Granada (Mar 31 – Apr 2)

It was a long and hot train journey to Granada. The sun was out and the train aircon was a bit on the tragic side. We travelled through quite barren countyside consisting of many miles of orange and olive trees that looked like they saw little water.

We arrived at about 7pm with it still hot and sticky outside and headed to our hotel, which was a small apartment block with a spa in the basement. We had lots of space in our apartment, including a kitchen and living room as well as bedroom and bathroom. A definite change from some of the smaller hotel rooms typical in the big cities.

After dropping our bags we popped into a local supermarket. We often like to do this in the cities we visit. Not only is it cheaper for drinks like big bottles of coke, but it also gives some local flavour – it’s interesting to see the different ranges of produce and we are usually impressed by the amount of fresh and local food on offer, and in this case an especially vast seafood counter. We took the opportunity to buy some local bread, ham and cheese which Greg later turned into sandwiches for our lunch the next day.

We then headed to a local delicatessen, La Oliva, where Greg had arranged a special meal as a treat that proved to be rather different and very interesting. The proprietor Francisco used to run a restaurant, but now runs a shop with a sideline in intimate tasting meals on some evenings. So the shop was set up with 5 tables, with about 20 guests in total. Everything started at 8:30pm and for the next few hours we were treated to several tasting courses of fine food including wonderful meats and cheeses, fish, olives and olive oil, almonds, soups, pates and more, along with paired wines.  The entire experience was accompanied by Francisco sharing information about what we were eating, as well as anecdotes of his history and background and that of the local region. After a while conversation was flowing freely within the whole room, including between tables and by the end of the evening it was as if we’d made a few new friends, albeit rather fleetingly.

The next day started with a visit to the spa in the basement of our building. Greg had booked it for an hour as a private session, which meant that we had it to ourselves for that time. It wasn’t huge, but it was well maintained and had a sauna, steam room and small pool. We enjoyed having the place as our private spa for the period, finishing refreshed and ready to face the day.

Our primary target for the day was the Alhambra, a vast site of huge historical interest overlooking the city. We decided to walk there, so that we could explore Granada on the way. As you approach the Alhambra you travel down some ancient streets and on the primary approach, Carrera del Doro, we stopped to investigate the site of an ancient bathhouse, El Bañuelo, in a Moorish/Roman style. On the way I spotted some girls selling Segway tours, and couldn’t resist a quick trial – great fun!

On the way we had an interesting experience buying some ‘nun biscuits’ at Monasterio de San Bernado. These were a selection of biscuits suitable for tea, sold by the sisters of a closed convent. To purchase them you had to use an intercom to place your order, and then put your payment into a revolving mechanism. Someone on the other side would then operate the mechanism, so that your money disappeared and in it’s place a packet of biscuits would appear (followed by any change)! This somewhat unusual process allowed the convent to raise some funds via the sale of their goods without breaking their vows to stay cut off from the outside world. We rather enjoyed the novelty of the experience,and the biscuits turned out to be quite nice too!

From here we began the ascent to the Alhambra itself, walking up a path which took you up to the headland. The latter part of the path travels by the side of a stream and some beautiful plant life covered each walled side of the path. The Alhambra is a major tourist destination, which had already sold out of visit slots for the day. Happily Greg had, as ever, planned well in advance and we already had tickets thanks to the Internet. So we ate our sandwiches and soon our entry time beckoned. Inside I could see why it was so popular. The site was originally an old fortress in 889, but over time the site had been expanded by subsequent rulers. It was apparently rebuilt in the mid-11th century by the Moorish king Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Kingdom of Granada and was later converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada.

There were still the ruins of the old fortress, the Alcazaba, to visit, as well as three principal Nasrid Islamic palaces, built for the last Muslim Emirs in Spain and subsequently the court of the Nasrid dynasty. After the Reconquista de los Reyes Católicos (reconquest of the Catholic Kings) the christian rulers used parts of the complex before Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor in 1527 built the Palace of Charles V within the Nasrid fortifications.  Now a museum, on the outside it looks like a very conventional regal country estate, but has an amazing huge circular courtyard in the middle.  After this period it fell into disrepair for centuries before being rediscovered in the 19th century by European travellers and a period of restoration commenced (though some of the initial work was pretty ropey).

