of the highest tower, there is a bell and a monument to the date on which Granada fell to the Catholic reconquest. The towers offered incredible views across the mountains, including another city wall which continues up the other side of the valley.
There is a museum, with archeological artifacts and the occasional original door or pillar from various places. One small house is being turned into something of an exhibition, with information about the more recent residents, as the Alhambra is known for various artists, musicians and writers that stayed there. The Generalife gardens are stunning, although by that time we’d had too much coffee and not enough food and my memory of them looks like when the characters in the Hunger Games get stung by tracker jackers: hazy, and a bit too colourful. Luckily, we managed to escape across the street from the main entrance and into a busy but delicious restaurant to recover.
There was a wedding happening in the Church of Santa Maria, so we couldn’t go in, but I don’t doubt that it is beautiful. Unsurprisingly, it’s built on the remains of the Mosque that stood before it, because Andalusia.
The night visit to the Palaces
The Nasrid palaces, first built in – you guessed it – the Nasrid period and altered after – you guessed it – the Christian reconquest, are absolutely stunning. I tend to be fascinated by the mix of architecture as the time periods layer on top of one another, resulting in rooms like the Sala del Mexuar which has been converted into a chapel. Throughout the huge complex, the walls are covered in insanely intricate carvings, sometimes so detailed that it takes a while to pick out arabic inscriptions from among twisting vines and flowers. In some places you can see where the details used to be highlighted by blue or red paint, but the walls look just as stunning in white. You could get dizzy staring up at ceilings carved to look like the crystalline walls of caves, or gazing at the geometric patterns that adorn every room.
It was a cool and tranquil night when we visited, and despite being part of a really big group, the palaces still seemed still and quiet, almost as if everyone was hushed. What blows my mind is that one of the largest of the palaces, Palacio de los Abencerrajes, was blown up by Napoleon’s troops and the remains have “yet to be fully investigated”, according to Wikipedia. I can’t believe how much is hiding in this country. We started to joke that they’re actually sick of digging up Roman/Arabic remains by now and having to pretend to care about it. I’m fairly certain this isn’t the case given the conservation efforts going on, but once you’ve seen half a dozen semi-excavated Roman temples, you do start to chuckle.
Elsewhere in Granada
Early on in the trip we came across Captain Candy sweet shop and paid far too much money to stock up on tons of marshmallow and gummy sweets. Worth it though. We also found a delicious handmade cookie shop, Galletanas, and splashed out here too, buying chocolate, caramel, peanut butter cookies and a gorgeous lemon and pistachio one, which I wouldn’t have tried had another traveller not recommended it.
This shop was on Carrera del Daro, a lovely picturesque walk along the tiny narrow street next to the Daro river, overlooked by none other than the Alhambra. We managed to spot the exact same place from where we’d looked out onto the city the night before in the palaces. There was even a small artisan market happening, with various makers of ceramics, jewellery and paintings. Around this area was the historic centre of the Jewish quarter. By all accounts, Jewish people flourished in Granada under Nasrid rule, and there were many streets where the craftsmen such as leather tanners had workshops. If you look carefully, you might spot the occasional door with the Star of David, which I also saw in Cordoba. And, according to this website, many names have Jewish origins, not to mention the aubergine dishes that embellish Spanish cuisine.
Sadly, the Alhambra Decree of 1492 banished all Jews from the kingdom, and around 20,000 homes were demolished to build a new Cathedral and hospital. The periods of harmonious covivencia (multiple groups living together) in history contrast so starkly with all the religious and territorial laws. The way the Catholic monarchs left some old buildings to ruin or destroyed them, while others were conserved or adapted to Christian use, just blows my mind (visually, the best example, in my opinion, is the Mezquita in Cordoba – but that’s for another post).
We took a walk higher up too, to view the Alhambra from the San Nicolas viewpoint on the other side of the valley. Some part of me almost finds it more impressive to view from a distance than to be inside? Perhaps because I’ve seen so many pictures of the iconic view, and couldn’t quite believe I was seeing it up close. The rest of the city is also well worth exploring, as it has a very quaint vibe and lots to see. It was very pleasant to wander around in search of a restaurant or cafe, and there are lots of upmarket shops. Photos of the Cathedral look stunning, but we didn’t visit as we felt that there would be no shortage of churches to visit on our trip!
Fast food and local delights
I won’t deny that arriving to our hotel first involved a stop for Burger King – which I’m convinced is extortionately expensive in Spain, along with McDonalds. But, sometimes your stomach demands that you get something fast, and there was one right next to the station, so we grabbed one before finding a cab. On our first night we had tapas in the city, to go with the lovely Alhambra beer which is very popular through all the cities we visited. That was the first time we tried shrimp pancake, which was absolutely delicious and we’ve since receated ourselves. A simple google search throws out numerous easy recipes.
After stumbling out of the Generalife gardens, I devoured a huge plato alpujareño, which is essentially a plate of pork meat, various local sausages, hams, patatas a la pobre, and maybe an egg and some peppers. I’ve had something similar as a tapa and loved it, but never knew it was from the Alpujarra region, which spreads over Granada. That night, after leaving the palaces at around 9:30, we grabbed two pizzas from a nearby bar/restaurant and took them back to our room, as we were exhausted. And what’s better than pizza in front of some Spanish soap operahs?
During our walk by the river the next day, we stopped for a drink in the sun on what was probably our hottest day, lured in by the promise of a free tapa. We assumed it wouldn’t be that good and the drink would be expensive, and we werent that hungry anyway, but it was just exciting to be served tapas the traditional way. The one they brought out was a mix of breadcrumbs and olive oil, seasoned perfectly, and some chorizo. It’s clearly an affordable one to make (maybe if we’d ordered beer instead of soft drinks they’d have given us a paella), but very filling since it’s just a lot of bread. And it tasted really good! On our final night, I rather messed us up in search of a seafood and veg dish – I rarely mind where we eat, so why I was so picky this night I’ll never know. We walked in circles around the city, past the weekend crowds and packed bars, and eventually settled on a kebab shop. For the salad, of course.
Some Granada quirks
In Granada there are a lot of of pomegranates, everywhere. Drawn on plantpots and cast on drain covers, street signs, even at the top of fountains and sold as ceramics in gift shops. After a few days we even noticed that the mosaic paving slabs we’d been walking over were pomegranates. – supposedly the city is named after them when they were used as a symbol of the Christian victory there. It became a fun game to try and spot them all. We saw about ten on one street corner.
Throughout the trip, we saw various shops selling merchandise and preparations for the Semana Santa celebrations – Holy Week, which takes place just a week after we were there and consists of dozens of parades of pasos carrying huge efigies of the Virgin Mary, carried on the shoulders of several rows of people. I couldn’t believe I’d completely forgotten about it when we booked, and it was such a shame that we missed out by just over a week. The shops were crammed full, we saw people walking through the streets with capirotes, the hoods worn to symbolise grief and repentance, and even witnessed a rehearsal in Granada. Towards the end of the week, streets started to fill up with metal stands and barriers marking the route of the procession.
Have you ever visited Granada, or would you like to? Let me know!