We leave Cadix in the rain with no regrets, heading for Tarifa. It’s still raining when we get there but it clears up sufficiently after our coffee to walk around the village. Unfortunately there isn’t much to see.
As we drive up the Mediterranean Coast from the industrial port of Algeciras, we keep seeing the Rock of Gibraltar and the weather keeps improving.
We leave the motorway to climb up to the white hilltop village of Cesares. We take the very steep descent on foot to the village centre. We are obviously off-season as there are no restaurants open and only one bar that is serving food – El Flamenco Rosa. There are five tapas so we take one of each and a glass of wine. We find a pasteleria to complete our meal.
Typical street in Cesares
We return to the motorway and an hour later take the turnoff to Benalmádena. We are surprised by the plunging descent to the coast road. When we arrive at our hotel we are given glasses of local sparkling wine which we drink on our very pleasant second floor balcony. Tomorrow we take the plane home from Malaga.
After leaving the monastery at Jerez de la Frontera, we head for Cadiz where we discover it’s carnival time! Many people are in home made costumes grouped around comedians and very talented singers. What a pity we can’t understand.
Next morning, the town seems much calmer and we are able to visit the sights with only light spitting. Inside the old fort there is an exhibition on munitions explosion in 1947 that took hundreds of lives and left thousands injured.
We leave Marbella and the high-rise coastline of Costa del Sol without regret and are very pleasantly surprised by Jerez de la Frontera, especially the Alcazar, which is balmy and peaceful.
After our visit we choose a nearby restaurant- Bar Juanita – which at 1.30 pm is practically empty. It starts to rain so we go inside. By 2 pm, it is crowded! We choose various tapas and raciones and feel very much like locals.
On the way out of the town, we stop to take a photo of the tiled train station.
Next, the Carthusian monastery which is closed for renovation. The entrance is a replica of the front of the monastery.
Marbella is like the Saint Tropez of Spain – not that I’ve ever been to Saint Tropez. Not quite my style. But we want to stay a couple of days on the Costa del Sol which we have never seen before going to Cadix and Marbella has an old town which sounds better than endless high rise apartments with balconies overlooking the sea. The historic centre turns out to be rather kitch but we like the little park with its ceramic benches and fountain.
I live in a region in France – the Loire Valley – known for its troglodyte houses so it was rather fun to discover the same concept in Spain, but with an entirely different result. The cliffs here are clay and the cave houses in Guadix have white chimneys. Altogether, there are about 2000 troglodyte houses inhabited by 3000 people. It’s believed they date back to 1492 when Grenada was taken over by the Catholic kings, causing the Moors to flee to the surrounding mountains where they dug houses in the clay hills. The name Guadix comes from the Arabic Wadi Ash meaning the River of life.
The Cordoba cathedral mosque or mezquita-catedral de Cordoba is quite extraordinary. The architecture and decoration are sumptuous. It has changed religions several times over the centuries and is an incredible mix of Moorish and European architecture. The great mosque was built in 785 on the site of a Visigoth basilica. It was then expanded many times up to the late 10th century until it was able to accommodate 40 000 people. It was turned into a cathedral in 1236. The structure remained much the same until the 16th century when a Renaissance nave and transept were inserted into the middle. I’ve tried to illustrate these changes in the following photos.
In January 2015 we spent a week in Granada and it snowed! The one thing I regretted was not hiring a car to go to Cordoba for a couple of days. So on Monday after a very long day, leaving Blois at 8 am by car for Charles de Gaulle airport to catch a 2 1/2 hour flight to Malaga, where we picked up a car from a local rental firm called Malaga car.com, we were delighted to finally arrive at our rental apartment in the historical centre of Cordoba at 8 pm.
However it was not until next day that we were really able to appreciate the roof terrasse. Cold but sunny (about 12 degrees Celsius in the middle of the day), it proved to be the perfect lunch spot!
