Sunday, December 15, 2013

¡Viva España! Granada

All too soon, my stay in Barcelona ended.  I would have enjoyed a few more days to explore the city in greater detail, but Spain’s Andalusia region beckoned.  My first stop was Granada.  I found Granada's Alhambra Palace, together with the old Moorish neighborhood that makes up the El Albayzin district, quite worthwhile to include in any visit to Spain.

I had booked an early morning flight from Barcelona to Granada on Vueling Airlines, a discount carrier.  I was unfamiliar with Vueling, but the reviews looked OK and the fare was very attractive.  My experiences with many other discount airlines throughout the world, particularly AirAsia, were mostly fine, so I didn’t worry much.  Maybe I should have worried a little bit...

My flight was very early in the morning.  I pondered how to get to the airport.  I debated taking a taxi, but opted again for the bus.  How can you beat a 2 euro transfer?  So in the early morning darkness, I stood outside waiting for the bus, hoping I had read the schedule correctly.

The airport transfer proved thrifty and uneventful.  I am a Priority Pass airport lounge member, and found one in the Barcelona airport.  The lounge’s breakfast food selection was meager and looked quite unappetizing, but anticipating this, I had brought the leftover Iberian ham, cheese and bread from the night before.  I happily munched on that while waiting for my flight to board.

The Vueling seats were cramped with zero pitch, which might have been uncomfortable on a long flight, but they didn’t make much difference on this short hop.  My bigger gripe was that the flight was delayed for almost an hour.  My other complaint was that I had checked my small luggage (which I normally carry on) because Vueling’s web site warned about its strict carry on bag policy.  As it turned out, many other passengers had carry-ons that were much larger.  So I wasted a little bit of money (grrr) and even more time (double grrr) by checking my bags.  It took almost an hour (!) for the bags to come out at landing.  Between that and the flight delay, I lost two precious hours.

Thankfully, I landed to another gorgeous Spanish day.  As in Barcelona, my research indicated that a bus transfer from the airport was cheap and quick, and it was indeed.  I took a city express bus to the Cathedral in the heart of Granada for only 3 euros.   Within Granada, there are many red mini-buses that run various local loops, including to the major tourist destinations, for less than 2 euros.  I bought a more economical 7 trip pass for only 5 euros, plus a 2 euro deposit for the electronic card.  I’m always happy to save some dineros.  Hey, there I go, using my Pimsleur Spanish again.

The 31 minibus runs often and through the Albayzin district, where my hotel was located.  I hopped on the #31 but didn’t really pay attention to the winding drive as I was now very anxious about time.   The flight delay and the checked baggage headache had really thrown a wrench into my plans, and threatened to upend my entire stay in Granada.

Granada’s premier tourist attraction is the Alhambra Royal Palace, which requires pre-booking tickets for a specified entrance window of 30 minutes.  I had booked the 2 pm entrance, which meant that if I got to the gate after 2:30 pm, I would not be able to enter at all.  Since I was in Granada for only one day, that would largely moot out the point of visiting this city!  It was already 1:30 pm, so I quickly checked in, dropped off my bags, and then hopped back on the minibus (with one transfer) to take me to the palace.

The Alhambra has two entrances, including a short cut for those with preprinted tickets which bypasses the long walk through the gardens.  The bus driver had everyone disembark at the main gate, but I realized that this was not the short cut.  I was running out of time and needed the short cut.  In my broken Spanish, I managed to get the bus driver to let me off at the next stop, and I ran through the gate and up the short hill.  It was 2:14 pm and I had arrived with 16 minutes to spare!  Whew.

I approached the first building on the grounds, thinking this was the Alhambra Palace.  I presented my ticket, which the guard scanned electronically.  He then started speaking rapid Spanish and pointed me to another building about 100 yards away. I didn't understand his words, but soon figured out that I was at the fort, not the palace.  Uh oh!  I ran over to the actual palace entrance, with only a few minutes to spare.

