Our version of the Spanish Grand Tour

Our version of the Spanish Grand Tour

My college roommate came to visit us in September. We’ve been friends for longer than either of us care to contemplate at this point in our lives.

A long first day in Spain: arrival in Madrid at 9:30, shower at the hotel, a quick bite, then to the Prado to see the temporary exhibit of the treasures of the Hispanic Society of America and hit the high points of the museum’s main holdings. Then the train home to Alicante, dinner, and – finally – bed.

We settled in for a few quiet days in Alicante, including meals at some of our favorite places: Katana in the Mercado and Xiringuito Postiguet beach bar. Castle Santa Barbara and its Game of Thrones exhibit.

We then hit the road for our version of the Spanish Grand Tour.

First stop: Granada and the Alhambra. We overslept, so had to get tickets and rush to start at the Nasrid Palace, then go back uphill to the Generalife. MUCH better to get there a couple of hours early and start at the Generalife. We were surprised: the crowds were larger than any we’ve encountered yet. Not so much fun with all of those tourists!

Kim is a serious quilter, and there are patterns everywhere:

Next: Cathedral of Granada. It continues to amaze.

Then on to Cordoba, where Todd dropped us off outside the old city wall. At the recommendation of the Lovely Elena at the Hotel Amistad, we had dinner at El Churrasco. Fantastic grilled salmon, accompanied by a lovely wine, followed by a decadent dessert: a truly grownup meal for 25 Euros each!

We hit the Mezquita as soon as it opened. Again, crowds of tourists. But the organ was playing when we got there, and we were able to get into the choir. This place is in many ways more impressive to me than the Alhambra (I don’t want to hear from those of you who disagree; I know this is a minority view.)

We didn’t have train tickets on to Madrid until 8:00 that night, but our concierge showed spaces available on earlier trains, so we headed to the station. But no seats available. So we trekked (via taxi) back to the hotel to stash our bags and find something else to do.

We started at the Casa de Sefarad, the Jewish Museum in the old quarter, just around the corner from our hotel. It is a fascinating place, and most of the information is available in English. The exhibits were interesting and manageable, and the staff was welcoming. When I asked if I could get a copy of the English explanations, I was told they would be happy to e-mail that information to me. Perfecto!

Still hours to go.

Leisurely lunch.

Still hours to go.

At the suggestion of the Lovely Elena, we visited the patios at the Palacio de Viana. Beautiful patio gardens were a welcome respite from the heat. Definitely a little-known jewel.

Finally, time to catch the train to Madrid. We had enough time at the station before the train to book our San Sebastian tickets.

 

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another visit to Granada

another visit to Granada

My husband loves me. We were looking at a 5-hour bus ride from Alicante to Granada. And as much as we love us some Spanish trains, we’re not big fans of the buses: they’re just not as comfortable. So he rented a car, drove us to Granada, (literally) dropped us off at the hotel, then drove back to Alicante.

We stayed at the NH Collection Victoria, where we had stayed before. It’s in a great location, the rooms are very comfortable, and the staff is great.

Monday night, we roamed…… We made our way to a side street, where we discovered Bodegas Castaneda. What a find! We ordered the grilled cheese and the smoked fish and were about to order more when the waiter stopped us: “Basta. Is enough for two.” And it was! We managed to finish the cheese, but not the fish.

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Tuesday we tackled la Alhambra. It was no less spectacular the second time. Todd and I went in February, when it was in its winter state. This time: the COLOR! Much easier to enjoy the second time when I didn’t feel compelled to take hundreds of pictures. I decided to focus on the colors outside in the gardens and the ceilings inside the Nasrid Palace. I think the thematic focus worked out well.

The color:

Near the end of our tour of the Generalife, we encountered a dig team: a group of students from American and British universities were working with local students to uncover a glass works site. This was their first day, and they were excited, even though all they were doing was lugging water to make mud to clear off the “ugly” detritus from the 1960s that covered the original site. They agreed that their excitement would probably wane by the end of the week.

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After spending a couple of hours in the Generalife, we stopped at the Parador for a bite of lunch. Another tasty cheese plate, a couple of revitalizing Cokes, and a spectacular view of the Generalife—but the service, as we noted on our last visit, was slow.

On to the Nasrid Palace.

