In My Father’s Footsteps: Photos of Dad’s 1970 visit to Granada Spain and My Shots From 38 Years Later

I have the great fortune of coming from a family of travelers.  I crossed my first international border before I could walk and have continued to feel the drive to explore ever since. As I pave my path through life it’s both exciting and fascinating to see where that path overlaps with my Dad’s adventures as a young man more than 40 years before.  A while back some of Dad’s old trip slides surfaced, we scanned a few and it struck me that it would be fun to post shots from his time wandering Granada intermixed with the photos I took during my 2008 visit to Spain.

To be clear, I didn’t find his photos until after my trip, so while I remember being in the locations shown in a lot of his shots I didn’t always pause to take a photo of my own.  The weather was also pretty rough and I was having issues (water incident) with my Camera so the shot quality left something to be desired.

He captured his photos in the Spring of 1970 while visiting a school in Granada as part of his examination of different education systems around the world.  When I asked him a bit about it he reflected on enjoying his visit to the Alhambra and Albayzin while reading Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra. All the while he spent the evenings camping in his VW pop-top van in a canyon just outside the city.  I took mine during a 18 day backpacking trip through Spain in December of 2008.

A lot of Dad’s photos are of the Lion fountain and the immediate area. Unfortunate, at the time of my visit in December 2008 the fountain was being repaired/cleaned and was behind scaffolding which meant I didn’t take a lot of photos of the courtyard it rests in.

Ed at the Alhambra

I believe this photo was taken on one of the old fortresses’ battlements. The mountains in the back are the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Alhambra Pics

While I’m not sure exactly where Dad stopped to snap this shot, it looks like the area along the old Fortress. This shot is from the top of the highest battlement after squeezing out the small doorway.

Ed and Date Tree

Taken along one of the large pools just off the palatial gardens.

Alhambra in 2008

My photo taken of a small fountain between the upper pools and the lower reflection pool.

Alhambra Gardens

View looking down on the previous pool/gardens. This area is located just beyond the central palace.

Fountain

The view looking in at the Lion fountain.

Alhambra in 2008

My shot of what I believe is the same small fountain that appears in Dad’s but from the side.

Lion Fountain detail

A rare closeup on the Lion fountain as it stood in 1970.

Alhambra in 2008

As mentioned previously, the fountain was covered in scaffolding and under re-pair, but here’s another shot of the area in the background in Dad’s fountain photo.

Alhambra Courtyard

The view into the Lion courtyard from the main palace.

Alhambra Ceiling

One of the stunning domed ceilings in the Palatial quarters. The hundreds of small domes inside the large dome gave the ceilings an incredible/ornate look. Many were painted multiple colors when the palace was in regular use.

Alhambra in 2008

Looking up at the same dome.  My slightly out of focus shot ended up being zoomed in on the inner dome.

People in Archway

I love this shot of visitors standing near the entrance to the Patio de los Arrayanes. While some of the photos are somewhat timeless, you can definitely tell that this shot was taken in the early 70s due to people’s clothing and hair.

Alhambra in 2008

My shot from slightly in front of where the people were standing in Dad’s previous shot of the hallway.

Pons

A view back towards the main entrance to the Patio de los Arrayanes.  This pool and the courtyard it rests in is perhaps one of the most picturesque and famous parts of the Alhambra.

Alhambra in 2008

My photo shooting from the area in the center of Dad’s shot. You can see where he might have been standing along the back left side of the pool.  It looks like the shrubs haven’t changed much in 38 years.

View from Palatial Quarters

Looking out and along the Palatial compound’s wall.

Alhambra in 2008

My shot back at the Alhambra from the Albayzin. Note that the area covered in Dad’s shot is in the lower left of mine.

View of the City

The view out across from the Alhambra towards to Albayzin. Note the cathedral in the upper left hand corner of the image. That’s the Cathedral that offers the most famous view across towards to Alhambra.

Alhambra in 2008

My shot looking out across at the Albayzin.  The main landmark to match up here in the rectangular cathedral in both shots.  Though I believe Dad’s shot is actually reversed here due to the scanning processes.

Hopefully you’ve found this as interesting as I have.  Inspired by this post I’ve asked Dad to scan and send over any photos he may have that overlap with my future trips.  Moving forward I’d love to pro-actively reproduce some of the photos he took in 1970.  It’s definitely an interesting sensation to realize where our paths have overlapped and how, despite all the change in the world, some things have remained mostly the same.

Exploring Guejar and the Sierra Nevadas

After a day spent exploring the Alhambra’s countless secrets I made my way back to the hostel where I washed up briefly before heading to the hostel kitchen for the night’s special event – a group dinner.  For 5 Euro the hostel provided all we could eat paella, a big bowl of soup, and a drink from the bar.

What is paella you ask?  Paella is a cornerstone of Spanish cuisine and a must try for anyone visiting the region – cooked in large pans, not all that unlike the pans used for stir fry, the dish is predominantly seasoned saffron rice with large pieces of pork, horseshoe muscles, calamari, small clams, shrimp and peas. Depending on your region in Spain, and the cook, various other meats and delightful tidbits may be added. The pan used by the hostel was about 3 feet across and circular.  It was quite the sight.

Stuffed and in good company we repeated the previous evening’s rituals.  Starting in the hostel bar drinks and stories flowed before we set out to explore the city’s night life and enjoy Spanish music, culture and sights.

Despite morning coming far too early I awoke to a beautiful, crisp winter day.  Blue skies, gentle  and warm – far from what one might imagine a December day in Spain would look like.   Eager to explore the surrounding area and the Sierra Nevadas I made my way through the city to a large square where I’d been told I could catch a bus into one of the small cities in the mountains.   The walk took me into parts of Granada I’d previously left unexplored and added to my love of the city.  After about 20 minutes of walking I found the square and began asking around…trying to discover which of the regional buses would take me to Guejar.  Before long I’d narrowed down the approximate area where it paused along it’s route to collect people…and had a good idea of when to expect it. I’ll confess that my pronunciation of Guejar was abysmal and my heart was racing as I tried to figure out the bus system and isolate which of the 10 bus stops along the square was mine.