I somehow feel that Granada escaped me. I think there are two reasons: the fact that I was still recovering from a bad bout of flu and the unexpectedly cold weather. It seems to me that Spain is an outdoor country and that is the only real way to enjoy it. With temperatures around freezing, it was difficult to find enough to do outside and the indoor venues were practically never heated.
When to go – not winter!
So my first suggestion would be to avoid January and February, despite the oranges on the trees and the possibility of snow.
How to get there
I also think we were there too long, but surprisingly, the cheapest flights were Saturday to Saturday! There are no direct flights to Granada (you need to change in Madrid), so the cheapest way to go is via Malaga which has flights arriving from all over the world.
You can then either stay overnight in Malaga or take a bus directly to Granada. Because we were arriving at night, we pre-booked our transport from the airport to our hotel in the centre via airportshuttles.com. It wasn’t that much more expensive than public transport and much cheaper than a taxi. Our friendly driver was waiting for us and we arrived at our hotel in next to no time.
Bus from Malaga to Granada
We didn’t stay long in Malaga as there is nothing to see but new buildings. I seriously don’t see the attraction but Black Cat was there during fiesta time one year with local friends and loved it.
The bus station is within easy walking distance of the centre of Malaga. There are machines to buy your ticket (in English) and you get to choose your seat. The buses are modern and efficient and leave on time. We even had a bag of goodies on the ride back from Granada to the airport!
However, the bus station in Granada is very far from the centre so it’s better to take a taxi (less than 10 euro) to your accommodation. We literally walked outside and jumped in a cab. On another occasion, however, we walked there and bused back and it was long and complicated.
How long to stay – and make a side trip to Cordoba
I think that 3 or 4 nights is a maximum to spend in Granada. I regret that we did not get our act together in time to rent a car (50 euro for 24 hours), drive the 2 ½ hours to Cordoba, visit the famous mosque, stay the night, visit the rest of the town the next morning then drive the 2 ¾ hours directly to Malaga airport.
Eating in Granada
When we visit another country, we prefer to eat in fairly basic local restaurants rather than go for an often disappointing gourmet experience. Spain is known for its tapas. Sometimes, they are served free with drinks in the evening and other times you pay a small amount (1.60 to 2 euros a time) per serve. Some are very filling. Larger serves that you can share are called raciones.
We found the menu del dia (menu of the day) at 8 to 9.50 euros excellent value for money. It includes a starter, main course, dessert, bread and a glass of wine. There is sometimes a tapa as well. There isn’t a very wide choice but the food is often prepared on the premises and copious.
Breakfast with tostadas and fresh orange juice
Eating hours are very different from France. Breakfast seems to take place at about 10 am, with people having a break from the office. Tea or coffee, freshly-squeezed orange juice and a tostada(toasted bread) spread with tomato pulp and olive oil, butter or just olive oil are always offered. On the last day, we went to a very small café and watched the lady put some tomatoes into a blender to make the pulp. Delicioius! It seems you can grate the tomatoes as well. The total price for this type of breakfast is about 3.50 to 4 euros per person.
Churros are another speciality of Spain. We loved them in Madrid but found that even in the most popular churro place in Granada (Futbol Café), they were salty and too chewy. You dip them in hot chocolate that is made with some kind of thickening. I don’t really think they are worth the calories to be honest!
Where to stay
With regard to accommodation, we chose a self-catering flat as that is what we prefer if we go somewhere for more than a few days. I’m still not sure about the location. We were halfway up Cuesta Alhacaba in the Albaicin, which is the oldest neighbourhood of Granada and definitely the most interesting. If we went down the (very steep) hill, we were in the main modern part of the town and if we went up the (slightly less steep) hill and wandered around the other side, we were in the older part. The two best vantage points, Mirador Nicolas and Mirador San Cristobal, are at the top of the Albaicin. However, at least in winter, there isn’t much open there at night.
