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Five Days in Granada, Spain

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Why go?

Like most people, my main reason for going to Granada was to see the famous Alhambra, the Moorish palace and fortress that sits high on a hill overlooking the city and Sierra Nevada mountain range beyond. This was the last bastion of the Spanish Moors as the Christians forced them south in the 13th century and they set about making it the grandest city in all of Andalusia. When they were eventually conquered by the Christians in 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were so impressed by its beauty they did little to change it and so it remains much as it did when the Nasrid Dynasty ruled and Mohammed en Alhamar established the Moors’ capital there in 1232. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and really one of the wonders of Europe, if not the world. It dominates the city, nearly always visible and really quite spectacularly breathtaking. But it isn’t the only reason to go to Granada for it’s a beautiful city and has so much to offer other than its famous palace.

Getting there and where to stay

I flew to Alicante with British Airways on this trip to visit friends for a few days and then took a bus (ALSA bus) from Alicante to Granada as it was the quickest way to get there (click here for more). I flew back to London with Iberian Airways (British Airways’ partners so all booked together), via Madrid. I had a slightly fraught time coming home as my flight from Granada was delayed and it looked as if I would miss my connecting flight at Madrid, but the people at Iberian Airways were fantastic and met me (and a couple of others) off the plane at the gate and super fast-tracked us through, leading all the way through the terminal, onto a shuttle to another terminal and to our gate with just 5 minutes to spare! I’d never had made it if they hadn’t been so helpful. There are some direct flights from London City Airport and easyJet fly to Granada from Gatwick.

I not only booked my flight through British Airways (as a multi destination deal), I also booked my hotel through them, as I often do, for this definitely makes savings as well as being convenient. I first looked at a suggestion of a hotel high up in the city with wonderful views across to the Alhambra but a bit of research warned this involved a steep 20-minute climb on foot to get anywhere. Thus I booked Hotel Carmen in the centre. It’s a large newish 4* hotel on a busy road and thus inevitably a bit impersonal, but I had a nice big room leading out onto a narrow balcony overlooking the busy Acera del Darro and while quite noisy during the day, it was very quiet at night. There was a huge buffet for breakfast and I indulged in lots of fresh fruit – pineapple, melon, red grapefruit, etc. – but there was pretty much anything you might want, including a big bowl of tomato pulp to make tostadas, the popular Spanish breakfast of tomato on toast.

The staff were always helpful and friendly, so I felt very comfortable there, and they were happy to provide me with a pot of hot water at night with a big smile so I could make a night-time herbal tea in my room.

So, my main recommendation is that you give up a great view of the Alhambra if it means staying in the steep and cobbled roads high above the old Moorish quarter of the city, the Albaicin (Albayzin) because (see more below) the roads there are quite a challenge. I could walk to the area from my hotel in just 15-20 minutes and it felt a lot easier and more convenient – and anyway, if you want the view, Hotel Carmen had a great roof terrace with bar, restaurant and small pool – and view!!

 

Seeing the Alhambra

Given that you are most likely in Granada to see the Alhambra, then don’t miss out! I booked my trip early in the year and then discovered when researching online that it was recommended you booked a ticket to get into the Alhambra at least 90 days in advance. I decided to book a 3-hour tour with Viator that began at 8.00am and thus got you in ahead of the crowds. Given that over 6,000 people visit each day, getting in first has a lot going for it! It was a good tour, the guide informative and fun, and the views amazing (click here for more).

However I realised afterwards that as it was mainly outdoors I’d missed a lot. We were told we could stay on once the tour ended as our tickets were valid until 8pm, but after an early start and 3 hours walking I, like most others, set off back to town and lunch. When I go back, I’ll just buy a ticket to go in and expect to spend most of a day there, but the tour was a great introduction.

 

What else to see

I spent most of my time in the Albaicin, the old Moorish part of town. It was wonderful; I sometimes felt like I was in north Africa, Morocco, not Spain. The hub is Plaza Nueva (photo above), full of bars and restaurants and one night some flamenco performers – song, dance and guitar – busking, which was an exciting and unexpected surprise.

Walking from here further into the Albaicin, the road narrows considerably, following the path of the Darro river until it opens onto a green ‘square’, Paseo del Padre Manjon, full of bars and restaurants with the most magnificent view up to the Alhambra. Just sitting there is wonderful.

