España (Part 3): Granada

When we arrived at the Granada bus station, we split for the restrooms, where Umar emerged about 15 minutes later looking green and having emptied his stomach. I had sat on my suitcase in the hall waiting, worrying that he expected to meet me elsewhere. I tried to recall some descriptors in Spanish to send a male passing by to look in the men's room and assure me Umar was still inside. Just before I mustered the courage to approach someone, Umar came through the doorway looking bedraggled with dark circles around his eyes.

Unforgivingly, I looked at him and said, "Food." I couldn't wait any longer and was nearly shaking  with hunger. We walked through the bus station cafeteria to the few delis and settled on bocadillos with mystery meat that we ( or, I, really) were too starving to take the time to look up the translations for. Rustic-cut baguettes enclosed a grey pounded meat with crushed tomatoes. I inhaled mine and became human enough to calmly locate the hostel confirmation page from my bag, which had a helpful list of directions. It would take us two buses to get to our hostel. While in the bus station we tried to get a Spanish sim card for my phone like we had read about, but it seemed my phone couldn't activate the card. I realized that I was likely to be phoneless the whole trip and we would have to rely on Umar's cell.

We walked out into the daylight with our bags, found our bus station, and mapped our way. Only problem was, we couldn't figure out which direction on the route the bus was headed. In rough Spanish, I asked an older couple, who turned out to be Portuguese, which way to go. The woman seemed delighted to talk to me, and explained she and her husband were here on vacation to see the Alhambra Palaces as well. They were headed in a similar direction to us and practically held our hands all the way to our connection. We didn't have to wait more than a minute for our second bus, which was much smaller and continued to open its doors to cram in more and continuously more people until we were pressed entirely into one another. 

The view became more rural until finally we exited onto cobblestones right next to the San Jerónimo Monastery. Checking our way on the map, we turned into a narrow alley (all in the Albaicín district are alleys) where the cobblestones were clearly installed by hand, so rough we had to carry our suitcases in our arms. All the buildings were a few stories high, which filtered the mid-day sunlight in directional chasms across our paths. No path was straight or gridded in any way in connection to one another. The paths simply were, curving and looping onto other paths in no sensical way and the buildings so tall as to block any view up ahead to ground your orientation. It was, as a visitor, impossible. It brought to mind the opening scene of Aladdin where he runs from the guards.

Our hostel on Calle Tiña, named Makuto, was on a corner, again with a heavy wooden door that had an iron screen over it. We were greeted by Marta, the receptionist, and Jacob, an American whose role in the hostel was unclear. He reminded me distinctly of a theater major I had known in college and had a boyish gleam in his eyes that indicated he liked to be the center of attention. He seemed to be putting on a role--purposefully overwhelming host? "Welcome. Let me get your bags. Sign in with Marta. Would you like water? I will bring you water," within the space of 20 seconds, immediately back with glasses of tap water, which Umar and I had agreed previously would be wise not to drink. He handed me mine and I looked at Umar with a shrug and drank thirstily. 

"It's very clean water," Jacob said understandingly. He jostled us along, and presented us to Sam. Sam was British with cropped dark hair and an attractive smile. He explained that there was a bar in the courtyard open any time an employee was around. He pulled out a map and circled some desirable sites nearby and explained that he would lead a walking tour at seven. "You don't want to miss it," he said enticingly, then showed us to our room. Umar passed out immediately in our small dorm on the bottom bunk of one of two bunk beds. And with a key and a map in my hand, I set out on my own to explore.

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After a two hour jaunt with my camera and a brief period of being lost (I enlisted two youths and exhausted my Spanish trying to conversationally tell them about my day in answer to their many questions), I found my way back to Makuto. There was the small reception area, up above which were the larger dormitories. I passed through into the patio and bar where employees and guests were lounging in plastic lawn chairs. There was a gravel patch ahead with a tree house, below which were available hammocks swinging amidst the hanging vines. I walked through to our shared room to check on Umar, who as now waking in a much better state.