The Alhambra, of course, is the star attraction, but it’s up on a hill and isn’t really close to anything else. A view of the Alhambra is much sought after apparently, but you can drink in the view from a lot of places in the city. To book ahead, you can use the official website and pick up your tickets in a ServiCaixa machine with your credit card.
My perference still goes to Seville which we visited at about the same time several years ago and loved and Barcelona which we really enjoyed as well, especially anything to do with Gaudi. We also enjoyed San Sebastian, despite the weather!
The first time I went to Granada was in the spring of 1976 when I was young and naive. I was living and working in Pau in the French Pyrenees and had befriended a woman called Anne Marie who ran a hikers’ refuge in the mountains in the summer months. She suggested we go on a hitchhiking holiday to Spain. After the repressive era of the dictator Franco, young women – and foreigners in particular – were easy prey so Anne Marie insisted we wear obstentious signs of religion so that the men would leave us alone. I had a large coloured ceramic cross! It worked. We were never bothered.
It was a whirlwind trip. Anne Marie had omitted to inform me of two major details: she had no money and she had a rendezvous with her Spanish lover in Sarragossa at the end of the trip, which was a surprise to me because first, she was married and I knew her husband, and second, she was not my idea of a femme fatale.
When she came to collect me, she proceeded to empty half my backpack, which meant that I had only the barest of creature comforts. It was not until a year or so later that someone pointed out to me that my superduper backpack contained a small rubber mattress.
Anne Marie was used to sleeping on the ground when mountain-hiking but it was a rude shock when I had to sleep on hard concrete in a sleeping bag for the first time in my life. I know that we went to Seville, Granada and Cordoba but since I left my camera behind in the train to Madrid, I have nothing to jog my memory and my subsequent visits to Seville and Granada have contained no familiar places.
We mainly ate bread and tapas which, at that time, were free. You just had to buy a drink to eat any of the little « lids » of olives, ham and cheese set out on the counter. I can remember being hungry. I would have been happy to buy food for both of us but Anne-Marie wouldn’t be any part of it and I had to eat what she ate.
From Cordoba, we were supposed to hitch-hike up the Sierra Nevada to Madrid but rides were scarce so we ended up taking the train on the last stretch, then another train in the direction of Saragossa. By the time we arrived in some little town I can’t remember it was close to midnight and Anne-Marie managed to find a double bed in someone’s home that sank badly in the middle. Only mildly better than hard concrete.
The next morning we hitch-hiked the rest of the way to Saragossa and arrived late for the rendezvous with the Spanish lover on the steps of the Cathedral. We waited about an hour before we finally left with Anne-Marie in tears. About ten minutes later, she decided to go back to the cathedral steps and there he was, waiting for her!
We drove out of town to a forest in his Mini and I waited in the car and dosed while they went off into the forest. How I/we got back to Pau I don’t remember. It’s a long time ago, but I didn’t ever go on holiday with her again!
My next trip to Spain was a couple of years later when I did a two-week language course in Salamanca while studying translation at ESIT. This time, I hitch-hiked by myself down to San Sebastian just over the French border then took the train the rest of the way. I boarded with a family in their small apartment. I was still not used to people with children actually living in anything other than a house and my day-to-day Spanish was virtually non-existent. It was a strange experience. I also only knew the third person of verbs so would have to say things like “she’s going out now – me”.
One day the landlady asked if I had any ropa. When I couldn’t work out what she meant, she called in the other boarder, a German girl to explain that she wanted to wash my clothes. After that, everyone assumed that I didn’t speak a word of Spanish and they wouldn’t actually believe that I had understood a whole conversation about the stock exchange (la bolsa). I knew a lot of financial and technical vocabulary from ESIT but we had never done any texts on washing clothes.
It was the same occasion on which I went to visit Avila, home of Saint Teresa of Avila and saw her little finger. It put me off relics for a lifetime! Don’t worry – I don’t have a photo of that either!
I have retained a surprising amount of vocabulary but have never actually learnt to speak or understand the language with any ease. But when we travel, I get by especially if I practise what I want to say beforehand but I’m often discouraged. I have less formal learning in Italian and can understand (and speak) a lot better.
