Granada was a huge surprise to say the least. Our week in Granada was supposed to be for restful purposes and to spend time in a city just ... being, and certainly not to be runaround touristy, but arriving on a Friday evening meant that we hit the ground running. The weekenders were here, and the day trippers were here and the locals were here, gearing up for the weekend break as well. It was all very buzzy indeed. We were staying in an incredible terraced apartment with panoramic views looking straight up at the Alhambra Palace and straight down the valley towards Sacromonte, and it was sublime. The penthouse was situated just off the bustling Plaza Nueva, seemingly a short walk to everywhere, and we couldn't have asked for more - We'd only been here 5 minutes and were already smitten.
Once unpacked and torn away from the view, the natural inclination is to climb up to the Albaicín, to walk the cobbled streets, to find atmospheric bars in which to relax, take in the scenery, watch the all the comings and goings, and to appreciate the ever-changing light. Most make their way up St.Nicholas but for those with a view at home, it's a clamour worth avoiding, as (cramped) tourists and the sheer volume of fun loving teens, makes it a bit too lively to truly enjoy... unless you've had a few ... maybe.
There are plenty of restaurants up there though, especially away from the main tourist trap square, varying in price from incredibly reasonable to mouth and eye-wateringly expensive..... Usually dependent on the view rather than for any culinary reasons. It's hard to not drink the local Tinto de Verano or Sangria here, likewise chilled dry sherry or local wines, so why fight it? As you know, to not drink the local brews is a travesty in my book. These drinks exist here for a reason and they are drunk at certain times of the day for a reason too, and they fit. You have plenty of occasion to imbibe in your favourable tipple when you're at home, so please give them a try. Putting Sprite in red wine will probably never happen in the Old School Traveller household so if it's going to happen, it happens here, and very refreshing it is too. A crisp glass of dry Manzanilla goes so well with the tapas; the Iberico and Serrano hams particularly, that I'm never going to miss out on this divine combination, so I usually order a beer for thirst, to drink quickly, and a sherry for the food, before moving on to Rioja as the food becomes darker and richer.
As the tapas is usually 'complimentary' in Granada, each prepared course becoming more extravagant and delicious as each drink is ordered and quaffed, drinking at least semi heavily is hard to avoid..... especially if you're on a budget. Granada must be the backpackers ultimate destination - fed and watered for under £1 or $2. There are plenty of backpackers around, especially in and around the Plaza Nueva but the tourist mix is as diverse as anywhere I've been. That goes for nationalities too, although the further you get to the coast, the more British it gets. There are several very touristy areas around Granada because of this, especially under the gaze of the much vaunted Alhambra.
The almost unbearable stretch of the via Carrera del Darro with its plastic chairs, tourist menus, inflated prices, surly service and utter fakery maybe among the worst but it isn't far from here that you might stumble across the wonderful Ras Cafe/Restaurant. Save yourself the walk, as the hills towards the Albaicín and Sacromonte can be calf-straining to say the least, and just pop in here for a drink, tapa, or meal.
An almost hidden little gem of a restaurant bar that seems to be often overlooked by the peaking passers-by, who seem to settle for the tacky hogwash further up the strip, for some strange reason. This little place, serviced by just two staff, provides the lucky clientele with beautifully wholesome and simple food, cooked freshly and divinely along with a friendly level of service that's hard to match. "It's where the locals go" is one of those mythical phrases that I long to hear when travelling and we heard this a lot about Ras everywhere we went. The tapas was great too and we found ourselves here a lot. The atmosphere is cozy and informal and there is that air of joy amongst its diners that they've found the place in which they can relax. I had despaired at the site of a long line of tourist cafes under the shadow of the Alhambra. They are pretty tragic and a tin tourist 'street train' clatters past every now and again and I was beginning to think that we were doomed. We've all been there - The pressure of finding somewhere memorable to eat and the thought of possible failure, until that is, we found Ras. The interior is rustic Andalusian brick, ceramics and local paintings line the walls, and dozens of hams hang from the ceiling like a defeated catch of the day. The menu is vague and plastic. Flamenco is blaring loudly from the stereo and only one table out of 18 is taken and it's nearly 9. Still early but worrying nevertheless. We order beers and tinto de verano to quench our thirsts then some Rioja to drink with our food. I order pork loin and the girls order 5 tapas. Already some Tapas con Casa has arrived with our first drinks and my mood, initially begrudging, changes signicantly.
