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!