A largely uneventful flight from Gatwick, though the seats on Monarch are not what you would call the most comfortable. On the other hand, they were cheap, they fly direct to Granada, and the flight's only a bit over two hours, so DVT is unlikely to be a major feature.
We reached our hotel successfully and spent an hour or two pottering round the shops before heading out to dinner. Several fun-looking establishments were noted for later perusal; as sunset fell, Granada's sparrows started to argue with one another. There are some trees just off the Gran Via de Colón and some more next to the Cathedral which are absolutely full of sparrows -- this is evidently where all the ones allegedly missing from England have gone... -- and the sparrows are incredibly noisy, almost drowning out a street musician playing an accordion (only barely more tuneful than the sparrows).
I had found a nice restaurant in one of our guidebooks, called Iberos y Patagónicos, which was listed as doing "modern Spanish cuisine" -- interesting cooking techniques and the like. While I did study Spanish a few years back, my spoken Spanish wasn't great then and has degenerated since, so we thought we'd use Amex's concierge service to make the booking for us. So far, so good.
We located the street -- Escudo del Carmen -- on the map, and set about trying to find the restaurant. This may sound as though it should have been a fairly simple task; Granada itself isn't large, there aren't all that many long streets, this particular street was quite short although it does go across a square... we walked up and down the street a couple of times, scratched our heads a bit, enquired at the desk of a nearby hotel (clueless), wandered up and down once more, and eventually called Amex back to see if they could shed any light or provide directions. (Hurray for roaming mobile phones.)
Amex didn't have any directions but did provide a restaurant phone number. I girded my loins to attempt to make myself understood (possibly only as far as "Hablas Inglés?"), and called the number... only to have it answered as "Creperie Morgana" -- which we'd walked past at least three times at this point. Yup, the nice modern Spanish place had turned into a pancake house. I hung up, called Amex back to advise them that perhaps they should have noticed this, and we went back to eat in our hotel's (very pleasant) restaurant. Oh well....
We had pre-booked tickets for the Alhambra for the first slot of the day (the tickets admit you into the Nazrid Palaces, the main part of the Alhambra, within a specified half-hour interval) which required a fairly early start to get up there for about 0810 to pick up tickets for an 0830 slot. Thankfully in February the queues are not too insane, but we did start to get the inkling that Granada might be a tad less warm and sunny than we'd hoped when some of the bushes and trees in the Alhambra gardens turned out to have a scattering of snow on them, and the occasional puddle had a covering of ice.
The Alhambra is every bit as impressive as its reputation suggests; the state of preservation of the carvings, decoration and suchlike is phenomenal, especially given that it's mostly plaster, wood and other such fragile materials, and that much of it is open to the elements. There are three main areas to which your ticket gives you access -- the Nazrid Palaces themselves, which are mostly 14th century with some 16th century additions, the Alcazaba, which was more or less a small town which housed the guards, and the Generalife which, despite sounding like it ought to be the headquarters of an insurance company, is in fact the gardens and what used to be the farm which served the palaces. There's also the Palace of Charles V, which was never finished and is now mostly museums and a big open courtyard.
From a photographer's viewpoint, you want a decently sunny day to photograph most of the Alhambra, because some of the interior is lit only by natural light. The guidebooks are also not joking when they strongly suggest that you want to go for the first slot of the day in order to avoid the crowds; by the time we had finished going round the Palaces it was about 1030 and the place was heaving. To have any chance of being able to photograph bits of architecture without having loads of people obscuring the best parts, you want to be there early.
We walked down from the Alhambra, had some lunch, then retired to the hotel for a nap. (Lots of walking. Early start. Travelling the previous day. And probably I'm just getting old. ;))
After regaining our energy, we did some shopping. We'd spotted a jewellery shop next to the Cathedral the previous evening which had plenty of stylish modern-style stuff, and when we went in on Friday evening we came out with quite a few pieces; two pairs of earrings and a necklace for me, cufflinks for rotwang. (The shop is called El Taller del Artista and it's at Calle Cárcel Baja 9; note that it seems to be closed on weekends.) I also acquired a pair of rather nifty silver shoes for not a whole lot, and we walked through the (very souk-like) side streets and picked up some odds and ends (mostly little ornamental boxes). ("Souk-like" aside from the fact that nobody was hassling you to buy anything...) Oh, and we bought one of the world's tackiest evening bags for thalinoviel... well, it would be counted as such in the UK. Granada has dozens of shops selling handbags, along with the hundred or so selling shoes, and the bag we bought was actually relatively tasteful, inasmuch as it didn't feature feathers, sequins, hugely bright colours, or combinations of all three. (As far as I can tell, the reason for the city's close approach to the Shoe Event Horizon is that it's cobbled and that Spanish women seem to wear stilettoes all the time. They must need to replace their shoes fairly often -- and I'd love to know where all the women with broken ankles were hiding. But I digress.)
