The Magic Of Granada, Spain

Granada – A heady concoction of mystery, magic, culture, scents, music and unexpected discoveries… Granada will hold your heart and swirl you around until you are dizzy and yet wanting more… That’s the magic of Granada!

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I really hadn’t done my read up of Granada before heading there …. so I was more excited to get there because of the place we had booked to stay. We stayed in a Cave… yes a real cave! Cuevas (Caves in Spanish) modified for living are a regular feature in Granada’s old town (Sacromonte). Our cave was managed by a very friendly Roberto who took the time to explain Granada to us. Roberto is a photographer and his eye for detail shows not only in the magic he captures through his lens but also in the way he maintains his Cueva. Cuvea de la Muralla was a lucky find on AirBnB. The cave is designed by a famous designer who has converted a dark hole into a white fantasy! We loved it so much we stayed a day more than originally planned!

If you stay at this cave make sure you keep aside time for a soak in its pristine white tub with a glass of wine and some music…. It will be a welcome time out after all the trekking!

 

So be warned… If you plan to stay in Sacromonte you better be ready for some treks up and down cobbled streets. The good part about that is that you would probably not realise how much you have walked because of the beauty that it beholds at every turn…

Another beautiful thing about Sacromonte is the game of hide and seek it plays with the magnificent Al Hambra! The Al Hambra fortress is visible from every little peek into town from the streets of old town. When you find it it’ll hold you in a trance for a second until you will yourself to move forward… Only to find it again around the next bend…

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The most important thing you should do when you plan to visit Granada is book tickets online to see the Al Hambra. It is close to impossible to get a ticket as they are booked months in advance. Only a limited number of tickets are available every day as part of an exercise to not overcrowd the monument and in an attempt to preserve its very delicate architecture and art. If you visit on a whim like we did and find yourself out of options to get a ticket- you’ll have to brave the early morning queue. When I say early morning, I mean at 4am! That’s when the queue starts for the ticket counter that opens at 9am! If you are anywhere within the 200 that reach the ticket counter before it closes you may get lucky! I was very lucky to travel with Kiron, who besides being the perfect travel partner, was also chivalrous enough to wake up at 4am…stand in the queue at 3 degrees Celsius and get us tickets on our last day there!!

There is a lot to see at the Al Hambra so make sure you keep a day aside just for that or do it in parts over two days like we did… The whole architecture, history and scale of the Al Hambra is awe-inspiring… But what I took away was the detailing in every inch of every structure! The sheer sweat and blood of the craftsmen that went into making every inch of the Al Hambra an artwork to live in… the view of the city from the Palace brings back stories of Kings and Queens looking down at the empire that they rule…. and what a beautiful view at that!

 

 

The Generalife is the country house of the palace. It was home to many famous writers and poets who were guests of the royalty. The vegetable garden, as it is more popularly known in Spanish, is a beautiful walk through tall well manicured bushes, promenade of oleanders, water ponds and cypress trees … and because we went just after autumn… beds of autumn leaves in yellow, orange and burnt amber!

 

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When your senses have had a fill of the magnificence of the Al Hambra, walk downtown to the new parts of Granada. I spent a whole day walking through little plazas- some displayed artworks, others had make-shift shops- all of them had eateries that served the best gin and food dotted around its periphery. My favourite was the art street with its eateries and the view of the bell tower. I sat there for a few many hours, inspired by all the art, architecture and Gin!

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Make your way to the Granada cathedral and you will find that most of the plazas are around this magnetic monument- Plaza Mayor, Plaza Nueva and many others. Pick one… you cant go wrong!

Granada is a fine example of how the Christian community and the Muslim community live in harmony. Both influences are strong and envelope the town with a sense of togetherness- the Al Hambra and the Cathedral of Granada. And exactly like that…. so do the streets of Granada. The new town is stylish and a great place to go out for the night if you are in a party kind of mood… and then there is Albaicin, the Moroccan mystery of Granada.

Albaicin was the surprise that my friend Kiron was saving up for me… He said, “I”ll show you something that will make you smile”…. and after an hour of following him up and down slopes and wondering to myself , is this guy just getting a kick out of making me walk…. there it was… a burst of color, energy, smells… like an Arabian fairytale had just opened its pages in the middle of a very Spanish folktale… and yes it made me smile… for a few days!

The best things about Albaicin besides its amazing street shopping experience are its Teterias – treat yourself to a hot glass of Moroccan tea and some hubbly bubbly (sheesha)- I recommend the apple grape flavour! Also highly recommended is to grab a meal here – make sure you dig into a hot pot of tagine and some light but flavoursome couscous salad at the Teteria Kasbah or any other that suits your fancy on that street. If you are with the right people, I promise you lots of laughs and a stuffed tummy!

