Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Glory of Granada and Some Hiccups along the Way

Friday, February 18 and Saturday, February 19

An excursion to Granada commanded more attention and stress than I had expected.  Problems with my credit card complicated and prolonged the planning phase.  And on top of that, I had little time to deal with the series of hiccups.  This was my first week at my internship and two nights of intercambio (English-Spanish speaker conversations at bars) activities were also planned. 

I resolved my credit card problems with the help of CIEE business program coordinators Jaime and Virginia.  I walked into their office, slightly harrowed from the stress, and Virginia could immediately sense I had a problem.  She offered what I was seeking: access to a phone that would allow me to call the VISA number.  (Although now I know my cell phone may work after all - I did not know that dialing 001 was required).

My trip to Granada would be a series of firsts for me: my first experience on RENFE, Spain's state-of-the-art train network, and my first night in a hotel.  It was not a hostEL with bunk-beds, but a hostAL with a series of individual rooms that share a communal bathroom.  Both, good experiences.

I learned a lot from this trip about what makes the best travel experience for me.  I had thought that Rick Steves's philosophy of entering touring Europe "through the back door" was the best philosophy.  Now, I have a different view.  While I totally embrace Rick Steves's strategy of being travel-savvy and aware of the tourist traps, I found it difficult to be a "temporary local" in Granada.  I realized that I can be a "temporary local" in Sevilla during the week, and then embrace being a savvy tourist on the weekend.  I could not be both in Granada - not with my map, guidebook, camera, and backpack.  Moving forward I would rather embrace being a full-fledged tourist, see the sights I want to see, and come home to Sevilla to absorb the "culture."  I am happy I discovered this now, before I wasted any time trying to be a backpack-strapped "local" in travels outside of Spain.

Two days in Granada was plenty.  I could have completed the sites in one day, but having two days was ultimately the best.  I feel like I really "completed" Granada.  On Day 1, I went to the bustling city market, enormous Catedral, jaw-dropping Alhambra, and a sunset view on the opposite hill.  On Day 2, I saw the tombs of the king and queen that united Spain, hiked throughout the Moorish/Gypsy quarters, had lunch at a family-owned bar, and continued hiking around the outskirts of the Alhambra and the Realejo quarter.

Catedral - This sprawling Cathedral at the center of Granada is the second largest in Spain after Sevilla's.  It is one of two Renaissance-style churches in Spain (the other is in Córdoba).   It was built to celebrate the triumph of conquering Granada, the last Moorish fortress.  Spain would then be a united Catholic kingdom under Ferdinand and Isabella.   I started my tour in the Priest Wardrobe Room.  With its grandfather clock, wooden cabinets, and mirrors, it reminded me of C.S. Lewis.  I then proceeded to the main altar.  I have been to many churches here, but this one knocked me out again.  My favorite part was an altar depicting St. James, the Moor-Slayer, who is trampling a Moor on horseback--pretty grusesome for a church.

Capilla Real - I did not do this until the next day, but I put it here for two reasons: it is logically related and right next to the Catedral; and I could not take any pictures (no mention in web album).  The Capilla Real was a smaller cathedral commissioned by Ferdinand and Isabella for their burial.  After all, conquering Granada had been their greatest achievement.  Inside are the tombs of two royal couples: Ferdinand and Isabella; and Philip the Fair and Juana the Mad.  I enjoyed learning about the second couple.  Juana used to kiss the embalmed body of her husband good night when he died.  Their son, Charles would become not only the king of Spain, but ruler of the Holy Roman Empire.  He was the won that built a separate Christian Palace next to the Moorish one at the Alhambra.

Alhambra - This was the highlight of the trip by far.  I am happy to say I picked the perfect time to tour the hill because of the light of that afternoon.  It was also not a mobscene like it usually is.  The Alhambra has several parts, in the order that I visited: (1) Generalife (pronounced "hen-eh-raw-LEEF-ay") gardens, (2) Charles V's Palace, (3) Alcazaba Moorish Fortress, and the main event, (4) Palacios Nazaries (Moorish Palace).  It took me four hours to tour all of the sites.

