Feasts and flamenco
There’s more to Granada than the fabulous Alhambra
Walking through El Albaicin, one of Granada’s central barrios, it’s as though we’ve entered a time warp or, perhaps, some kind of fairytale. This Andalusian city is filled with castles, gardens and cathedrals, lying in wait to be discovered along narrow, cobbled alleys.
It’s enchantingly surreal, but where to start? Well, we begin at the Big Attraction, of course. The history and beauty of the city are epitomised by the Alhambra, the palace of the city’s last Muslim community, with its mirror-like ponds, walls covered with intricately patterned tiles and avenues.
The perfect times to visit are at sunrise or sunset if you have any ounce of sunshine, when the palace’s walls and the spires of its cypress trees are bathed in peach light (we are met with morning rain and grey skies so we visit around midday). However, at 6pm on our first evening the sun suddenly begins to break through, so we rush off to catch the view from one of the best vantage points outside its walls, St Nicholas Square. It is packed. Even local teenagers sit shoulder to shoulder, gazing at the monument. The palace really is breathtaking and we are by no means seeing it in its full glory.
Evenings in Granada are perfect for wandering, eating and drinking, doing a little of each as you work your way through the streets. Given our bad luck with the rain, we mostly settle for eating. Sitting by a large barrel acting as a table at Bodegas Castaneda, a tapas bar with a great atmosphere, we order drinks that are accompanied by a plate of free tapas slammed down at speed by a tiny, animated woman. We order more dishes: bruschetta with tomatoes and basil; Iberico hams; and little potato omelets. Truly nothing better. Food is not expensive; small plates of tapas cost about $4 to $7.
We weave onwards from tapas bar to tapas bar trying potato tortillas, padron peppers, more bruschetta, local cheeses, fresh bread, olive oil and tomatoes. We love the tiny fried dough balls (bunuelos) and fried-dough pastries (churros); the best places for the latter are Churreria Alhambra and the Futbol Cafe.
We begin our second day with a visit to the catacombs of Abadia del Sacromonte, which lie below a pretty courtyard lined with orange trees by a lovely church on top of a hill. The doorbell to enter the courtyard and buy a ticket from an elderly woman is a brass bell attached to a long piece of string. We receive a long talk largely in Spanish about the little museum and church above the catacombs and nod enthusiastically, understanding only the odd bit.
Then we hit the road. We worried when we arrived that hiring a car would turn out to be a waste when much of Granada is walkable, but after spending three hours pottering about in the mountains we soon change our minds. To get a real sense of the countryside around Granada, and to see the best examples of the string of gorgeous alpine-like villages in the mountains to the south, we set off in the direction of Pampaneira, an hour’s drive away. Other villages, such as Bubion, Portugos and Capileira, are particularly scenic. We pick up almond cake and freshly baked pastries filled with spinach and cheese in Granada as a picnic for our road trip, but end up having a double lunch in the village square at Pampeneira. The food at Bar Restaurant Narciso Martin is simple and only costs the equivalent of about $5.50. What a bargain.
Many flamenco shows can be inauthentic, we are warned. The audience at the atmospheric Pena La Plateria Social Club in Granada, however, is evenly split between locals and tourists. The female dancer is captivating and the music of a high standard; entrance is about $12, including a glass of sangria. Another bargain.
Without much time on our final morning, we potter about the Plaza Nueva, investigate the church of San Gil and Santa Ana, and walk along the cobbled path by the River Darro. We feel a bit sorry we haven’t had more luck with the sun, but not nearly as much as we might have done in another, less enchanting city.
Granada’s Alhambra, top; St Nicholas Square, left; flamenco dancing, above; El Albaicin and Bodegas Castaneda, below