 

No trip to Granada is complete without a trip to the Cathedral of Granada. I was especially intrigued to learn that it was built on top of a mosque after the moors were driven out. The prominent dome gives it away from the outside, from the inside though it is a very grand architecture of everything Christian. The piano with the thousands of wind pipes and the golden altar are a tribute to many a craftsmen and artists that brought this monument to life. I was so taken up by the structure that I forgot to listen to all the history on my rented electronic guide!

Evenings in Sacromento are magically romantic! Head to one of the plazas that have the view of the Al Hambra….. It’s quite a different feel seeing it lit up. Kiron and I sat on the ledge with our legs hanging off onto the street below and stared at it for hours while a couple of musicians played the Spanish guitar and the violin for the crowd there… we believe it was just for us… On cue!

And to snap you out of that… are the fingers of the flamenco dancers! Walk upto the little, almost home grown flamenco cafes and book a seat for a free glass of wine and some foot tapping fierce flamenco and Spanish music. I would recommend that you book in advance because they are all tiny cafes with limited seating. Los tarantos, Venta el Gallo are some you could explore in Sacromonte.

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Although we spent four fully loaded amazing days in Granada, we left wanting more… and I plan to keep that promise!

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Calpe- Alicante, Spain

 

Calpe– “where the sea is a wetter version of the sky….” I’m smiling at the stars swimming in the sea as I listen to my niece, Nikita Bala’s version of Regina Spektor’s song, Folding chair.

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Winter is probably a bad time to visit Alicante if you want to splash in its welcoming waters. However, I found that I could probably never, at any other time of the year, enjoy the beauty of its bay without the scene being interrupted by people and noise like I did this winter.

Alicante, was a beautiful drive from Madrid, dotted with windmills and dramatic skies adding to my already high state of mind- you know the kinds when you are smiling while you drive for no reason…. Yes, that one!

We were very lucky to have a close friend, Ian Mason and his lovely wife Empar, who hosted us at their beautiful apartment at the edge of the bay. The apartment looked out onto the sunrise at the bay on one side and the sunset over the hill on the other. What more could one ask for!

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On one edge of the bay stands a huge rock formation called the Penon de Ifach which is a limestone hill emerging from the sea. The hike up the hill is tedious but well worth the view… I am told! It would be a good idea to venture out around the hill for walks and maybe you’ll discover this little tit bit (pun intended) of Calpe that’s well hidden – a nudists beach – perfect for skinny dipping in the crystal clear waters!

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Calpe is a mix of touristy beaches and hang outs by the sea as well as classy and quaint eateries along cobbled streets in its old town. If you do venture out to old town, don’t drive… put on your walking shoes… because there really is no other way to take in the flavour of the orange tree dotted, stone-cobbled, narrow streets…. and make sure you take your appetite with you! Old town boasts of some of the best Valencian diners that side of town. Patio de la Fuente is said to have lip smacking Valencian cuisine which unfortunately was closed for Christmas.

While walking down old town, don’t be surprised if you stop and stare at the buildings- No, they are not architectural wonders- but more so wonders of art! Several buildings in old town Calpe are canvas to some awe-inspiring wall murals that bring the whole place to life- this besides the already lively community of Calpe!

The Valencians take their eating very seriously, so if you are in the bay area, head towards the Marina and find a good place to dig into some authentic Valencian sea food. We found ourselves by the yacht club at a lovely restaurant that overlooked the hibernating yachts! The place that you should however go to is Restaurante Puerto Blanco and boasts to be one of the best at the Marina. Make sure to try the Paella, Catalan fried sardines, Valencian style mussels and top it up with lots of red wine or Gin!

And if none of this can get you going from the beach side…. then… “come and open up your folding chair next to me….”

 

Seville – my one night stand!

 

 

 

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… “you don’t need magic to disappear, you just need a destination

Seville was just that! A pit stop for the soul. I say pit stop because, all we could manage on our road trip from Granada to Portugal, was one night in Seville. So… we decided to make the most of it!

Have you ever been to a party where most of the old folk are dancing and being crazy …. where they have way more energy and zest for life than the youngsters? That’s Seville… Its an old town in years but its bustling with life like young blood flowing through its veins. Its aged gracefully with stories to tell… full of culture and color.

We reached in the evening and that probably was the best time. Seville was lit up even  though it was on a hangover from Christmas and the festivities… ready to party on into the new year. Bright red swirls of Christmas flowers and fairy lights against magnificently lit up cathedrals and towers. Bustling streets with happy people- clearly there was a party at every corner!

