Glowing in Granada
The drive from Valencia to Granada was surprising. I’m not sure what the image of Spain was that I had in mind, but it was more arid than I was expecting once we started moving away from the coast. It reminded us of Arizona or New Mexico – open, dry landscape dotted with shrubs and even some cacti. We learned the hard way that tolls are no joke in Europe and paid about €50 to drive about 5 hours.
Our Airbnb was located directly in the Albayzín region of Granada. This area is characterized by its narrow winding streets and white buildings that are crowded together amongst the hills. The steep hills and small roads were a challenge even for our tiny European car and tensions were pretty high as we tried to navigate two-way roads that weren’t much wider than a hallway.
We got burned by our Airbnb host who claimed that there was ample free street parking available outside of the apartment. There was absolutely none. We parked in a random neighborhood about a mile away and had to walk back with our packs on. It was hot and hilly and miserable. The apartment itself was fine – a studio with a bed, fridge and bathroom. What really made it worth it was the location.
Straight down the road from us was The Alhambra, a palace and fortress dating back to 889 A.D. It stands atop a hill and is visible from almost all points in the city. It looks imposing and majestic. There’s no wonder it’s the most visited monument in Spain. Kody and I weren’t able to get tickets to go inside, even though I had been looking for them for 3 months prior to our trip. (Later, we learned from travel friends that you can often get monument tickets at midnight the night before you’d like to visit because the travel agencies give back the tickets they’ve reserved but haven’t sold.)
Long and strenuous drive notwithstanding, Kody was ready to get out and explore the city as soon as we drop our bags off. We wandered downtown to a nice shopping area with a big square ringed by restaurants. The architecture was Moorish, a perfect mix of Spanish and North African styles. Most of the buildings were white, dark orange or khaki colored, which made them stand out beautifully against the blue skies. There wasn’t a cloud in sight which made me think wistfully of the open skies of Oklahoma. A small river ran down from the Albayzín and through the downtown area where it was surrounded on either side by the crowded, stacked buildings.
There’s something magical about the European method of utilizing city space. The buildings are close and sometimes built up and over each other, but it gives the impression that every corner holds a surprise. You turn one way and the cramped alleys open up into a wide city square with green space and fountains; you turn the other and somehow an enormous cathedral is hidden amongst the clutter and rises up to touch the sky. We had both of those experiences in Granada in the span of minutes. The city presses in on you like an embrace and then opens back up before you can feel claustrophobic. It’s really wonderful.
Spanish people like to smoke. A lot. It seemed like almost everyone was rolling cigarettes while they were walking or enjoying them at sidewalk cafes and bars. Later in the evening on our first night in town, Kody decided he wanted to have a beer and a hand-rolled cigarette. I used to roll my own when I was living in London (and still a smoker), so I offered to show him my skills. We found a tobacco shop that was really just a window in a wall and then… got nervous because we didn’t know enough Spanish to confidently ask for tobacco, rolling papers, filters and a lighter. The line was growing and we kept letting people go ahead of us so we could try to listen to what they asked for. Unfortunately for one young guy in front of us, his card wouldn’t work in the machine. Fortunately for us, he had ordered exactly what we were looking for, so we just pointed at it. Then Kody became the most Spanish he’s ever been with a hand-rolled cigarette in one hand, a beer in the other and tapas on the table.
The next day started with a mostly uphill trek back to where we’d left our car to make sure it hadn’t been towed or booted. Thankfully, it was still there and we didn’t seem to be inadvertently violating any Spanish laws.
There are a lot of buffet-style breakfast places along the river in the Albayzín, so we stopped in one and had our fill. The gentleman running the buffet was very kind and kept offering Kody additional coffees for free. We spoke briefly to a young Australian couple who had been traveling in Spain for a few weeks.
The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent walking aimlessly around the city. There aren’t many tourist destinations in Granada. People mostly come to see the Alhambra and to wander around the city. It is well-kept and very clean, so walking is an enjoyable pastime. We couldn’t quite figure out what it was, but the air smelled really fragrant. It was floral, citrusy and intoxicating. Which, incidentally, isn’t a terrible description of the city itself.
Following the narrow roads, we found ourselves soon on a very big, steep hill. The spaces between the buildings opened up to a nice view of the city below. Before we realized it, we had hiked up to the Alhambra. There is a portion of the grounds that is open to the public, just between the two sets of walls, so we were able to walk down the hill that way. We didn’t see much of the structures within, but there was some pretty plant life and water features for us to admire. The path opened up right by our apartment, which seemed like a sign that it was time to take a nap.
Later in the afternoon, we walked up to Plaza San Nicolas for a view of the fortress from higher up. The plaza is on a hill directly across from Alhambra and the space between them is not obstructed. It’s crowded at the top and there are plenty of sidewalk hawkers selling keychains and jewelry. We sat there for a bit and then went to a bar nearby for a few drinks. The couple next to us was speaking a mix of English and Spanish, but the man had a distinct Texas accent and we ended up introducing ourselves to them. Ingrid, originally from Costa Rica, and her husband, Russell, were in Granada for the day. The four of us talked for an hour or so before deciding to get a table together and have a few more rounds. They were friendly, warm and well-traveled.
Our last day in Granada was a “treat yourself” day. We booked treatments at a Hammam, or a Turkish bath. They didn’t allow photos inside the bath area, which is too bad because it was surreal. The baths were four pools of varying temperatures secluded in small alcoves. The first bath was ice cold and in a room that looked like the inside of a cave. There were two choices for lukewarm baths – one that was only 6 inches deep for you to lay in and one that you walked down stairs into. The lower level bath had a skylight that let in pinpricks of light which ricocheted off the tiny colorful tiles on the wall to give the whole area a hazy, otherworldly glow. The hot bath was at the end of a hallway and looked more like a traditional pool, although it was smaller and had white columns rising out of it.
People were moving dreamily from one pool to the next and everyone seemed to have a lazy, contented smile on their face. There was a hallway in the middle with a wide bench at one end housing 4 or 5 teapots filled with sweet, hot Moroccan mint tea. Kody and I each probably drank a gallon of it. The hot tea and the constantly changing temperatures gave me a heady feeling that wasn’t unpleasant. We both had blissful 30-minute massages and were able to finish our time in a hot steam room.
We walked out simply aglow. The hard edge of travel completely rubbed out of us, we were high on mint tea and smelled like hibiscus flowers. Neither one of us could stop smiling. It was just what we had needed.
Kody went back to our apartment and took a nap while I continued to treat myself by buying gelato and a new bikini. On my way home, I found a perfume house with its own scent “museum” holding tons of different plants used to make perfume. I spent some time smelling everything and dabbing free samples on my wrists.
We ended our evening at a restaurant with a view of the Alhambra and watched it change colors with the setting sun.
Before we even left Granada, we made plans to come back at the end of our trip when we return to Spain. As sad as we were to leave, we floated out feeling refreshed and rejuvenated for the next part of our adventure.