A Taste of Andalucía: Granada and the Alhambra

“Si peregrinas por el mundo, nota, y exprime de las notas la experiencia.”

“If you wander through the world, note, and from the notes extract experience” – Joaquin Setanti

Caught up in the day-to-day rhythm of teaching, I sometimes forget that I am in Europe, and have the opportunity to see so many beautiful places. Living in Madrid is great, but I can become consumed by the city and forget to get out and explore.

Thus finding myself more than a month through the school year without having ventured outside of the city, I realized I had to go somewhere. As soon as a teacher at my school in Colmenar de Oreja mentioned a long weekend at the end of October, I knew I had to seize the opportunity and travel.

After a little research, I decided to head south to the province of Andalucía, to the city of Granada. Primarily known for the massive fortress the Alhambra, Granada is also a bastion of Moorish influence and Arabic culture, something I was very excited to experience.

Being the main attraction in the city, I actually had to reserve tickets for the Alhambra in advance, and barely found an available time.

I took the bus with Ben to Granada, as there is no direct train connection, and the bus was only fifteen euros. The bus was quite nice; we had our own miniature TV screens like on most airlines, helping pass the time. The first few hours outside of Madrid were quite blasé; the landscape was a parched brown that reminded me of an even drier version of the drought-starved Northern California landscape. However, the dry hills eventually gave way to lush mountains and rocky crags as we crossed into Andalucía.

Although the bus station was in an unremarkable part of Granada, our taxi soon took us into the Albayzín, an older, Arabic part of the city where our hostel was. Since the streets in this neighborhood were old and narrow, our taxi had to drop us off several streets away from our hostel so that we could navigate the rest of the way through the tight, winding streets on our own.

Immediately it was evident that Granada felt far different from Madrid. The city was built on several rolling hills, making its way up and down the steep inclines. The winding streets of the Albayzín neighborhood were stacked with buildings of mixed Spanish and Arabic architectural influences, and there were numerous Moroccan and middle eastern restaurants, as well as shops selling teas, lamps, and Moroccan goods. I almost felt in a different country, and the Arabic feel definitely increased my desire to eventually make it to Northern Africa.

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Arriving late afternoon, we had no strict plans for the day, and decided to simply walk up the Albayzín neighborhood to a higher neighborhood known as the Sacromonte. As we made our way up the hill we were flanked by the giant Alhambra, atop a hill to our right. Most of the city is overshadowed by the fortress, which sits on a large hill in front of the frequently snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains. Slowly ascending, we passed many more Arabic stores and restaurants, as well as people eating and drinking in the streets, as is common in Spain.

Walking up the Albayzín
Walking up the Albayzín
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Random church
Kitty with the edge of Alhambra atop the hill
Kitty with the edge of Alhambra atop the hill

Eventually, we entered the Sacromonte. The Sacromonte is another old neighborhood, built completely of white stone buildings atop a hill, giving it an almost Greek feel. The neighborhood is particularly famous for its flamenco shows, which are normally in small caves carved into the hillside. As we walked higher into the neighborhood, we got better views of the city, as well as the massive Alhambra to our right.

The Sacromonte
The Sacromonte
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The Alhambra in the evening

With daylight fading, we made our way back down to the Albayzín to get dinner. I wanted to try a local restaurant known for its paella, as I had yet to try the Spanish standard. I got a seafood paella, while Ben got a pork and mushroom paella, which were both rich and delicious. We both agreed that it was the best Spanish food we had eaten to that point, although I hadn’t really been eating out too often in a failing attempt to save money.

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Since our tickets for the Alhambra were not until Monday, we had the next day to explore the city. Not really having a specific destination in mind, we walked around the city, seeing several different cathedrals and churches.

Basilica de San Juan de Dios
Basilica de San Juan de Dios
Strolling around
Strolling around

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Granada definitely feels much smaller than Madrid, as we managed to walk around almost all of the city center, and see the majority of the sights by late afternoon of our second day in the city. Having walked around most of the day on wearied legs, we decided to go to an Arabic bath that night to get a massage.

Although nowhere near as cheap as Thailand, we found a place near our hostel that offered a circuit of several baths and a steam room, as well as a massage for forty euros. We circled through a large hot tub, cold bath, and steam room for about sixty minutes before the attendants called us for massages. After the day of walking and the relaxing hot tub and steam room, I almost fell asleep during the massage. After they finished, we were left to enjoy some fruit and tea, before we showered and left.

At this point, it was late evening, so we decided to go get some tapas. We went to an area of the city with several wine bars, where you simply order a drink and receive a free tapa. We ventured from bar to bar, ordering a drink and sampling their tapas, but were cut short by a rainstorm that drenched us after five seconds outside. Still hungry, we ran back to our neighborhood, and grabbed doner kebabs before calling it a night.

The next morning, we gathered our stuff, checked out of our hostel, and made our way to the Alhambra. Although originally constructed in the ninth century, the fortress came to resemble its modern layout in the fourteenth century when a Moorish emir built an additional palace and walls. Interestingly, it became abandoned for several hundred years, even becoming home to transients before being restored in the nineteenth century and becoming one of Spain’s most famous attractions.

Sitting atop a large hill, we were sweaty and weary long before finishing the ascent to the entrance. What was unclear to me having only seen it from a distance was that the Alhambra almost resembles a walled town with several different structures and palaces throughout the giant complex, the primary attraction being the Palacios Nazaríes, or the Nasrid Palaces.

We first made our way into the Nasrid Palaces, which were ornamented with many intricate Arabic arches, as well as complicated arabesques throughout the hallways and ceilings. The patios through the palaces gleamed with white stones and clear fountains that gave everything a very serene feel despite the large crowd of people moving throughout.

The Nasrid Palace
The Nasrid Palace

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Arabesques
Arabesques

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We took our time ambling through the different buildings, occasionally glancing out over the city, before exiting the palace. After, we made our way to the other most famous part of the fortress, the Generalife Palace.

Generalife Palace
Generalife Palace
Gardens near Generalife Palace
Gardens near Generalife Palace

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Situated all the way across the complex, we walked through courtyards and gardens for about twenty minutes before arriving at the gleaming white palace. Although not as impressive as the Nasrid Palaces, the Generalife Palace was surrounded by beautiful gardens, and contained more arches and intricate rooms.

Inside Generalife
Inside Generalife

After the Generalife Palace, we explored several more buildings within the complex, including the Palace of Charles V which has an interesting circular patio, before making our way out.

Patio inside Palace of Charles V
Patio inside Palace of Charles V

Having only a short time to kill before our bus back to Madrid, we made a last stop in the Albayzín for some kebabs, before going to the bus station and catching our ride home.

Although we only spent a short weekend in Granada, it was great to get out of Madrid and see more of Spain. The Alhambra alone was easily worth the weekend trip, and the small size of the city made it easy to explore within only a few days. I love the Arabic influence found in Andalucía, but also appreciate Madrid even more now, as it is so large and full of things to do that I still feel that I have plenty of the city to explore and get to know.

The trip also increased my appetite to see more of Spain, and I would next like to go up North to see Galicia or the Basque country, which is known to be lush and green. It is fantastic being in the center of the country, as I am not too far from anything, and plan to jet off as much as possible to other destinations.

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