From here you can continue up to Sacromonte, the old gypsy area where people lived in caves and this was the heart of flamenco. It’s still where you can find the best flamenco if you know where to go, but it’s also quite touristy with tours going up to specially arranged flamenco performances. I walked up there one morning and it was wonderful because the views were terrific; completely stunning. There’s a cave museum at the top which is interesting to see.

   

And you’ll find a walk round the top where you’ll find a bench where you can sit and admire the amazing view.

There is a small bus (i.e. a very small sized bus that can cope with negotiating the narrow roads) that takes you up, and many people take taxis, but I enjoyed the walk. It’s quite a hard, steep climb though so go prepared with sturdy shoes and a bottle of water! You can also buy a ticket (€5) to go into an old Moorish baths and houses on the route (click here for more).

   

Around the cathedral area there’s a large, lively square – Plaza de Bib-Ramba –  that’s worth seeing and is full of restaurants, bars and shops; you can see the cathedral rising in one corner.

To go into the cathedral itself, you need to pay €5.

Another day I explored the Realjo area and climbed some steep steps at Cta. de los Vergelese and was rewarded with another wonderful view.

 

Where to eat

For a fantastic setting go to Paseo del Padre Manjon (mentioned above) for the amazing view up to the Alhambra.

There are a number of bars and restaurants there. The best I found was Restaurant Ruta del Azafran. On my first evening walking back to my hotel and exploring a bit I saw a huge crowd outside a bar in a narrow alley (C/Hermosa) off Plaza Nueva. The next day I went back to investigate at lunchtime and had one of my best meals at Bar Casa Julio. It was tiny, standing only and served just a small selection of raciones, like tapas but bigger – sharing plates.

   

It was such a simple meal – fried prawns and tomato salad but absolutely glorious. I wanted to go back but they were closed Sunday and Monday so I didn’t make it. Another popular place nearby was Los Diamantes.

This was always packed so expect to queue. But once in you’ll find the food fantastic. It’s mainly fish and also serving just raciones (it was rare to see a bar serving the small tapas we’re used to thinking of when in Spain). The first night I went my waiter suggested the mixed fried fish as the dishes were large so I’d only want one on my own.

I’d wanted an arroz – a gorgeous ‘wet’ paella usually made with fish and one of my very favourite dishes anywhere. However, true to Spanish tradition, Los Diamentes didn’t serve it in the evening – the Spanish believe it’s unhealthy to eat rice at night. This means a good test of a restaurant and its authenticity is whether they’ll serve you arroz or paella in the evening! I went back the next lunchtime. I had to wait 10 minutes for them to finish cooking it – it was that fresh. It was fantastic; really good.

They always serve a little taster (like an amuse bouche) and as arroz seemed to be the taster of the day, they gave me a plate of fried mushrooms instead.

I had a nice lunch of tortilla (Spanish omelette) that came with salad at a little restaurant further up the Albaicin right by the river Darro (that’s quite narrow), La Taberna de Tiacheta, where there was a lovely view.

   

The best two restaurants I ate at were El Mercader in Calle Imprenta off Plaza Nueva and El Trillo in Calle Algibe de Trillo, which required a steep climb up from Paseo del Padre Manjon but was well worth the effort. At El Mercader I had a good cod dish with a squid ink mayonnaise on a romescu sauce.

The whole meal was good and the waiter was very knowledgeable about the wines so guided me to good choices. The meal at El Trillo on my last night was fantastic (read more here). I had the best salmorejo and another cod dish because I like fish and it sounded so good.

I found two good places for breakfast. I actually had breakfast included at my hotel but I like only some fruit, yoghurt and maybe cereal to begin the day and to have coffee and pastry later. So that’s what I did. A good deal of freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and croissant was found at Bar Lisboa on Plaza Nueva for €5.

   

This was a lively place and always buzzing and busy; they also have seats outside. The best croissant was found at Lopez Mezquita Pasteleria on Reyes Catolicos, a main road leading up to Plaza Nueva. They had fairly limited opening times and I kept passing them when they were closed, but when I finally managed to have coffee and croissant there it was really good.