The ceilings:

The corners:

The doors:

And, of course, the tile:

Tactical error on my part: we didn’t have any water with us while touring the Nasrid Palace. We were pretty miserable by the time we were done. We staggered into the Hotel America and had water in the sitting room (the patio restaurant was full). As an added bonus, we had entertainment: an 80-something-year-old woman who was taking care of a 90-something-year-old man. He got up shortly after we sat down, and she delightedly explained to us that he was going to the bathroom-alone. Her accent was British, but they lived in Spain and had come to the Alhambra for an overnight visit. She announced that she conversed with strangers and proceeded to do just that. At one point, she mused that she wished there was someone who could plait her (long, gray) hair. She asked us if either of us could do it for her. We demurred. When we finished off our bottles of water, she offered us her glass. Again we demurred. So many questions about her, and about them…

We shopped before catching the C3 back to the hotel. The final C3 stop is in front of the University of Granada’s bookstore. Of course we had to go in. It was there I realized that I didn’t have the two bags of souvenirs that were my responsibility. The bus driver that was there when I realized it told us not to panic, that our bus would be back down in 5-10 minutes. He was right, but there were no stray bags inside. That bus driver hadn’t seen or been given anything. The other bus driver pulled up behind her and came to check on us. Nothing for it but to take the bus back up to the Alhambra. I backtracked and found them: in the store where I had popped in to get us some Cokes for the trip back to town. They had stashed them for us. Much gracias-ing and cheek kissing.

Finally back to the hotel for a shower and a drink. Then, at the recommendation of the hotel desk clerk, we headed for the river (a misnomer indeed) and Las Titas. Another wonderful meal in a lovely restaurant.

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Wednesday we had a leisurely morning before heading off to the Cathedral. Another second visit for me.

We returned to Bodegas Castaneda for dinner and opted to eat inside. In chatting with the waiter, we found that both Bodegas Castaneda and Las Titas had the same owner. No wonder we loved them both! A little friendly conversation netted us several free dishes and some delicious drinks.

All in all, not bad for a second trip to Granada!

Tips for visiting the Alhambra:

Book your tickets ahead of time, especially in summer; to pick them up, you’ll need the credit card you booked them with. Bypass the ticket lines and go past the book shop to the kiosks on your right. The red machines will take you through the ticket-printing process.

Allow a minimum of 2 hours to explore the Generalife before your ticketed time. I’d suggest 3-3 ½ and take a break between. The Parador restaurant has a lovely view (don’t be in a hurry). The Hotel America was open this time as well, and they have a nice garden restaurant area.

I recommend getting in line for the palace 15-20 minutes ahead of your ticketed time. Take water! We completely forgot, and we were miserable by the time we finished our tour.

 

 

the road (somewhat) less traveled

the road (somewhat) less traveled

I don’t remember learning how to read a map, but it was part of every road trip our family took when I was a child. It was nothing short of a miracle to be able tell what town was coming up next, how far we’d been, how far we still had to go. Map apps are not the same as the real thing! In Spain, I find it helps to spread out the map to get the big picture, as all roads lead to/from Madrid: Spanish highways radiate out from Madrid like spokes – sort of.

National highways, called “interurban motorways” are named with an A plus numbers. The six radial roads coming from Madrid are A-1 through A-6. Other highways have 2-digit numbers.

Regional highways are labeled with the first letter (or 2 letters) of the region. So, traveling through Andalusia, the regional roadways are labeled with an A, just like the national highways. But the regional signs are green or orange. Color matters!

On our way to Granada, we stopped in Lorca for lunch. We’ve added Lorca to the spend-a-day-there list: a great castle and an archaeological dig that you can apparently visit by appointment.

Back on the road through the Sierras in the rain. Passing rolling seas of olive groves, with each bend of the road revealing an even more stunning scene.

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Our first view of the Sierra Nevada.

We covered 350 kilometers (160 miles) on that leg.

Driving in Granada itself (and in Cordoba) is not for sissies! Snug streets that shouldn’t have cars on them at all, let alone cars trying to go in both directions with pedestrians who have nowhere to get out of the way except to duck into the door of a nearby business.

And as we left the corkscrew parking garage in Granada, Todd had to park on an incline while I got out to pay at the window. Really odd – with cars stopped on the incline behind us and ahead of us, coming into the garage.

Leaving Granada, we cut across smaller roadways just for the experience. After our rainy drive from Alicante to Granada, we were glad for the brief sunshine on the way to Jaen.

