Southern Spain - Granada, Cordoba, Seville

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April 2nd 2018
Published: April 2nd 2018
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Monday, 26 March – Granada

It is so good to be in Spain after our time in Morocco! We’ve never been to this part of Spain before but just being on the European continent is like coming home. Most people in Granada speak or at least understand English so getting around has been easier than anticipated. The streets are clean, every dog and cat has an owner, the buildings are pretty and shop owners don’t bug us to come inside and look at their wares. Having said that, Granada is an interesting mix of Berber and Spanish influences. There are lots of shops selling Moroccan stuff as well as every second restaurant offering tajines and couscous.

Our apartment is on Calle Elvira (Calle means street), only 50m away from Puerta del Elvira (Elvira Gate). This gate was built in the 9th century and used to be the main gate to Granada, which was a walled city at that time. Eventually all the gates were demolished but Elvira is the only surviving gate from that period. You can see the different building materials and methods employed over the years to keep it in tact. Calle Elvira is a narrow cobblestone street with pretty houses and wrought iron balconies on either side, with the main street one block south so all the traffic and buses are on that street, together with the noise. We are in the heart of the old city.

Granada is charming, although it feels more French than Spanish. Maybe that’s why I like it. There are narrow laneways of shops to explore and plazas with restaurants and buskers to entertain. Dwayne even found pomelo (dried African lemon skin that he discovered in Riga in 2014). Semana Santa – the week leading up to Easter – means the city is packed with people wanting to see the daily processions and festivities that is the biggest celebration on the Catholic calendar. The city is humming with activity late into the night. We even saw a shop selling cheesecake slices - in a cone! It’s not my thing but the line was out the door and people couldn’t wait to get a triangular wedge of cheesecake in a round cone. Very bizarre.

We decided to take sunset shots of the Alhambra so we walked up to the lookout point and gasped in surprise as stunning snow-laden mountains at 3300m towered over the Alhambra and town of Granada at 735m elevation! Not only was the height of the mountains a shock, but the fact that they are literally behind the Alhambra – a mere 30-minute drive. We knew there were mountains around Granada but you cannot see these when you are in the town so the view was a complete surprise. To top it all off, we could even see the lifts and ski runs glistening in the afternoon sun. Apparently, it snowed all last week and today was the first bluebird day. It was cold as we watched the sun go down but the pink sky danced against the Alhambra walls, making the wait worthwhile.

Tuesday, 27 March – Granada

Today marks 18 years since our wedding. That big number doesn’t compute in my head at all. It still feels like it was only a couple of years ago and we’re in that honeymoon phase.

To celebrate the momentous occasion, we had pre-booked tickets to the Alhambra. Dwayne has been wanting to visit here ever since he purchased a board game of the same name. It was originally built as a fortress in 889 on
Alhambra during the day, with the Sierra Nevada range in the backgroundAlhambra during the day, with the Sierra Nevada range in the backgroundAlhambra during the day, with the Sierra Nevada range in the background

If you look closely on the left of the mountains, you can see the lifts and ski runs!
the remains of a Roman fortification, but the Nasrid Palace and Generalife was built in the 13th century by the Nasrid Dynasty. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The palace is an amazingly in-tact example of Arabic design with most of the rooms having ornate carvings from floor to ceiling and wall to wall in plasterwork. There’s literally no flat space of wall that hasn’t been covered with intricate plasterwork. It’s absolutely stunning. It’s not audacious like some of the European palaces, who gold-leafed everything like it was going out of style, but rather the design is simplistic in uniform lines, shapes and Arabic writing (although the craftsmanship is anything but simple). The surroundings gardens (Generalife) supported the palace both with orchards, food and beauty with a ton of water features. They succumbed to the Catholics in 1492 but their palace has been preserved through the ages.

We arrived at 8.30am to try and beat the crowds – which are huge during this Easter week! – and spent a good 6 hours there. By mid-afternoon we made our way home for a quick snack before an anniversary dinner. Unfortunately, the way to our restaurant was blocked with a procession and crowds at every corner, and we had to go several blocks out of our way and double back. That meant it was 8.30pm before we were seated and 9pm when the entrees arrived. We had chicken ceasar salad and a camembert gratin with fig jam and walnuts on one side, and a marmalade on the other. It was a whole camembert wheel that had been cooked in an oven and was oozing when it reached our table. Delish. We’d ordered a vegetarian paella for the main and at 9.30 the kitchen came out and said there had been a mix up and they’d cooked us a meat one, so had to start again. As a result, it was close to 10pm when it came out. It was very yummy, albeit quite salty, and as a consolation for the mix up, they provided a complimentary drink and mini dessert, which was just as well because we were stuffed by the time we’d finished the paella. All the food was delicious though, and worthy of an anniversary dinner. The wait service and ambience was impeccable.

Today, like yesterday, I chose to love Dwayne. Tomorrow, my choice will be the same.