 

What to eat in Granada

Andalusian food has a strong Moorish influence. This is where gazpacho comes from; also salmorejo (photo above). They are very similar but salmorejo is basically just tomatoes and bread and garlic, blended or sieved until very smooth and usually served with a garnish of Iberian ham and chopped egg. Gazpacho has other vegetables, less bread and isn’t always so smooth. As mentioned already, you’ll find more bars serve raciones than tapas.

As in other parts of Spain you’ll find wonderful hams, served thinly sliced onto plates. There was lots of fish on offer, mainly fried as I enjoyed above or this wonderful grilled octopus I had at Los Diamentes.

The special cake of Granada is pionono – a delicious small cake which I found to be a little like a bread pudding, soft for being soaked in custard and flavoured with cinnamon and a caramel topping.

The best are found at Casa Ysla, which luckily for me was right by Hotel Carmen!  I also found great ice cream there.

   

 

Shopping

   

I’m not a great shopper on holiday but I always like to bring some little gifts home for family and maybe buy some little souvenir for myself. Inevitably Granada is full of ‘souvenir’ shops, mainly selling typical Moorish things like ceramic plates, cups, tiles and Moorish clothes. But many of the shops sold really quite lovely things – prints and watercolours, handmade jewellery. I bought quite a few things in the official La Alhambra shop, Tienda Libreria de la Alhambra, and also some pretty handmade earrings in Munira on Plaza Nueva, which specialised in leather goods and even ran classes in making leather things; they also, apart from the jewellery had good quality ceramics and lovely prints.

General advice for walking about

Granada is a wonderful city but like any big tourist attraction, it’s wise to be careful with your money, phone etc. I never felt worried, to be honest, even walking around by myself at night, but it’s still best to take care. Of more obvious threat is falling on the steep cobbled street. Throughout the Albaicin area you’ll find you need sturdy shoes to negotiate the cobbled alleyways. It’s quite hard climbing up to lots of the places you may want to go, even some of the restaurants (like El Trillo) so be prepared. Sometimes there are handrails to hold on to – but more often not, so I often found coming back down more hazardous.

An unexpected hazard is traffic on the narrow road by the River Darro that leads from Plaza Nueva to Paseo del Padre Manjon. The road that runs between, Carrera del Darro, is very narrow. It’s easy much of the time to think you are in a pedestrianised  area – but you’re not. Small buses, made particularly small to negotiate the road, run past quite often; a tourist train also makes its way up there; and taxis are frequent (maybe other traffic wasn’t allowed up there). There are very few escapes to the side as they approach … I often found myself squeezing onto a narrow step at a building’s entrance to avoid being hit, usually squashed up with other people. Even then I was occasionally anxious that I might get hit by the wing mirror – yes, they came that close! There’s nothing you can do other than be aware and take care.

 

Reading matter

Apart from guide books, I always like to take – if I can – a novel or some other book set in the place I’m staying, to read while I’m there. I took Laurie Lee’s A Rose for Winter: Travels in Andalusia (published 1955), a real classic, with me. It’s the most glorious writing. Lee writes of Granada that it is ‘probably the most beautiful and haunting of all Spanish cities; an African paradise set under the Sierra like a rose preserved in snow.’ More famous perhaps is Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (first published 1832), which my friends in Spain told me was a ‘must read’ so I bought a Kindle copy while I was staying with them, then saw it in shops all over Granada while there.

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I’ve wanted to go to Granada for sometime; it has to be confessed because I wanted so much to see La Alhambra. But once there, I did indeed love the Alhambra and was awed by it and its amazing views, both from it and of it throughout the city. But Granada the city is special too and I fell a little in love with it so definitely want to return soon. I hope my post highlighting all it has to offer will encourage you to go if you haven’t been … or go back if you have!

 

 

Spain, Granada 2017: Dinner at Restaurante El Trillo

It was my last evening and usually I like to return to my favourite restaurant of the holiday for my final meal to end on a high note. But it being Monday, many places were closed. I thought I’d go back to the best restaurant I’d found on Paseo del Padre Manjon simply because sitting directly under the Alhambra, the view is stunning.

I sat enjoying an aperitif at a bar there but decided I wasn’t inspired by the menu so googled for best restaurants near by. Most were closed but Restaurante El Trillo was opening at 7pm and had a high rating. Google estimated it was only an 8 minute walk but I hesitated as I’d learned that when the walk was uphill through the narrow cobbled paths, estimates could be highly optimistic. Still, it was early, I had plenty of time to investigate. So I did. And this time Google Maps worked a wonder and I was soon standing before El Trillo. It wasn’t yet open so I had a little wander. It was so quiet and pretty.

