Here I Go Again: Granada

Saturday 20th February
Watford seems to be the link with my travels so far this year. They are currently owned by the Italian Pozzo family who own similarly sized clubs in Italy (Udinese) and Spain (Granada CF), taking them to the top league in their respective countries and keeping them there. Udinese thrived becoming a regular Champions League team (though are struggling this year) whilst Granada always seemed to be bottom, somehow often inexplicably surviving on the last day (last season by 1 goal).

I’m not entirely sure when I first heard of the Alhambra but it was over 10 years and likely to have been just after my aunt moved to Spain or when I’d studied the Islamic conquest of Spain at university. It could even have been Age of Empires (as per Istanbul, Turkey). It’s obviously an iconic destination in its own right but really it was only with Granada CF looking particularly vulnerable again this season that I decided it was now or never if I wanted to see them in La Liga.

I left the house at 3am and the journey to Gatwick was uneventful but I had to get a dreaded night bus to Victoria and there was a fairly long connection before the Gatwick express which meant the journey took around 3 hours. I fell asleep on the train and my alarm failed to wake me so it was a good job Gatwick was the last stop. Security was hassle free and once on the plane I swapped with the person who had been allocated the window seat and fell asleep for another 2 hours.

As far as I am aware there are no direct flights to Granada so I’d had to book a flight to Malaga. From there I planned to get a bus to Granada which took another 2 hours and again I slept most of the journey. Arriving in Granada I then I to get another 2 buses before finally over 10 hours after leaving the house I finally arrived at the Oasis Hostel, recommended to me by my flatmate Steph’s friend Hannah.

After checking in I wanted to make sure that I was familiar with how to reach the Alhambra because I needed to collect the tickets at 8.30 the following morning and didn’t want to leave anything to chance. I started following signs and soon came to the river and took photos of a church, Iglesia de San Pedro y San Pablo, Casa de Las Chirimías and paseo de los tristes. I had followed signs and it had been a pleasant walk with the Alhambra in the distance on my right however had taken 20 minutes (the time it was meant to have taken). Eventually I powered up Google maps and realised I had taken the scenic route.

Crossing the river I began powering up the hill but by the time I reached the top the visitor centre was closed but at least I’d experienced a pleasant river walk along the Carrera del Darro. I returned back down the path and once at the bottom crossed the bridge and followed the path to the Mirador de San Nicholas. Another steep climb ensued but the views of the Alhambra and the snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada were worth it. Unfortunately I hadn’t timed it to coincide with sunset but it was already getting quite busy.

I returned back to the hostel where I quickly changed, said “Hola” to a couple from Seville staying in my room before joining a free walking tour that the hostel had organised. There were 8 of us in total, 4 Americans, a couple from Austria and a girl from Taiwan. The guide was from Argentina but was living in Granada as that’s where his family was from before they had fled Spain prior to the Second World War.

He was very knowledgeable and provided lots of facts and pointed out various observations that I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed or considered. The architecture of the old city is particularly interesting because Granada had been the Islamic capital of Andalusia for 800 years. After it was reconquered by the Christians most buildings were handed over to those that fought so adapted and Mosques were converted in to churches one of which we visited.

Overall the walk was three hours and we saw a lot and had to take in a lot of information. I’d only been in Granada a quarter of a day but I quickly understood why it was UNESCO heritage listed in the centre because nearly every turning was followed by a structure of interest. We passed an old cistern, which was heritage listed because the importance of ablutions for the Muslim culture made water a key element in daily life. For the second time in a day I climbed to the top of Mirador de San Nicholas and I also got my first glimpse of the Cathedral which wasn’t that memorable but our guide and others had told us as much.

Back at the hostel we all decided to visit Poe one of the Tapas bars the guide had recommended. A few more Americans staying in the hostel joined us and they started ordering in Spanish. I was starting to regret not knowing how to do the same when I realised the barman was actually from London. It seemed exceptional value, for every beer ordered the Tapas was free so for under €7 I’d drunk and eaten as much as I needed for the night.

When I got back to the hostel another couple were already in bed though none of us said anything. Shortly after the Seville couple returned and perhaps thinking everyone was asleep became somewhat loved up. One of the others snored loudly, the other coughed most of the night and finally to really make it the room from hell someone stumbled in around 3am and made retching sounds though as far as I am aware weren’t actually sick.