The house tapas is good. The waiter, Fernando, is initially characterless and benign but becomes friendly and warm as the evening develops. The food is excellent. Truly excellent. The pan fried pork I slice with my fork, and the chips are very good - a simple dish, yes, but hearty and totally satisfying. The olives are wonderful, the anchovies fresh, served with white vinegar and olive oil, the potato tortilla is soft, moist and yielding, the roast peppers smoky, rich and fragrant. The cured cheese is doused in yet more olive oil and the oregano is also subtle and delightful, and finally the Jamon croquetas are by far the best we've had on this trip and in a completely different league to the ones tasted in Seville. 4 Italians join us at an adjacent table, as many other less deserving tourists pop their heads in to take photographs of the hams and leave again. Eventually, after another glass of excellent Rioja, the girls leave to visit the shop next door, leaving me to sip a Manzanilla and to take it all in, only to return moments later with a very pretty shopkeeper all laughing and smiles. She wishes to reintroduce Kati and Ines to the Ras staff. “This place is the best” she says. We now already know this place is the best for ourselves but it was good hearing it from a local business owner. So, not only was the food and wine exceptional, it was my saviour…. Our saviour actually.
I'm pretty sure I haven't enjoyed a shish kebab as much anywhere, and the simply cooked pork and lamb was just delicious. No Michelin Stars here, just good wholesome food, lovingly prepared and fresh. The chef is a proud man and has been here 20 years. He knows his stuff and Fernando behind the bar will really look after you, and it doesn't take long before you start contemplating coming here for every meal and just working your way through the menu. We had struck gold again.
There is also a very contented multiculturalism about Granada. The Moroccan influence was much spoken of before we arrived and it's here, most definitely. Streets lined with North African inspired restaurant and tea houses abound but it wasn't until much later that we found out that these are a recent thing, and pretty much part of chain commercialism. The kebab houses are pretty much low end and the tea houses much of a muchness. It's bringing a new dynamic to the city, jumping on the Moorish bandwagon that the Alhambra promotes but I must admit, that the 'being in two places at once' theme worked quite well for me, no matter how fake it all might be.
The Alhambra itself is a must visit. To come here and to not go would be just plain silly. To go and not take a hat would be even sillier.
There are only a finite number of visitors allowed per day and it pays to book well in advance - months in advance if you're here in the height of summer, and then if you are, it pays to go first thing in the morning or late in the day. The mid afternoon heat might be too much for most, especially if you intend to walk the Generalife Gardens or climb the watchtower, ferociously open and exposed. There are quite a few steps up but certainly not too many for most to at least attempt. The views to the Sierra Nevada and across the Andalucian rooftops are spectacular.
It is worth pointing out that there is a small hotel bar which acts as a welcome break for a quick San Miguel or Vimto near the main entrance. Set in a lovely little Spanish courtyard in the Hotel America, but that's our little secret or there will be no room at the Inn when we need one on future visits. I love the unexpected and the refreshing and
what an oasis it is, on a scorching hot day atop this scorched hill. There's not much space to be had, although food is available, I'm not sure why I'd be eating up here to be honest. It is ideal for a quick beer but filling your face with fabada would only serve to block other needy and thirsty guests from being able to imbibe and refresh themselves. When up a hot hill, we're all in it together, after all.