When the restaurant opened, it turned out their terrace overlooking the Alhambra was fully booked but they had a table in the garden. I was happy with that for the garden was peaceful with the gentle sound of a small fountain trickling nearby and, as my good fortune would have it, I could just about view the Alhambra before me.

As so often while in this beautiful city of Granada, I could easily imagine I was in Morocco; it’s so different to other parts of Spain I know. The waiter was friendly and helpful, even looking up the English word for the tree I was sitting under, heavy with fruit. It turned out to be quince. I hoped no fruit dropped while I sat there! A glass of cava was brought and an amuse bouche of a delicious beetroot and sangria salmorejo and bread.

   

   

I’d eaten a couple of disappointing salmorejos during my holiday, that delicious purée of tomatoes and bread served as a soup or sauce and a traditional Andalusian dish. I was still on the lookout for a perfect one. And now I’d found it!

Garnished with avocado, beetroot, micro leaves and black sesame seeds, it was gloriously smooth and tasted wonderful. Often it’s a dish made with too much vinegar but the balance of all the flavours here was perfect.

For my main I chose a dish of cod served with salted broad beans, Iberian bacon and beetroot purée.

It was garnished with little flowers and even strawberries, which was a surprise but worked well. It was a fabulous dish.

I was too full for a dessert and finished with just coffee. Light was fading and candles and lamps lit.

It was all so delightful, pretty and peaceful. What a lucky and happy choice for the last meal of my holiday. It had been the most expensive (€42 including the glass of cava and a generous glass of red wine) but not by London standards expensive for what I had. The staff were wonderfully friendly and efficient and I was a happy Travel Gourmet as I set off back down the cobbled paths to more familiar territory.

Well that’s the end of my trip to Granada and it’s been everything and more I’d hoped for. What a beautiful and interesting city. I really hope to be back soon.

Spain, Granada 2017: A Morning Walk Out of My Comfort Zone

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I’ve so loved spending time in the Albaicin area of Granada – the old Moorish quarter – that I’ve neglected exploring other parts of the city; the Albaicin had become a kind of comfort zone where I now knew my way round quite well. So on this, my last day, I decided after breakfast to set off in a different direction from the previous mornings. My map showed a viewing point in Plaza Campo del Principe in the Realejo district north of my hotel so that’s where I headed.

I took my usual route up Reyes Catolicos because I wanted to have coffee and a croissant at a bakery I’d seen and looked great but is often closed: Lopez Mezquita Pasteleria. I’d checked it opened at 9am this morning and went in and sat at the bar at the back. I had by far the best croissant and coffee I’ve had so far so fully intend to go back tomorrow morning before I leave for the airport.

Afterwards, instead of carrying on as far as Plaza Nueva as I usually do, I turned right into Pavaneras. I passed Museo Casa de los Tiros, a museum about Granada’s history.

I soon felt that I was in a very different area to what I’d grown used to. It seemed less touristy and more obviously full of locals going about the ordinary business of life. I passed a great looking deli.

Then I noticed a music shop with a window full of guitars, violins and cellos.

From a google search later, I discovered the owner and stringed instrument maker – a luthier – was well known. They offered flamenco guitar lessons. The shop only opens briefly late afternoon but a guitarist was sitting inside playing – perhaps trying out a guitar to buy or checking a repair. Finally I made it to the Principe campo.

It was a pretty enough square, bordered on the sides with lots of cafes but the promised view seemed only to be of the large Alhambra Palace hotel rather than the Alhambra itself. I headed back to some steep steps I’d passed and consulted my map.

It looked quite a climb but I’ve grown used to that since arriving in Granada and my experience is a climb usually leads to a great view, and this was indeed the case.

Following my map, I took a route that followed round near to the Alhambra entrance and then walked down through woods into the familiar area of Plaza Nueva.

   

Crossing to the other side of Plaza Nueva and a bit south, I went to look at the catherdral area. I went into the buzzing and lively square of Plaza de Bib-Rambla, also bordered by cafes and restaurants but of a grander kind than the earlier ones at Principe and there was a view of the cathedral in one corner.