Just like at an overenthusiastic camp counselor, at seven Jacob and other employees began ringing bells, bursting upon groups of people and shouting, "The walking tour! Grab a drink at the bar before you leave." I ordered a sangria while Umar put shoes on and joined everyone in the courtyard, a group of about twelve people. Sam led us through a tangle of pathways that we could not later re-create to the best vistas of Granada (which means pomegranate, he explained. Gesturing to tiles and the top knobs of fence posts, all decorative details in sight were sculpted to resembled pomegranates). 

On the second to last view, he brought us to our first sight of the Alhambra palaces backed by the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We viewed this with shock as it appeared around a corner, a golden moment as the sun began to descend.

Within a few short minutes, Sam was inexplicably pulling us away, promising us there was yet a better view. We began a steep hike up cobblestone roads, leaving Albaicín for Sacromonte, which housed the gypsy caves. He led us up steep steps in the mountain to a tiered pathway opening onto the mouths of caves. Behind us was the vista of the Alhambra and the Albaicín in the distance, the sun slowly nestling further down.

Sam gestured to one of the caves, leading us in. Two African men welcomed us, offering to lead us through their home and passing out canned beers like entry tickets through the threshold for €1. It was strangely invasive, being led through without expecting moments before to be witnessing this, but the men were kind. Sam explained that there were no homeless here--that the caves were rent-free. These men had some deal with Makuto, offering the most spectacular view for a few euros and were clearly friendly with Sam, who led tours every night. What was surprising about the caves was the fact that there were individual spaces like rooms, divided by where the cave sloped and turned. They had gas lanterns lighting the space and it was sickeningly hot and crowded, but fascinating to see.

We exited quickly to seek comparatively cooler air and found the other man lining up broken or mismatching chairs facing the view down the mountain. Their dog meandered through the visitors, accepting pets dolefully while the host set out jewelry available for purchase--hand braided leather that had been dyed. I bought a burgundy necklace and asked him how he found himself in Granada. He said that he told his mother ever since he was young that he would move here--had romanticized it his whole life until he decided to take the leap. It was incredible to feel the solidarity of someone from a completely different culture who had dreamed of Granada just like I had. 

While we sat and watched the sun fully set, the hosts made us tea, served in glasses, ceramic cups, and plastic mugs, no vessel matching the other. The group whispered between itself whether this tea was just tea. Behind the sweetness was a smokey unfamiliar taste. Already a couple of Irishmen in the group had purchased a bag of pungent herbs, and it became clear how the hosts really made their money and why they welcomed us so warmly. Sam overheard the giggly, whispered questions and, aghast, denied that anything but sugar was mixed into the brew, then, smiling, said that would cost extra.

 Homes in Sacromonte on the way up to the gypsy caves

Homes in Sacromonte on the way up to the gypsy caves

 Our Host's Cave

Our Host's Cave

 Our Host

Our Host

That night we had dinner with a married couple living in Canada, where the husband was from--the wife was Australian. I want to say their names were James and Amanda? I can't remember that, but can remember they were EMTS, and that they reminisced the most common emergency call they received were to remove items that people had voluntarily shoved up their rear ends and gotten stuck. They were young and adventurous and had just come from Madrid, bragging of the Prado. Starving after the sunset atop Sacromonte, we grouped together and failing, tried to re-create the route which Sam had taken us through.

Eventually we found the square full of restaurants towards Sacromonte and settled at a patio table. Here, we realized, was a true tapas scene. Whatever drink you ordered (vino blanco seco, on my part) was accompanied with an appetizer included in the price of your drink. A gypsy troupe serenaded us with instruments just shy of a washboard and jug band. The base had three plucky strings, and Umar sat in awe of them and struck up a conversation with the basest, who came over to tell our table goodnight before they packed up.

We had tapas of seafood, bread, tomatoes, and most daringly for Umar and me, jamón Ibérico de melón, essentially prosciutto over honeydew and cantaloupe. For at least the past decade I have resisted pork of any sort. It is a taste I tend not to like, while I do like live pigs (my friend has a pet pig named Hamlet); pork is also not a particularly healthy meat, and I find Americans entirely too bacon-obsessed, which to me overwhelms the taste of any dish. Likewise, Umar was raised Muslim and explained that he was punished severely for trying pepperoni as a child and therefore had never explored pork in dishes. We has discussed in advance, upon watching an Anthony Bordain episode set in Granada, of giving in and trying whichever tapas were presented to us, pork or no pork. Umar was skeptical of our jamón, but I found it the perfect balance of salty and sweet. Amanda and I devoured it.

