Saturday, April 20, 2013

Spain Trip Report and Photos - Granada


On to a new Spanish city! We bid a fond farewell to Seville and our awesome hotel room.  We went on to the train station for our trip down to Granada.

Our plan was to spend two nights in Granada, specifically to see the Alhambra.  The Alhambra is the marquee Moorish palace in Spain.  I’ll talk about it more when we get there on our trip, but visiting it caused a couple of trip complications.

First, it’s freaking hard to get to Granada.  The city does have an airport, and while we booked flights out of Granada, we were going to train it down there.

Second, unlike all our other destinations, there are no Starwood properties in all of Granada and the surrounding area.  Uh oh.  That meant we were going to have to pay for our room like normal people.  As such, we suddenly had a budget (or at least I had one, my wife still doesn’t know what that word means).

Third, we had to buy tickets for the Alhambra way in advance.  And although we did it months before leaving for Spain, we weren’t able to buy the exact time slots we were looking for.  We could only get tickets for the afternoon (the tickets dictate when you can get into the site, and they’re very strict about it).  And our afternoon tickets meant we’d really have to spend two nights there despite the fact it doesn’t offer the same magnitude to sights as Madrid, Barcelona, or Seville.

Poor us, having to spend another night in Spain.  We’d have to deal.

So we took the train down to Granada, and then a cab over to our hotel.  We had found and booked it on the Internet, and I remember us debating all these various hotel options while trying to figure out exactly which ones might be decent.

We decided on Hotel Puertas de las Granadas, after lengthy and considerable debate.  The hotel was a small one located uphill along a narrow street from the major plazas of Granada.  Of course, the cab couldn’t drive up the street, so we had to pull our giant bags up the hill, but we made it with a little sweat.

Once we got there, we were welcomed by one of the most enthusiastic hotel clerks we’ve ever seen.  This guy was so happy that we were there, he almost bent over backwards to answer all kinds of random questions we have (and he told us he really liked getting to work on his English, so again our Spanish was of little use)

He directed us upstairs to our room a couple flights up the stairs, and while there was an elevator it was extremely tiny.  So I stuffed my wife and our bags in the elevator and raced them up the stairs.  Because I’m 10 years old (I beat them by the way).

We got to our room, a little nervous as to what exactly we’d find.  Turns out it was pretty nice, just a little smaller than we were used to.  The room itself was dominated by the bed, which took up a good 80% of the floor space in the room.  They saved space in the hotel by taking the television and bolting it up high on the wall.  We had a tiny desk and a tiny fridge and a tiny bathroom.

The only trouble came from our giant bags, because when we put them on luggage racks, they completely blocked the one pathway around the bed.  We really had to hope the place didn’t catch on fire.

We also ran into another problem with our bags, specifically, that we couldn’t open them.

You see, we had these small travel padlocks on both of our suitcases.  We have these tiny padlocks because my wife is convinced that airline employees are determined to steal our socks and underwear.  And if you don’t lock your bags like Fort Knox, the airline employees are going to take all your stuff and, presumably, start dressing like you.

So, to make sure that doesn’t happen, we have these locks.  Of course, the risk with the locks is that you might leave the keys somewhere in a Seville hotel room hundreds of miles away.

Uh oh.

Now my wife and I are trying to figure out what to do.  The most obvious idea was to break the locks open.  Should be easy, right?  So, like we were in a spy movie, we started trying to pick open our suitcase locks with whatever we could find in our bags (this was all after a very long process of searching for the actual keys and wondering how we could’ve left them behind).

We fiddled and fiddled trying to open them.  It’s really much easier in the movies.  But we tried a lot, to no avail.

So fine, we’d have to figure out how to break open the locks.  I figured something like a bolt cutter or at worst, a hacksaw, would’ve done the trick.  But, we didn’t think to bring them with us on our trip to Spain.  Our hope was that the friendly hotel clerk would have access to some tools and could help us out.

Back down the steps, where we tried to explain the situation to the guy.  He seemed to understand, but looked worried as we asked him to help us find tools.  He said he would go look and see what he had.
Accepting that, we went back up to the room to go back to our futile lock picking efforts.  We worked at that for a little while until he finally came back a little sweaty as if he had been running up and down the stairs.