Finally feeling fairly confident that I wasn’t going to miss my bus, I grabbed a quick bite to eat and relaxed by the shallow river that stretched along one side of the square.  There I watched a father and his two children at play.  It reminded me of my time in Europe as a child, exploring grand cities and embracing experiences which fostered the curious passion for travel which drives me to this day.

Before long the bus arrived. One Euro Eighty cents later, I had my ticket in hand and was cozily sandwiched into one of the small bus seats.  I’d picked Guejar at random and didn’t know what to expect, beyond that it was in the Sierra Nevadas.  As the bus snaked through the narrow Spanish streets we quickly left the city behind and began winding our way up through several small canyons toward the mountaintops.  Each time the bus slowed down and paused at a bus stop I felt my pace quicken and my stomach leap into my throat.  I had no idea what to expect.  What would Guejar look like?  How long was the drive? Would there be a bus stop or would it be a proper station?

Resisting the urge to hop off each time the bus slowed to a stop I sat, taking in the scenery as we climbed deeper into the mountains. The snow capped Sierra’s drew gradually closer as the road hung on to the side of a rather steep valley.  Soon, I found myself looking out my window and down the steep slopes below – the narrow roads, tiny guard rails and steep drop offs along a lot of European roads is something I’m not sure I’ll ever get completely comfortable with.

Before long we came upon a large dam.  The dam was significant in size and filled in some two-thirds of the valley.  The water it held back was an emerald green with rich, gorgeous waters lazily soaking up the winter sun. I knew immediately it was something that I needed to explore in greater detail.  The quick views as the bus wound along the valley wall hundreds of feet above wasn’t enough.  As I watched it wind away behind me I decided to get off at the next stop – even if it wasn’t Guejar.

Luckily, just a few minutes up the road from the dam we pulled into a beautiful small city which lazily clung to the side of the valley wall.  Somehow, the bus pressed its way through the narrow streets and down tiny alleyways before coming to a stop on a steep incline next to a small square.  The doors opened and the passengers began to disembark.  I soon realized I’d reached Guejar!

Eager to explore the city I quickly set off from the square and into the small town.  The streets were a delightful warren of small open spaces and narrow corridors – many of which suddenly split or dove off down the hillside.  There were beautiful plants everywhere and interestingly most of the doorways had hanging rugs of them.  I’m not sure if it was to keep out the cold, or a regional tradition – either way it added a fun element to the streets and brought them to life with their own special character.

Legs burning from the steep ascent and descent as I explored the small town, I spent a good 30 minutes wandering up side streets and down back alleyways before setting off back the way I’d come in the hopes of reaching the azure waters I’d seen from the bus.

As I left the town I quickly ran into a problem.  The narrow winding road we’d used to reach the town was just that – a narrow two lane road with a steep drop off and small guardrail. This left very little room for me to safely backtrack along the road – leaving me sandwiched between a steep drop on my left and oncoming traffic on the right. Undeterred, I pressed on, carefully utilizing the narrow space between the guardrail and the steep drop down to the river below. It took me another 5 minutes of careful walking before I reached a bend in the road and paused to snap the photo you see above.

I lingered and took in the view – one that reminded me in a way of the Grand Canyon and Colorado river.  Don’t get me wrong, the view was vastly different – but there was something about it that captured my heart and mind in the same way. It left me slightly awed.  As I paused and shot a few photos/took some quick video I considered my options.  I could continue along the road which continued from my perch for a short ways before winding back behind a small hill and away from the dam for about a quarter of the mile – or I could climb down the hillside a ways and get a better view of the lake, valley and several interesting structures on the opposite side.  Careful not to fall and die, I slowly made my way down the steep hillside – heading towards a slightly flatter area which had been leveled off during the construction of several large power lines – why not right?  What better than large power lines to ensure my safety as I climbed down a steep hillside.

Eventually, I found my way down to the flattened area – where I paused for a drink, some photos and to take in the sights.  The descent had taken me down some 1/3 of the hillside and left me across and slightly above a group of goats and a shepherd I’d been observing from the roadside earlier.   Having descended below the power lines, I finally had an unobstructed view of the lake.  What better place to stop and read for a while?  Enjoying my perch and the moment I pulled out my book and read for about 20 minutes before plotting the next stage of my exploration.  I considered my location, looking back up the steep hillside I quickly decided that down was a far more interesting (and less difficult) alternative – and why not?  I hadn’t hurt myself yet!

In a hail of small stones, mumbled curses and periodic gasps I eventually made my way down two thirds of the way to the river.  The whole affair would have no doubt made the most clumsy of mountain goats proud.  Eventually, I found a small path and decided to follow it instead.

Wondering if I was trespassing and about to get chased off by a local farmer with a pitchfork, I followed the path as it wound back towards Guejar in the general direction of the shepherd and his goats.  The path quickly cut up and took me immediately them…leaving me under the watchful stare of two of his goats.  One of which had an amazing, billowing goat beard and large set of horns.

I wound up, around, between properties and soon found myself back in the city.  With ample time to spare I set to satiating my burning hunger.  No easy task given the quiet nature of the city. Differentiating between tapas bar, bookstore and hardware store was far more difficult than one would think.  None of the residents needed signs.

After exploring the city for another 20 minutes or so I finally found a little hole in the wall joint.  The food was good, the price was incredible, the floor was dirty and the place was populated by old Spanish men – perfect.  I headed inside, ordered and carefully tried to take the following incognito video…my apologies on its…authenticity:

 

After a quick meal, I headed back to the square – checked my watch and relaxed in the winter sun as I read my dad’s book – The Spirit in the Ruins by C. Descry.  Eventually the bus driver emerged from one of the local tapas bars and we began our winding trip back to Granada.

That evening I joined a number of friends from the hostel for a wonderful night out on the town which came to a close at 4 am as we sat perched in the Albayzin looking across at the beautifully lit Alhambra.