I crossed over to take a look at the catherdral and the small square in front of it. I had a quick look inside but there was a queue to pay to go in so I glanced round and took in as much as I could and went back out into the sun. Tomorrow I’ll be back in autumnal London and want to spend as much time outside as I can.

   

By now it was lunchtime. Being Monday a number of places are closed, including Bar Casa Julio that I lunched at on Saturday and hoped to return to. I’d had in mind to just eat a few tapas but most places sell the larger raciones and I ended up returning to the excellent and reliable Bar Los Diamentes on Plaza Nueva where I had a wonderful plate of grilled octopus, tomato salad and a small beer. As usual a little complimentary taster plate came too.

   

It was a perfect lunch and I was really pleased I’d explored a bit more of this great city of Granada this morning.

Spain, Granada 2017: Historic Sites in Albaicin & Walk up to Sacromonte

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Being an early riser has great advantages when holidaying in a famous city. I’d picked up a leaflet yesterday about visiting six historic buildings in the Albaicin and discovered that entry was free on Sunday (other days there’s a €5 charge). So after an early breakfast I set off in time to be at El Banuelo for the 10am opening. These are 11th century Arabic baths and are thought to be among the oldest and most complete baths in Spain. There’s a small courtyard and just three small rooms to see. Interesting but sadly no traditional tiling left. I moved on to visit a couple of traditional houses from the Moorish period. Again, there were no decorations or furnishings so only of moderate interest, especially if like me you’ve been lucky enough to stay in beautiful riads in Morocco.

   

Still, entry had been free and it was quite a nice thing to do as I made my way up Carrera del Darro and into Paseo del Padre Manjon with the Alhambra, as always, within close sight.

From here it’s then a steep climb to continue on to Sacromonte where gypsies settled after the Christian conquest of the city in 1492. This was a distinct area of the city where the gypsies kept very separate from the rest of Granada’s inhabitants. At one time they lived in caves, produced craft works like ceramics and woven rugs and the area was alive with dancing and music. This is where you’ll find the best flamenco even today – if you know where to go!

Before I came to Granada, friends told me stories of visiting many years ago when Sacromonte was still a wild area and perhaps even dangerous to visit at night, especially alone. Today, rather inevitably, it has become a major tourist attraction where you can pay a lot to see flamenco (€25 at one place I asked) and some of the caves have been turned into a museum. However, I was still delighted by it for the walk (described on a notice at the bottom as ‘very difficult’) offered such magnificent views.

The buildings were painted white and shone brightly in the morning sun, some doors entrances to caves, shown by their names (cueva) and there was little sign of activity so early.

   

As I made my way along the steep and winding road, I began to wonder how much further to go. There were no signs and just as I was thinking I was coming to the end of the district, I rounded another bend and saw this.

Clearly this was the centre and no doubt a hive of activity come evening. Then I saw a sign pointing the way to the cave museum and thought it would be good to take a look. So, onward I climbed. Again, with no indication of how far I had to climb, after an exhausting while, I almost gave up. I pondered that if you came to Granada unfit, you’d most certainly go home a lot fitter! Then I saw I sign that said the museum was just 25m further on, so I kept going. And I’m so pleased I did for it was worth the effort to get there.

I had to pay (I think) €5 to get in. One man seemed to be in charge of it all and pointed to the caves and told me if I followed them round, I’d get to ‘the view’. Each cave was clearly marked and demonstrated some form of living or activity – kitchen, pottery, weaving, etc. It was fascinating to see – but be warned, the ceilings are very low so watch your head!

   

   

   

Outside there was a small vegetable garden and lots of herbs growing with labels giving information about their medicinal use. As elsewhere in Granada, pomegranates were growing, a symbol of the city: pomegranate.

Then I walked round to the promised view – and oh my word, what a view!

Each day in this beautiful city I’m awed by glorious views. Many of them may require steep, difficult climbs, but it’s always worth the effort. At this one an empty bench sat in the shade of two small trees looking out across to the Alhambra and Sierra Nevada mountains beyond. I sat for a while and enjoyed it, only a couple of other people nearby, so a moment of utter peace. What a splendid thing.

If climbing up the steep slopes surrounding Granada is a bit challenging, going back down them can be even more so. Sometimes there are rails to hold on to, often not, and the large cobbles are very slippery. It’s wise to take it slowly and cautiously!

