Monday, 5 May 2014

Days 405 to 408: Granada

Granada has the Alhambra. Prior to visiting, that was pretty much my sum knowledge of the city, and pretty much my whole reason for visiting. Subsequent to visiting, I still know Granada has the Alhambra, but I also know it has a hell of a lot more. It has Granada, which it turns out is pretty just by itself. Who needs a colossal Moorish fortress on the hillside anyway?

For Danielle and I, Granada was somewhat of a holiday within a holiday. This was because my brother, Ian, and his wife, Katherine, were joining us. Granada for them was more of a holiday within an otherwise non-stop few years of child-rearing. They have two daughters, aged 3 years and 18 months, who are lovely, but obviously quite demanding on their time. This was the first holiday they'd had away together since the birth of the first, and they'd decided to join us on the travels, Granada being both a convenient time and place for them. It certainly suited us; as they desired something a little nicer than the shanty hotels and budget hostels we've become accustomed to, we hired an extremely pleasant apartment overlooking a square, which technically had views of the Alhambra - if you stood on the roof and knew where to look.

As all good holidays are, the days were spent eating, drinking, and meandering. A little shopping was also included, and it is testament to Granada that it actually provided some shopping that quite interested me. Much to the chagrin of Danielle, a truly unabashed fan of shopping, usually the only time I go near a shop is to search for a miniature model of whatever Wonder is preoccupying my time. I can visit over ten shops a day in such a pursuit - considerably more than my preferred rate of shopping when at home, which is approximately a shop a month. Granada offered models, of both the Alhambra and of its intriguing cathedral, but it also offered something else that fires my imagination - chess sets. It's more of a minor passion of mine, but I have a small collection of chess sets that I've acquired over the years, and it pains me when travelling to encounter nice chess sets that are entirely too expensive and impractical to carry. Granada caused me a lot of pain. I like attractive chess sets that are playable - none of that stupid fancy display crap that has bishops looking like pawns looking like knights or whatever - and Granada had tons. One shop especially I passed around six times during the trip, each time causing all my internal organs to quietly groan in the saddest way you could imagine at a truly beautiful set that I know can never be mine.

Granada's streets are a delight. I had in my head a peculiar misconception that Granada was a dull modern city. It was the opposite. Granada has probably the largest spread of medieval-style streets I've ever encountered in a city. A massive area was spread up a hill facing the Alhambra and liberally around the base, packed with wonky cobbled streets and delightful buildings. It's called the Albayzin, and it comes as no surprise for me to discover that its part of the UNESCO World Heritage banner that includes the Alhambra. There seemed to be an internal logic behind the street planning - at first it seemed entirely random, but actually finding your way was surprisingly easy. The hill meant that navigation involved simply heading up or down, and whatever street or lane you chose somehow ended up in the same place in the end. It was as though the streets of Granada were a large river delta, all feeding into the same place, each stream taking its own quirky course.

As far as headline acts go, Granada has other features than just the Alhambra. The aforementioned cathedral is one of the main ones. Submerged by other buildings, it could quite easily be missed if you didn't look up at the right time, although its bell tower is a chunky presence that is visible from a number of surrounding streets. The cathedral is a fat giant rather than an upright Gothic giant, in a decorative Spanish Renaissance style. It was built following the eviction of the Moors, on the site where the city mosque had once been, and in typical cathedral style took absolutely ages, roughly 150 years from a 1518 start. One small square allows a partial view of a facade.

Inside is where it really makes the impression. Costing 4, we almost bypassed it - "I've been to loads for free!" - but no doubt it was worth it. Danielle considered it the best she'd seen, and that's up against some of the Gothic masters of France. I wouldn't go quite that far, but it was splendid, and perfectly captured the balance of looking in pristine condition while still conveying the sense of age.

Our apartment was near the top of the hill, but with the buildings thinning out into just a few scattered dwellings, the hill continued up for another 20 minutes of walking. Ian and I explored there one morning, mainly because old city walls ran along the edge, with a small chapel positioned prominently. The walls were as you'd expect, old and wall-like, but worth a visit just for the views of Granada and the Alhambra alone.

Also in the distance was a battered looking, but pretty grand building. Upon asking a local, it turns out it was an old monastery, an abbey built in 1600 upon Roman catacombs. It reinforced a sentiment that had been growing since our arrival in Granada - there is a lot to see here, and you could easily spend a week of wandering about and still not see it all.

We timed our visit, entirely accidentally, to coincide with some kind of festival of the cross. This appeared to mean that many of the town squares were decorated with flowery crosses and other such stuff, and lots of girls and women were colourfully dressed in flamenco dresses. Some of the squares had music, and the city was packed, with quite a carnival atmosphere.

All this sight-seeing was fun, but I should stress that we took it very leisurely. Danielle and I have become leisurely travellers, a pastime focussed on sleep, eat, and drink, rather than frantic rushing around from attraction to attraction. Ian and Katherine seemed more than happy to join us on this schedule, and we took ample opportunity to stop at cafes for a beer or two. In weather I think is best described as warm, bright and golden, it was simply the sensible thing to do.

After four days and three nights, Ian and Katherine returned to Madrid to return to Scotland, and Danielle and I bade them farewell as we moved onto Cordoba. Holiday over - the hard work of work and child-rearing for them, and the hard work, um, of travelling for us.

One final thing. Do you know these people?

Take a good look at them. We think they were French. Well, they did a runner from a restaurant near the Alhambra, although by the time it was realised they had done so they were too far away for the staff to find. Later, we saw them on the Alhambra walls, although I'm not sure what the correct course of action is by then. So I took a photo. They seemed entirely, absolutely glum throughout their Alhambra visit (we kept walking past them and they never once smiled, and barely even spoke) so if you know these glum, miserable Frenchfolk, then tell them... hmm, just tell them they're bad people. And when I eventually make this into a book, I'm going to make this photo my front cover.

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