It was December 30th.  The following day I caught a train early in the morning to Madrid, where I began preparing for New Years and my return to the U.S.  – what an incredible adventure!

Alhambra – The Palace

I stood in the area roped off by security and impatiently checked my watch.  My assigned entrance time for the old Moorish palatial section of the Alhambra was 4 o’clock. Ever so slowly the line seemed to grow. Periodically dodging stray umbrellas wielded by careless impatient sightseers, I paced quietly. All the while a light misting, not yet rain, slowly fell.

Eventually the clock struck 4 and the line began to ooze forward.  Fifteen minutes later I was in.  The entrance was through a beautifully decorated, if otherwise unremarkable, side entrance chosen more for convenience than shock value.  Once inside, the doorway served as a portal into a beautiful multi-level room.  With walls covered in crawling Moorish carvings and wooden ceilings decorated with carved and inlaid wooden designs, the room had a powerful feeling to it – perhaps cozy describes it better?  I can only imagine how visually overwhelming the site would have been when the walls were covered in vibrant colored paints, tapestries and plants.

Careful not to hit my head on the ceiling, I wound down small steps and through the open space. There at the foot of the room the far wall met me in an explosion of stonework.  It was a giant, beautiful wall, carved window to ceiling with astounding intricate designs.  Each portal a glowing orb looking out over all of Granada and the Albayzin.   Even the windows were covered in beautiful stone screen work – a feat in and of itself given the age of the building and its constant battle against the elements.

With some difficulty I abandoned my inspection of the first room and walked across a stone floor worn smooth by the passing of tens of thousands of feet each year.  I soon found myself in another room, again covered in beautiful carvings but made even more impressive by an intricately carved wooden ceiling with beautiful metallic inlays that artistically helped highlight the true complexity of the wood and metal work I was seeing.

As I wound through room after room, covered floor to ceiling, in beautiful flowing patterns and Moorish script I quickly realized that I was growing numb to it.  The artisan’s work was so prolific, so impressive in scope that in an odd way it had begun to become mundane. My overloaded brain seemingly had decided enough was enough and left me rubbing my eyes, shaking my head and striving to pick small focal points within the designs that I could explore closely without overloading.

Moving at a leisurely pace, not unlike that which you would use in a museum, I wandered down hallways into small rooms, grand rooms and across beautifully decorated courtyards.  The courtyards often were decorated with beautiful tile work, small fountains and manicured greenery in addition to the carved wood and stone features that decorated the rest of the palace.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the stonework was the vast diversity of the intricate design elements.   I cannot fathom how difficult it was to repeat specific elements in the design motifs while making the stonework in each individual room unique and elegantly different.

One of the largest open spaces within the palatial complex was the central pool.  With a beautiful fountain on one end and a large carved door on the other, the entire space was designed with symmetry in mind.  Despite the tourist hustle and bustle it still maintained a beautiful aura of tranquility.

Beyond the large wooden doors, I woundthrough another series of stunning rooms before finding myself in the courtyard that houses the Alhambra’s famous Lion Fountain.  Sadly, the fountain itself was surrounded by scaffolding and under renovation.  The courtyard, however, transported me back in time to my youth…to days spent dreaming of Moorish palaces while watching the likes of Sinbad and Aladdin.

Throughout the palace I’d noticed beautiful domed stonework along doorways and in the ceilings of small rooms yet nothing prepared me for the scope and scale of the ceilings in several of the larger rooms.  The ceiling, made entirely of carved stone, consisted of thousands of small domed stair steps which you can see in the image above. These tiny domes combined to create the appearance of fabric… an illusion that must have been even more powerful when painted.  Though most has been worn off/cleaned off you can still see periodic signs of the original paint.  As I stood in the center of the room with the walls climbing on either side of me, I could not help but close my eyes and envision the way it might have been.  To this day that thought sends a chill down my spine in the most pleasant of ways.

Sadly, it would appear that the Moors were rather short.  In fact, there were numerous occasions where I found myself ducking at the last moment and just narrowly avoiding a very up close and personal inspection of some of the stonework.

After making my way through the remaining rooms and courtyards I worked my way through a beautiful garden.  The garden was full of fountains and flowers of various shapes and sizes.

Upon exiting the garden I soon realized that my palatial tour had finally come to an end.  Eager to finish the rest of my tour of the Alhambra I set off to explore the old fortress – one of the original parts of the Alhambra.   As I wound back through the areas I had already explored I soon found myself standing before an impressive Moorish gate.  Once through, I ascended another hundred feet or so before crossing through what would have once been a mighty portcullis.  From there it was up onto the castle wall and over a series of winding platforms and interior walls before eventually making my way to the ruins of the ancient keep.  There my legs pumped away furiously as I ascended tiny stairs in a dizzying spiral which eventually dumped me out onto the roof…a large, flat area with a stunning view of Granada and the surrounding countryside.

I stood with a gentle wind playfully tugging at my hair as I to imagined how the city must have looked under siege in 1492 as the Spanish desperately tried to oust the last of the Moors.  As I mused I gently drifted in and out of the present transported by the mist-like clouds that crowned the Sierra Nevada’s in the distance.

Eventually, I made the mistake of glancing at my watch and decided to make my way back to the hostel.  What an amazing place.  What an amazing adventure. If you have the opportunity to visit Granada and the Alhambra it is without a question, a must.

Granada Part IV – The Alhambra

After wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I crawled out of my bunk bed, took a refreshing shower and then stumbled down to the hostel common area. There I chatted with a few friends I’d made over the previous two days. We checked our e-mail, recounted the previous evening’s adventures and then formed a small group. Today was dedicated to the Alhambra.