One of the great things about European cities is that they throb with activity late throughout the night. At 10.30pm there were closed roads and street stalls with thousands of people meandering and enjoying the night scene. That vibe is infectious and a stark contrast to Sydney, which empties out after 6pm.

The downside to all those people who give the city a buzz, is that they swarm the sidewalks and end up at the same tourist attractions that we do! The Alhambra was crawling with tourists like ants – Germans, French, busloads of Japanese tourists, Americans, Spanish tourists, school groups, the odd British couple and us. The last time we were overwhelmed by the tourist numbers was at Auschwitz. No doubt we’ll see some of these tours in Cordoba and Seville, given that Easter Friday and Sunday are still ahead of us. We’ve heard a lot more English from tourists here than Morocco but it’s still Spanish tourists that outnumber the Anglo’s.

Wednesday, 28 March – Cordoba

It was going to cost €76 for a 2hr train to Cordoba, so we decided to take a chance and try ridesharing. This is where someone drives between two cities and they offer seats in their car. It was only €22 to rideshare so using Google translate, I created a profile on the Spanish website Bla Bla Car and crossed my fingers as I booked and paid. Luckily, the young driver spoke some English so he responded with a place to meet the next morning. We caught a taxi to the pick-up point and bang on 11am as scheduled, the green Range Rover turned up with the driver and his mate. Sergio and his friend introduced themselves and for the next two hours we had good conversation as they drove us through the countryside. It was wonderful! Sergio is a firefighting helicopter pilot and his friend is in his last year of Dentistry. They often travel to South America to volunteer or work, they ski and they’re going to Morocco in a couple of weeks so we had plenty to talk about. At one point, they said “when we’re your age…” so that made us giggle because we often forget our age! It was a risk well worth taking and I’ll probably do it again between San Sebastian and Bordeaux if there are cars available.

Cordoba has a completely different feel to Granada. It’s the Spain we were expecting. There is lots of colour on the walls and restaurants, and flower boxes or pot plants on all the balconies. It’s dirtier than Granada as far as rubbish goes, but it also has a more medieval feel to it. There is less English here from locals but they often understand enough to give you what you asked for. Cordoba is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to its massive Catholic Church that is inside an old Mosque. The gates and entry ways have the Arabic design, but then the Catholics have added their own roman statues and emblems, making it a very interesting mix of east and west in the one building.

The tour buses are still rolling in by the dozen.

We got caught in another procession on the way back from the grocery store. In Granada I wanted to get a photo of the hooded dudes. In this procession, I got a good look at them because Dwayne and I walked right through the middle of about 50 of them! They wear the hoods as a show of sorrow for their sins throughout the past year. They are usually followed by a float of some kind, then the mourning Madonnas, a band and another set of hoodies/float/madonnas/band and so on. It’s quite the spectacle and nothing to do with the KKK, even though it looks like that. The large floats are carried on the shoulders of about 20 men so it’s quite impressive that they carry something so heavy for streets and streets. In the procession we watched today, the first float had life size figurines of a Roman soldier, the two Mary’s and Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, whilst the second and more impressive float (which was applauded by the crowd), had a figurine of the Pope, as if he was the resurrected Son! I thought it was quite blasphemous.

Thursday, 29 March – Cordoba

A sign at the Mezquita Cathedral says there is free entry between 8.30am – 9.20am every weekday, so we got up early and were down at the Cathedral only to discover that they don’t offer any freebies during Semana Santa (and had neglected to add that to any signs). Given it was €10 each, I decided to stay outside because it didn’t really interest me, but Dwayne went in for an hour and was suitably impressed at its size and mix of histories. It started out as a Roman ruin, then had a basilica built on top of it sometime prior to 600. In 781 the Arabs conquered Andalucia and built a mosque on top of the basilica, and then when the Christians came in the 1200’s, they built a cathedral on top of the mosque. Inside, there are 823 pillars so it’s quite large!

We went up the bell tower as well, which gave a lovely view on Cordoba. We then went to see a castle but the lines were ferocious so we decided to head home, have lunch and come back at 3pm, since it didn’t shut until 8.45pm. However, when we arrived back at the gate they had a sign up saying that because of Easter Thursday and Friday, it shut at 2.30pm. We’ll have to come back tomorrow.

We wandered the streets and laneways, getting lost several times – more so than in Fes and Marrakech! We had dinner at a lovely courtyard tucked away from the street and then indulged in churros and chocolate. The churros here are not served with cinnamon, so that is a welcome surprise. It never ceases to amaze us how many people are out and about to watch the world go by.

Easter Friday, 30 March – Seville

Went back to Alcazar (castle) de los Reyes Cristianos in Cordoba and got in before the hordes arrived. This used to be a Visigoth fortress in the 400’s, then a couple of competing Caliphate groups conquered it and expanded it to include baths, gardens and the largest library in the West. Finally, it was taken in the Reconquista of 1236 and today’s castle was built in 1328 on top of the Alcazar. By 1482, Queen Isabella and Ferdinand of Aragon had established the first permanent tribunal for the Spanish Inquisition in this very place, which continued for the next 300 years! Much of the Alcazar, such as the baths, were turned into torture chambers.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus met the monarchs as he prepared to take his first voyage to the Americas.