After a quick swig of a very good year of Lagavulin malt to get rid of the stiffness from the drive, we decided to walk up to the cathedral plaza. In my head all I could think of was… the flamenco … the flamenco… Don’t miss the flamenco! … and on cue there it was… Casa De La Memoria

I have never watched a live flamenco recital before and I found that it was not just about the dance or the dancers but also just as much about the Spanish guitar and the folk singer. The precision of beats, guitar, song and each swirl, tap of the foot, clap of the hand and the shout outs of OLA were almost mathematical! A few drinks down later that evening I tried it too… Lets not get into how that went! 😉

Here’s a tip for almost any place in Spain… If you don’t know where to go for the best food and drinks in the evening always head to the Plaza Major or a Plaza around the cathedral…. which is exactly what we did. After walking around the lit up cathedral and through many cobbled streets that led back to the plaza we decided that it was time to wet our gills and we found just the right place for it. Taberna Alvaro Peregil was a hole in the wall tapas bar with only a string of garlic for décor! If you are not into standing tapas bars that date back to 1950 don’t go here… If you love authentic food and drinks like grandma made em… this is the place for you! Nothing fancy nothing pricey… Just an orange tree to stand under and some wooden tables!

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I tasted for the first time vino de naranja or orange wine which apparently is sipped like a good glass of scotch and tuna jamon which I think we had quite a few plates of! If you like cold soups, they also serve a mean bowl of Gazpacho or cold tomato soup. This place comes with the proverbial fat chef, his handsome son and a singing waiter!

The morning after I had a big fat smile on my face reeling from my one night stand of Seville… and I was ready to head to discover the cathedral before we drove out. But first… ravenous… yes stillIMG_2832…. Food!

We discovered this little patisserie around the corner of where we stayed called Pikislabi. I hear most patisseries have amazing baguettes with jamon (ham) sandwiches and the one thing I couldn’t stop eating napolitana de chocolate (chocolate croissant)- to die for! But of course we ate under an orange tree!

Now that I was well fed (read- stuffed!) it was time to discover the Seville Cathedral

The cathedral of Seville is the third largest church in Europe and also boasts of the largest altar piece in the world. I was especially intrigued by the distinct dome that seemed altered to a spire. This church like many others was built on the site of an Almohad mosque. The whole thing is quite overwhelming and like the audio book dictates the words of the rulers… “we shall have a church of such a kind that those who see it built will think we are mad”

 

Magnificent as the church was I have to admit I enjoyed the courtyard of orange trees (patio de los naranjos) more. This was just straight out of a school sketch book for me…. I remember drawing swirly orange dots onto trees but I never thought I would ever see so many of them in one place!

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I mean honestly, doesn’t the church look so much prettier with the oranges! 😀

If you have the energy to climb a few (!!) floors… make sure you go up the bell tower! The view is to die for! I got up there just in time for the bell toll and lets just say that both that and the view blew me away! 😉

Christopher has already summarized it for me…..“The air soft as that of Seville in April, and so fragrant that it was delicious to breathe it.” ~Author: Christopher Columbus

Road tripping – Spain and Portugal

I have come to realise that you will never have enough money, enough time or the right weather to make that trip you have always planned to…. sometimes you just have to start that journey.

Childhood buddies can get you to do almost anything… this is true. If it wasn’t for that chat with Kiron who lives in Madrid which ended something like… “just come, we’ll figure it all out” …. I don’t think I would dare venture westwards where my currency looks almost comical!

And so it happened… A ROADTRIP… from Madrid to Portugal and back… with stopovers on route through a myriad of scenic, magical, adventurous roads and cities and towns… each that wrote a story in my book of life 🙂

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13 days of road tripping over 2450kms covering Madrid, the town of Calpe in Alicante, the magical old town of Granada, the lively town of Seville, the mind blowing beaches of Algarve in Portugal and drive back to Madrid via Merida.

We learnt that renting a car, filling fuel, paying for tolls and all the rest that comes with having your own wheels works out much cheaper than getting on trains and buses. Added to it the convenience of figuring your way to the place of stay… So if you have a long route planned that side of the world… Get your self an international driving license and to a rent-a-car without a second thought!

 

 

A few things to remember when you venture on a road trip… always pick places to stay that have car parking… this revelation comes from lugging our baggage to old town Sacromente in Granada through cobbled streets… Its another matter that we forgot all about it when we saw the lovely cave house that we were living in! Another important thing you must NOT do is go on a drinking binge the night before your drive… this too is a revelation after struggling to stay awake for a good 100kms….!

And most importantly make sure your navigator is not a nag! I had the bestest navigator in Kiron, who was patient, extremely entertaining and who also doubled up as DJ and got all the songs just right!

Happy roadtripping! 🙂