Granada and the Albayzin
The countryside from Malaga up to Granada is spectacular. The foothills of the Sierra Navada welcome you into Andalusia and away from the frenetic hustle and bustle of Malaga Airport and the bedlam of the car hire agencies.
Navigating and negotiating your way through Granada is not easy, not even in a Fiat Punto with a Castilian dint in the door. Our hotel was in the Albayzin, the old Moorish Quarter. It’s a maze of steep one-way streets and dead-ends. At best, most are only the width of a car and corners are too often less than a car’s turning width. We drove up one, had to reverse down it again and tried another. Eventually, by a process of elimination, it became clear how the one-way system worked and we found the hotel. We were staying at the Santa Isabel de Real in Albayzin. It’s a restored 16th century casa, now divided into eleven guest rooms, each looking out onto an inner courtyard. (http://www.hotelsantaisabellareal.com/en/). After the nightmare of one-way driving, I promised myself that the car would stay in the underground garage for as long as possible.
Summer in Andalusia can be very hot. They say that summer in the interior is hotter than anywhere else in Europe. Granada in the mid-afternoon can touch 40 degrees. The sun bounces off the granite pavements and shimmers across the tarmac. Lots of stops for long, cool drinks are essential.
From the Albayzin, it’s a ten-minute downhill walk into Granada. Although it looks and feels steep while you’re still not acclimatised and still in search of your bearings, wending and winding your way back slowly at the end of a long day isn’t so much of an ordeal and there are plenty of watering-holes to stop at on the way.
As usual in Spain, the tapas can kill the appetite and put you off a large evening meal. Local Alhambra beer accompanied by ham, bread, pork, olives and pasta can more than suffice for an evening’s repast. It takes time to introduce yourself to the tapas tour, especially when you are sitting in a pavement cafe with the glorious Alhambra lit up in front of you and the exciting business of Granada below. That’s the absolute joy of staying in the Old Quarter at Albayzin.
The Cathedral and Chapel Royal should be on your itinerary, no matter how brief your stay in Granada might be. The Chapel Royal houses the remains of the Catholic monarchs, Isabelle and Ferdinand, whose reign straddled the 14th and 15th centuries. There are other minor dignitaries there as well, but clearly people come to pay their respects to the main couple. It’s quite reverent in the tomb, which can be surprising when there is not particularly much of your own history, although we must remember that Isabella and Ferdinand’s daughter was Catherine of Aragon, wife of Henry VIII and, therefore, that made him their son-in-law, albeit pre-annulment. Still, 23 years wearing the title wasn’t bad for one of the six.
The neighbourhood of Sacromonte lies on the hill of Valparaiso just outside of the city, but within easy walking distance. It’s built on a series of catacombs, old mine workings dating from Roman times. It’s the area that is mainly populated by the gitanos, the Romany inhabitants of Granada who are largely responsible for keeping flamenco and its traditions alive and flourishing. The area has become a bit of a tourist attraction and many of the cellar bars advertise ‘flamenco for tourists’, expensive, not necessarily authentic and to be avoided. The whole area has been given over to wine bars and restaurants. However, it’s still good fun to wander around and the graffiti and street art makes it very colourful.
At night, Granada is full of street performances. Students emerge to entertain with free flamenco displays and there is music everywhere. The area around Mirador San Nicholas is particularly vibrant and the sounds of gypsy guitar and clacking heels are everywhere.
Our experience of formal flamenco occurred when we happened to come across a small doorway in a wall and a rather large and friendly man who invited us inside. Relieving us of twenty euros, we found ourselves in a long and narrow underground cellar. Along one wall was a row of empty chairs and along the other facing wall were thirty Japanese tourists. We all had a beer and then waited……The Japanese were predictably polite and evidently confused. Suddenly, the lights dimmed and the room was bathed in shades of red and blue. Guitarists arrived, singers joined them and the dancers entered. It was clear that they were gitanos. Swarthy, olive-skinned and in traditional dress. It was astonishing. The singing came from somewhere deep in the soul. It was the earthy sound of alienation and sadness, of intense pride, lost love and desperation. If that wasn’t sufficient to move the soul, the dancing had an emotional intensity. The proud deportment, the castanets and the rhythmic stamping of feet all made it an evening to remember.
The Japanese continued to be predictably polite and evidently confused.
The Alhambra, Granada
The Alhambra lies slightly out of Granada, although you can see it from most vantage points. It’s horrendously popular, as you can imagine, so it’s best to make arrangements for transport and entrance tickets either before you arrive or in advance of the visit. The Calat Alhamra is a palace and fortress originally dating back to 889AD, although the current build is mainly 14th century. It’s Moorish, it’s Muslim and it looks it. A huge Islamic edifice, ‘a pearl set in emeralds’.
Buying tickets in advance saves you the trauma of summer queues and crowds. It was 37 degrees when we arrived and barely beyond breakfast time. Tickets for each day are limited and by lunch-time any spare tickets will have been sold.