Dinner was at La Ermita, at the old bull ring, which was a fairly long walk from the hotel (20 minutes or so) but very good. rotwang had white asparagus followed by veal with a cheese sauce and piononos which are a local Granada delicacy and something like a cross between a rum baba and a cinnamon whirl. I had ox carpaccio, then grilled lamb kebab and the house mixed dessert, which involved, er, something with coconut, something which might have been pineapple, something which was probably flan, and, um, something else. Unfortunately that did not come with any form of English translation. But it was very good anyhow. ;)
In a fit of organisation (and uncertainty about the weather), I had booked tickets for the Alhambra for Saturday morning also (and a night-time visit for Saturday evening). The slot on Saturday was a bit later (10.30) and thus there were more people around. There were also more officious prats on the gate who insisted that rotwang had to check his rucksack before we entered, despite about 20% of the people we saw inside having bags/rucksacks of very similar size. I really hate random officialdom, especially when there's no readily apparent reason for it; it isn't as though they were actually searching bags on the way in, though they did have a security scanner which they put bags through before giving you a locker key. Obviously they're much more concerned that you not blow up their toilets than their priceless 14th century monuments.
We scooted through the Nazrid Palaces in double-quick time as we'd seen them on Friday (with far fewer companions) and I was mostly just after retaking photos of one room which hadn't really come out well the previous day (ahh, digital; ahh, the pleasures of a travelling laptop so that one can preview and indeed back up one's work) and went on to the Generalife, which we'd not seen the previous day. The gardens are very beautiful with lots of water features. I have to admit that the high point for me may well have been when I sat down on a bench to stroke one of the palace cats who was sitting on the other end and it immediately commandeered my lap for the next ten minutes. Anyone would think that these animals never got any attention.
After returning to the hotel to drop off bags etc., we ambled out to have a look round El Corte Ingles -- a department store whose branch in Barcelona had yielded some rather nifty shoes and a couple of tops. Unfortunately the Granada store's stock of stuff for the larger ladies among us appeared to have been entirely replaced by CrapFashionTM, very little of which I would have considered wearing and that only in 20 years' time. Ah well.
The Chapel Royal and the Cathedral were both worth a look, though the Cathedral was having some fairly major restoration done which made some bits look rather less fancy than they might. It does contain some lovely illuminated musical manuscripts, though, and also gave us our first encounter with the modern face of Catholic votive offerings. Instead of paying your money and lighting an actual candle, you drop your coin in the slot and an electric candle bulb lights up. Sooner or later I'm sure they'll just have a touch-screen where you can enter your credit card details and have a candle light up on a web page for you. (Go on, someone tell me they've already done this?)
The Cathedral quarter does have its fair share of people attempting to flog stuff to the tourists, though the only ones who are annoying about it are the gypsy women who try to sell you rosemary in the same way that those in the UK would try to sell you bunches of heather. Given that I didn't have any immediate need to cook, I managed to fend them off (with increasing irritation once we got to the seventh or eighth attempt).
If you are in Granada and wanting to take home some of the local foodstuffs, I can recommend two places near the Cathedral. Just north of it is a place selling herbs, spices, candles and the like, and also saffron in large quantities for not much money. (I'm sure it's not the best saffron in the world but I'm also sure it'll be perfectly adequate, and it definitely seemed to be cheaper than Tesco.) Sadly I don't have a note of its name, but if you come out of the Cathedral gift shop it is right in front of you. There's also a shop which carries cheese, wine, sherry etc. which is called La Alacena (www.alacena.net) and is run by an English chap and his wife, which simplifies matters if you want to ask for recommendations.
I had booked yet a third set of tickets for the Alhambra, this time for one of the night-time visits. For those, only the Nazrid palaces are open (and not all of the palaces) but it's supposed to be magical and floodlit and that sort of thing.
I was a bit disappointed in the lighting, in that there wasn't much floodlighting going on; most of the lighting was as it had been during the day, though I suppose the contrast of lit carvings against a darker background rather than against daylight was a bit of a change. (Why, yes, there are photos.) The main problem, though, was that the light drizzle which had started in the afternoon had now set in to become actual rain; the trog up from the gate to the palaces is rather miserable in the dark and wet and the marble floors of the palaces are incredibly slippery where they're open to the sky. Oh well. I think I'd recommend doing the night-time visit as the first rather than the last experience, if you have a choice, and in dry weather would also probably be a plus point.