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We stopped in Moclin for lunch. The locals looked at us suspiciously – until Gnocchi discovered us. Once she had accepted us, we were met with smiles from all.

As we were loading up in Cordoba to head home, Todd realized that he had left the car keys in the hotel safe. I stayed with our bags while he trudged back to the hotel to retrieve the keys. And we were off…

Just outside Albacete on our way home, we were stopped by the Guardia in a random stop-and-search. Todd got breathalyzed. We were told that since we had residency cards, we were in violation by driving with a Texas driver’s license – we should have an EU license. Much conferring between the guardia, then we were told there would be a 500-euro fine – only 250 if we paid within 20 days. More conferring, then a call from headquarters let them know that we had 6 months from the date of the residency to change the driver’s license. Us: Muchas gracias, senor. Him: Please drive safely.

Vale!

bath day – of the Arab variety

bath day – of the Arab variety

One of our favorite experiences when we went through Central Europe in 2011 was our visit to the Szechenyi baths in Budapest. We decided bath visits should be a permanent part of our retirement.

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Then – a visit to Granada and a chance to visit authentic Arab baths at Hammam al Andaluz. For 60 Euros each, we got the full bath experience – 4 baths of varying temperatures, hot stones, sauna – plus 30 minutes of aromatic massage. An affordable splurge. A unique and unforgettable experience.

Cathedral of the Incarnation – Granada

Cathedral of the Incarnation – Granada

cathedral-spiresJust. Wow. I’m not Catholic, but it’s enough to make me believe maybe God indeed is. Of course, Charles V had to do something to show up the Moors’ Alhambra. Amazing that it’s not baroque. Many of the paintings have been cleaned recently, so the colors are vibrant and the images, clear. You just have to see it to believe it. So this blog post is all about the pictures…

 

dining – Granada

Our most fun meal was a true tapas experience at Casa Fernando (an appropriate name). The restaurant had one bar table, which we occupied, and 4 seats at the bar itself. There was room for 4-6 people to stand at the bar. By the time we left, there were easily a dozen people in that small space. With each round of 2-euro drinks, we got a plate of tapas of the proprietor’s choosing. He poured drinks, cooked, and served up plates behind the bar. The whole time we were there, I never saw the same plate repeated. Our first plate was tomatoes with olive oil and oregano and sliced grilled chicken breasts. Our second plate was sliced boiled egg and grilled mushroom caps.  Both plates had a buttery cracker kind of bread. We had 2 drinks each and lunch for 9 Euros. What’s not to love?

Breakfast was macchiato and churros with hot chocolate – perfection on a cold morning before sight-seeing!

Lunch Thursday: on the paseo under the Alhambra: gazpacho, 4-cheese risotto, and fried dog fish. Sitting in the sun, looking up at the Alhambra, watching the locals walk their dogs. We then took the C1 bus into the Albayzin up to the Saint Nicholas mirador for more exquisite views of the Alhambra and Generalife.

la Alhambra

la Alhambra

It truly is a palace of dreams. And absolutely the best way to see it is to spend at least 2 nights in the Parador. We could have stayed a week and not gotten enough.

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Every time we turned around, we found a new stunning view that was our favorite. We still couldn’t pick just one. We have 300+ pictures to prove it!

 

The Moorish Nasrid dynasty wanted to build a palace that delighted all the senses, and Alhambra does that: beautiful views (even in winter), the soft sound of water throughout, plants with different textures and smells.

We began at the Generalife, truly a place apart. We could have spent hours in each of the garden locations, listening to the sounds of the water and of birds. We watched the groundskeepers updating the flower beds with pansies to add color in February. And the views…

 

Then down to the Alhambra.

The Alcazaba, the oldest part of the Alhambra, was more about exercise (stair climbing) and views (hence the stairs) than about history.

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The best for last: the Nasrid Palace. We visited the Imperial Harem at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul a few years ago, and Todd said then that it might even be more spectacular than the Alhambra. Now I know what he meant. I would say just a different kind of spectacular.

 

 

One disappointment: the Courtyard of the Lions was partially netted for restoration. I know it has to happen, but, still.

All in all, the best 14 Euros you can spend!

Tips: You have to get tickets ahead of time, so plan ahead! I’d recommend scheduling your entrance time for mid-day, arriving to pick up your tickets first thing, then starting with the Generalife and working your way down to the palace. Food options are limited, so you might want to pack snacks.