Courtyards, halls, gardens. As you can imagine, the Islamic influences means that there is a considerable use of water. Fountains and streams abound and help to keep the air cool. Inside, Islamic decoration is everywhere and it’s richly opulent.
The Sierra Nevada
The A-395 out of Granada takes you on a winding route high into the Sierra Nevada. It’s Europe’s highest road and climbs to a little over 9800 ft (3000 metres) into the mountains. The Monochil valley and Caharros walk are spectacular. The Punto made it easily, although, even in August, it was cold. more than ‘a chill in the air’ and we were ill-prepared.
At Monochil, you can catch a cable car to a half-way point and then transfer to a chair-lift to the summit. We left Granada baking in the low 40s and up in the Sierra we were standing on ice in the middle of August. The cable car attendant had clearly met insanity before and had a good stock of blankets for tourists. The views from the top are everything you’d imagine them to be. It’s a good day out. Striking countryside as you climb ever upwards and staggeringly impressive views once you’re there.
A day at the beach / Motril / Almunecar / Salobrena
Getting out of the city seemed a good idea and a day at the beach seemed ideal. We set off for Motril, about 40 miles outside of Granada. It was absolutely heaving. The traffic was a nightmare and it was nose-to-nose for most of the way. It’s a shame as it looked a lovely resort We decided to head on to Almunecar, which lies beyond Motril and on the way to Nerja. Things weren’t much better there and by lunchtime the will have been given up and we steered for Salobrena. It’s very picturesque and part of the Costa Tropica. The Old Town sports a 10th century Moorish castle and this spreads down and along onto the coastal area and beach. The beauty of the beach lies in its under-development. It’s a rocky beach with bamboo huts all along the back. People clearly either own or rent these and spend their days barbecuing, reading, entertaining children and the like.
Being sparse in sand, the water is crystal clear and refreshingly cool. It was a chance to relax and try to forget the high-season traffic that makes journeying out less than a pleasure.
As it always seems to be, heading home along the motorway at 4 p.m. was bliss. Presumably, everyone else thought about leaving it until much later and then the chaos would start all over again.
Cordoba / Alcazar / Mosque-Cathedral
The drive from Granada to Cordoba is amazingly easy. In the early morning the motorways were empty and the Hotel Don Paula was easy to find. It’s a very small hotel, a family-run affair, but comfy, clean and very central. (http://www.hoteldonpaula.com/)
We were only here for a day, so an early arrival meant a good few hours sightseeing. And there is much to see in this town.
The strangest attraction on anyone’s itinerary must be the Cathedral of our Lady of the Assumption. It is a cathedral built inside a mosque. Or rather, it’s a mosque that’s been built over a cathedral. Or maybe it’s the other way around? It’s fascinating. Over time, the Muslim and the Christians forged a strange relationship that allowed both to exist and created a fabulous confusion of styles. Whichever way it was, what we have today is the best of both worlds. If only we could take this lesson and distribute it more widely.
Cordoba is a lovely city. There is so much green space with formal parks and fountains throughout. The Alcazar, the Royal Palace, was rebuilt in 1327 in the Moorish style and s a haven of gardens, halls and patios. The Old Roman Bridge on the edge of town dates back to the 1st century BC and is still carrying traffic across the river Guadalquivir. It’s had several rebuilds and most of what can be seen today dates from more modern times – the 15th century.
Tapas in Cordoba was a tad disappointing. Perhaps we were just unlucky but the paatas bravas were just a little too creamy for our tasts and the meatballs in cheese sauce felt wrong. Add to that a few shrimps in hot garlic and oil and the call for a more familiar choice beckoned. Still, a few small dispiriting dishes wasn’t enough to take the shine off a most interesting town.
Seville / The Bullring / The Cathedral
Again, the journey from Cordoba to Seville was uneventful, straightforward and quick. We took the scenic route through the agricultural heartlands and arrived at the Hotel Adriano (http://en.adrianohotel.com/). It’s a little more expensive but we were blessed with a balcony and a rather upmarket fourposter. The hire car was secured away on what could only be described as a ‘car lift’. Drive up, doors open, drive in, get out, walk off, doors shut and your car is ‘put away’ somewhere out of sight.
Seville has a extremely large bullring. It’s attached to a Museum of Bullfighting and a combined ticket takes you into the ring itself and, afterwards, to an informative museum with an English-speaking guide. Height of summer it must have been in the low 40s once again and the locals know better than to brave the heat of the day. The guide lurked in the shadows while she encouraged these crazy English and a smattering of equally crazy northern Europeans to scorchio themselves in the ring. The tour shows you where the bulls are brought in, how the horses are kept and how the roots of the art stem back to the 15th century. The museum, air-conditioned, had a impressive collection of outfits with detailed biographical notes and other artifacts. It was really worth the visit and the extremely cold beers at O’Neills, just across the river on Calle Adriano, were well-earned.
In the evening, you realise that Seville is a huge storage heater. The stone of the pavements and the marble of the statues and benches soak up the heat during the day and then dispenses it as the evening progresses. Everything was hot to the touch and you couldn’t lean against anything or sit on anything with a bare arm or leg.