I took a deep breath.  I had made it.  I was a bit hungry by now, but grateful for my big leftover breakfast.  As I wandered around the palace with my guidebook, however, I quickly forgot the harried journey.  The palace was simply amazing, especially in the bright clear afternoon light.  Perhaps because it was off season and perhaps because of the strict ticketing rules, many areas of the palace were not that crowded, allowing me to capture some nice photos.  I walked around for a long time, reading my guidebook and snapping pictures.

While the palace itself is the primary attraction of the grounds, the site also has a fort, museum, garden and other historic attractions.  I exited the palace and wandered through the nearby buildings taking more photos.

My guidebook suggested skipping the museum, but the exterior looked impressive so I took some outside photos, as well as the interior circular forum, which looked very cool.

At this point, a large and very loud tour group entered the grounds, and I decided to avoid the crowd by heading over to the fort (where I had gone originally after getting off the minibus).   The fort, frankly, was a bit of a let down, especially after the magnificence of the palace.  I don’t think people will miss much by skipping this.

I then looked for Charles V Palace, which many had recommended.  I  walked back and forth, quite puzzled that I couldn’t find it.  Eventually, doh!, I realized that the Charles V Palace was the same building that housed the museum.  In fact, that circular forum that I had admired was the highlight of the Charles V Palace.  Putting a circle inside a square building was considered an elegant design concept of the holy Roman emperor.  I was a little disappointed that no interior rooms of the palace were open, but the circle was photogenic enough to keep me occupied for awhile.

Many reviewers and guidebooks rave about the Alhambra Gardens, which was the remaining major tourist attraction at the site.  I normally do not find gardens or botany that interesting.  It was also getting a little late, and I wanted to explore the Albayzin district.   While some tourists find the old Moorish area a little sketchy, with its narrow and dark paths, I was excited to experience as much local culture as possible.  I decided to skip the garden.  I walked down the hill to catch the minibus back.

My hotel was in the heart of the Albayzin neighborhood, but I hadn’t paid much attention to the neighborhood earlier in my rush to check in.  This time, I looked out the window of the minibus and caught the beauty of the labyrinth that is this neighborhood.   Amid the winding small roads were many inviting cafes, shops, and little squares.  I got off at San Nicholas square.  Many gather at this viewpoint for sunset views of the Alhambra, and I had a lot of fun exploring the neighborhood.  It wasn't sketchy; it was vibrant!

I went back to my hotel a little before sunset to freshen up.  My hotel, the Santa Isabelle del Real, was in the heart of the district and a good bargain at 75 euros.  The hotel had charm, with a nice Moorish feel that fit into the neighborhood ethos.   The staff was friendly and helpful, and I recommend others consider this little boutique hotel.

I returned to San Nicholas square to catch the sunset.  By now, many people had gathered for the views.  With the Alhambra framed beautifully by the setting rays and Spanish musicians playing in the background, it was easy to see why many people found the square so romantic this time of day.  I enjoy solo traveling, but there are times when I wish I could share moments with my special someone.

The setting sun changed the characteristic of the neighborhood, so I walked around a bit more.  I could easily have spent an entire day just poking my head in and out of the winding roads and small public squares.

By this point, I was getting quite hungry.   In Spain, many restaurants don’t open for dinner until quite late so I would have to wait a bit longer for food.  I went back to my room and surfed the web for some dinner possibilities.  I took note of the ones that sounded interesting, but fretted a bit because they seemed difficult to find.  Many other reviews, however, suggested checking out the nightlife at the "caves" in the gypsy neighborhood adjoining the Albazyin.  I thought I might try this after dinner.  

The hotel staff suggested a nearby restaurant, so with that settled, I thought I would just take some evening photos in the neighborhood until it opened.