Sunday 21st February
I woke before my alarm from what had been perhaps my worst hostel nights sleep that I can remember. Rather than snoozing I jumped out of bed showered and left as quickly as possible. The shorter length walk to the Alhambra was equally as steep as the day before and by the time I reached the top I had started shedding layers even though it was 8am and quite cold. I ordered some breakfast from the cafe and at 8.30 collected my tickets as soon as the office opened. I had expected my allocated entrance to the famous Nasrid Palaces to be later that morning but instead they were for 9am so I was relieved I hadn’t wasted any time earlier in the morning.

I entered the Alhambra and after 20 minutes reached the queue for the Palaces. In hindsight I probably could have walked slower and taken the experience in but I knew I had the rest of the day to explore the other areas and I don’t like feeling in a rush. Once my ticket had been successfully scanned I finally relaxed though I was made to wear my rucksack on my front which felt odd and uncomfortable especially with my camera hanging to my left and the audio guide to my right.

The Nasrid Palaces are the centre piece of the Alhambra and I was glad that I had an audio guide to help me fully appreciate what I was looking at. I wondered through the elaborately decorated rooms even obediently sitting on the floor in one as the audio guide instructed me to in order to fully appreciate the patterns. Some of the most spectacular rooms included the Hall of the Twin Sisters (due to the marble columns).The outside patios and fountains were equally stunning in the early morning sun and perhaps the most famous of these “The Patio of Lions” didn’t disappoint.

After leaving the Nasrid Palaces I decided to have a stroll at my own pace around the Alhambra’s gardens known as the General Life. My expectations had been unfairly low for the General Life and I found it more interesting and enjoyable than I’d anticipated. Whilst the architecture was quite simple compared to Nasrid Palaces it was interesting to know the area predated the rest of the Alhambra although changes to the layout has meant it is not known how it once looked. The vegetable garden was the oldest part however I particularly liked the Water Stairway and whilst it wasn’t a hot day in summer I could imagine why it was important for the Sultan to be able to transfer water from different levels.

The Palace of Charles V initially looked quite grand due to the inner court yard however I quickly realised it was just a facade. Building began in 1527 and it was meant to be the palace for or the Emperor and his family following the reconquest of the city by the Christians. A lack of finance meant the Palace was never completed or lived in so unlike the Nasrid Palace there were no decorated rooms to explore. There was a museum in the basement however the signs weren’t in English and it wasn’t covered by the audio guide. I walked through in case something caught my eye but it didn’t and I was more interested in exploring the rest of the Alhambra.

The Church of Santa Maria the Alhambra was closed so I passed through the “Wine Arch” and made my way to the Alcazaba, the Fortress of the Alhambra. First I walked through the Arms Square which contained the foundations of houses used by civil population. Next I made my way on to the edge of the Arms Tower which was the main entrance to the Alhambra. From there I climbed the Watch Tower the highest point of the Alhambra and had some particularly good views of the city but couldn’t see the football stadium.

After leaving the Alcazaba I walked through the Square of the Cisterns visited the church and tried to find the bath house/Hammam of the old Mosque but it wasn’t well sign posted. What I found (which may have been it) was underwhelming however I was starting to feel a bit tired so decided not to search further despite feeling a little frustrated. I’d had a lovely morning and felt I’d fully experienced the Alhambra but I knew it was time to leave to experience some other Granada sights before the football match.

It had been a fascinating morning but I was drained when I left the Alhambra. I returned back down the hill from that morning and entered the town through the Gate of Elvira. I ate at another place recommended by the guide which the Americans had also eaten at the day before. Eventually I realised I could sit down and be served so I ordered a beer and a kebab/salad combination which I believed I had earned from all my walking. All in all it came to €8 which seemed ridiculously cheap.

After leaving the restaurant I knew I had a few hours before I needed to collect my tickets for the football so I decided to visit the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel). I could have done with an audio guide because everything was in Spanish so whilst I saw a lot, aside from the coffins of Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II I’m not sure what was of particular significance.