He brought with him, a pair of scissors and a messed up screwdriver (believe it was a Philips head).  There may also have been a box cutter.  Clearly they don’t do much maintenance at Hotel Puertas de las Granadas.

For the next half hour, my wife and I tried to bust open our respective locks with the tools.  I was trying to work the scissors and alternated between trying to cut through the metal lock and trying to use the scissor blade as a key to turn the lock itself.  My wife tried similar stuff, but it really wasn’t working that well.  Had it been a spy movie, we would’ve definitely been captured, tried for treason, and hanged.

But fortunately, we weren’t spies, and after a long enough period of time, my wife finally cracked through the first lock!  I’m still not even sure how she did it, but I snapped the second one soon after and we had clothes again! Hooray!

Now that we had successfully broken into our luggage, we freshened up a bit and headed out to see some of Granada.  The city was significantly smaller than our other destinations, and it was easy to notice.  Although the main plaza had some hustle and bustle to it, there were just fewer people everywhere, and the city itself was a little less tourist friendly (not by much though, with the Alhambra just up the hill).

The first thing we did once we got going was to stop by the bookstore in town to pick up our Alhambra tickets for the following day.  I had nightmarish scenarios running through my head of the store not finding our tickets or the order not being processed, but those were quickly put to rest when we grabbed our tickets (I moved on to nightmarish scenarios about forgetting the tickets).

With the only major errand of our trip (except for buying new suitcase locks) out of the way, we embarked on yet another walking tour of Granada.  It took us around different buildings close to the center of the city, and suggested we take a tour of the Granada cathedral.

But at that point, we officially put a stop to the cathedral madness.  We had just seen a bunch of them, and that was MORE than enough for a long while.  How many of these things could they build anyway???  I didn’t need to see another cloister, or fancy room with gold things, or whatever the heck a knave is.  Especially if this one wasn’t even as nice as the ones we saw in Madrid, Toledo, or Seville.  I’m in no rush to check out the 4th greatest anything.

We did, however, check out the royal chapel, which wasn’t all that far from the cathedral.  The chapel was a great deal smaller than the cathedral, and featured the tomb of Ferdinand and Isabella, which we felt was worth seeing. 

The tomb itself was pretty neat (I mean, as neat as a tomb can be).  There was an ornately carved gravestone marking the tomb itself, which featured the likeness of the King and Queen.  Then you went down a narrow staircase for a view in to where the coffins sat, with Ferdinand and Isabel and their family.  Kind of like Indiana Jones, only we didn’t bust open the tomb in search of the Holy Grail.

Like any good visit to a grave site, we followed it up with some ice cream at Los Italianos.  I can’t remember exactly how good the ice cream was, but we had to go there at least in part because Michelle Obama had visited it.  That made me wonder why Michelle Obama had been visiting Granada, and where she stayed (assuredly not at Puerta de las Granadas).

The ice cream helped us a bit, but we had pretty big plans for the evening and more food was in order.  We had made arrangements to go see a Zambra show (explanation to follow), but the transportation would leave a pre-arranged location and a pre-arranged time and would leave without us (or so we were told).

Given that knowledge, we thought it best to eat before the show, which provided another opportunity to tapas crawl.  A particular stretch of road in Granada, Calle Navas, was reportedly a hot spot for tapas hopping.  More specifically, my wife was enthralled with the idea that at each bar, they would give you a free tapa with every drink (I tried explaining to her that the price of the tapa was clearly built into the price of the drink, and that it would be the same as buying them both, but she would have none of it).

So, we made it our mission to buy some drinks and get some free tapas.  It was easy enough to do, although the sometimes the hardest part of a tapas bar crawl is figuring out where to start.  You see a million different places that all look like they have about the same exact stuff, and none of them seem particularly cleaner or better than the others, and so you kind of debate it for a while and try and think of what can make a perceivable difference between the places until your wife just gets mad at you and then you pick the next one you see!