The restaurant still had not opened by 8 pm, and I couldn’t tell when it might open by peaking through the windows.  I looked at my street map and decided just to head over to the gypsy caves directly.  It was a longish walk, but all downhill, so I assumed this would be a manageable.  Wrong!  In the dark, I somehow missed a turn so instead of heading to the caves, I ended up on a side street, at the base of the Alhambra, that winds all the way down to the main square in the heart of the Granada.  At least it was very pretty.

The good news, however, was that I somehow had stumbled onto one of the restaurants I had found on my earlier web search.  Mino Tauro was fairly empty when I walked in.  I stepped inside and sat at the bar.  I ordered a beer and enjoyed my free tapas, that normally accompany a drink order in Spain.  It was good, so I ordered more food.  I was famished and enjoyed my fill for all of 13 euros.

My hunger sated, I forgot about going to the gypsy caves and instead continued the walk downhill to the main square.  The deserted quiet aura at night provided a peaceful contrast to the hustle of the day time when the town was full of life.   Once I reached the Cathedral, I took the minibus back to my hotel, patting myself on the back for a full and productive day, not withstanding the normal hiccups of travel.

I slept well, but woke up early the next morning to catch the sunrise.  Any vantage that has great sunsets can have decent sunrises, so I headed back to San Nicholas square.   The square had been jammed with people to catch the sunset the prior evening.  By contrast, only one other photographer had stirred out of bed this morning to greet the sun.  We stood there in silence and nodded to each other as we caught the sunrise through our viewfinders.

The hotel offers a free basic continental breakfast, so I went back to eat.  The food was fine, but my goodness, the orange juice was simply terrific.

My guidebook suggested a detailed walk through Granada's Old Town area.  I started at the Cathedral, in front of which I had stood many times to catch the minibus.  I had not appreciated the massiveness of the church, as I only caught a small portion of it during the bus transfers.  It was too early to go into the church, so I continued with the Old Town walk, admiring the rest of Granada’s sights.

I went back to the hotel to check out, as I didn't want to miss my intercity bus leaving Granada for my next Spanish town.  In my rush, I think I left my change purse behind which, when filled with 1 and 2 euros coins, is not exactly small change.  What a waste, but I couldn't let that spoil my mood.  And as a small offset, I managed to use my Spanglish with the bus driver to get my 2 euro deposit back on my minibus ticket.

I had to take a normal metro bus to Granada’s main bus station to continue my journey to the rest of Spain.  The bus was standing room only, and I had a vague notion of where to get off.  I had passed the main bus station on the way in from the airport the prior day and hoped that I would recognize it.  Some other people on the bus had luggage, but I couldn’t tell whether they were headed to the airport or the bus station.

As I noodled on this on the crowded bus, I felt something brush my leg.  I looked down and to my surprise, a woman in a short skirt had backed into me and was rubbing her butt against my leg.  She then shifted around so more of her body was touching me.  My first thought was this was an accident.  My second thought was female pervert.  My third (and most likely accurate) thought, however, alarmed me greatly.  Pickpocket!  I quickly wrapped my hands around my backpack and my wallet and looked around.  I don’t know if I was targeted, but the woman immediately ceased and got off at the next stop, along with a companion I had not noticed before.

A few moments later, the bus arrived at a stop near the main station where many of the passengers disembarked.  Relieved, I went inside.  The ticket windows had huge queues but I knew I could use an automated ticket kiosk.  The kiosk was in English but several passengers appeared agitated as the kiosk had refused their credit cards.  The kiosk promptly rejected my credit card as well.  I didn't have time to stand in the queue so I tried the kiosk again with a different credit card, and to my relief, the machine accepted the plastic and spit out my ticket.  As it turns out, however, I could have just saved myself a lot of aggravation and just bought the ticket directly from the bus driver.

Now I was on to Cordoba!

As I settled into my bus seat, I reflected on Granada.  It was a bit of a whirlwind stop, but I had really enjoyed the Alhambra Palace, and had a lot of fun wandering the Albazyin neighborhood.  I hope to come back to see if I can finally find the Gypsy Caves next time.

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