Back down in the centre, the crowds had arrived. It was lunchtime and I decided to go back to Bar Los Diamantes, a wonderful fish restaurant, where I ate last night. This is a racione place – all small plates but bigger than tapas. Last night I asked for arroz, a kind of ‘wet’ paella, and perhaps my favourite Spanish dish. But – and a sign of their non-touristy authenticity – they don’t serve rice dishes in the evening; the Spanish think it’s not good for your health to eat rice at night. So I decided to return for it today for lunch. I arrived before 1pm but had to join a queue.

It was heaving with people. I didn’t have to wait too long though and soon I had a plate of gorgeous arroz before me, some complimentary fried mushrooms and a small beer.

A wonderful end to my morning.

Spain 2017: Views & Cobbled Streets – Walking in the Albaicin, Granada

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I had an abortive attempt to climb up to Mirador San Nicolas, Granada’s most famous viewpoint, yesterday evening. Despite having Google Maps to hand on my iPhone, the maze of narrow little streets proved too much even for Google and I found myself going in circles; everytime I seemed close, I suddenly found I’d doubled the journey time. I gave up and headed back down to the restaurants on Paseo del Padre Manjon where I’d eaten the previous night and where there’s also a wonderful view of the Alhambra.

This morning after breakfast I decided to make another attempt. I carefully looked at my map and set off, quite early, just after 9am. It was wonderfully quiet everywhere, even Plaza Nueva empty.

Just past here, I took a left turn and started heading upwards. By that I mean up seriously steep cobbled alleyways.

   

The Albaicin is the Moorish district of Granada, just under the Alhambra, with hills raising up from the streets that follow the path of the Darro river to eventually offer views straight across to the palace. It’s my favourite part of the city; each time I leave the hotel I head that way. It’s full of little shops and bars and restaurants and at times it almost feels like being in the souks of Marrakesh (I got lost there too and my friend and I had to pay a small boy to take us back to the main square!).

Despite my careful planning, after a while it all seemed confusing again. Thankfully a kind Spanish local woman came to my rescue and gave me directions. When I eventually arrived, I was so pleased I’d kept going. The views were truly stunning, especially of the Alhambra.

My early start meant there were hardly any other people there so it was beautifully quiet and peaceful; a perfect time to enjoy the views. After a while I thought I’d look for a cafe to have coffee before heading back down but although there were a few in a little square behind San Nicolas church, none were open. Now the crowds were starting to arrive, so with a look at my maps again, I headed carefully back down the cobbled and quite slippery streets. The signs of the area’s Moorish history were everywhere.

I passed one open cafe but it was full so kept going until I was back at Plaza Nueva and went into Cafe Lisboa, which is always busy and I take as a good sign. Having had just fruit and yogurt back at the hotel early, I ordered a Continental breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and croissant for €5.

   

Later in the day I headed back to the Albaicin for lunch. I wanted something fairly light and decided to try a small taverna on the edge of the Darro river that I’d noticed the previous evening when it had been very busy. Again I found myself with a gorgeous view.

   

It was a simple but lovely little place – La Taverna de Tiacheta. Complimentary olives and bread came with my drink. I’d ordered tortilla – Spanish omelette – which came as always in Spain as a large slice and there was a generous amount of salad on the side.

It was delicious and a perfect lunch costing just €10.70, including my glass of wine.

The Albaicin is a gorgeous area of Granada full of wonderful views and sights. I have to say though that I’m rather pleased to not have to climb up to a hotel high up (I did look at one but read reviews warning of the steep climb) and am happy with my hotel in a more modern area but still only about a 20-minute walk from the Albaicin.

Spain 2017: La Alhambra, Raciones & Granada’s Favourite Cake

Like many people, my main reason for coming to Granada was to see the Alhambra, the famous Moorish palace that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally built as a small fortress in the 1st century, it was taken over by the Moors in the 13th century as they fled south. Mohammed ben Alhamar, the first of the Nasrid Dynasty, decided to make Granada the grandest city of Andalusia. The magnificent hilltop palace of Alhambra was built and the Moors ruled until the Catholics overcame them in 1492.  King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella made the palace their royal court. Christopher Columbus received their endorsement for his expedition here. In time Christian and Renaissance influences were incorporated into the buildings but the Moorish influence remains strong. Laurie Lee in his wonderful book A Rose For Winter says of Granada that it ‘is probably the most beautiful and haunting of all Spanish cities; an African paradise set under the Sierras like a rose preserved in snow.’

