MUST EXPERIENCE: GRANADA, SPAIN
Spain, as a country, is one of the most travelled in Europe. Every year millions of people fly in, drive through, or backpack around this peninsular kingdom. Cities like Barcelona and Madrid rank high among European destinations for food and architecture among other things. Although both Barcelona and Madrid are surely great places to visit often times other great cities get overlooked. In the case of Granada (Eng: pomegranate) this seems to be somewhat true.
Arriving first in Barcelona I had heard of Granada, but hadn’t considered making time for it on my trip. After a nice, but rather underwhelming few days in Madrid, only made better by day trips to Segovia and Toledo, I was ready to find something different. In the course of a hour I found and booked a hostel online and started out for the bus station. After a relaxing six and a half hour bus ride south I was in Granada in time for dinner. My hostel was in the Albayzin area of town where the streets are tight and winding. My cab was only able to drop me off a block away because of the narrow streets.
The Albayzin is the old Muslim quarter of Granada and still retains the very old world feel of its Moorish past. In many areas you can find yourself imagining the very cobblestone street you stand on 500 years before. As an American this is a feeling you can’t really have anywhere here at home, but is very familiar after time spent in Europe. To make sure this atmosphere can be enjoyed by generations to come the Albayzin was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1984.
In the heart of the Albayzin, down a narrow ally near an Arab markets, next to a small mosque stands the Oasis Backpackers Hostel. From what I have heard it is one of the best in town and it’s not hard to see why. The hostel offers all the basics (bed, hot water shower, common area, kitchen, etc) as well as a few added bonuses. The first two being connected, a bar and an outdoor patio. The third, and my favorite is the rooftop patio complete with a medium size glass floor looking down onto the common area from a few stories up. The glass floor immediately reminds me of the Willis Tower in Chicago with its glass observation boxes that let you stand over busy streets below. When you check in you receive a keychain dongle that acts as your key to get in/out of your room and the building. This place will make you feel extremely safe.
Needless to say the food is Andalusia is very good and also quite cheap. Most meals can be had by just buying a few beers. In many restaurants it is customary to serve small tapas free with drinks. In some cases the larger the drink the more tapas served. In my experience ordering a liter of beer would provide a plate of six tapas. These are always chosen by the cook and for the most part are always good. If you are just in the mood for food there are many options to choose from. Like any city today their is fast food, burger joints, kebabs, gelato, or food markets. One of my favorite hang outs ended up being a tea and hookah place near the hostel. Don’t worry about the name there are plenty of them around.
At the time I was at Oasis there was a Polish tour guide that would give daily walking tours all around the city. One such tour is a showcase of the street art of El Niño de Las Pinturas. They are all around the city and are known as some of the best in the world. El Niño de Las Pinturas is so respected in his native Granada that local businesses will allow him to paint their metal overhead doors because other taggers will not graffiti his works.
Of course, since you’re in Granada you are going to want to check out the Alhambra. This is the Moorish Muslim fortress that stands on the hill at the top of the Albayzin. The entire complex is pretty spectacular and their are often waits to enter certain areas of the fortress. Make sure to take an entire day to see the Alhambra. It is quite large and the views of the rest of the city and surrounding areas are great. If you are like me and drag a DSLR around with you there will be plenty to capture.
Across from the Alhambra on an adjacent hill in the Sacromonte district are what are called gypsy caves. These can be reached by a few winding roads on the outskirts of town. There are many flamenco schools in this area and performances most nights, sometimes even multiple times a night. This area is so well renown for flamenco that on a visit to Spain First Lady Michelle Obama and her two daughters managed to make a stop in Granada’s Sacromonte district.
The flamenco show that I attended was held in a cave converted into a small restaurant. The performance was one of the most mesmerizing things I can recall from my trip. The fast paced guitar and rhythmic foot stomping coupled with haunting vocals will leave you transfixed.
I hope that if you hadn’t already considered going to Granada you do now. I can honestly say that Granada was one of my favorite cities to visit. If you are looking for a change of pace from the list-topping big cities check out Andalusia, the southern province of Spain.