Next I went to the Cathedral where I was given an audio guide but whether I had pre match tension, had overdosed on culture at the Alhambra or just found the descriptions and details boring I’m not sure but I just couldn’t take it in. It was pretty on the inside especially the Altar but unlike Valencia which had the “Holy Grail” there was nothing of note which I thought was interesting. I walked to each section and listened to a summary of the descriptions before leaving and feeling slightly guilty at my apathy to the experience.

This may sound badly planned on my part but I hadn’t actually established how to reach the ground in advance of arriving in Granada. Knowing it was quite small, and there was only one team I had assumed it would be easy to find. It actually turned out it was a long way out of the city centre and eventually I found a random football site which gave bus details because Google maps normally so reliable for transport abroad had only proposed a 45 minute walk.

As it was I ended up walking the entire route and after successfully collecting the tickets and buying a shirt I began to soak up the pre match atmosphere. First I saw the Granada ‘Heroes’ wall which featured two players now at Watford so I took a picture of me posing with Ighalo. Then the team coach arrived and I caught my first glimpse of three Watford players on loan at Granada who should arrive next summer. Personally though if I was a player I’d stay at Granada which is undeniably more picturesque and warmer than Watford. Entering the ground and finding my seat I saw that they had left out free programmes.

I could write an entire essay on the match. It was a weird experience not understanding what people were singing or shouting though I got the gist of the latter. Granada started off well but the defence looked determined to throw all the good work away and basically looked overly relaxed even though those around me were probably on the verge of having heart attacks. It didn’t help the Granada strikers missed some relatively easy chances. Bad defending and a toothless attack is a toxic mix and a recipe for disaster.

At half time it was 0.0 and Gary Neville randomly, recently appointed Valencia manager was looking tense and I think Granada fans were taking delight in that. All of a sudden though a calamitous piece of defending (I’ve seen similar at Watford) saw Valencia’s number 10 smash the ball in from close range. Granada fought back and missed another two easy chances and had a goal ruled out before in the 90th minute more calamitous defending saw Valencia score again. Granada did then score but there were no celebrations because the final whistle went straight away. They look dead and buried to me and I think I’ll only be returning to that ground if they play Watford in pre season.

During the match I’d decided to book tickets to a Flamenco show in the infamous Sacromonte District. This is the area of the city where gypsy’s had traditionally lived and they had built houses in to the surrounding caves. At the final whistle my legs felt ready for the one hour walk from one side of the city to the other which partly included the river path I’d taken the day before in the day. I hadn’t planned to stop for pictures but it was a good opportunity to take some night shots of the Alhambra lit up in all its splendour on top of the hill.

After a short steep climb I finally reached the venue and even though I’d only booked for a drink I managed to upgrade to get dinner included. It was quite pricey by Granada standards but I was hungry. The show was good and really felt the perfect way to cap off my final evening. The dancers, (especially the male who was visibly sweating at the end) had shown so much energy. The guitar player in contrast looked ridiculously laid back and made the quick playing rhythm look easy.

At the interval I’d got chatting to two Australians in the row in front. Having just spent two hours unable to express myself at the football it was a relief to speak to people that understood me. They were on a tour along with everyone else in the room which spoilt the illusion that I’d stumbled across a genuine venue. Still it was a good evening and we shared travel tips, particularly recommendations in Granada.

I had walked 40,000 steps by the time I arrived back at the hostel just before midnight. As I slowly opened the door I could hear the bathroom extractor fan but the bedroom was deserted and the beds were not made. I turned the light on and as there was no luggage I became overjoyed when I realised for the first time I had a whole hostel dorm to myself.

Monday 22nd February
At 8.30 I woke from a particularly good night’s sleep feeling refreshed. I hadn’t decided what to do on my 3rd day and whilst the hostel ran a day trip to the Sierra Nevada it didn’t return to Granada until the time my flight left Malaga. I looked on Trip Adviser and Lonely Planet briefly considering a visit to the Monasterio de la Cartuja and the Basilica San Juan de Díos. But remembering my feelings at the Cathedral I wasn’t convinced I would be overly enthralled.

In the end I decided to book a Arabic bath and massage because my legs were aching from the day before and I got a discount from the hostel. The girl at the hostel booked me in and after checking out I made my way at a fairly quick pace to the venue.