(1) Generalife Gardens - This was the Moorish sultan's summer palace and vegetable garden.  Like the rest of the Alhambra, water flows throughout the site.  Generalife is situated one side of the U-shaped hill of the Alhambra. It provided great views of the main site (where the Charles V Palace, Alcazaba, and Palacios Nazaries are).  This garden reminded me of a Muslim-twist to Alice in Wonderland.

(2) Charles V's Palace - Back on the main campus, I entered the enormous Christian palace that was installed by Spain's King and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  On the outside it is square; on the inside it seems like a bullring.  It was never finished because Charles's son, Philip II wanted his own palace at El Escorial (the Spanish Versailles).

(3) Alcazaba - This is what is left from the edge of the Alhambra fortress.  It provides the best views of Granada below.

(4) Palacios Nazeries - This is the reason people flock to the Alhambra.  You are assigned a time to enter; I choose the late afternoon so I would have the place to myself.  All the tourists for the 11:00 slot had left by then.  The light was just right.  I was blown away by the architecture.  Aside from repeated motifs, no two rooms of the palace were the same.  The four repeated methods are (1) Carved Wood (doors and ceilings), (2) Molded Plaster (walls and columns, etched with patterns and letters), (3) Tiles (bottom-half of walls, geometric patterns), and (4) Stucco Stalactites (icicle-like ceilings and arches).  The most picturesque parts were the Patio of Myrtles (with reflecting pool) and the Patio of Lions (with endless number of columns).  My favorite room was the Hall of Abencerrajes.  Aside from the incredible stucco stalactites ceiling, the room has a great story.  It was the scene of a murder of an entire family to influence the sultan succession.  Thirty six heads filled the pool in the center of the room, which is still stained with blood.

Mirador of San Nicholas - After finishing the Alhambra, the sun was about to set.  It was the perfect time to hop on the bus and take it to the opposite hill in Granada to see the sun set on the Alhambra.  At the Mirador, many Spaniards gathered to admire the phenomenal view (which includes the SNOWY Sierra Nevada).  I proceeded to check out the tapas scene in Granada.  Unlike other places in Spain, Granada's bars offer tapas free with an order of "cerveza" (beer, pronounced "ther-VAY-tha").  I found the bar with most young people and met up with other CIEE students staying in Granada to take advantage of the nightlife.

Day 2 - I went to the Capilla Real in the morning and proceeded to hike through the various neighborhoods of Granada for the rest of the day (stopping for a great lunch, too).  My three hikes were through (1) the Moorish Quarter, (2) Alhambra Hill (outside the fortress), and (3) the Realejo.

Moorish Quarter (Albayzín) - This is on the slope of the hill opposite the Alhambra hill.  All the streets are extremely narrow and steep.  The influence here is Muslim.  The shops sell Muslim-influenced goods and the restaurants offer more than just white bread and jamón.  Instead, hookah bars and "teterías" (tea bars) are prevalent.  Nonetheless I choose a family-owned Spanish restaurant for lunch, where I feasted on Migas (sauteed breadcrumbs), Paella, and Flan for one price (9 euros).  Add to that a chance to hang out with the family and the patrons at the bar, and I felt as much at home as I do with Montse.  

Alhambra Trails and Realejo - I proceeded for another multi-hour hike on the Alhambra hill, enjoying more views. Realejo is was built as the new Catholic neighborhood after Granada was reconquered.  I was exhausted by the end and ready to catch the train at night.  At the train station, I heard Midwest USA English being spoken and gravitated towards the Chicago mom and dad visiting their Barcelona program daughter.  The sibling, back at home, is going to IU next semester.  Small world, I suppose.

For pictures of this day, check "Granada 2-18" at

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