Full of wine and food, we showered in the community dorm-style showers back in Makuto and fell into bed, Umar on the bottom bunk, I on the top. All we had were simple white sheets to cover us, and the window opening to the courtyard was open to emit the breeze. I was foot to foot with a young Australian on the top bunk of the bed pushed up against ours. He snored heavily and both I and the Vietnamese traveler below him took turns tearing off our sleeping masks and staring venomously at him in the dark to no avail. 

Just before seven, still dark, Umar and I were the first to awake. We had tickets to the Alhambra Palaces that morning, and were told that it was within walking distance. We dressed in shorts, tanks, and sandals to accommodate the weather forecasted that day, but realized a few blocks into the walk that we were to freeze in the dawn. We had left a little later than intended, and after we reached the first paved road that would admit cars, we realized we would have to hire a taxi to arrive in time. The Alhambra was infamous for having thousands of travelers a day and waiting for no one.

We took the cab up a steep incline and found our way nervously to the notorious line. I think of our whole trip this was the most anxious period--part of me was so afraid that the tickets were printed wrong or had become lost, that we were in the wrong place or here on the wrong day, year, or time-slot. I was over-wrought with paranoia due to all I had read about the difficulty of purchasing tickets and being at the right place at the right time. Our guided tour wasn't scheduled until nine, and Umar patiently left me in line to retrieve hot coffee and pastries to calm my jitters. This, these palaces, were the most dear and important site for me on our entire trip.

 I consciously chose the morning session for the light. Our first sight within the Alhambra was of the Palacio Nazaries, which is the only restricted part of the palace. You can enter only at your ticket time and can spend no longer than 30 minutes walking through. It is by far the most decorated of all the spaces.

I consciously chose the morning session for the light. Our first sight within the Alhambra was of the Palacio Nazaries, which is the only restricted part of the palace. You can enter only at your ticket time and can spend no longer than 30 minutes walking through. It is by far the most decorated of all the spaces.

 With a history all the way back in 889 AD, the palace passed from Roman, to Arabic, to Spanish rule. "Alhambra" means red castle or red fort--all the walls have a faded terra cotta hue. Steeped in Muslim History, our guide explained that no religious images were permitted, only Arabic inscriptions. The detail is dizzying.

With a history all the way back in 889 AD, the palace passed from Roman, to Arabic, to Spanish rule. "Alhambra" means red castle or red fort--all the walls have a faded terra cotta hue. Steeped in Muslim History, our guide explained that no religious images were permitted, only Arabic inscriptions. The detail is dizzying.

 View of Granada from the queen's terrace

View of Granada from the queen's terrace

 Famously, Queen Isabella (of Isabella and Ferdinand) initially intended to tear down all the Arabic texts and replace them with Catholic art, but after living among the beauty of the palace said, "I did not conquer the Alhambra, the Alhambra conquered me." She kept the Arabic inscriptions intact.

Famously, Queen Isabella (of Isabella and Ferdinand) initially intended to tear down all the Arabic texts and replace them with Catholic art, but after living among the beauty of the palace said, "I did not conquer the Alhambra, the Alhambra conquered me." She kept the Arabic inscriptions intact.

 It was within the courts of the Alhambra that Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand met with Christopher Columbus and provided the funds for his travels and discoveries.

It was within the courts of the Alhambra that Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand met with Christopher Columbus and provided the funds for his travels and discoveries.

 Palace of Charles the 5th

Palace of Charles the 5th

Palace of Charles the 5th
 View from Alhambra's Gibralfaro

View from Alhambra's Gibralfaro

 Low-light portrait of Umar at the surprisingly un-crowded courtyard restaurant in the Alhambra's cafe, where we ordered tomato and cheese bocadillos and espressos

Low-light portrait of Umar at the surprisingly un-crowded courtyard restaurant in the Alhambra's cafe, where we ordered tomato and cheese bocadillos and espressos

I cannot begin to express my monumental experience of the Alhambra, so I will let the photographs speak for themselves. Afterwards, knowing that I would be caught between a high of happiness and a low of the knowledge that the event was over, we planned to walk to the Hammam Turkish bath house. It was a hidden building, squeezed, indistinguishably among shops on a narrow street.  

