Granada, Spain: Where so many forms of beauty meet
January 1, 1970
by Ciarán Elster
Book tickets in advance. If you want to see the Alhambra (and trust me, you do), book tickets in advance. For anyone visiting the astonishing city of Granada in southern Spain, this is the first piece of essential advice you will need. Whatever else you do in preparation for your trip, just make sure you get those tickets reserved if you don’t want to pay the price in time, sleep and body temperature in the early hours of the morning.
But we’ll get to that later. Granada has plenty more to offer than slow-moving queues. In fact, impressive though the palace is, the city even has more to offer than the Alhambra, although its status as the number-one attraction can’t really be debated.
Disembarking at the bus station wouldn’t give one the impression of arriving in a city famous for an ancient Moorish palace and a unique mix of Spanish and Arabic culture, but it doesn’t take too long to walk from the dull suburbs in which the station is located into the centre that somehow manages to combine urban vibrancy and natural rural beauty without compromising either.
Taking a free walking tour from the Plaza Nueva, we were led around many hilly cobbled streets that give Granada its Spanish charm, enjoying spectacular views of the deservedly-hyped Alhambra as well as the snow-topped mountains of the Sierra Nevada in the background. The Mirador de San Nicolás, arguably the city’s most lauded viewing point, provides fantastic photography opportunities, whether the photography in question be of a professional nature or a chance to update the Facebook cover photo.
So far so good then on our first day in Granada, except for one glitch. When myself and my girlfriend entered the official Alhambra shop to enquire about tickets for the following day, we were told that they were all sold out and the only remaining option was to join an early-morning queue. More on that in a few paragraphs time, but I’ll just reiterate this piece of advice: Book tickets in advance!
Food and drink
Roaming the streets in the cold (we went in December) inevitably leaves one with significant hunger to satisfy, an activity to which Granada is well suited. Trying out a restaurant/bar named Babel (remember the name!), for a pre-dinner drink, we ended up staying far longer than planned. Upon ordering two glasses of wine I had to wonder if I had heard correctly when the barman casually told me I could avail of two free tapas from an eclectic, internationally-assembled menu. The sheer delicious quality of my Mexican fajita not only confounded my disbelief that this was included in the €2 price of a glass of wine but also played a part in convincing us that we didn’t need to wander any further in search of dinner. The sublime and unique burgers which are so much than burgers went beyond justifying that decision.
Nightlife was left unexplored that night, as we had a rather early rise the following morning – part of the price we had to pay for not booking tickets in advance. Dragging ourselves out of bed well before sunrise, we took the first bus of the day uphill to the mighty Alhambra, joining an already sizeable queue at seven in the morning. Neither of us sufficiently dressed for the occasion, not even seeing the sun rise as we were up there could warm our bodies on that bright-but-cold December morning. For just over three hours we waited, occasionally moved forward and waited some more, the bitter cold putting both of us in an increasingly excruciating level of pain. Not even the coffees from the shop which was having a field day (or a field dawn, I should say) could do much to warm us as we watched the information screen show us how the number of remaining tickets was slowly but surely dwindling. When we eventually made it to the promised land of the ticket desk and purchased two for the afternoon (it had long since sold out for the morning session), it was hard to know which we felt more relieved about: gaining access to the palace or being free to leave the freezing queue. So here are two things we learned which I would like to pass on to other travellers: if you go to Granada in winter, wrap up well. And, let me see, what was the other thing? Oh yes, book tickets in advance for the Alhambra.
Another district worth exploring in Granada is the one known as ‘Little Morocco’, and another name worth remembering is Tetería Kasbah. The former being the area in which the latter is based, alongside many other teahouses and shops selling extravagantly-embroidered northern African garments and ornaments, Tetería Kasbah turns the simple occurrence of having a cup of tea into a surreal and exotic experience. Always seeming to be busy, they never seem to let this affect their ability to have customers seated within minutes at one of their candlelit tables under some exquisitely Moroccan overhead decorations. The menu is long and varied enough to surprise many of us that there could ever be so many different types of tea, while the particular brews we both went for all proved to have both warming and comforting qualities as well as a unique taste. All in all, it’s hard to imagine a better location in which to warm oneself if you’ve been standing around in the cold for several hours.
Having availed of a much-needed siesta, it was finally time to enter the magnificent beacon of Moorish power for which we had so foolishly neglected to pre-book tickets. Having been intrigued by this palace ever since I became hooked by the early-twentieth-century-guitar pieceRecuerdos de la Alhambra, the sheer magnitude of its gardens makes it worth hours of one’s time. Wandering through an array of vegetation, castle walls and fountains to the soundtrack of running water makes it clear that the term ‘unmissable’ is very well applied here. The only disappointment was that we ran out of time to go inside the main indoor section, so as I said, book your tickets in…ok, I’ll stop banging on about that now.
Granada, like every other city in the region of Andalucía, undoubtedly has several great places to hear live authentic flamenco, so raw and powerful that it can send shivers down one’s spine. Unfortunately, we didn’t find one. We did, however, find a place called Le Chien Andalou (don’t bother remembering the name), who charged us a not-too-small fee for a ticket including a show and dinner. The dinner was decent by most place’s standards and certainly nothing too special by this city’s, whereas the music lacked strength. This shouldn’t put flamenco enthusiasts off trying their chances in Granada though; my time living in Andalucía has taught me that the best flamenco performances are often not the best advertised, but the real thing can always be found even if the artificial display for tourists might seem more prominent.
So all things considered, Granada is a fantastic city, with a range of appeals that is rarely found within one place. Food, drink and exotic hot beverages are abundant and staggeringly cheap for their quality, the cobbled streets of the Albaicín district and the rural foothills of Sacromonte are enchanting areas to get lost in, while the Alhambra is simply a must-see. And did I mention that you might want to book tickets in advance?