The main Nasrid Palace complex was very impressive and is actually three interlinked palaces, the Mexuar, the Comares and the Lion. Each is slightly different and of different periods, all built in the traditional style around an open courtyard. They had amazing decorative features and wonderful geometric shapes in their interiors, a direct contrast to their austere exteriors. There is excellent use of water, to help keep cool during the very warm summer and the tile work and carving is truly magnificent.

The Alhambra at its peak not only contained the fortress and palaces, but an entire town of buildings, including homes, shops, baths and a selection of minor palaces and towers.  These buildings, of which in most cases little more than ruins or excavations remain, were interspersed with small gardens and courtyards much of which can still be wandered through.

My personal favourite was the especially impressive Generalife, which was a totally fantastic tiered garden overlooking the main headland. It was the “summer” palace of the Emirs, just a few hundred yards away from the main Alhambra complex.  It has some interesting features, such as the flowerbed lined dancing fountains in the Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel or Water-Garden Courtyard) which made enough noise to allow nobles to have private conversations.  Beautiful open rooms, of a much simpler design than the main Alhambra, gave spectacular views over Granada.  There was also a delightful shady staircase up to what was once the chapel with bannisters that were actually water channels allowing water to evaporate keeping the atmosphere cool.  Overall the Generalife was quite breathtaking and really rather splendid.

The whole Alhambra site was a very enjoyable one to wander around, as the main gardens were also impressive and very well kept. It was a remarkable creation – apparently the architectural theme followed by most of the rulers who extended the site was that of “paradise on earth”!

For the geeks amongst us, the Alhambra is also a mathematical paradise.  The Alhambra tiles are remarkable in that they contain nearly all, if not all, of the seventeen mathematically possible wallpaper groups, a unique accomplishment in world architecture. It was this mathematical symmetry that inspired MC Escher work following his 1922 visit.  It is not just the tiles that show mathematical complexity – ceilings show the same, including one stunning three dimensionally textured complex carved one that was reminiscent of fractal patterning.

On our way back to the city centre we passed by another, much smaller, garden that sounded interesting but was unfortunately shut. So we headed to Calle Navas, a street known for it’s restaurants, for some dinner. We picked one somewhat at random and enjoyed a rather nice meal, which came quickly and included huge baked potatoes and lots of excellent prawns. We couldn’t stay for dessert as we had to head to a show we had booked – a Flamenco demonstration. There was a small audience for this show at Casa del Arte Falmenco, which consisted of three live performers. The guitarist was excellent – very impressive, as was the woman dancer – very sharp and fierce. The guy, however, was rather mediocre and to be honest less masculine than the lady! We suspect the guitar player agreed, as at one point we would have sworn he was pretty much laughing at the guy! All in all it was a fun show, from a city which has a rich history of traditional flamenco dancing.

Our final day was a wet one. Very wet. This didn’t make me happy, as I discovered that I had managed to leave my rain jacket at the hotel in Seville! Greg had originally booked a Segway tour that day with Tour On Segway, but was told it was cancelled due to the weather. So we headed to where we’d seen Segways the day before, which was another company (Play Granada). Sure enough the girls were out again, and we chatted about the chance of a tour that day. In the end we booked with them, after agreeing a 20% discount for the weather, before relaxing and drying off in the comfortable lounge area whilst we waited for the start time. They loaned us helmets and waterproof ponchos and we it turned out that we were the only souls brave enough to face the elements, making it our own private tour! So for two hours we navigated our Segways up and down the steep streets of Granada enjoying a very interesting tour of the old town and some of the notable sites. Although the rain continued to be somewhat torrential for the first hour it then stopped, so we enjoyed the second half of the tour in sunshine which really lit up the city.

Shortly after we finished on the Segways we had to catch the airport bus, which took us to the flight to our next destination of… Barcelona!
(but not before I broke the suitcase open prior to baggage check, in order to liberate a pair of dry socks!)


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