I work with a number of Spanish people, each and every one of whom had the same response when I said I was making my first visit to Granada. First, came an expression of surprise, why hadn’t I visited before? This was quickly passed over though, as they extolled the virtues of a city renowned not only for good food, but for serving up the largest, most varied portions of free tapas anywhere in Spain.
I’m not saying Dutch food culture isn’t good (let’s just say this isn’t France or Italy), but for Spanish people living in the Netherlands, memories of really good food seem to be disproportionately important.
One colleague was moved to raptures remembering a traditional fish dish that she’d eaten in some small cafe in one of Granada’s winding medieval streets. The subject of Granada’s food seemed far more interesting than, say, the fact that it is home to one of the world’s most famous buildings, and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alhambra. It was looking like I wouldn’t need to worry about what to eat, only when to stop.
Granada is deservedly one of the most famous places in Europe. It’s main attraction, the Alhambra, is a spectacular example of Islamic architecture from the very height of Moorish power and cultural influence in Spain. Such is its popularity, it attracts around 8,500 visitors each day, or around 2.5 million people each year. That’s ten times the population of the town.
In many ways though, the town itself is the star attraction. You could spend days wandering the narrow lanes and alleyways, walking up and down the hills of the central Albaicín district, only to have scratched the surface of this mesmerising place. History seems to seep out of every wall, and every turn of a corner brings you face to face with yet more of the town’s fabled past.
Given that, our first sight of Granada was a bit underwhelming. The outskirts of towns are normally disappointing, but Spanish towns seem to excel at ‘dismal’. It didn’t help that we were stuck in a traffic jam. When we finally arrived in the historic centre, we instantly lost our way amidst narrow streets. I got a €120 fine as a consequence. We may have been in a beautiful medieval town, but we were going nowhere fast.
We eventually found a carpark, and were soon walking along beautiful cobbled streets towards the El Ladron de Agua Hotel. The hotel sits underneath the walls of the Alhambra on the Carrera del Darro, and occupies a 16th-century palace that was once home to nobility. A welcoming glass of chilled fino compensated for the trauma of driving in Granada and, refreshed, it was time for lunch.
Would the food live up to its billing? Order a glass of tinto or an oloroso in any of Granada’s many atmospheric bars, and it will be accompanied by a sizeable plate of the tapas of the day. Order a second drink and a different, but equally sizeable, portion of tapas arrives in front of you … and the food is good. Most places advertise their specials of the day, just buy a drink and tuck in.
Granada’s an economical place to spend time. We spent four days here, only ate lunch once and never felt the need for dinner. This may say more about how much sherry we drank than the availability of restaurants offering dinner. Beyond a day at the Alhambra, we didn’t have a plan. This, though, is a town that rewards aimless, leisurely exploration.
We strolled, made regular visits to historic buildings, ancient churches, atmospheric bars, and took it easy. Granada’s an enigmatic place, not without rough edges or petty crime, but that only seems to make it more vibrant.