I am a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain. I’ve read his books, watched his TV shows and have, generally, been amused by his antics. I was a bit surprised, yet intrigued, when he switched networks to CNN and episodes of Parts Unknown started airing. Season 2, Episode 2 – simply titled “Spain” – was one of the catalysts for my trip to Granada. This was the last Moorish stronghold to fall to the Catholic kings and is an enticing, beguiling, magical city that draws in and enchants travellers of all ages and nationalities. Granada, simply put, is amazing.
It’s also the only city for which I am actively planning a return. It solidified my love of Spain and confirmed what I was already beginning to suspect… that, despite all of the hype, I would rather return to Spain than Italy. Blame it on the language, the culture, the people, whatever you want… Spain is one hell of a destination.
But Granada? Ohhhh Granada. You know how people have spirit animals? Well, Granada is my spirit city.
It is the home, the hotbed and the capital of tapas culture in Spain. This is one of the only places where you get a free tapas whenever you order a drink. It doesn’t even have to be an alcoholic drink – you can get a tapas with a can of Pepsi, for example, or even a bottle of water. I watched two Japanese girls, who had barely finished their first tapa, widen their eyes in surprise as a second plate arrived to accompany the bottles of water they had ordered.
In order to reach Granada from Valencia I took an overnight train. It was only €48 for a “cama turista”, which is a bed in a small cabin. The Spanish segregate their cabins by gender, which was nice to see, and there are four beds for each cabin in this class. If I really wanted to save money I could have paid €36 or so for just a seat – but it made more sense to splurge on the bed in this case. Each cabin has a sink and passengers receive small amenity kits which include earplugs, a toothbrush and toothpaste.
From the train station it was an easy ride on the bus – or a 15-20 minute walk – to the Oasis Granada hostel. I was really glad to take the bus, especially after spending the night on the train, and I arrived to the hostel at an ungodly hour in the morning. Things in Spain don’t seem to get started until 10am so I chilled in the hostel for a while, updating my blog and talking with some fellow travellers.
I chose my hostel based solely on the reviews and their Alhambra ticket service. The hostel had a lot going on, including regular dinners, but Granada is not the kind of city where you want to hang out in the hostel or pay for a dinner. The locals are friendly, the drinks are cheap and the tapas are free – why on earth wouldn’t you take advantage? The hostel’s location was bursting with character, however, because to get there you have to walk up what people called the “Moroccan street” – a narrow road, impassable to vehicle traffic, bursting with shops selling the kind of merchandise you would expect to find in a bazaar. Teas, pillows, glass lamps… there were restaurants specializing in Indian and Moroccan food, hookah bars… things only quieted down in the early morning and during siesta.
I do feel the need to point out that Granada does siesta right – the tapas bars are open during siesta, when the stores are closed, then the tapas bars close for a few hours. I would do some exploring and browse the shops, grab a drink or two and some snacks and then head back to my hostel for a well deserved shower and a bit of a relaxation break.
I had planned to start off my visit to Granada with the walking tour offered by the hostel, but the tour never really materialized. The front desk staff gave a vague explanation and seemed kind of confused that I was asking about the walking tour. They were also running one in the afternoon, to visit the caves, but I had been warned by some other travellers that it was much more of a strenuous hike than a walking tour and that they didn’t really recommend it. I decided to venture off on my own tour, heading uphill until finally reaching the Mirador San Nicholas.
Anthony Bourdain was right. Granada is full of feral hippies.
The Mirador San Nicholas is a viewpoint, located directly in front of the semi ruined church of San Nicholas. This saint, also known as “St. Nick” or “Santa Claus”, has a handful of churches dedicated to him throughout Europe. The congregation is attempting to raise funds to rebuild and restore the church and you can pay €2 to climb the church tower for an even higher view. What was the main attraction? What did everyone want to see? Of course… the Alhambra.
I had a decision to make here – climb higher, and check out the caves, or climb lower and go back to the hostel to put on some sunscreen (oops). I chose the latter and as I walked down the hill I met a girl who asked me if I wanted to do the tourist train. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, but she handed me the ticket she had bought earlier in the day as she decided she didn’t want to keep doing it. She didn’t want any money for it, since she already did the route, and just wished me a pleasant day.
The tourist train was, for lack of a better word, kind of ridiculous. It wasn’t even a real train! I eventually learned that it was a “specially designed hybrid vehicle”, but I think they made a few engineering mistakes. The train wasn’t quite full and still had trouble on some of the steeper hills, especially the roads leading up to the Alhambra. At one point the train had to stop at a red light on hill, something that I’m sure strikes terror into the hearts of every tourist train driver. It took several attempts for the vehicle to start moving forward, to the relief of the driver and the motorists behind us who had enough sense to leave a lot of space between their vehicles and the back of the tourist train.
Suffice it to say that the tourist train was entertaining and it was interesting to hear some of the explanations of the sites, but I wouldn’t really use it for much more than a transportation service. If you only have a day or so in Granada then I think the €8 cost would be well justified as it visits all of the major attractions, including the Alhambra and the Mirador San Nicholas. It also gives you a bit of an overview of Granada itself, visiting some sites that aren’t really popular but are still interesting to see.
I went out and explored the tapas bars for each of the three nights that I was in Granada and I will be posting another blog post that exhaustively details all of the food and drink that was consumed. My last night was quite memorable, however, as World Cup 2014 is in full swing and I was in Granada for the Spain-Netherlands game. A lot of people from the hostel were planning to attend the game at a local Irish bar, but it was packed with travellers and Dutch fans. I wanted something a bit more local and walked for a few minutes towards a quiet area I had found earlier. The tourist train had tipped me off to it, describing it as a street where locals went for tapas, and when I had walked by in the heat of the day I noted that there was a lot of outdoor seating, no car traffic and lots of food and drink options. It wasn’t that far from the hostel and the effort was worthwhile – I sat on the terrace, tried to communicate with the locals and had some amazing tapas.
Spain did not win the game – it was a rather disastrous 5-1 outcome – but there was a lot of noise and celebration for that one goal. There was also celebration for the two goals that were offside… although that was quickly muted. I stopped into the Irish bar on my way back to the hostel and further confirmed that I made the right decision – the bar was a bit smelly, the beer was expensive and it was still really crowded.
I stayed in Granada for three nights and I could have stayed for more. In fact, I could have spent a month (or more) in Granada just walking around, drinking wine and eating tapas… a routine that would be hard to tire of. Granada, I’ll be back!