I’m not sure I’ll ever need Spanish again though, because I think we have exhausted our possibilities here. Next time, we’ll go back to Italy for the sun!
Snow has been predicted but when we wake up, there is no sign of it. We walk up Cuesta Alhacaba, our double hill road, to Casa Pasteles on Plaza Larga for breakfast. There’s a market today – one clothes stand and a fruit and vegetable stand! We go for the tostado medio and have trouble understanding how much we have to pay : 7.70 euro, which somehow seems a very strange amount.
We walk down the other side of the Albaicin quarter through tiny winding streets, the sky dramatic with its bright sun, deep blue and menacing clouds. I’m starting to get the feel of Granada which has escaped me up until now. A word we keep seeing is Carmen, derived from the Arabic for a garden planted with vines. In Granada, it means a villa. I’d love to see behind the high iron gates.
Our first destination is the 11th century Bañuelo, one of the oldest surviving and best-conserved baths in Andalucia and the oldest public building in Granada. It was not destroyed during the Christian era because it is underneath a private dwelling. We have the place to ourselves and are impressed by the sheer size of the baths although their tiles have long disappeared.
As we walk past Plaza Nueva, I connect it up with the touristy place at the bottom of the Alhambra from the day before. Granada seems to have no centre.
After having our only outdoor coffee since the beginning of our stay in Granada, we visit the Royal Chapel and I’m astonished to see how terrible some of the wall paintings are although the faces of the sculptures on the ornate altar are finely carved.
We walk quickly through the modern souk in Alcaiceria, that replaced the original medina after it burnt down in 1843, and is now a craft market with lots of souvenir shops. We cross over Gran Via de Colon and start walking up the little streets to the Albaicin.
By the time we get to Plaza Aliatar, I’m more than ready for lunch – well, a rest in any case. We choose Bañeao with its 3-course menu at 9.50 euro and hope for the best. We are served a tapa consisting of a small fried egg surrounded by some sort of dried peas or beans, followed by what look like eggplant French fries, then grilled squid with salad. I have the somewhat liquid rice custard. People keep running outside to see the whispy little bits of snow that are falling.
It’s late afternoon and the snow has finally started, light at first, then gradually heavier. By the time we venture out to buy food for dinner, it’s snowing quite heavily and wetly. The paving stones are a little slippery as well.
When we look out the window next morning, we see there is still snow on the ground, especially on our terrace, but the sky is bright blue so we head over to our favourite Mirador San Nicolas.
It hasn’t snowed enough to turn the Alhambra white but the glinting rooftops and snow-covered orange trees are lovely. It’s biting cold though.
We make our way down the hill towards the university quarter where we’re going to visit the Carthusian Monastery and are delighted by the views of the city spread out before us.
From the outside, the Cartuja reminds me of the Cartosa near Milan, one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen. The inside is very ornate with multi-coloured marble and polychrome wood drapery. Unfortunately photos are not allowed.
On the way back, we discover a new area we haven’t been to before and visit the former royal hospital, now the University of Granada. It consists of a series of beautiful white patios but no students. Maybe it’s holiday time.
We debate whether or not to eat downtown or up in the Albaicin and decide on the latter. As before, the views from the tiny winding streets are stunning but exhausting and it’s still very cold with little pockets of snow on the ground in some places.
We end up again on Plaza Aliatar and try the other restaurant, Horno de Paquito (horno = oven) which ostensibly has the same menu but turns out to have a lot more deep-fried dishes. We order a vino tinto followed by a vino roja, although we’re not sure what the difference is!
After our well-earned siesta, we suddenly look outside and see there’s a magnificent sunset. We quickly get dressed, but by the time we are rugged up and ready to leave, the sunset’s nearly over. I nearly burst my chest getting up another of those hills but we are five minutes late. Maybe we’ll do better tomorrow.