The best part of the Alcazar is the 55,000m2 of gardens, fountains and ponds. Lots of lemon and orange trees. Very scenic and a great place to park yourself on a bench and munch some lunch.

We eventually made our way back to our apartment and checked out for our afternoon bullet train to Seville. What usually takes 2 hours to drive, took 40 minutes. There’s something soothing about rocketing along at 250kph.

Arrived in Seville on Easter Friday and given all the beer bottles in the gutter and bars overflowing with people, not to mention some dressed in Roman soldier attire, we must have missed the fancy dress procession. Most places are closed so it will be interesting to see Seville once it opens for business.

Sabbath, 31 March – Seville

If I haven’t said it already, I’m sick of the Easter crowds! Seville is the culmination of the worst of the week. We are here not only for a weekend, but for the highest weekend of Easter Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So is everyone else. Much worse than anything in Cordoba and Granada. Oh well, couldn’t be helped, but we are not interested in queuing for 2 hours to get in so we may end up not seeing anything here.

We took a great free walking tour which lasted 3 hours and gave us orientation of the city. It’s obviously bigger than Granada and Cordoba so there’s a lot more walking involved. Our apartment is 2km from the centre and yet we’re still inside the city walls. We stopped at the Torre del Oro (Gold Tower), the Seville Cathedral, the Alcazar Real (royal palace), Jewish quarter and Plaza de Espana.

Again, it was a Roman territory up until 711, when the Muslims conquered. They in turn were conquered in the 1200’s here in Seville. The cathedral used to be a mosque but that was mostly destroyed in an earthquake in the 1300’s, so they knocked it down and built the cathedral instead. Took 200 years to finish though, since Spain didn’t have the money or the manpower to build it in one hit. The Alcazar also has Arabic influences but not as much as the Alhambra.

The old town itself is less impressive in my opinion, than Cordoba and Granada. The Cathedral plaza has a lot of pretty facades of colour, balconies and flower pots, but most of the streets several blocks away from the Cathedral, are working class. By far the prettiest quarter is the Juderia, and perhaps if we stayed there my impressions may be different. Our district is on the inside perimeter of the wall and it’s nothing to write home about, not to mention it’s 2.5km to the centre.

It’s a city of horse carriages and bars. The local way to dine is to go to a bar, stand at the counter and eat tapas. They don’t really sit and it’s not uncommon to see large groups of people standing on the sidewalk with drinks in their hand because there’s no room in the bar. There are cafes around the small squares but these are not common away from the main tourist drag, and the normal streets just have some small shops and lots of bars. It’s a lot noisier than Cordoba and Granada. I guess it’s difficult for a large city to be cute.

I’m also suffering here more than anywhere else when it comes to finding vegetarian options. Usually there are only 1 or 2 veggie items on tapas menus and paella is a specialty of Valencia, not Seville. The bars that do offer paella, only offer it in meat. Dwayne has fears for me in Portugal!

Easter Sunday, 1 April – Seville

We slept in today, having decided that we couldn’t be bothered fighting the crowds to see the Alcazar Real. We also couldn’t be bothered walking the 3km into the centre so we caught a bus to the Plaza de Espana, walked through the lovely gardens and visited the Archaeology Museum instead. It was free today – not sure why but Easter Sunday I guess. We had read that it was about Spanish history from Roman rule through to the last century or so. That wasn’t true because most of the displays stopped after the collapse of Rome. Anyway, I’m glad it was free because it wasn’t that interesting.

We wandered along the river and before long it was 2.30pm and we readied ourselves and braved a recommended bar for some tapas. I say “braved” because a lot of these bars don’t speak English nor have English menus, so trying to get someone’s attention let alone order something can be a nightmare. Thankfully, it was a great experience! Two of the staff spoke English so they gave us the menu with seven vegetarian options. I still got different drinks to what I ordered due to the communication barrier, but they got the food right and that was the main thing. We selected 4 tapas (small share plates) – cooked potatoes in a spicy sauce, gorgonzola and nut croquettes, mushroom risotto and salt cod fritters with pear aioli. My pick of the dishes was the potatoes but Dwayne liked the croquettes the best. At one point he bit something hard in his teeth after we’d eaten half the risotto, and when he spat it out, we saw it was a small piece of broken glass! We immediately asked for a replacement risotto which they willingly obliged with, and they deducted that dish from the bill. Hopefully we haven’t unknowingly ingested smaller fragments. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, eh?!

We bought some artisan chocolate and some sort of peanut concoction (like halva) at a nougat shop afterwards and sauntered home for a light dinner. Another 15kms of walking.

I like Seville, although not as much as Granada. I’d like to come back here out of tourist season and see the sights. I"m ready for Portugal now though.

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3rd April 2018

I especially like the ride sharing concept...although it used to be called hitchhiking right...and it was free haha. Looks like Spain is delivering the goods, and good weather too!

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