There’s a dispute taking place in Spain as we speak: which treasure gets more visitors per year – the Prado in Madrid, or the Alhambra in Granada? I think it’s a silly squabble since the Prado, as we well know, opens its doors to anyone and everyone five evenings out of the week, whereas you can’t even buy your way into the Alhambra if you haven’t prereserved your slot in advance. I knew it was hard to visit in the tourist filled summer months, but the other day, while idling on the computer, I decided to check out the reservation system for the Alhambra and found, to my horror, that on two of the three days we are to be in Granada, all tickets to this castle-palace-fortress are already sold out. In January. So, in my opinion, the Alhambra wins, at least the desirability pagent. And, too, I read some ten years back that the monument is so fragile right now, that future generations may not be able to see it in the way that we can admire it today. We are the tail end, the last bulldozers who know how to take a good thing and wear it down for our great-grandchildren. Sigh...
Granada is smaller than Seville. One third the size, but you couldn’t tell. It feels big. And here’s another statistic – it’s only 150 miles from Seville, but the train ride takes a full three hours. It’s a local train, a lovely little thing, with big windows and pleasant views onto...you guessed it, olive groves.
At the Granada train station, I push for getting tickets for our remaining train rides. We have a wonderfully helpful agent who gives Ed a senior discount and jovially walks us through our various connections. Okay, we’re done. And then I notice that my small satchel – where I carry my computer and a few papers and books is missing. Damn! What idiot these days leaves her bag at the side of the room (never mind that the room is empty) for anyone to grab? I fly out looking in all directions, but of course, anyone taking a bag is not going to linger so that I may catch up with them. Stupid, stupid me.
The commotion causes the police officer to emerge. He looks at me pityingly and thinks ‘dumb tourist’ thoughts I’m sure, especially since he had been in the room, noticed the abandoned bag and removed it promptly.
I am very happy to get my computer back. Ed refrains from commenting on the entire episode and my role in it, which is a good thing.
As we walk from the train station to the Albayzín – the old Arab quarter – I think how different the vibe is here, in Granada. Seville is orange. Or at least it seems that way, possibly because there are orange trees everywhere. Granada is white in the old quarter and not any one color elsewhere. And here’s the big difference. I notice it right away when we walk the grand boulevard cutting through the city:
Granada is at the edge of the Sierra Nevada range. Granada is hilly.
Anyone who has traveled here will tell you that really, there are two hills to take note of: the one of the Albayzín and the other of the great Alhambra.
So naturally we get lost. We move like the dazed travelers that we are, looking at street names, wondering why none of them are what they ought to be.
We are with our backpacks of course and I note another interesting small detail: Granada draws backpackers, ones who seem to be of another era – the sixties maybe? – much more so than Seville did. In a square several blocks from our tiny hotel (we do find it eventually, of course we do, getting lost in this world for long is not so easy anymore), they congregate and bring out guitars and drums and in my mind they are stuck here in Granada, probably to escape the dreary wetness of Amsterdam, or pausing for the one last breath of a familiar continent on the way to Marrakech. It feels almost nostalgic to see them here, with their matted hair and young smiles, wrapped in layers of wool, but with bare feet. Just because.
A word on our small guest house, the Santa Isabel la Real: it’s beautiful. It may well be the gem of our travels through Andalucía. On the outside – plain and white. On the inside – a terrific little open courtyard...
...and rooms filled with antiques and art, collected by the family who owns and operates the place.
The line I’ve used – it’s cheaper than the Econolodge in Escanaba – applies here as well, even though Granada is known to be pricey. We booked the most basic room and it’s 105 E, including full breakfast, WiFi, taxes, and swigs of a delicious homemade orange liquor, made by the matriarch behind the place.
We didn’t do much this first afternoon in Granada. Oh, well, I take that back. We idled on the square around the corner from the hotel.
And then we walked up toward the back, from where we saw the first real glimpse of the reason why we’re here. There, in the distance, the Alhambra.
Oh, and, too, we strolled (nostalgically) around the hippie square and watched the great hippie bust, as a van of police officers pulled up and made a sweep of the place – not really throwing anyone out, but, making sure that any musician ws properly registered to play outdoors (a new law in Granada requires this, to keep the free music down to a dull roar, especially in the summer) and that all cigarettes of dubious legality were snuffed out.
Finally, let me end this post as we ended the day – at the tiny eatery just a few paces from us – El Ají. We come late and leave even later (last ones out at midnight) and I think we’ve succumbed to the mysticism of this strangely romantic and eerily beautiful place where nothing is ordinary, nothing is quite like you had imagined it to be.