I had been expecting a Hammam experience similar to those I’d had in Morocco and Turkey. Instead once changed I entered a large room with 7 different swimming pools, six of which were hot and one which was cold. I wasn’t sure how long to spend in each and if I’m honest I got a bit bored getting in and out. In the end I decided to sit on the side and drink some sweet mint tea and waited for the massage.

I had opted for a leg massage because my muscles were in need of some serious TLC after the strain I’d put them through the day before. I probably needed a sports massage but instead this was a relaxing massage which did very little except to cause me to very briefly fall asleep. After the massage I briefly switched between the hot and cold swimming pools before I decided I’d had enough and it was time for lunch.

I still had plenty of time before I felt I needed to get a bus to the Granada bus station. I briefly considered walking to the Monasterio de la Cartuja however remembering my feelings after the visit to the Cathedral and Royal Chapel I decided not to. I realised that despite it being high on the TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet websites I probably wouldn’t appreciate it. I had come to Granada to see the Alhambra, to watch football and eat Tapas. I had done all 3 and was satisfied I was ready to leave.

I ate lunch at a bar/restaurant near the hostel, deciding against another walk along the river to a bar recommended to me by the two Australians from the flamenco night. The deal was ridiculously good but for one reason or another the bar staff took a distinct dislike to me and pretty much refused to serve me after the food had arrived. It took an age to get the bill but I was still feeling relatively stress free when I returned to the hostel and collected my bag.

I made my way to the bus station and along with many other people with suitcases boarded a bus which arrived almost instantaneously. It was crowded but I got off at the right stop so I could get the bus to the bus station and on to Malaga. What happened next I had a chance to reflect on for over 3 hours.

I knew I needed to go to the “estación de autobuses” (Main bus stop) and to get two bus numbers went there. One of the two buses came in so I jumped on and as it was busy thought nothing of it. Gradually people got off and a seat became free. I relaxed. It didn’t even occur to me to check the map. After quite a while, we passed the football stadium and I became anxious because I knew that was south of the city and I needed to be north. I looked at the map and it suggested I was only 20 minutes away if we suddenly took a turning on to the motorway. I clung to the thinnest of straws.

Unsurprisingly we didn’t take the turning. Instead the bus stopped and the driver turned off the engine and I got off. If all went to plan I could still get the 3pm bus from Granada which would give me 30 minutes to get through security and I was checked in I was still relatively calm. I got back on the bus and over 45 minutes later arrived at the bus terminal with plenty of time to get a ticket. Unfortunately I wasn’t thinking straight and made another error of judgement.

I knew I had to get a ticket to the airport and searching Malaga it only came up with the bus station. There were only 3 tickets left (it hadn’t even occurred to me the bus would be full) so I booked it, hoping I could resolve the issue. Rather than finding a help desk I tried the departure gate and I spent 20 minutes waiting for someone who could help to magically turn up. They didn’t and of course I was unable to explain my predicament to the driver and my fellow passengers probably thought I was trying to cheat the system.

For over two hours I was in a state of panic. I researched other ways to get home concluding the next direct flight was 3 days away, I researched getting a bus from Malaga bus station to Malaga Airport and tried phoning the bus company. The latter hung up when I assume they didn’t understand my Spanish. Half way in to the journey we pulled over in the middle of nowhere so the driver could check the wheels/have a smoke, neither of which were reassuring. I arrived at Malaga bus station and rather than arguing my point ran off to the taxi rank I’d seen on our approach. As it was I beat the bus I’d been on and as security was quick I made it to the gate as priority passengers boarded.

Ironically I was one of the first to board the plane. This was because we were ferried on to a bus to take us the length of a bus up the runway to the plane and I had been the last person to board the bus and so was first off when the doors opened. During that time I completed a survey and the prize was a Caribbean Cruise. At the time I wondered if this had been a test and I would be rewarded but on my flight I realised I’d actually had good fortune, or at least it could have been a lot worse.

Aside from a screaming baby on the flight there were no further dramas. I landed in Luton and made my way to Ealing where I ironically arrived at South Ealing station minutes before Steph who had been in Stockholm and landed at Heathrow. We exchanged stories on the walk home. For me Granada had been everything I had hoped and more. I thoroughly recommend it. The Alhambra is stunning, the food is great and I desperately hope the football team stay up because I would love a chance to see another La Liga match there.


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