Damp but unbowed, we returned once more to the hotel to leave camera and suchlike, and ventured out on the lookout for tapas. The first place we tried was mentioned in both our guidebooks and also on one of the main squares, so naturally it was absolutely heaving with no chance whatsoever of a table. However, we eventually found La Trastienda, which is a great tapas bar hidden behind a grocery counter in a side street without much signage. Funnily enough it was a lot less crowded -- not far from empty when we arrived around 10pm, though it wound up completely full within the next 45 minutes or so. They have wines by the glass and bottle, they have beer, they have a fabulous array of tapas (cold only, as far as I can tell, but who cares?) and their chorizo iberico is superb.
We were pleased to find that our hotel had the civilised habit of serving breakfast until noon, so there was no need to leap out of bed at some ungodly early hour to make sure we could get food. A leisurely buffet later, we managed to pack everything into the cases we'd brought -- just as well I hadn't succumbed to the lure of any more shoes... -- and went to do a little more sightseeing.
First we stopped to take a quick look at the Hospital de San Juan de Dios. Yes, it's a hospital, but it's a hospital with courtyards and cloisters lined with antique tiling, frescoes, orange trees and fountains. I can't help but think that the NHS could perhaps take note.
Just down the road from the Hospital is the Monasterio de San Jerónimo, which also has cloisters and orange trees, plus a church with one of the gaudiest altarpieces I've seen (the Chapel Royal also has one of about the same level of ostentation). It's not so much the way in which everything is gilded and ornamented to within an inch of its life that gets me, it's the fact that the resulting edifice is then several tens of feet high.
The Monasterio closes at 1330 for its afternoon break, and we were a bit short of other places to visit which weren't also shut (either for the whole day on Sundays, or for the siesta). So we decided to walk up through the Albaicín to the Mirador de San Nicolás, which has lovely views over to the Alhambra (having decided that three visits to the monument itself were perhaps enough...). The Albaicín is the old Moorish quarter of the town and it is almost entirely tiny windy steep cobbled streets which are terribly picturesque and a complete bastard on the feet if you are wearing thin-soled boots (guess who was). However, the view was worth it. rotwang and I both got pressed into service to take pictures of groups of people -- we must've just looked competent or something. (Side note: Canon digital cameras appear to be the SLR of choice of people visiting the Alhambra this weekend; I saw loads of people with them. I also saw loads of people attempting to take pictures of large rooms of detailed carvings with their mobile phones. Whatever floats your boat, guys.) The Mirador had a light sprinkling of people selling rather tacky earrings and one guy with dreads playing the didgeridoo -- as you expect to find in Spain -- sort of a very mini-Camden Market. I strongly suspect this is another place where you can't move in the summer.
We meandered away from the Mirador to take a look at a couple of the local churches and the mosque gardens -- all of which were closed but were quite pretty from the outside. It was round about this time that the occasional rain showers stopped being occasional and started to make a go of being continuous, and also stopped being rain and started being snow, at which point I huddled under an umbrella and looked pathetic until we could find a bus back to the hotel, where we holed up with hot chocolate to pass some time until we needed to leave for the airport (much of which I spent writing this).
Top tips for visiting Granada:
1) Take walking boots or other thick-soled shoes. I really mean it. Much of Granada is cobbled (this includes several of the main parts of the Alhambra) and if you do not have thick-soled shoes, you will feel every cobble as you walk across them and by the end of the day your feet will be screaming.
2) Book ahead to go to see the Alhambra early in the day (see above). If you want to go on one of the night-time tours, do that before going back in the daytime.
3) Did I mention the sturdy shoes?
4) Bear in mind that, this being Spain, things tend to close during the afternoon -- shops, restaurants and museums. You may well do best to retire to your hotel for an hour or two rather than wandering the streets aimlessly (pretty streets though they are).
5) Unless you are planning to travel out of the city, there is no point renting a car. Granada's a pretty compact place (if a bit hilly) and you can walk round most of the good bits without too much trouble (although see also points 1 and 3 re: footwear). There are also city buses which go up to the Alhambra and back, and cabs are easy to find and not too expensive. I'm told that parking is a complete nightmare and the streets are narrow and winding -- some of those up in the Albaicin district are about the width of the bus which goes along them plus, oh, maybe six inches.
6) No, look, really. Many of the women in Granada may sport disturbingly high stilettoes as everyday wear, which probably accounts for the huge number of shoe shops and the cheapness of many of their wares, but unless you actually have your fetish-wear shoes chained to your feet, just go for something comfortable and with nice thick soles which will cushion your feet from the streets.
Photos will be coming at some point. There are rather a lot to sort (to put it mildly).