We sampled a couple different places, typically ordering montaditos (mini sandwiches) which my wife found exceedingly cute.  I also tried some more of their vermouth, which I still didn’t love, but it’s what they do there, right?

The last place on our tapas crawl was a place called Bodega Castenada where we actually got some more substantial food.  In particular, we had one dish combining potatoes, cheese, and vegetables that my wife went crazy for.  It was really good, and while we would’ve liked to sit there and enjoy it, we also had a very specific time to meet our driver for the show.  That led to me being generally not pleased with the slow lackadaisical approach of Spanish waiters, who refused to allow you to pay the check when you clearly had to be somewhere.  It’s probably something they’re not used to with the whole 25% unemployment thing.

We finally got out of there and had to hustle back towards our hotel where we would meet the driver.  
But as we hustled, we ran smack into a mob of people crowing the main streets of the city.  They had congregated at one of the major intersections, and although we kept to the edges of the crowd where we could gradually make our way past them, we slowed up to try and figure out what was going on.
The group appeared to be mostly young, unwashed folks.  It looked like it could be a Spanish version of Occupy Wall Street.  It was hard to tell exactly what their message was, but pretty soon we realized we were in the middle of a protest rally.

The crowd would chant, some of them had signs, they appeared to be very dissatisfied over something.  We couldn’t tell exactly what the deal was (we were also trying to get to our bus, so we didn’t have time to hang around), but it seemed like they were protesting something to do with education.  Maybe it was something to do with employment (which for young people in Spain is extremely high).

Taking a stand on the Spanish economy wasn’t high on our list of things to do while on vacation, so we pressed on, eventually making it through the crowd and down the street.  Our bus was on that same street, and when the time came we boarded along with the rest of the crowd (primarily Americans).
Our destination that night was the Albayzin, a district of Granada that sits along a hillside opposite the famed Alhambra.  However, the Albayzin, unlike the rest of the city, has a terrible reputation as an unsafe area.  It was pretty amazing how our guide books essentially said, ‘Do not, under any circumstances, go here at night by yourself…you will almost definitely be robbed and murdered’

Alright then, we’ll go by bus!

You might wonder, why the hell would we want to go to such a place?

Well, the neighborhood has character, with tiny winding streets and some houses built right into the side of the hill.  We were going to just such a house that offered dance performances (similar to flamenco, but with very important differences).  Our bus was going to take a bunch of us deep into the Albayzin for the show, and they assured us, they’d also bring us home safely afterwards.

Of course, the protest through a bit of a wrench into those plans.

You see, the city of Granada isn’t all that big.  And when you have a bunch of protestors that decide to shut down the city’s primary intersection, well, you sort of limit the options for a busload of tourists.  Simply, there was no other route for us to take up to the performance.  We would have to sit and wait for the protest to disperse a little bit.  The driver didn’t seem to like my idea of simply rolling right through the protest.

We also had a slight complication from one of our passengers, a younger girl (mid-teens maybe) who was sitting on the bus with what appeared to be her grandmother.  At some point, the girl decided she had to leave the bus, for reasons that to this day remain a mystery.  But she gave everyone the impression that she’d be right back and that the bus shouldn’t leave without her.

But shortly after she left, we got the message that the protest had been cleared and the roads were open again.  So what were we to do?

Well, we waited, and waited, and waited for a pretty long period of time for this mystery girl to return. 

At some point, her grandmother, who seemed a little oblivious, made phone contact with her and learned that the girl, in fact, would not be joining us (I assume to go have fun with someone who would eventually kidnap her and sell her into slavery a la Taken, but this remains just a theory)

Once she confirmed her absence, the bus finally began its journey up the hillside, through the winding narrow streets towards the performance.  I have to give a lot of credit to the bus driver, who, in pretty much total darkness, had no problems navigating the streets at what felt like a dangerously high rate of speed.  Also compounded by the fact that the streets were so narrow, meaning another car from the other direction or a wayward pedestrian left little room for error.