I’ve mentioned it before, but have yet to really explain what the Alhambra is.  The Alhambra is a large palatial fortress that sits on one of the hills in the heart of Granada.  The hill the fortress is on is directly opposite another slightly smaller hill which is home to the Albayzin.  The two are divided by a small stream which has cut a path along the base of both hills.  The Albayzin is the original Moorish city while the Alhambra houses a series of constructions including an ancient fortress, stunning palatial complex and amazing set of gardens.  The site has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site and has a rich and exciting history.  One of the things I found especially fascinating was that the Alhambra was one of the Moors last strongholds in Spain.  I was shocked to learn that the fortress actually didn’t fall until 1492 (same year as Columbus sailed). Quite the significant year for the Spanish!   I’ll let those interested read up on it via wikipedia.

Getting to the Alhambra is easy – but make no mistake, also a bit of an adventure.  There are two options: the first is paying 2 Euro and catching a bus from the square at the bottom of the hill just off of the Grand Villa which drops you off at the entrance to the Alhambra.  The second, and far more entertaining option, is to tackle the mountainside and hike your way to the entrance. Eager to see and experience as much as possible we elected for the latter.  The path shoots off from the square and slowly winds up past a series if vendors, hostels and restaurants all clinging to the side of the hill. Once at the entrance to the Alhambra site the city ends and you find yourself surrounded by lush vegetation and periodic water features.  The path goes from pavement to dirt and the real trek begins. The photo above is from about halfway up the path.  As you can see the benches indicate just how steep the climb is. Huffing away, legs pumping and with my injured knee bothering me, I limped my way up the path, pausing periodically to enjoy the beautiful golds, greens and reds of the trees lining the path.

The walk from hostel to the ticket booth for the Alhambra only took us 20 minutes and was well worth the knee strain. The weather was beautiful.  Gray, overcast, and crisp. Luckily the rain had contented itself with a brief morning shower before moving on.  The moisture in the air brought out all of the greens in the plants and the colors in the flowers and stonework, adding a certain vividness which was amazing to see.  Once at the top we paused briefly for a quick soda and snack. As we caught our breaths and relaxed I snapped the above shot of a local cat and two considerate tourists. With a smile on my face we set to the task of tackling the lines and picking up our tickets.

The Alhambra is a huge tourist attraction. As both a UNESCO world heritage site and major historical monument it draws large crowds, even in off season.  As a result ticketing can be difficult. To help preserve the feel of the site they’ve set up an interesting system with two main entrance times.  The first entrance period starts at 8:30AM and ends at 2PM. The second begins at 2PM and ends at 8PM.  Tickets sell out quickly so it’s important to book ahead or get there early.  Once you’ve purchased your ticket you’re assigned a second time window, for a tour of the palatial compound.  The tours are small and you only get one shot.  The palace is incredible and a must while visiting the fortress – so if you plan on visiting, make sure you know where you need to be at your designated time.

When you go to buy your tickets you have two options.  You can brave the ridiculously long line and buy from the ticket windows, or bypass most of the line and use the automatic machines located just past the ticket windows.  The machines look and are marked as a place for picking up web orders and advanced tickets, but also allow the purchase of tickets with a credit card.  Do yourself a favor and go with the machines – they’re not very different from the automatic ticket machines at some movie theaters.

Tickets in hand we made our way to one of the nearby benches, wiped off a few leftover rain drops and settled in.  We had a bit over an hour before 2PM when we would be allowed to enter the site. There were a number of friendly cats wandering around which kept as entertained as we exchanged travel stories and playfully teased each other. Hungry, I pulled out a tin of sardines and quickly set to a rather fishy, but satisfying snack.

The clock struck 2 and we were off. Through the gates and into the garden area of the Alhambra. Outside of the fortress proper the gardens are a sprawling mixture of beautiful buildings, amazing greenery and beautiful water features.  Our adventure started at a large, modern amphitheater which has been built near the entrance to the Gardens.  With it to our back we immediately found ourselves in an incredible garden maze (pictured above) with high walls and beautiful fountains.  Despite the late time of year (December) there were still blooming flowers everywhere.

Once through the maze we were greeted by beautifully terraced areas full of fruit trees and with large areas used for crops during summer months.  The photo above is down the hill from the garden area and is of the outer fortress wall and beginning of the palatial section.   The whole area is covered in orange trees all of which were heavily laden with fresh fruit.

Down a narrow walkway and through a small courtyard full of orange trees we entered the first building in the gardens.  With a fantastic view of the Alhambra proper, the building was covered in beautifully carved Moorish script.  The artistry and complexity of the stonework is positively awe inspiring. In many areas it seems as though every single exposed area is covered in intricate stonework.  Even the windows and ceilings are covered in carved stone or intricate wooden inlays.

The man hours and skilled craftsmanship required to create these buildings left me speechless.  As impressive as it all is, many of the areas also appeared to have been painted at one point in time.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it. As amazing as it was, it ended up being minor when compared to the sprawling palace located within the fortress.

The view out from the Gardens was amazing and I regularly found myself caught visualizing how it must have looked, felt and smelled 600 years ago. After taking the shot above I turned to my right and looked out across at the Albayzin.

Further along the hill and on the other side of the old city wall that surrounds the Albayzin, there is a series of gypsy caves.  These caves are carved into the soft limestone and are a famous landmark.  Some (like the Cave Bar I blogged about earlier) are heavily improved with electricity, bathrooms and the like.  Others are little more than rough-hewn caves.  One thing is constant, very few of the caves are actually owned and many operate on a co-op like system with travelers and gypsies contributing odd knickknacks and/or small improvements before moving on and leaving them for the next visitor.  You can see a number of the caves in the above photo.  The buildings at the bottom near the river are almost all caves with improved entrances, while those further up the hill are more basic/cruder in nature.  The cactus you can see covering parts of the hillside was originally used as a defensive measure, and now grows wild.

The Moors had a passion for water, one that shows in the construction and layout of the Alhambra and its gardens.  It’s almost impossible to go any distance within the sprawling compound without the sound of trickling water and a light feeling of humidity.  As we finished our tour of the Gardens we paused to collect a few of the stragglers that had fallen behind before backtracking to a fork in the path which led us down, across the moat and into the fortified section of the Alhambra.

