Wednesday, August 11, 2010

European stop 6: Granada, Spain

With the exception of the fact that we were sitting across from a loudly snoring man on our train ride from Sevilla to Granada (and who, when he was not sleeping, insisted on sharing his food with everyone nearby), we had a pleasant trip through lots of sunflower fields and arrived without incident to this beautiful Muslim-world-meets-Spanish-world town.

Total time in Granada: 1.5 days, 2 nights

Money-saving tip:
Granada is the only Spanish town we visited where it is still customary for bar-goers to receive free tapas with their drinks. So, before you order your food, order your drinks and see what, if anything, comes with it. Everywhere we went we received complimentary tapas, so you probably will, too.


Time-saving tip 1:
Although we had difficulty with the Tren Italia website and automated ticket machines in Italy, Spain's Renfe train website worked perfectly for us. You can reserve your tickets online and print them out for free at the many Renfe ticket machines in Spanish train stations. This is especially helpful if you either do not have access to a printer or, in our case, do not want to pay to print at our hotels.

Time-saving tip 2:
Anyone who visits Granada as a tourist plans to visit La Alhambra, the main attraction. This is the one attraction we visited during our entire trip for which we reserved our tickets in advance. Tickets can be booked one year to one day in advance. This is recommended because of the 6,600 tickets available each day, only about 2,000 are sold the day of at the ticket office. The ticket matters mostly for your entrance time into the Nasrid Palace, the most popular stop on the tour. You're given a 30-minute window during which time you must enter the Nasrid Palace or you lose your spot.  There's a 1 Euro service charge per ticket for booking in advance online, and remember that even though you're booking online this is still a foreign transaction, so be sure to use the credit card you plan to use with low foreign transaction fees.

Hotel:
Hesperia Granada
Plaza Gamboa
The beautiful stained-glass ceiling in the hotel lobby
Price we paid per night: $102
Location: This hotel kept with the theme of great hotel locations we experienced throughout our entire trip. Located in the Realejo off of Calle Reyes Catolicos and right behind city hall, this hotel is easy to find and within ideal walking distance from La Alhambra, the Albayzin (old Muslim quarter) and very close to good restaurants and bars.
Room: Honestly, this room was the least impressive of the five hotel rooms our travel agent Cindy selected for us. It was perfectly clean and functioning, and there was plenty of space, but nothing about it particularly stood out either, aside from the beautiful door leading into the room. We did like, though, that there was a small hallway with a door separating the bedroom from the bathroom and blocking out any additional noise from other guests in the main hallway. And, we had a little balcony overlooking a courtyard.
The room is...unfinished? Uninspired? Something like that.
The bathroom is similarly unimpressive, but perfectly fine for what it needs to do.
But the door was actually pretty neat looking...
...and having a little balcony was a nice, unexpected touch.
Breakfast included?: No
Service: Friendly, helpful and attentive, just as I'd come to expect at all the hotels our travel agent selected.
Internet: Free Wifi in the lobby, but it was so painfully slow and often not working that I felt like I was living in 1995 again. We finally broke down and paid $5 to use the desktop computer in the lobby to buy our bus tickets to Cordoba and our train tickets from Cordoba to Madrid.
TV: Fine.
Overall assessment: This was the least impressive of all the hotels our travel agent selected, but at the end of the day it was perfectly nice and in a great location, so I can't really complain.

Food:
Granada is the only place on our trip where we did not eat all the food in front of us, thanks to all the free tapas our waiters kept serving us. As we'd sit down for a post-dinner drink at a new bar on a full stomach, we'd forget that we'd get yet another free round of tapas and therefore find ourselves even more stuffed or find ourselves, sadly, wasting food. The good news is that we hardly spent any money on food in Granada.

El Espejo
Calle de Elvira 40 (in the Albayzin off Plaza Nueva)
Genre: Small tapas bar
How we found it: We were drawn in by a sign outside the door announcing their tapas sampler that comes free with a pitcher of sangria.
What we ate: We had the pitcher of sangria and the free tapas sampler, OBVI!  The sampler included fried calamari, fried fish croquettes, slaw, potatoes with egg, homemade sausage, and bread with some sort of sweet jam/meat spread (sounds weird, I know, but it was great).
I think this means "free tapas," but now I'm not sure.
Total cost: 12 Euros, baby!
Overall assessment: We sat outside at one of two outdoor tables and had a wonderful dining experience. My only complaint is that I would have liked some kind of sauce to accompany the two fried items. We did see lots of stray dogs go by, so maybe the ambiance wasn't perfect, but we love dogs, so it worked. I was still a little hungry afterward, so we went to another bar where I had a bowl of gazpacho, Matt had a glass of tinto de verano, and we received yet another free tapa.