Despite the conditions, we made it to our destination safely, and as we stepped off the bus we were quickly ushered into a small cave/house for the performance.  It’s weird to being to describe a house as a cave, but that’s exactly what it was, a long symmetrical cave stretching back maybe 40-50 feet.  The ceiling and the walls were one large semi-circle, almost as if the cave were the top half of a long cylinder.  The ceiling was low, maybe 10 feet of the ground, and the walls were covered in pictures and articles, each describing the rich history of dance performances there.

There were also chairs set up around the edges of the cave, stretching back all the way to the rear.  Most of them were filled with people (guessing those whose bus wasn’t blocked by protestors or the confusing plans of a teenager).

We were quickly ushered towards the back of the room where some open seats remained.  Once we were seated, the performance began with passing out cocktails (a tradition I can get behind!).  But with everyone seated and attentive, the Zambra dance performance began.

A trio of women, each decked out in colorful dresses, performed the traditional dance while we watched.  Their performance was impressive, and loud.

The dancers strode up and down the floor between the chairs, rhythmically gyrating (hard to describe, but that’s the best phrase I could come up with).  They also clapped, a LOT.  The clapping was so loud and intense, that we wondered exactly how their hands could take it. (As an aside, one of the dancers looked exactly like my cousin.  That made it really hard to concentrate on the dancing itself)

But the performers were very talented, and really gave us a sense for the traditional style of Zambra dance.  Even after the show ended, as we were milling around the bus and saw the dancers lighting up cigarettes before hopping in a beat up sedan, that didn’t do much to destroy the impression.

With another cultural excursion complete, we boarded the bus and enjoyed a quick if slightly terrifying trip back to the main plaza.  Once we got back, we were drawn to the siren song of the local gelateria (which was hard to miss, given that there were at least three or four surrounding us).

The late-night gelato was enough for us, and we retired for the night.  Or at least we thought we did, until about 4:30 in the morning.

That’s about the time each of us woke up, sweating like crazy.  Somehow, we had inadvertently turned off the air conditioner.  Or we hadn’t set the timer long enough.  Or it was broken.  At that moment, I was in some crazy sleep deprived state with no ability to see and even less ability to interpret our crazy Spanish remote control.

There is no way to overstate how complicated the task seemed.  The major issue was just a weird remote, with no easy to interpret buttons.  TV remotes at least have general guidance and universal symbols that are clear.  Up arrows…down arrows…etc.  This air conditioner had none of those.

I would’ve taken ANYTHING clear.  Blue vs. red, pluses vs. minuses, something with clear direction would’ve at least been understandable.  These buttons were random as all hell.  It may as well have been a bunch of Korean emoticons.

I did what any man would do.  Start pushing the buttons as fast and as hard as possible in any sequence I could think of.

After what seemed like forever, I mashed the right combination, or at least one close enough, and air started coming out of the tiny box on the ceiling.  Ah.

Back to sleep with a note to myself to only stay at Starwoods from now on.


Despite our early morning air conditioner-related interruption, we got up on Wednesday excited with our plan to go off to the majestic Alhambra.  This was the whole reason we came out to Granada, and we prepared ourselves for a busy day of sightseeing (i.e., packed a bag for the day, put on our best workout clothes, etc.)

After leaving the hotel, we made one quick stop before the Alhambra.  A quick breakfast on the plaza.
But there wasn’t time to waste (although our tickets weren’t until 2pm).  Weather-wise, we could not have picked a more perfect day.  Sunny and bright, without a cloud in the sky.  We came prepared, as we were both decked out in effective workout gear, cameras in tow, with sunscreen coming out of our ears.  Yes, we epitomized your average tourists.

Now the Alhambra is a giant fortress, and as with any medieval fortress, it was built for the strategic advantage of maintaining the high vantage point.  That meant the views were incredible, with sight lines clear across the countryside.

But, in a physics sense, that also meant it was going to be a long walk uphill to get there.

Hence the workout clothes.

We hiked up along the roads leading towards the fortress, and as we got closer the roads quickly took us out of civilization and through densely wooded areas.  So as we approached, it was really hard to see any part of the structure.

