A rainy day at the Alhambra

Perched on a plateau and dramatically framed by the Sierra Nevada mountains behind, the Alhambra sits serenely overlooking the city of Granada. Walking the maze-like alleys of the ancient Muslim quarter of the Albaicín, you get tantalising glimpses of the Alhambra between buildings. Climb the hill to the Mirador San Nicolas though, and the full glory of the Alhambra reveals itself.

There are several Alhambra miradors, but the little square in front of the Church of St. Nicholas (better still, climb the church tower) offers uninterrupted views. It’s a lively gathering place for people, and often has amateur music and flamenco performances. The view is beautiful at any time of day, but the reddish walls glow in late afternoon sun. We took the view on our first day in the city, the next day we had tickets to visit.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Everyone knows that in Spain it mainly rains on the plain. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. I don’t know how often it rains in Granada (not often I’m guessing), but we woke the next day to a grey, dreary and cold day of drizzle and downpours. Not ideal for wandering around the Alhambra, much of which is outdoors. It was disappointing to visit in bad weather, but we were determined the rain wouldn’t dampen our spirits.

The Alhambra started life as a fortress, the Alcazaba, in the late 9th century, 180 years after the Umayyad Caliphate had established itself in Spain. Cordoba and Seville were the centres of power, Granada little more than a backwater. It wasn’t until 1238 that work began on the royal palaces. By then, the Caliphate was already in retreat, having lost over half the territory it controlled at its peak to Christian kingdoms in the north.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Over the next century the Alhambra grew to be the majestic complex of today. The Palacios Nazaries, considered by many to be the finest example of Islamic architecture in Europe, was constructed in this period. The mix of exquisite rooms, courtyards with fountains, beautiful carved roofs and tiles with mesmerising geometric patterns and Arabic inscriptions, make it hard to argue with that assessment.

This is the real highlight of a visit to the Alhambra. Even with tour groups sweeping through and selfie stick-wielding tourists, it’s hard not to feel a bit overwhelmed by the magnificence of it all. We spent so long in the Palacios Nazaries that when we emerged into the Gardens of the Partal Palace it had stopped raining. We wandered the gardens on our way to the Generalife, taking in the fantastic views over Granada.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The whole place exudes a sense of balance and harmony. The original buildings and gardens compare well to the disastrous later additions made by King Charles I (better known as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V). His Renaissance-style Palacio de Carlos V is like a wanton act of vandalism, a huge unsophisticated lump imposed upon the more refined and delicate vision of earlier rulers.

Walking through the Alhambra today, it’s incredible to think this glorious complex of fortress, palace and pleasure gardens, was abandoned in the 18th century and largely forgotten until the early 19th century. Interest in the Alhambra surged after celebrity American author, Washington Irving, published his Tales of the Alhambra in 1832, kick-starting the slow process of protecting and restoring the entire site.

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra’s obscurity ensured that it survived largely intact, and what you see on a visit today is the 13th or 14th century original. If anything, today it’s become a victim of its own success. More than two million people visit each year, and that must take a huge toll on the fabric of the buildings. Even on a rainy day in winter there were crowds of people, and plenty of disregard for signs asking people not to touch. That can’t be sustainable in the long term.

Granada, where tapas and history meet

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.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

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.

Sherry bar, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Sherry bar, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Migas, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Migas, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Sherry bar, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Sherry bar, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Is that Michelle Obama? Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Is that Michelle Obama? Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Squid and beer, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Squid and beer, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

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.

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

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.

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Medieval streets of Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Granada, Andalusia, Spain

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.

Y Viva España, an Andalusian roadtrip

Here’s a thing. Y Viva España, a song so irritatingly catchy that once inside your head it’s hard to get it to leave again, was actually the creation of a Belgian musical duo who wrote the original song in Dutch. The English version, which plagued my childhood, was recorded by a Swedish singer-songwriter, and went on to sell over one million copies worldwide. It was recorded in a dozen languages, including Spanish.

The point about the song, with its resounding finale of “España por favor, España por favor”, is that it’s an infectiously upbeat homage to the joy felt by northern Europeans en route to the warmer, sunnier climes of southern Spain. The song may brim over with 1970s cliché of Spain, a place of dusky flamenco dancers and hunky matadors, where you can “meet señoritas by the score”, but it’s done with affection.

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Bull on a bar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Bull on a bar, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

It’s the same feeling I have every time I return to Spain, and I’ve been often enough to know that it’s a country I never grow tired of visiting. Whether its depth of history and culture, easy-going lifestyle, good food and wine, or dramatic landscapes, Spain is a country that I feel almost compelled to visit time and time again.

This time, we were escaping the miserable northern European winter in search of some warmth in Andalusia. We transited through Malaga and headed straight to the fabled Moorish city of Granada, where it rained on my first ever trip to the Alhambra. There was even snow on the hills of the Sierra Nevada behind the city – hills that we later visited to explore the famed pueblo blancos, before driving cross-country to glorious Seville.

Religious procession, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Religious procession, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Sherry bar, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Sherry bar, Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia, Spain

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Olvera, Andalusia, Spain

Seville is a city I’ve visited before, but I can’t ever imagine feeling tired of this truly magnificent town. It’s large enough to have a big city vibe, but small enough to explore on foot. While we were there, roaming bands of musicians took over the town and were playing in bars and in the streets around the centre. It was a lot of fun, involving quite a lot of wine.

We headed east, into the corner of Spain bordering Portugal. This region of wooded hills covered with Spanish oak, is home to some of the finest black Iberian pigs known to humanity. Pigs that eventually become jamón ibérico, which is best washed down with a glass of dry fino sherry. We made it to La Rábida, on the Rio Tinto, a remarkably tourist free spot where Christopher Columbus departed on his voyage of discovery to the Americas.

A band in Seville, Andalusia, Spain

A band in Seville, Andalusia, Spain

Pueblos Blancos, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Pueblos Blancos, Sierra Nevada, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Cadiz, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

Almonaster la Real, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocio, Andalusia, Spain

El Rocio, Andalusia, Spain

Turning south, the Costa de la Luz beckoned. We stopped in at the wonderful sherry town of Jerez de la Frontera and buzzing Cádiz. Both are fascinating and friendly, and often overlooked by tourists coming to Andalusia. Both are worth a  few days of anyone’s time. Finally, we ground to a halt at some of the rugged and beautiful beaches that run down Spain’s Atlantic Coast towards Gibraltar.

We ended the trip with a mad dash back along the coast, hoping to reach Malaga in time for our flight home. If this trip proved anything, other than that driving in Spanish cities is terrifying, but not as terrifying as trying to find a parking space, it is that Spain is a country of immense variety. And this was only Andalusia. Hopefully, it won’t be long before we return again.

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain

Costa de la Luz, Andalusia, Spain