Once on the far side of the moat we wrapped around the outer edge of the hilltop and left the lush vegetation of the garden area behind. The whole area was still green and populated by periodic water features but more manicured and open than the garden had been.  The first sight that greeted us was a series of reflecting pools with a more recent looking cathedral built in what I’d guess was 1600s styled architecture.

As we wound past the first cathedral we quickly came upon a second, far more impressive one. It’s hard to tell if it was originally a mosque or not, though I imagine it probably was.  Immediately next to it was a small bathhouse and museum which we explored.   Even the street had a small water feature running down it’s side. I still can’t fathom where all the water used to beautify the Alhambra comes from or how it finds its way up to the top of the hill.

From the main walkway we made our way into the Palace of Charles the V…a beautiful, large, square building with a massive circular central courtyard. Though most of the building was closed, one small section was open.  The open area had a series of interesting pieces of modern art, the most impressive of which was a large lion with flowing mane made completely out of old tires.  It was absolutely fantastic! Unfortunately, they were not allowing photos.  They also had a fun 3D room setup.  The 360 degree circular room had image boxes projected with various video clips which you could control and interact with through a pointer. The whole thing was 3D and a pretty cool interface.

As I finished exploring the Palace of Charles the Fifth my 4 o’clock tour of the palace was fast approaching.  However, I’ll leave my tour of the palaces, voyage into the old fortress and rest of the evening in Granada for a 2nd follow up post.  I’m afraid this one has gotten a bit long!

Stay tuned and remember you can view all of the photos included in this post and a large number of others via my online gallery!

Granada Part III – Hostels, Cities and Adventures

Groggy, but feeling thoroughly refreshed, I awoke to the rustle of bags as two new arrivals settled into their bunks.  Glad to be awake I hopped out of bed, wobbled a bit and then stepped through the door from my hostel room onto the rooftop terrace (above).  There, I inhaled the crisp Spanish air, looked out over the rooftops and reveled in wonder at the amazing adventure I was living.

After a quick glance in the mirror and grimace at my nap hair, I tossed on my cap and made my way down to the entry hall. There I quickly fell into conversation with a number of fellow travelers, checked my e-mail and then decided to duck out for dinner.  Following the front desk’s recommendation, I quickly found my way to a small tapas bar where I picked up a beer and free side of tapas.  In most places in Granada the tapas itself is free, so long as you order a drink, unfortunately, it’s also random….still free is…well…free!  With my appetite wet I polished off my Alhambra beer and stepped around the corner to the local Kebab King.  There I discussed the days events with a Palestinian immigrant fluent in at least 3 languages. Before long I was off and wandering once again, this time with a steaming chicken kebab in hand.

Through the streets, up small narrow stairways and into the heart of the Albayzin I wound eager to explore and discover the city’s hidden secrets. Never quite lost, but often quite turned around, I quickly found myself in the heart of the old city.

As night rolled in I slowly made my way back to the hostel, unloaded my day pack and found my way to the hostel bar. There I bumped into my tour guide from that morning and he quickly introduced me to several of the other regulars. Two girls living in Granada (from Australia/New Zealand) and an English gentleman. All were in their late 20s/early 30s.  We all sat in the tiny, cramped hostel bar, surrounded by walls covered in chalk graffiti left by travelers.  Some of the words scrawled across the walls were quotes, others well wishes and yet others…just downright odd and obviously left after a few drinks.   We drank wine, smoked hookah and exchanged stories. Before long I was privy to all of the recent goings on and had my fair share of insights into the local drama.

As other travelers drifted in the group slowly grew in size.  I quickly got to know Andreas – a traveling Swede who was working at the hostel during an extended stay in Granada. The wine, sangria and Alhambra beer was flowing freely when 9 o’clock rolled around.  One of the other people staying (and working) at the hostel announced the beginning of the free tapas tour and before I knew it, I was swept up with the crowd and into the night.

We toured two tapas bars sampling sliced pieces of Spanish ham on small crackers, Spanish meatballs and various other delicious eats before eventually winding our way down through the city and finishing the tour at a flavorful reggae bar.   The reggae bar was a delightfully odd place. The entrance was little more than a door off the street that dumped you into a small entrance room no bigger than most master bathrooms in the states. As I entered I found myself standing at the small bar.  Immediately in front of the door there was just enough space for 2 or 3 people front to back, which allowed us to stand at the bar 2 deep as we ordered while leaving a small path to the long sloping hallway that ran some 20 feet down and into what must have been an old cellar.

The ceiling in the hallway was arched and just short enough that I didn’t feel comfortable walking completely upright.  As I shuffled along, slightly bowed, I quickly spilled out into a second, slightly larger room where I was greeted by an odd mishmash of sights.  Along one side of the whitewashed cellar was a small bench piled with drinks and stacked coats.  The room itself had a cement floor with a DJ at one end on a slightly raised platform and a small partition at the other end which led to two lock-less bathrooms.  Smoke of all varieties hung heavily in the air and the music boomed down upon us.   Our group of 10 or so unloaded our jackets and quickly set to dancing, drinking and bonding as only travelers can.

An hour or two slipped by before we decided to strike out once more.  Eager to find a flamenco bar we wound up into the Albayzin and eventually found our way to Granada’s famous cave residences & bars.  Though most were closed we eventually found a tiny place carved into the side of the mountain.  With whitewashed walls and ceilings the place had old photos of flamenco players and random women on the walls. The bathroom was outside and more of an outhouse than a proper toilet. Inside the small 2-room bar served everything out of bottles/cans and only had whatever stock they could fit behind the small bar – it was a hoot.   We worked our way to the back and in the smaller of the two rooms crowded together as a series of incredibly flavorful musicians sat and passionately played flamenco.  While I can’t say I was overly fond of the musicianship the passion and setting was an absolute kick…I’ll let you see for yourselves:

As the bar ran out of beer and I grew antsy several of us set off back into the Albayzin eager to see to the Alhambra at night. 3AM had already come and gone.  The views out from the Albayzin and the hill it rests upon are spectacular, as are the winding streets cloaked in shadow and gently lit by the soft yellow glow of aged streetlights.  The Alhambra at night is an incredible sight.  Back lit by the twinkling lights of the city, the Alhambra is lit by a combination of green and yellow lights.