In fact, as we eventually found a gate into the complex (we could guess by the fact that it was a gigantic guard tower and had all the trappings of ancient Islamic architecture), we weren’t even sure we had found the right place.  That was reinforced by the fact that the gate seemed totally alone, without any other tourists or professional staff.

It looked like something out of Temple of Doom, but it also looked like it might be a way in.  So we stepped through the tower, followed along the pathways, and emerged onto a bustling plaza of tourists.

The main area where we stood allowed us to get a great vantage point on some of the main attractions of the Alhambra.  With a good while until our 2pm tickets for the main attraction, we thought we could go see some of the other sites in the meantime.  First on our list was the Alcazaba, the heavily fortified ruins that were the oldest part of the site (all details are if I remember correctly, btw).

Of course, our trip into the Alcazaba was cut short when the woman working the door wouldn’t let us in.  Apparently our 2pm tickets extended to more than we expected.  So no Alcazaba until later in the afternoon.

OK, we thought, that meant we had to just find some other sites to check out until 2pm.

The first site we actually found open, was the Palace of Charles the V.  That part was free to the public, and as we walked through it, it was easy to see why.  There just wasn’t much going on in the place.  Whereas most of the palaces we’d seen earlier in the trip were filled with room after room or ornate detail, the Palace of Charles the V was really more of a large rotunda, with an upper balcony level overlooking the flat center below.  Almost like a mini Coliseum.  It was hard to imagine it as a palace, and looked instead as though it was used exclusively for performing arts. Apparently they still hosted concerts there.

The Palace also had a museum with some artifacts, so we checked those out as well.  Of course, that didn’t take up all that much time, so we wandered through the remaining areas which were open to the public without tickets.  We checked out some of the area, and while we tried to get interested in it, it was a little hard with the knowledge that all the famous stuff was still to come.  You can only have so much energy for medieval architecture and history, and we didn’t want to blow it all on some of the appetizers before the main course.

But finally, after a good long while, we got to 2pm.  And with that, we promptly lined up and were admitted to the Nasrid Palaces.

The Nasrid Palaces represented a massive, and intimidating set of rooms to tour.  Fortunately, we were armed with our guide book and its self-guided walking tour.  The tour didn’t disappoint, as we moved from room to room checking out all kinds of ridiculously meticulous details.  Each room had a shocking level of precision in the walls and ceilings, which had to be painfully carved by hand (especially considering electricity hadn’t been discovered yet).  Imagining the level of resources it had to take to get that constructed was sort of mind-blowing (although it would admittedly be much easier when you’re the absolute ruler of the country.  Obama would have a much harder time getting this kind of infrastructure spending through Congress).

Some parts of the Nasrid Palaces were under construction, specifically the Court of the Lions, one of the more famous areas.  But even with that slight disappointment, it was still an absurdly cool tour.  If I remember correctly, we saw a room where Washington Irving stayed while he wrote his Tales of the Alhambra (Although what seems odd is that he must have lived there during the 1800’s, at which point the palaces were like 400-500 years old.  That would be the equivalent of us staying in places built in the 1600’s.  Would that even be something you’d consider?  I assume you’d get typhoid just by looking at a building that old.)

Once we emerged from the Nasrid Palaces, we turned our attention to the Alcazaba.  If the Nasrid Palaces represented the ultimate level of detail and sophistication, the Alcazaba represented the exact opposite in its rough, strong, ramparts and towers.  Purely utilitarian, walking around the fortifications made you wonder what in the name of god could’ve conquered such a thing. (FYI – it was surrendered, not conquered)

The walls and towers provided ample opportunity to walk the steps of a sentry (and come face to face with my dislike of cliffs).  We walked around the walls, stopping to climb the towers.

When we reached the top of the tallest tower (along with a bunch of French students), we were rewarded with expansive views all around.  We could even see snow-capped mountains in the distance, while the city of Granada sat below.

After we descended the tower and left the Alcazaba, we stopped for ice cream from an ancient medieval ice cream parlor built by the Sultans (or maybe it was more recent, there was no clear indication).

Refreshed between the ice cream and an absolutely necessary shade break, we went off for the last big section of the Alhambra we were going to see, the Generalife (Hen-Err-Ah-Leaf-A).