Still, that shouldn’t stop you. We walked around the cathedral and then down across the river and into the pedestrianised zone. Taverna Miama on Calle San Jacinto serves ridiculously large portions at ridiculously low prices.
The hotel staff obviously felt sorry that we had to endure such hardships and each night, on our return, the wine-fairy had left an ice-bucket with a complimentary bottle of chilled sparkling wine. We were always suitably grateful.
Just across the road from the hotel on Calle Adriano is a toreador’s tailors. I’m not sure when I’d wear it, but the temptation to pop in was very strong.
The Cathedral in Seville is the third largest in the world. Top of the list is St. Peter’s in Rome and second is St. Paul’s in London. Ironically, the cathedral here in Seville is dedicated to……keep with me here….you must have guessed…the Virgin Mary. So that’s the three of them…complete with hammer, magic dragon and lemon tree…Anyway, it’s certainly a sight. The doors alone will impress. However, for me the piece de resistance was the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Supported by four life-size figures, the tomb stands high in the nave and is truly a work of high art.
I know ‘when in Rome’, etc. but if, like us, you have a penchant for Italian food, seek out http://www.maccheroni.es/. The pasta was incredible.
Our stay in Seville was nearly over. That evening we walked down to the Plaza Espana. A beautiful square, it draws the locals and visitors in every night to promenade, take a drink at a street cafe or to watch children playing. On this night there was a wedding and at La Moderna we enjoyed a steak and salad and felt part of the ambience.
A bus from the railway station will take you first to Santaponce and then on to Italica. It’s only 9km north of Seville and perfectly manageable.
Italica is a very well-preserved Roman town, founded in 206 BC by Scipio Africanus and used as a respite resort for veterans, wounded soldiers and their families after the Punic and Carthaginian wars. I suppose it was the Roman version of Craiglockhart and the Chelsea Hospital rolled into one. It’s in a good spot. Not many shops but there’s a cafe opposite and they could have caught the bus every hour to Santaponce, I suppose.
The town was large enough for a population of 10,000 and when the circus came to town, the amphitheater could seat 25,000 for high-days and holidays.
As always seems to happen, a good deal of the original stone was carted away to build nearby Seville but there is enough there to appreciate the size of the place and the complex structure of the town as a whole. The mosaics that have been uncovered are in good condition and it’s an interesting place to visit….even when it’s 39 degrees in the shade.
A week at the coast / Conil de la Frontera
After a week in the heat of the city, it was time to bid farewell to Granada with its staggeringly beautiful Alhambra, to Cordoba and its impressive mosque and to Seville and its sophistication. It was time to move to the coast and sample the delights of where Andalusia meets the Atlantic.
We stayed at Conil de la Frontera, a small coastal town in the Cadiz region. The town is very much a beach holiday resort with low-level building and remains very Spanish. The main beach, Fontinella, is always busy but there is mile upon mile of golden sand and you only need to wander a hundred yards or so and you can find your own patch of heaven!
The town itself is pleasant. Small shops serving the tourist industry mix with a variety of places to eat. On the main street it’s mainly small bars and tavernas. It’s very much family-orientated and not in the slightest what could be described as ‘loutish’.
There are somethings that make us quintessentially British and for which I feel we should be rightly proud. On the other hand, you occasionally meet such different behaviours when abroad.
- You’re stood in the queue in the supermarket. You have two barre de pan for breakfast and 80 cents in your hand. The right money, I hasten to add. In front of you is a large woman with the biggest trolley the supermarket could lend her and enough shopping to feed an army. She sees you and notices what you’re buying. In Britain, we’d turn and say ‘Is that all you’re buying? Do you want to go first?’. Here? No. You wait until it’s your turn whether you like it or not.
- I’m crossing the road on a clearly marked ‘zebra’ or whatever they call it in Spain. Now I know I don’t have the right of way as I do in the UK, but I do know that once my foot has left the curb, they’re supposed to stop. So why does the man in the battered Opel not only come between you and the pavement but also parks on the zebra blocking your path to the other side? Because he can!
- I’m lying on the beach. I have a towel down and I’m controlled within a reasonable amount of space. Why then, does a family of eight come and split themselves so that there are five on one side of me and three on the other? And why, then, does the little child decide he’ll run between both camps – over me and my towel? Is it me? Is it?
However, these are exceptions, I assure you.
Conil is a little short of excursions. It’s a place to laze around, read and soak up the sun. We went for a drive to Zahora and Barbete but neither warrant more than a casual mention. To be honest, the sea, the sun and the sand were so glorious, there is litttle reason to do anything else at all.
Our route back would take in Marbella and then on to Malaga. We’re booked in for a night at the Hotel Picasso (https://www.littlehotels.co.uk/spain/picasso.php) and an early flight home the next day.
Andalusia is a lovely part of Spain. So close to the coastal conurbations and yet so alluring. My own ‘Rose for Winter’.