We were ushered into a reception area of tiled floors, colorful couches with slouchy pillows, and a bright sun roof above. Vines grew from decorative columns and we were immediately served a hot, syrupy tea while we waited with another couple for the baths to have open spaces. Within a few moments were split into male and female locker rooms. We wore bathing suits under our clothes and stripped of our outerwear to rinse away the heat of the day before being shown into the baths.

 Hammam Baths (they did not permit photographs--this picture is from their website)

Hammam Baths (they did not permit photographs--this picture is from their website)

The employee, dressed in a white bathrobe with her dark, curly hair piled up high on top of her head, gave us a tour with whispered instructions. Her glasses were perceptibly fogged from the fluctuating temperatures and her dewy skin glowed beneath them. There were four or five chambers with pools of varying depth and size. Each was a different temperature ranging from ice cold, to luke warm, to near boiling. Soft, haunting music played, and the corners and turns of each chamber were lit solely by candlelight. There was no talking, no laughing, she explained, and plenty of teapots filled with the same syrupy tea in multiple nooks that were were welcome to refresh ourselves with.

It felt like we were within the Alhambra palaces again, with similar red walls, intricate mosaic tiles, and Arabic-inspired architecture. The baths seemed to be populated exclusively by amorous couples, who took themselves quite seriously. Umar and I caught each other's eyes and stifled our nervous amusement--quickly dismantled by a violent glare from our guide, who paced authoritatively between pools to make certain everyone was silent. It made one want to retreat into a dark pool and mouth undeservedly "Are we doing a good job now?" with shrugged shoulders and awkward thumbs-up when she next passed by.

We noticed eventually that she would beckon customers from the pools and banish them back to the locker rooms. It seemed we were on a time limit, though it lasted indistinguishably--thirty minutes, an hour, two? We melded from one pool to another, to the sauna, for some tea, silent and contemplative, enjoying the surprise and comfort of shifting temperatures, not at all sure if there was a rhythm to obey. Eventually we too were banished.

I realized, back in the locker room, that I had not brought underthings to change into from my suit and tried briefly to blow-dry my sopping wet one-piece. Giving in eventually to dampening my clothes, I investigated the plethora of toiletries they offered, lathering on different lotions and cleansers before meeting Umar back in the reception area.

 The street right outside of the Hammam Baths

The street right outside of the Hammam Baths

We returned to Makuto for a siesta, waking only from hunger. Feeling immaculately clean and lazy, walking slowly, we went for tapas--gazpacho and yet more fried mystery fish. Umar wanted to see a soccer game, and for the first time we noticed that nowhere around us were there TVS. In fact we had to find an Irish bar to see the game. The rest of our evening was spent tapas hopping in places recommended on our map from Makuto that Sam had circled. It was Monday the 12th and we found that Andalusia was infamous for not listing, or, more often, not sticking to their declared hours.

We ended up roaming pretty far to a closed discotheque and ended up instead at a tapas bar called Sonho (my favorite of them all) that had red string lights and served pizza, free, of course, with any drink. I ordered a tinto de verano, meaning "red wine of the summer," essentially a wine shandy mixed with gaseosa, a lemony soda. Umar ordered perhaps the booziest interpretation of an Old Fashioned ever conceived and became immediately drunk.

Glad that I felt grounded in directions, I brought us to one of the latest serving tapas bars that was already on our way back, Los Buenos Chicos. It was the smallest of them all, narrow, packed, and cheery. I settled Umar at the only outside table (the only seat available) to take some fresh air while inside I got him a glass of water and myself a glass of wine. The bartender seemed frustrated by my request and began grumbling a rapid string of questions at me that I couldn't translate. Fearing perhaps that ordering water here was a great faux pas, I began to slowly repeat the few words I recognized back to him as I tried to dissect his meaning. 

Helpfully, two older and darkly tanned women jumped to my aid, and slowly I began to understand that I had accidentally requested my red wine to be chilled (somewhere replacing a single letter in "tinto," the distinction of which is again lost on me). With their help I explained that room-temperature would be perfect and the bartender replaced his scowl with a belly laugh and beamed at me, quickly getting our drinks.