The Generalife sounds like it should be a Central American dictator, but in reality it was another palace set back among a series of lush gardens.  Again, these medieval folks really loved their gardens.

The Generalife was very serene, as you might expect from a lot of neatly manicured gardens.  It seemed like a great wedding venue for anyone thinking about planning their event in Granada (bonus: it would be difficult for anyone to storm the palace and stop the wedding)

It was a good way to wind down our trip to the Alhambra, walking among the fountains and courtyards and enjoying the still pretty darn impressive views.

But the afternoon was coming to an end, and with that we started to make our way back to our hotel.  Of course, I already talked about how hard it would be to overrun the Alhambra, who would’ve guessed it would’ve been just as hard to escape.

As we tried to leave the Alhambra, we made our way to an exit closer to the Generalife, which seemed to be where all the signs were directing us and where all the other tourists were headed.

Fine, we thought, it wasn’t where we came into the Alhambra, but how hard could it be to find the right direction and walk back down?

Harder than we expected.

We came out of the exit, into a large driveway clogged with tour buses and their respective tourists.  Making our way through the commotion, we got out to an access road and started walking in what we thought was the right direction.

We walked, and walked, and tried to get our bearings.  There wasn’t much traffic on the road, and since we hadn’t come up that way we weren’t exactly sure which way we were going.

After another couple of minutes of walking, we got our answer, in the form of a road sign which advertised skiing if we just kept going along the road.

Well, skiing could only be further UPHILL.  We were clearly going in the wrong direction.

Some profanities were exchanged, and we reversed course and headed back in what apparently was south.

By the time we saw a Granada bus that would take us back downtown, we were happy to climb aboard.  It was a busy day of walking and the 2 Euro was well worth it at that point.

We got dropped off back at the main plaza near our hotel, and were too hungry to care about eating at one of the touristy places on the square.  We also needed agua, mas agua.

We also needed to freshen up; after all, we were going back out for dinner at a restaurant that promised us a great view of…you guessed it, the Alhambra.

Our dinner reservations weren’t until 9pm, so we had some time.  When we got back to the hotel we showered (which was absolutely necessary by then), and figured it was the appropriate time to enjoy our celebratory bottle of Cava out on the hotel’s patio area.

We sat on the patio (which was very effectively shaded) and sipped our Cava.  Although it was nice and relaxing, we had to deal with the fact that neither of us really loved the Cava.  But it seemed like we had to enjoy it, after all, it was a gift from the hotel.  So maybe we forced ourselves to drink a little more than we otherwise would have.  In our view, that’s what Spain is all about.

When it finally came time for us to make the trek to dinner, we headed out of our hotel and straight into the Albayzin.  If you’ll remember, the Albayzin was the part of town specifically highlighted as risky and dangerous. 

As we walked through it, uphill through narrow streets, we played a fun game of ‘Tourist or Robber?’ with each person who passed us (most of them seemed to be Robbers).  But I kept my hands in my pockets and tried to look menacing, and that got the job done as we didn’t get mugged on our way to the St. Nicholas viewpoint.

The viewpoint is well known in Granada for its views of the Alhambra; it’s also easy to find because there are dozens of tourists gathered around the open yard.  A short wall runs along the edge, with nothing standing between you and the fortress.  Late in the day, the view was pretty exceptional (as the hundred or so tourists with us would’ve agreed).

We took a bunch of snapshots trying to get the right light, the right angles, before settling and moving on to our dinner reservation.

The restaurant was only a couple blocks away, and it reportedly offered great views of the Alhambra.

Sure enough, the waitress escorted to our table, which was outside on a patio, right at the edge overlooking the Alhambra.  They were right, it was a marvelous view.

And as the sun set and the sky darkened, the spotlights at the base of the Alhambra lit the structure in a way that looked great even if it was historically inaccurate.  The view was the best part of our dinner, which we probably extended well beyond a normal meal to keep gazing at the fortress.

It was a fitting end to the day, which centered around the site.  And it reinforced our decision to include Granada on our trip.