Sunday, April 08, 2007

Andalucía IV: Granada's Finest

Holy Week was alive and well in Granada, but the pasos were shorter; the crowds less vast and silent; the band members less somber than in Seville. But our purpose of visiting Granada was not, specifically, Holy Week: it was to visit the Alhambra, that immense and magical complex of palaces and gardens whose construction began in the eleventh century. Like everything else about our trip through Andalucía, we had to book our visit well in advance; but even seeking tickets several months ahead of time proved unsuccessful since the number of Alhambra visitors is so limited. Fortunately, Andrew found tickets through a tour company. And the Alhambra did not disappoint. The gardens of the Generalife—the “summer home”—were extensive, and full of soothing fountains and pools, orange trees and roses. And the palaces were just ridiculous, room after room of intricate carvings, tiling, and arches. Here, too, were bubbling fountains, and several interior courtyards full of fruit trees; it was a place entirely separated from the world beyond it, entirely self-contained. Andrew says the Alhambra is his favorite monument in Europe.

Besides the Alhambra, I have only two words to describe Granada: free tapas. In every bar, when you order a drink, you get a small plate of food. And not just potato chips or peanuts—real food, delicious food. The kind of food that just makes you want to head to another bar to order another drink and get more free food. In other words—I had my first true taste of the tapear. Seville’s tapas were wonderful; but none were free. In Granada, the tapear took on an entirely new dimension.

It started on Thursday, when we happily arrived in Granada after our brief stop in Córdoba. After checking into our hotel—a beautifully restored mansion in the city center, with a large room full of antiques and a huge tiled bathroom—we headed into the city, which was more Moroccan than Spanish. Walking through the streets near our hotel was like being back in the Marrakech souks. Windows were full of Moroccan pastries; lantern-lit tearooms were full of people drinking mint tea. We stopped in a bustling tapas restaurant for a snack of ensaladilla rusa and manchego cheese; we were given a plate of delicious mushrooms “de la casa” as well. Next, we went to a bar for a drink; but when the bartender handed us a plate of sliced bread with ham, we shook our heads, assuming he was giving us someone else’s food order. Little did we know we’d just turned down our first free tapa. We knew better from that point on, though our tapear that night consisted of a blend of free and paid-for tapas. The highlight was a chorizito bocadillo (a sandwich with small rounds of chorizo) at a packed bar called La Mancha. The best bar was a place called Bar Leon, whose walls and ceiling were covered—solidly—with Semana Santa posters.

Friday, we followed our trip to the Alhambra with a stroll to the Mirador, a lookout point from which you can see the Alhambra and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains, then through the Albaicín neighborhood. When we found ourselves in a lovely square, we decided to have something to eat. Before we knew it, we’d ordered a huge platter of fried seafood, a large bowl of gazpacho, and a huge dish of caracoles (snails). All delicious, especially since we even had a brief period of sunshine. But rather than fill us up, the lunch put us in the mood for a tapear—Granada style.

And we had a true tapas feast. Fried shrimp; croquetas; sliced bread with turkey, served with olives and gherkins; cubed ham and cheese; small tuna sandwiches; small rounds of sausage; a baloney-like meat on bread. One bar was so crowded there was nowhere to set down our drinks and plate; Andrew and I took turns holding the plate while the other person ate. There, a paso went down the narrow street right outside the window. We went next to a bar across the street, had more drinks and food while standing in the doorway, watching another paso. It was all very strange, very Holy Week, very Spain. The only food we paid for all night was a schaurma, which we ate as we walked back to our hotel through the winter-cold.

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