For a few centuries the Alhambra fell into disrepair and some of the site was destroyed by Napoleon. Fortunately it was later rediscovered and restored and is now one of Spain’s most popular tourist attractions, with over 6,000 visitors each day. This means that it is essential you buy a ticket well in advance of a proposed visit. I bought my ticket 4 months ago after reading you should do so at least 90 days in advance. I decided to book a tour. It’s not something I do usually, except recently some food tours, but it gave me the chance to get into the Alhambra early (at 8.00am) to make a head start on the crowds but also, because it is so large, I knew I’d learn and see so much more with an expert leading me. I booked with Viator, which was bought by TripAdvisor in 2014. They arranged the tour with locals Amigo Tours. It turned out to be a reasonable size group of 27 very nice people (especially an Australian couple Di and Andrew I got talking to along the way) and our young guide Juan was fantastic – full of knowledge and with a nice sense of humour.

It was still dark when I arrived, sunrise almost the same time as the start of the tour, which would last 3 hours. You need to be reasonably fit as we walked most of the time and much of it was uphill and along cobbled paths – sturdy walking shoes are a must.

One of the first things Juan told us was that while we tend to think of La Alhambra as a palace, it is in fact a fortified town, and about 2,000 people used to live there. I was immediately awed; the buildings and views were magnificent.

   

Below, zooming in, you can see the cathedral in the centre of the city below.

Water in the Alhambra came from the river Darro below and, apart from being a necessity for drinking, water is an important part of Muslim ritual with the need to wash before praying. Thus fountains and streams are found throughout.

   

The mosque became a church but there are still obvious Muslim buildings and decorations.

   

We made our way over to the summer palace, Generalife, which could be seen in the distance – painted white to reflect the sun.

It was noticeably greener and we had to cross a bridge to reach it.

   

   

Juan had promised us that the most beautiful part of the tour would be at the end and it was indeed both spectacular and very beautiful. There were wonderful views back to the Alhambra palace and across to the Sierra Nevada, the highest mountain range in Andalusia.

The tour ended at 11am. It had been fantastic and brilliantly led. I’d wanted to see the Alhambra for so long and it didn’t disappoint. It truly is one of the wonders of Europe if not the world. Juan told us we could stay on if we wanted as our tickets would last until 8pm, but most of us were tired after a 3-hour walk and opted to return to the town. It was quite a steep climb down but there were taxis and even a bus (a very small one to fit along the narrow roads!) if you wanted transport. I walked.

For lunch I headed to a little bar in a narrow passageway near Plaza Nueva that I passed last night. It had been so busy I knew it would probably be good. It turned out to be fantastic.

   

I hadn’t planned it that way, but going to a Moorish bar straight after the Alhambra was perfect. Bar Casa Julio is small but I was there just as it opened at 1pm so got a space at the bar inside. Outside there were a few tall bar-type tables.

   

Raciones aree small plates – bigger than tapas. They’re really for sharing but the helpful and friendly woman behind the bar said she’d probably only have one for lunch but as I wanted some veg too, she did a special half portion of tomato salad for me to go with my fried prawns. I had a glass of sparkling wine (€2.70) and was surprised and delighted that a small complimentary tapas of fried cazon (dog fish) came with it. The woman also brought bread as she said I’d need it to mop up the tomato salad.

   

It’s hard to explain to you how amazing such a simple lunch as fried prawns and a tomato salad was. It was stunningly good. The total bill was €12.70. I shall definitely go back before I leave Granada. Meanwhile as it was a standing only bar and I’d been on my feet all morning, I decided to find somewhere to sit down for a coffee. Right near my hotel was a bakery-cafe, Casa Ysla, which proclaimed to sell piononos, a speciality of Granada. These little cakes were perfect for me – just a couple of bites and an espresso coffee to finish my lunch on a sweet, but not too sweet, note.

The woman who served me described them as a kind of pastry with egg, cream, syrup and cinnamon. It reminded me of a creamy bread and butter pudding flavoured with cinnamon. Whatever it was – I’m not certain and I think there are variations on the recipe – it was very delicious. And after that, it was time for a siesta. Well, I am in Spain!