I returned to find that Umar had bumbled into a German table inside, which did not seem especially to appreciate him, so once again we went out to sit on the patio. This time we were joined by a white dog who had been tied to the patio fence, his owners nowhere in sight. He had in his anxiety began to rip violently at the astroturf flooring, frenzied and whipping shredded pieces in his mouth to oblivion. 

I can't say what came over me exactly, but I sat there and simply watched the dog. Feeling all at once desolate, firmly in control, and baffled. Umar and I witnessed the surreal scene in silence, I with my room-temperature tinto vino and Umar with his water until there was no more astroturf to extract. Wiped suddenly of energy, we stopped for helado de granada (pomegranate ice cream) and walked through streets already, now, familiar, back to Makuto to crash for the night.

We slept very very late into the morning and spent a majority of the day in Realejo, the Jewish district known for their expanse of murals. It was a very long, hot, quiet walk.

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 A stroll through shaded walking trails

A stroll through shaded walking trails

 At  Maison Tabarka

At Maison Tabarka

I don't think I can truly impart the remorseless joy of tapas. We walked the great hill up and then down along the path of murals, stopped for an Alhambra brand cerveza and yet another tomato-based snack. We strolled through shaded gardens, and went into a confitería for a beautiful chocolate dessert called a pinguino. We walked further to another tapas bar, Maison Tabarka, for more.

There was a park right by the patio where a puppy was tied up. He barked ceaselessly while an old man screamed drunken obscenities at him. The only thing recognizable was, "Cállate, CALLTE!" and then he mocked the dog with his own rabid barking to no avail. They both quieted when two very normal-looking middle aged women approached the man, seemingly a stranger, and they joined him on the park bench to smoke cigarettes and chat.

Next, a flock of your girls rushed by with markings on their face, performing for various commands like rolling on the ground and then bursting upright for jumping jacks. It became clear this was a serority hazing event, yet not so cacophonous and daunting as when the fraternity appeared from nowhere to join them. This ended with each girl being paired to a boy and then, holding hands in rows, they skipped high and rhythmically from sight.

It was lovely and not at all peaceful, and then we walked back to Makuto to rest before our late night Flamenco show.

We rose the next morning knowing it was our last in Granada. Sluggishly we ate the breakfast the hostel provided in the courtyard, where many people were sitting out in the sun drinking tea and coffee. One new arrival, Avartha, a solo traveler from India, had just arrived and was waiting for his room to become available.

We struck up a conversation with him and a Belgian French girl named Jessica. She sat Indian style in her chair, chain-smoking cigarettes and making eye contact with no one. She responded to most things by scrunching up her lips and emitting a ticking sound, then would cock her head and let out a stacatto "No" as a preface to the rest of her sentence. She was going to study a year in Granada and was staying at Makuto while she searched for a place to live. We decided to go together on a walk along a stream.

We took our shoes off and waded in the water, enjoying a lazy day under the sun in each other's company. When we got hungry we went in search of tapas and ended up finding a vegan place where we ordered a variety of mini dishes to share for the table. I remember that they served their white wine with frozen grapes instead of ice cubes.

On the way back, Jessica and Umar bragged about the craft beer from each other's countries and vowed to send bottles to each other when they returned from their travels. Jessica shook her head and stared straight ahead. "No, it will not compare." To which Umar vowed that Good People's Fasto Stout would convince her otherwise.

As we strolled back through the narrow alleyways, we suddenly noticed street art encouraging veganos (vegans) that we hadn't paid attention to before. Known for their jamón in such a traditional city, I was surprised, first, to happen upon a vegan restaurant, nevertheless to find graffiti advertisement of the movement.

Jessica departed to class and Avartha's room became available. We split ways, and Umar and I tried to re-create our path to Sacromonte. I wanted one last view of the gypsy caves before we left, but it was difficult to retrace our steps from the walking tour. Discouraged by the monumental steepness (and a bus that never came), we returned, sweating, to Makuto to pack our things.

We taxied to the airport just as the sun set in deep, grenadine colored striations to fly to Barcelona. I love that as I write this I still have a hint of Granada remaining on my skin in the faint tan lines from my chacos. 

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