I arrived in Granada on a warm Monday and stepped off the plane onto the tarmac. I do love it when that happens. The airport was small and I easily made my way to a bus waiting outside to transport new arrivers to the center of town. Once in the center, I hopped off the bus and caught a taxi up to the Albaicin, the old part of Granada and the best preserved Arab quarter in Spain.
My hostel was just off of Carrera del Darro which ran alongside the Rio (River) Darro at the bottom of the steep hillside of the Alhambra. Suffice it to say, it was an absolutely breathtaking location. Carrero del Darro is an extremely narrow cobblestone road flanked by buildings and the river, which has several stone-built, arched bridges passing across it. Walking through the street, you almost feel as if you’ve been transported to another time, centuries long ago, that is until a car or a minibus comes along and you have to feverishly jump into a doorway as not to get run over.
Looking up, the Alhambra looms over you and you realize just how special this place is. Several restaurants, bars and a few Morrocan-style shops line the street as well, and there are several narrow alleyways that only pedestrians and mopeds are really capable of accessing.
My hostel, White Nest, was beautifully built with marble floors and columns and handcrafted wood-work throughout. It was decorated, as much of the Albaicin is, Morrocan in style, a representation of the old Moorish influence of the city. Other than some terrible wallpaper, my room was extremely nice and quite a steal at 30 Euro a night for a private.
Once settled I made my way out to explore Granada. Unlike Barcelona, Granada is extremely quiet midday. I explored the streets, but could not get a real sense of the city as it was mid-afternoon and most of the shops were closed for siesta. Eventually, the afternoon snuck by and I decided it would be perfect timing to head to the mirador of San Nicolas to try to catch the sunset and the best view of the Alhambra in the city.
As I made my way through the maze of the Albaicin, I was completely in awe. Steep, narrow, cobblestone alleyways give way to white washed housed with detailed doors, windows, and flowers lining the window sills. Around every corner was a new house or alleyway and often you would stumble upon a view of the Alhambra, a small plaza or a church.
I repeated kept checking my map as I didn’t know where I was or where this “mirador” was, but I figured it would be obvious once found. Eventually I ended up at a park, but the Alhambra (as clear as it was) was blocked by several trees or lamp posts and it was difficult to get a clear picture. Eventually, I left, thinking to myself “Well, that was great, but really?! That’s it?”.
Upon leaving, I looked up to discover a street sign and, sure enough, I realized that I hadn’t quite reached the mirador and that I still had a little way to go. I rushed up the hill as I did not want to miss sunset.
In a few minutes, I reached the mirador which was evident by tourists and photographers, not to mention the perfect view of the Alhambra. The site was nothing less than amazing. All of Granada below, the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas in the background, and the sun casting the most perfect light and shadows. The mirador sat next to a beautiful church and soon, two locals sat at a cross and began to play guitar and sing. The scene couldn’t have been more perfect if it were scripted. I couldn’t help but stand there and smile. These types of moments are the ones I travel for, the kind that become engrained in your memory bank.
After sunset, I walked down through the Albaicin and wandered into a couple of the more commercial streets. Several shops, hooka bars, and tea houses lined the streets. Vendors sold lanterns, ceramics, jewelry and colorful wraps. It’s probably the closest you can get to Morroco without actually being there. After exploring more of the town, I eventually wandered home, exhausted from the day’s travel and the many long nights in Barcelona.
The next morning, I slept in for quite some time, but eventually made my way to the train station to buy my ticket for Ronda the following day. After purchasing my ticket and a brief lunch, I took a bus up to the Alhambra to explore Granada’s gem.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the Moorish palace and fortress. I knew little about it, other than the descriptions in my guidebook, but had seen a number of photos and postcards so I had a fair understanding that it was worth the visit.
Everything I’ve read about the Alhambra warns you to purchase tickets weeks in advance despite it being limited to 7700 visitors per day. Visiting in late November, outside of tourist season, was definitely to my advantage. It was as though I had the whole place to myself. Sure, there were probably a couple of hundred tourists there. Maybe even 1000. But because of it’s massive size, it felt virtually empty.
I started my visit in El Generalife, the palace’s gardens. Being fall, the gardens were not as colorful as they likely are during spring and summer, but the beautiful greenery, detailed architecture and fountains still made for a remarkable visit. The views were also impressive looking down over all of Granada and the nearby Alcazar (palace).
After about 45 minutes, I headed for the Palacios Nazaries (Nasrid Palaces) to try to get a head start on the crowd. Each ticket gives you a specific printed time that you are allowed to enter and I wanted to be there early to try to get photos without tourists in them. I made my way through several walkways and greenery-lined paths to the palaces.
Once there, my punctuality paid off. I was about the 5th one in with at least 100 or so people behind me allowing me to experience Alhambra almost entirely on my own. Surreal.
The palace is definitely the highlight of the Alhambra visit, with intricate carvings, tilework and detail in every room. You walk around in awe of the elaborate archways, windows, marble, ivory, etc.
Each area was beautifully preserved and more impressive than the next. Impressive considering the last Moors inhabited the palaces in 1492 before the Christians overtook Granada and Alhambra.
After the palaces, I walked over to the Alcazaba and went up to the watchtower to check out the view. Impressive would be an understatement. You could see 360 degrees around Alhambra, taking in all of Granada and the Sierras. From the fortress, you could literally see into the distance of Andalucia for miles.
I left Alhambra just as the sun started to go down. My calves and feet ached from the consecutive days of walking on cobblestone. Despite the achiness, the visit had been more than worthwhile. Apparently, there is an old saying: “Si mueres sin ver la Alhambra, no has vivido” or “If you die without seeing the Alhambra, you have not lived”. I now understand why.
Last night, I spent my final evening in Granada in one of the newer areas (mostly consisting of shops) wandering the streets. The city truly comes to life at night, after siesta. Locals were out walking, shopping and greeting one another. Street performers were performing for loose change. Vendors were taking their place on the streets, roasting nuts. The holiday season was in full swing with tasteful Christmas decor throughout the city. I stopped at a local tapas bar, had a quick meal, and walked up Carrera del Darro under the crescent moon. My visit was complete.
You’re a charming place, Granada. So rich in history. So beautiful in spirit. Perhaps I’ll get lost in your streets again someday. Until then, hasta luego.