Generalife Gardens are vast and incredibly hot. There isn't much cover or shade to be found, despite all the apparent greenery, and with this in mind, I would do them first, but allow plenty of time to get to your allotted entrance time at the Alhambra. Many people have misjudged the walk back and missed their slot.... The day is broken into allotted entrance times which you choose at the time of booking. Running around with only a crumpled map and a discharged smartphone for protection isn't going to enhance your pleasure when finally inside the Moorish Palace that's for sure.... Lessish in fact.... Much, much lessish.
The Palace is stunning and it's well worth holding back your pace upon entering. If you've queued to get in, the scrum of selfie sticks, selfies and folks more interested in documenting themselves rather than their surroundings, might impinge on your initial enjoyment, but as soon as the rabble has dispersed, you can find your peace and sanctuary much more readily. It's a strange notion that so many tourists simply wish it to be known that they've been somewhere rather than actually seeing the place they're visiting, but such is the modern world I suppose. The 'narcissistick' is banned in here and not before time, but it doesn't seem to stop many from drawing them from their cheap plastic scabbards.
4 hours up here flies by, so there should be no problem with killing time, but agin, the heat can make you wearisome. There are many buses up, but seeing a little rank of taxis to issue you back down the hill is a welcome sight after the sun and steps have taken their toll. Walking down would be great but only if the temperatures are low. You'll generally be pretty hot and tired and will still have a big evening ahead of you, so taking the easy option of a cab can easily be forgiven.
The city boasts many wonderful plazas, markets, shop-lined alleys and awning covered streets through which to wander, and with a myriad of dining options, you will never starve or go thirsty for that matter. Bars aplenty, providing delicious tapas (have I mentioned the tapas), mean that lunch can often be a liquid decision with complimentary benefits, and it can take awhile to understand that here, lunch is deciding what and how much to drink and letting the wait staff decide what you eat. Here more than anywhere, it pays to be kind to your hosts. The tapas get better and more varied the more you pile on the charm and turn up the thermostat. It also gets better as the city quietens into its midweek regimen rather than the frenzy of day trip Saturdays etc.
With a large student population, there is a constant buzz around and even when the town loses its weekenders, there is still enough going on for Granada to still feel atmospheric and alive. Although, with the crowds gone, Granada does transform itself into a much more attractive and gentle proposition for folks like me. I'm never one for the cramped zombielike shuffle down cobblestoned alleyways with no space to breath and no room to gesticulate wildly, with flailing arms and pointing fingers, as is my wont.
If you like a quieter life, Monday to Thursday is very much your timeframe. Plaza Nueva for example, turns from a trinket laden and dirty tourist square into a place of calm and grand beauty. Bakeries and coffee or tea houses abound and the air of drunken discord disappears. Quite frankly, with drink and food prices this low, I don't know why it isn't even busier, bustlier and bustier. Plaza Nueva is certainly a central hub and is a great place to catch buses and cabs from, especially if you are going up the hill to the Alhambra or Sacromonte. Added to that, there are so many cafes, bars, restaurants and teashops between here and the Cathedral that if you tend to like a thirst quencher more often than not, it would be hard not to spend entire days just going from one to the next. It's here, that Granada seduces you really. You want to spend so much time relaxing and just being here, that rushing around actually seeing things becomes almost irrelevant. No wonder it's becoming more and more popular as a bit of a bar tour destination, especially for those preparing for their nuptuals.
A trip to Granada wouldn't be complete with Flamenco. Sacromonte is the place for this, rather than down in the tourist strip, and the climb up the hill is well worth it.
The caves are where the dance, the movement, began and it is right at the top that we were directed to by 'In the know' locals and we weren't disappointed. Small and intimate, and with a drink thrown in, the atmosphere and intimacy at Vento el Gallo was spot on and it's hard not be impressed with the skill and passion of the dancers and musicians. We also spent time at the famous Cueva de la Rocio but with the celebrity dancers, coach parties and larger scale, we were easily deterred and were very happy with our decision.