After resting and taking in the sights and gentle sounds of the city as it slept we wound our way back, down through the dew kissed streets and back to our hostel where as quietly as possible I crawled into my bunk bed and began snoring away contentedly.  It was 4:45AM.

Granada Part II

When I tell people I absolutely love traveling on my own they look at me like I’m crazy.  With a skeptical eye they usually pause, think for a second, then ask where I stay. When I respond with, “Hostels – they’re amazing” I usually get a sideways look, another pause and then “Did you see the movie Hostel?’.   It’s a shame really that in many ways that movie has become our generation’s Jaws – only this time frightening the average Joe/Jane away from hostel travel instead of the ocean.

That said, during each of my extended backpack/hosteling trips I have had 1 night that left me bleary eyed, pissed off and ready for a nap. Not because I was in danger or frightened but rather because of unfortunate bunk mates. Even the rare unpleasant experience though is well worth it. It’s not an adventure without them and let’s face it – they often make for some of the best stories.

My first evening in Granada was this trip’s one evening.  It involved a tired German switching into the wrong bunk, a horrible smelling drunken Irishman with his heart set on the German’s newly claimed bed, and a number of other late arrivals who were apparently unaware of basic hostel etiquette (making your bed before you go out, leaving the lights off at 3am, etc.). The combined effect made for an interesting – and trying – evening. Needless to say the guy’s smelly feet were probably the worst of it…somehow managing to waft all the way up to my poor embattled nostrils on the top level of a 3 level bunk bed.

The next morning I was up early and out the door. As I walked through the crisp mountain air I retraced my steps through the narrow twisting hillside streets back to the main staircase which would quickly lead me down to the entrance to the Oasis Granada hostel.  The photo at the beginning of this post is of that stairway.  Note the creative parking jobs.   There were very few vehicles in Granada without some sort of scratch or dent and the city as a whole was a constant reminder illustrating the power, advantage and necessity of bumpers. I can’t imagine what happens when the city gets ice or snow.

The walk back down to Oasis was the first real view I’d had of the city by day. Needless to say it was drastically different than the city I’d first experienced the night before. As I paused and stood looking out over the city it dawned on me just how high up I’d traveled.  The air was significantly cooler than it had been in Cadiz – not cold – but cooler. Before, I’d just thought it brisk, but as I looked out across the city I was greeted by an impressive backdrop – the snow covered Sierra Nevadas. Laughing softly at myself I continued down the stairs and soon found myself relaxing in the hostel lobby.  The feisty gal at the reception window told me that rooms would be ready by one, backpacks in the corner until then, bar opened at 6, gave me a drink coupon and sent me off on my way with a smile. I unloaded my bag, grabbed a huge glass of water from the kitchen and set to exploring the hostel. As luck had it my room was on the top floor and accessed off of the rooftop terrace.  The view from the terrace was spectacular:

The terrace rooms were excellent, with wall mounted mini-safes for each bed, sturdy wooden double bunk beds, an en suite bathroom and a small table area  all of which made for a fantastic stay.

Eventually, I made my way downstairs and introduced myself to a few of the others in the common area.  It turned out that they were gathering for a 10:30 free walking tour of the city. Always a fan of spur of the moment I decided to join the group and before long we were off and walking. From the hostel it was a quick walk down through one of the more flavorful flea market streets:

The street was fairly steep with a slight V designed to funnel water away from the shops and down to the main street below. The shops were overflowing with vibrantly colored scarves, rugs, hats, caps, hookahs, beautifully inlaid boxes and a multitude of other flavorful keepsakes. Eager to explore it in greater depth later I made a mental note to return and followed the group the rest of the way down the street…around several corners…and into a large square.  There we paused and waited for others from throughout the city to join us while he had us introduce ourselves. At 11 o’clock sharp the fountain spluttered to life and the tour began.  The square was absolutely charming:

The day was partially cloudy and crisp – if not overly cool. As we made our way across the square laughter bounced back at us off the old stone streets and storefronts. Our guide was a slightly odd, high energy Oregonian who had a box of jokes – some funny…some not.  Although, even the more spectacular comedic failures got a small chuckle or two.   Our path led us up a small street bounded by building walls on the right and a waist-height stone railing on the other.  Beyond the railing there was a 15 foot drop to a small stream which wound its way down between the two hills that sat on either side of us before eventually diving under the central square where we started.  After dodging cars and mopeds on the narrow sidewalk-less street, we paused and our guide shared with us the small river’s history.  From stories of wooden bowls full of fruit set adrift and used to serve reclining Moorish party goers in the 1400s to the noteworthy construction project that had covered most of the stream and facilitated the building of the large square we’d just left.

The buildings to our left were all in excellent condition.  Aged but well maintained, some still had ancient fresco work decorating their plaster facades.  The area to our right sloped up towards the Alhambra gardens, fortress and palatial compound.  One thing that stands out in my memory is the subtle signs of terracing which decorated the steep hillside.  It never ceases to amaze me how prolific mans touch is in Europe.  Even the things that initially strike us as untouched or more wild inevitably end up being little more than neglected areas once shaped by human hands.

The streets to our left were beautiful.  Narrow, paved with cobblestones. Typically too small/steep for cars they were ripe with personality. Before long our guide led us up one – seemly at random.  Our tour of the Albayzin had begun.

