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!

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!