However, I should point out that an evening here too, would be no disappointment, and the hospitality was equally as warm and as friendly as our eventual choice. The owner also looks so much like Anthony Quinn it's scary. It's More of a show than Venta el Gallo which has a more traditional approach really, but you pay your money and take your choice. We went late, well after dinner and a few libations.... I find it easier to get lost in the raw energy and emotion of such things when I've a few sherries under my belt. Flamenco is a treat and if it's not something you think you'll enjoy, think again. The location, technique, music, enthusiasm and sheer passion will be enough to change your mind.
Speaking of sherries under my belt, Bodegas La Mancha is a small 'old school' bar that serves wonderful tapa, sherry and vermouth straight from the barrel, and is another of those 'where the locals go' places but this time in the city. We originally wanted Morrocan but changed our minds when we found La Mancha. Authentic 60 year old bodega serving fabulous tapas. Busy staff that really responded to the right sort of compliments. Pork stew, prawn mash with eggs, some weird thing with artichokes and asparagus. Not at all the usual bowl of olives or Iberico ham... not that there's anything wrong with that. Proper bar, proper people, proper food, proper Vermut, proper staff, proper proper - A haven in fact. It reminds me of the old arcade in Cardiff before brewery execs ripped the heart out of it. Happy people in a properly old bar that has never seen the need for a refurb. What is it about Britain and Australia with refurbs? Do up the kitchens, modernise the loos but leave the place, the feel alone. Artichokes and anchovies in one isn't my idea of living, mind you.
Very busy during peak hours, the staff become incredibly hospitable as the lunchtime fervour dimishes and they have more time to engage. The food becomes better as the drinks are poured and it isn't long before you're creative input into the atmosphere increases rapidly, if you know what I mean. A great place and close to several other bars should you fancy a typically Granadan bar hopping afternoon.
We finally got to relax and draw steam with a visit to the Arabian baths at Hammam, Santa Ana, which is just a short walk from the Plaza Nueva.
I say relax, but the sight of my mother-in-law descending into steaming pools wearing her skin coloured underwear will forever haunt me. That aside, my whole body became rested... even my eyes. They were fresh on by the way, not.... y'know sullied or used or anything like that, and the 2 hours spent submerged in both water and steam had enough recuperative substance to warrant the clinging on to life for a little while longer yet. A massage also helps with the overall feeling of wellbeing and 'allbeingrightwiththeworldliness'.
It wasn't busy, by any means, and easy to find your own space among the varied baths, varied both in temperature, ambience, light and size and in occupancy rates. Plenty of time is allowed to linger and wallow and I found it was the perfect way to build up a thirst without actually having to do anything. There are plenty of bars and cafes in which to re-hydrate further along Santa Ana and the Carrera del Darro very close by as well. Heavenly perfection to be sure, and not a birch twig flagellator or skin-strimmer to be seen anywhere, just the soft candle light, gently rising vapours, your own thoughts and that matching skin coloured underwear.....
Granada was incredible in not only itself but is also a great base from which to explore the local area, from the Costa de Sol, including Malaga and Nerja, to the south, the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains which can be seen from many places within the city, to the east, Córdoba to the north and the small, beautiful little towns like Riofrio to the west. Seville is also only a hour or two away by train should you wish to travel slightly further afield. The ALSA bus company timetables can be found everywhere, including inline, obviously, and are a great, cheap, reliable and comfortable way to see the area..... Just as long as you don't use the ' in-flight' loo..... especially if you're sporting a floor length moustache, billowy summer frock, or a pair of furry 'apres-ski' boots.
Granada turned from our planned gentle place of rest into our magical surprise of the trip. I cannot recommend the wonderful and diverse, two for the price of one, Granada highly enough. It's a place for everyone and for nearly everything. A divergence of culture, of history, of outlooks and of beliefs make it one of my must visit European destinations. If you combine all of this with amazing food and incredibly cheap local wine, vermouth, sherry and beer, you can begin to see my point. I've hardly touched on the architecture, scenery, hospitality, friendliness and warmth of this glowing city but it's all there. Granada must be one of the most undervalued cities in Europe - with the Alhambra the undisputed star, the supporting cast and crew make this dazzling show absolutely unmissable.