Huffing slightly we worked to keep up with each other as we wound up the hill towards its summit…all the while winding through the old Moorish streets.  It’s an amazing feeling – something about the physical exertion – perhaps the slight blur it brings to your eyes – makes it easier to squint and slip back in time. Though I’m sure my imaginings of what the streets looked like 400 years ago are grossly off base, I can’t help but still be captured by the thought.  As the group paused I returned from my musings in time to hear our guide launch into a story about the “Carmen” or small garden we were standing in front of:

The guide’s story suggested that it was a beautiful Carmen.  One so beautiful that when Disney sent their researchers to Granada in preparation for the movie that made the phrase famous – they found this garden and were inspired.  Skeptical or not – it was still more than enough to make me smile. After all, as a wandering backpacker I couldn’t help but feel a certain affinity with the phrase and all of the imagery and message that goes with it.

The hill that the Albayzin is built upon is steep enough that a delightful view of the Alhambra is periodically visible … beautifully framed by the trees towering up and out of the local careens and the multi-colored, tiled rooftops:

Towards the summit of the Albayzin we paused in front of an outdoor water fountain to rest our burning legs and refill our water bottles.  From there we found our way to several small cathedrals as our guide explained that every cathedral in Granada had initially been a mosque which had since been converted.  We then paused near the only mosque in the city – a building which had just recently been reclaimed. Allegedly, it was the first mosque in Granada in hundreds of years. An interesting fact reinforced by the existence of the stacked 3 round balls representing Islam that decorated the tops of all of the cathedral towers.  In every place that they appear they have had a large Christian cross welded on top of them, intended to forever illustrate Christian dominion over Islam.

As we neared the end of the tour we passed this small heavily decorated home.  Each year there is an annual competition among the women in the Albayzin for the most impressive and best-decorated house.  This one showcases local plate/tile work combined with a wonderful mixture of fresh flowers. As we paused and took in the sight, the construction workers renovating the house across the street paused – watched – waved and smiled our way eager to see people enjoying and appreciating a local cultural icon.

I wrote earlier about the strange juxtapositions of old and new that seem to be every day occurrences in ancient medieval cities.  I snapped the following shot spur of the moment and can’t help but feel it illustrates those strange contrasts:

The gateway is actually the old city gate through which all of the Albayzin’s original traffic was funneled.  It dumps out into one of the longest running market places in Granada…A small square that has by all accounts been a market in some shape or form far longer than all of the cities in the Western U.S. have existed.

To add to its mystique, the gate still has rusted old weights nailed above the entrance as a warning to those wayward merchants who would cheat their customers. I’d rather not dwell on what else was no doubt nailed beside the weights a few hundred years ago. Now the gate serves as a normal street – trafficked by pedestrians and the odd moped. It even has a rather flavorful piece of graffiti which you’ll no doubt  recognize. What a clash of different worlds.

Once through the gate we found ourselves in a large open area next to one of the largest cathedrals in the Albayzin.  The square led up to a wonderful viewing area full of local gypsies, artisans and musicians all set to the backdrop of the Alhambra across the way – beautifully framed by the snow capped Sierra Nevadas.

There we bid our guide goodbye, tipped him and set off to find lunch. Before long I’d scarfed down a chicken kebab and was sitting in a tiny internet cafe fingers furiously pounding away as I tried to get caught up on my blog posts.  From there it was back to the hostel to find my bed, wash up and take a quick nap.  Then the evening’s explorations began!

Stay tuned for stories of cave bars, odd live Flamenco, late nights in beautiful old cities and more!

Goodbye Cadiz and Hello Granada!

Leaving a place you’ve thoroughly enjoyed is always a bittersweet experience. On the one hand you have the knowledge that the next place will most likely be just as good and may even be better, on the other hand you have to acknowledge the end of a small portion of your adventure.  As I waited for my train on the benches in the photo above I spent time thinking about how much fun I had in Cadiz. The people at the hostel and throughout the city had been wonderful, the food had been some of the best on the trip and time spent near the ocean always leaves me feeling wistful.

Eventually my train arrived and I scooped up my day pack.  Fully laden I made my way to my seat, settled in and prepared for the 2 hour train ride to Dos Hermanas where I had a 2 hour rail layover before catching a train east to Granada.  The view out the train windows was beautiful. It’s truly striking how the hands and presence of man has altered everything you see.  Mile after mile the countryside was covered in a patchwork of beautifully manicured, freshly tilled fields…it feels more like a giant, expansive golf course made of brown and light green hues more than the rural Spanish countryside. It’s amazing to think of the landscape as it must have been thousands of years ago – covered by wild, natural forests, covered with rocks, moss and wild animals.

Dos Hermanas was a fun, albeit fairly industrial, city located about half way between Madrid and Cadiz. With 2 hours to kill I decided to set out into the city and explore a bit instead of sitting around at the train station watching the seconds drag by. With my large backpack on my back and my day pack strapped to my front, I wasn’t eager to walk for too long but did want to explore the city and hopefully a local tapas bar.

From the small square in front of the train station I made my way to the left down a series of quiet avenues which looked as though they probably cater in some capacity to tourists during summer.  After passing a number of closed restaurants and pricey looking tapas bars, I eventually came to the main square with a small beautiful fountain and smaller Spanish cathedral. As I paused to rest I enjoyed architecture that reminded me heavily of Mexico.

Feeling as though I’d traveled about as far afield as I was comfortable doing, I picked a small side street that looked as though it paralleled the way I had come and started back towards the train station.  Within a block I found a small hole in the wall with a large number of locals.  To my delight they had a daily tapas list and hearty special.  Before long I was sitting at the tapas bar with my bags leaning against my legs and a full spread laid out in front of me. A glass of Spanish Alhambra beer by my left hand, a small bowl of albondegas with fresh french fries, a bowl of chunks of torro in albondegas sauce and a pork loin sandwich on my right.  Using the bread that came with it I quickly devoured all 3 plates soaking up the sauces and juice before downing the rest of my beer.  Total cost of the meal?  Just under 5 Euro.