Kabab King
Calle Reyes Catalicos 46 (across the street from Plaza Nueva)
Genre: Fast food, kebab style
How we found it: Because we were in a city known for its excellent kebabs and halal meat, we figured we had to give it a try, and it was near all the other restaurants we'd checked out the night before.
What we ate: Stephanie: lamb pita platter (comes with French fries and a drink); Matt: falafel platter.
Total cost: 10 Euros
Overall assessment: My lamb pita was absolutely wonderful and so filling. The meat had excellent seasoning, and the yogurt sauce balanced out the plate nicely. Matt regrets going the vegetarian route on this one, as the falafel had been sitting out so it was not nearly as satisfyingly crispy as a recently fried falafel dish would be.

Sightseeing:

La Alhambra and Generalife
Price: 12 Euros (adult ticket) plus 1 Euro surcharge for ordering in advance online
The Alhambra is a massive structure with several different sections to check out. As I mentioned above, your ticket -- which you should book in advance to avoid lines and the risk of not seeing this wonderful site -- gives you a designated 30-minute window for entering the Nasrid Palace (Palacio Nazaries). The rest of the attractions -- Generalife (royal summer home), gardens, Alzcaba (old fortress with watchtowers) -- can be visited at your own pace. It takes several hours to take in all the Alhambra has to offer, so be prepared to make this an early morning through afternoon activity.
Tip 1: The Alhambra ticket information and signs grossly overestimate how long it takes to get from one point of the site to the next. For example, our ticket receipt instructed us to pick up our tickets no later than one hour before our entry time to the Nasrid Palace. In reality, we needed to get our tickets about 15 minutes before entering the Nasrid Palace. Similarly, once we were inside the main entrance to the Alhambra signs told us it would take 20 minutes to walk to the Nasrid Palace when, in reality, it took us five minutes.
The walk to the Nasrid Palace.
Tip 2: Download the WalkiTalki Alhambra audio guide iPhone/iPod Touch app before your visit. At $4.99, this was way better than a regular audio guide because your iPod screen allows you to see photos of where you should be in your tour and includes an interactive map, so you can move in the order of your choosing. This is particularly helpful given the fact that you must visit the Nasrid Palace at a set time, so most visitors no doubt move through all the Alhambra sites in a different order.
If you have a backpack with you, the guards will make you wear it on your front. Still, this did not detract from Matt's excitement over his WalkiTalki audio guide app purchase.
Inside the Nasrid Palace
Walking around the gardens
The Generalife has beautiful water features surrounding this awesome summer home.
The Alzcaba is the oldest and apparently least-crowded site at La Alhambra.
Here we are on top of the largest watchtower, Torre de le Vela (pictured above with flags and a bell tower on top). It was here on January 2, 1492 that the cross and banners of the Reconquista were raised, and today the bell only rings on January 2. You can see the snow-capped Sierra Nevada in the background.

Walking tour of the Albayzin
Price: Free
Tip 1: Our Lonely Planet Spain guidebook encouraged us to take this self-guided walking tour, but it also encouraged us to be safety conscious and not walk around this still up-and-coming neighborhood during siesta time when there are more pick-pockets out.
Tip 2: This is an uphill climb, so wear decent shoes and be ready to sweat in the summer. Plan for your walk to take about two hours total.
View of the Albayzin from La Alhambra
Walking around the Albayzin
The Calle Caldereria Nueva is near the bottom the Albayzin and is lined with tea houses, shops selling Arab-inspired gifts and pastry shops with sweet treats that look and taste a lot like baklava.
Tip 3: Make sure you plan your tour so that you'll make it to Mirador San Nicolas -- a great spot to see La Alhambra in the distance -- in the evening around sunset. It is quiet picturesque!
Views of La Alhambra from Mirador San Nicolas -- we visited twice, and the light kept changing during each visit!
Next up...we take a bus (I know, a bus!!) to Cordoba for one brief but exciting day in this small city.

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