The previous night, when we finally found the hotel, I asked about tickets to the Alhambra. We had read in the guidebook that only a certain number of tickets are issued for every entrance time, and going up there without tickets is not advised. As it turns out, every hotel in town has a certain number of tickets they can sell to guests. The hotel's computer showed how many tickets were available for each hour. We purposely booked late in the day, both to avoid massive crowds and to give ourselves a break. Our friend at the desk also gave us detailed instructions on how to collect our tickets - very necessary.
We had breakfast at the hotel's little cafe area. There's only wireless internet in the lobby and cafe, not in the rooms (often the case in this country, we see from listings), so we took my netbook and spent some time trying to book a hotel room in Cordoba, our next stop. There was nothing. Absolutely no rooms available, except in very high-end places, well beyond our budget and our desires. Completely stumped, we asked at our hotel desk and learned there is a huge festival in Cordoba this weekend and all through next week.
We decided we'd rather stay in another town and drive into Cordoba than spend a lot of money for an expensive room that we don't even want. We found some towns to try, but we had already spent more time at the computer than we wanted, and we quit for the time being. I realized we hadn't eaten anything but bread or cookies in way too long, so we found a place in the neighbourhood to have a nice lunch.
The area where we're staying is beautiful (as long as you're not driving!) - narrow winding cobblestone streets, white-washed buildings with red roofs climbing hills, many streets with steps, for foot-traffic only. There are a few touristy places but mostly it's a local neighbourhood. After a time, we took a local bus to the Alhambra. It's only 10 minutes by bus or taxi, but all uphill - steep hills that afford beautiful views.
At the Alhambra, we had to queue up to present our documents in order to get our tickets. Many tourists were incensed that, even though they had booked ahead, they still had to wait. From our experience on this trip, I will say that the stereotype of "the ugly American" is alive and well in France, Italy, Germany, Australia, Japan, and the UK. We have seen almost no Americans, but have seen a lot of ugly-acting tourists.
In any case, the wait was very brief, but the system at La Alhambra is a bit bizarre. To get your tickets, you must present your passport, plus a letter that the hotel prints out verifying that they booked for you, plus the credit card you used to pay for the tickets. I understand using the credit card, but why the passport and why the hotel letter? They scrutinized and double-checked everything before issuing the tickets, and they check the tickets with scanners at several access points along the way. No idea what's up with that.
The Alhambra sits on a large hill with commanding views of the valleys below, and consists of several different buildings. The Generalife (pronounced "hen-er-ahl-lee-fay") was like a hangout and pleasure spot for the ruling Islamic dynasty. It has beautiful views and nice gardens. I'm not much for gardens, and these were added in the 20th century anyway, so it was a bit underwhelming in my opinion. The views of the valleys - all the houses with the red-tiled rooves, churches and cathedrals - was really nice.
We walked around and saw the grounds until it was time for our admittance to the Nasrid Palace. That's the main attraction, and the area for which you buy your tickets. This is an elaborately decorated Islamic palace. I love the Islamic decorative style - the repetition of interlocking geometric designs - and this was the first time I had seen any in person, outside of a museum. As you walk through the palace, the decoration in the rooms become increasingly elaborate, patterns forming horizontal bands around the room - tile on the bottom, stonework above, inlaid woodwork on the ceilings. Much of it is very intricate, surrounding you on all sides and above, creating an almost dizzying effect. There's a courtyard with a fountain that's very famous, and some other courtyards with orange trees - currently loaded with oranges.
Much of the decoration is restored to its original splendor, after first being allowed to fall into disrepair, then "re-discovered" by the American writer Washington Irving, and subsequently being badly restored by clumsy 19th century efforts. The intricate stonework is incredible. I find the repetition of the geometric shapes so satisfying. It feels related to my love of cubism and many modernists. Walking through the Nasrid Palace in the Alhambra, I started thinking, hmmm, we should go to Istambul... The Alhambra's wikipedia page has a good overview and some key photographs of the royal complex.
After the palace, we walked through and around the giant fortress that sits on the highest point of the hill. It's impressive in its size and sheer mass. The Alhambra site also contains the Palacio de Carlos V (Palace of Charles V), built in the 1490s, celebrating Catholic Spain's takeover of the site. It's an imperial monstrosity, completely incongruous with the graceful beauty of the rest of the architecture. It does make its point, though.
All in all, the whole site is very impressive and totally unique in my own experience. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage site, our third or maybe fourth of the trip. We both enjoyed it a lot. And one bonus of our long driving day - our feet were well rested! This helped make the day even more enjoyable.
The weather was changeable all day, alternating between bright blue skies and cold drizzle. (It's supposed to be much warmer this time of year, usually around 19 or 20 C, but now around 15 C. Fine with me!) From the fortress, we could see very dark storm clouds rolling in. We had just finished our walk and entered the gift shop when it started to pour. Excellent timing! We waited out the storm in the gift shop, then jumped in a cab for a quick ride to the hotel. Allan is collecting bookmarks at most of our stops. I love the idea of these inexpensive little mementos that will follow him around in his books.
Back at the hotel, we did more hotel research, finally booking a room in a town called Zuheros, about an hour outside Cordoba. It sounds like a little rural spot.
Looking for a place for dinner, we noticed a joint a few doors down called... La Tala! Yay! A restaurant named after my little girl. Of course we had to go there. As I asked for a table, the host said, "Ah, you want to watch the football?" Sure, why not?! Allan and I have a fine tradition of watching local sporting events in pubs and cafes. In Ireland, I fell in love with rugby. I'm not much for football (soccer), but that's hardly the point. Real Madrid was playing Atletico Madrid, I gather a Goliath vs David match-up. A huge group in matching t-shirts ("Bienvenido al lado oscuro" - Darth Vader meets soccer?) was getting ready to watch the game together.
Our guidebook tells us that Granada is one of the few places that keeps the old Spanish tradition of serving a free tapa with a drink. At La Tala, you choose your free tapa or pincho (spelled in Spanish here, not the basque pintxo) from a long list. They didn't have sangria, but served something called vino verano - summer wine - which tasted like sangria without the fruit. With our second drink, another round of free tapa. We also ordered some tapas, which you are strongly encouraged to do, but with every drink came more freebies. There was actually too much food! We had: marinated mussels - big meaty mussels marinated like herring or sardines, served dry, and you put them on bread or toasts, potato croquettes, mini hamburgers, and some serrano ham. The score was tied 1-1 when we left, but back in our room we saw ATM score for the 2-1 win.
Next we are off for the town of Ronda. We've tweaked our itinerary event, which I'll explain in my next post. Thank you for reading!
Photos of Grenada - mostly of the Alhambra - are here.