With a full stomach and a large smile on my face I continued to the square in front of the train station where I paused to peruse several stands set up with various Moroccan and Middle Eastern items before making my way back inside and reading for a few minutes. As the time for my train grew closer I began trying to figure out which track my train would be arriving on. Unfortunately, the announcements were all in heavily accented Spanish, my ticket wasn’t marked and the station lacked the normal TV screens displaying the arrival track assigned to incoming trains. I asked a few individuals in broken Spanish and received answers that left me waiting for the train on Platform 1.

Much to my surprise and concern a train arrived at track 2 right at the time my ticket had listed – in a flushed rush I flew down the subterranean steps which led to track 2 and bolted up just in time to try and ask several of the passengers on the now nearly departing train.  As I was about to board another train arrived back on Platform 1 and I realized I must be looking at the wrong train.  With a gulp of air it was back down through the walkway and back up the other side where the security guard I had talked to earlier beckoned for me to hop on the train that had just arrived. Feeling rather dense and generally relieved I hopped on board, hoisted my backpack into the overhead shelf and collapsed into my seat relieved.  Luckily the rest of the trip to Granada was uneventful!

I arrived in Granada sometime after dark. I don’t recall when exactly, though I think it was probably around 8PM. The air was significantly crisper than I had gotten use to in Cadiz but still refreshing.  Bundled up I quickly fished my gloves out of my day pack, took a look at my directions and then *sighed*.  The directions mentioned catching a bus straight out from the train station…unfortunately there wasn’t a bus stop to be found.  In usual form I was without a guide book or map and just scratched my head, paused for a moment, took a deep breath and began walking down the large avenue that stretched up a small hill and connected the train station with a main cross street. By the time I reached the cross street I saw several bus stops and made my way over. After reading the text directions I’d printed out I figured out which side of the street I needed to be on and managed a decent idea of which bus lines to take.

After a 5 minute wait, the bus I needed pulled up.  It was packed to the point that even standing room wasn’t really an option. Not in the mood to get pick-pocketed or accidentally kill someone with my backpack, I elected to wait for the next one. Another 5 minutes passed and running behind schedule, the 7 line showed up.  I asked the somewhat unfriendly bus driver if the bus went to the stop I needed and got a gruff ‘no’.  Apparently, it was his last run.  With two strikes down I was pondering just trying to walk the 4 stops to where I needed to go but without a map or any clue where the bus line might turn I elected to wait and give it one last shot.

Ten minutes later another bus from another route arrived. Luckily, as with the others, this stopped at the stop I needed.  Unlike the others it was nearly empty which made the trip nice and easy.  A 5 minute ride later I was standing on the street corner glancing at my directions.  In short order I found the street I needed and began heading up hill into the winding maze that is the old Moroccan Albayzin. Just as I was starting to get into the warren of small, shoulder-width streets I saw a sign for Oasis Backpackers hostel.  The sign led me down a sequence of streets before eventually dumping me at the hostel’s front door.  Relieved, but with a knot in my stomach, I headed inside.

I hadn’t quite gotten around to booking ahead when I left Cadiz and had arrived in Granada a bit later than anticipated. Tired and a little grumpy from the bus experience I got buzzed in and slightly out of breath asked about availability. The Swedish guy working the front desk was sympathetic but informed me that they were all booked up for the night.  Only slightly put off I asked about the following 2 nights and quickly reserved them with the intention of returning the following day – Oasis had been highly recommended to me by several people, including my buddy Scott Dare who is an Australian I’d met on my previous trip to Europe.  I’d also thoroughly enjoyed Oasis Granada’s sister hostel Oasis Seville and was eager to repeat the experience.

With my following 2 nights booked, I got a map and hostel recommendation for the night from the Swede working the front counter. Eager for a shower and a place to dump my bags I set off into the Albayzin. Unfortunately for me the hostel he had recommended was the Makuto Backpackers Hostel which is a great little hostel but located at the very top of the Albayzin.  By the time I left Oasis it was easily 9:00PM – slightly worried about getting mugged in the maze of small, winding alleyways-that-were-streets I began my ascent.  Legs pumping, out of breat, I followed the directions he had drawn on the rather clunky map he’d given me.  As I made my way up the steep hillside I saw a backpacker walking ahead of me. As I gained on her, I realized she was a traveler and assumed she was looking for the same hostel.  Eager to team up and sympathetic to how she must be feeling as she made her way through the deserted Albayzin at night, I called out to her and quickly asked if she was also seeking the Makuto. After a quick look of alarm she turned, took in my backpack and with a somewhat relieved look on her face introduced herself. She was a Slovenian girl who was biking across Spain.

Together we tackled the rest of the hill and after a few dead ends and wrong turns found the hostel.  The hostel was a great little place with a small bar, hookah tent, kitchen, clean rooms, nice bathrooms and a TV room.  If it had been somewhat busier I probably would have gladly stayed there for the rest of my time in Granada. We both got checked in and then went our separate ways. Tired I elected to settle for a quick shower and the 3rd and last quiet evening of the trip.

I unloaded my bags, made my bed and checked my e-mail before asking the receptionist for a good place nearby to eat. Her recommendation was a small place about a 5 minute walk away that she said was affordable and had great Couscous.

The place was a fun little hole-in-the-wall. Nothing spectacular but it smelled good and I was starving. I took a seat and placed my order.  The owner spoke excellent English…French and Spanish as well.  He made several recommendations which I followed. I failed to check the price as I normally do. 10 minutes later I had the meal (detailed in the video above) steaming in front of me.  Lamb couscous, a delicious broth soup and a soda left me hankering to dive right in. The food was good if somewhat bland but did a wonderful job warming me up.  I finished up, got the bill and after a slight grumble to myself prepared to make my way back to the hostel. Total cost of the meal was about 15 Euro – which compared to the 17 Euro hostel I was staying in left me a bit annoyed with myself.  The Couscous alone had been just over 10 Euro – not exactly the affordable meal I had in mind when she recommended the place.

After a leisurely stroll I found my way back to the hostel. I relaxed, read for a while and then crawled into bed.  It had been a full, but good day.

Tomorrow I’ll head down to the Oasis, get checked in and then set about exploring the city!