Spain 2017: Alicante to Granada by Bus

This holiday in Spain began with spending 6 nights with my lovely friends Linda & George in Benissa, north of Alicante. They kindly got up before sunrise this morning to drive me to Alicante for my bus to Granada where I’ll spend the next 5 nights. We watched the sky lighten from their house as we ate breakfast – a pink tinge glowing across the mountain range before us.

A bit more than an hour later we were pulling up by the new bus station in Alicante. I’d been uncertain about the prospect of a 5½ hour journey by bus, but after lots of research I realised it was the easiest and quickest option. Luckily I’d booked ahead (€42) as there aren’t many buses each day doing the trip and it was practically full. As the ALSA bus pulled into the terminal the driver jumped down and opened different hatches below the bus – rather sensibly you had to put your bag in an area allotted to your destination, which meant with different stops, one hatch only had to be opened each time. The bus would stop at Murcia first, then Granada and go on to Malaga. Once on board I was immediately impressed by how luxurious it was: amazingly comfortable seats and all mods cons, like a point to recharge a phone and ‘entertainment’ centre. The onboard toilet was much like the kind on planes.

   

Any doubts I had about sitting on a bus for so long were soon dispelled, not just by the comfort, but because within a short time we were heading into the most glorious country with stunning scenery as we made our way through mountain ranges populated by olive and almond trees, reaching out far into the distance, the ground burned brown by the summer sun and lack of rain. It was hard to take good photos from the bus – but I tried!

A bit over halfway, we stopped at a roadside cafe/bar for 40 minutes for people to get lunch.

Even from here the views were magnificent.

Inside, the bar stocked whole hams, cheeses, and lovely fresh cakes.  I had one with a coffee as Linda had kindly made me sandwiches for lunch but if you didn’t have food with you, you could eat very well here.

It was such a civilised way to travel! A smooth and comfortable ride but also a decent stop for a reasonable lunch. We arrived in Granada a few minutes early. I got my bag and went to the front of the station to find a taxi to take me to my hotel (€9). I’d booked Hotel Carmen through British Airways, choosing it for its central location. It’s quite smart, 4*, but I always find it’s a good deal booking a whole trip with BA.

The reception staff gave me such a friendly welcome and I immediately felt relaxed and settled. On the roof there’s a wonderful terrace with bar, a small pool and fabulous views, including of the Alhambra.

I didn’t stay in long as I wanted to go out and explore a bit before supper. I asked for a map and was shown how to get up into the old town – the Albaicin area – towards the Alhambra. It wasn’t far, only a few minutes walk. I was immediately delighted by it. I’ve been wanting to come here for ages and felt so excited to be here at last.

   

The streets are cobbled and fortunately I’d be warned to take sturdy shoes!

Once at the top, I turned round and headed down again, going back to the hotel to freshen up before going out in search of supper. I’m looking forward to the next 4 days!

Spain 2017: Day Trip to Guadalest

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I’m back in Spain with Linda & George. It’s always lovely to return to a familiar place and spend time with good friends. I’ve been coming here regularly for about 10 years and know much of the area fairly well, so was delighted when Linda suggested a trip yesterday to somewhere I hadn’t been before and she hadn’t visited for a long time – Guadalest, or more formally El Castell de Guadalest.

Guadalest is a hilltop village perched high in the mountains about 25km inland from the Costa Blanca, from a point about halfway between Benidorm and Altea. It overlooks a valley through which the Guadalest river runs. Carved out of a mountaintop, the village offers some of the most spectacular scenery in Spain.

The castle, built by the Moors in 715AD, was an important strategic point at various points in history. It suffered much damage from a major earthquake in 1644 and during the Spanish War of Succession in the early 18th century. Its fortifications are so strong you can access it and its village only through a 15-foot tunnel cut through rock – the Portal de San Jose – at the top of steep steps.

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Once inside you find the entrance to the castle itself, which you can visit, or follow a path up through narrow cobbled streets to the main square where you can enjoy more views, including looking down onto the reservoir below.

Linda has warned me it was a big tourist destination and so might be busy and all the shops and cafes very ‘touristy’. That was true to a certain extent, the cafes all offering similar fare. We chose a small quiet bar in a side street – Cafeteria El Castell – to have beers and a few tapas (which turned out to be enormous!) for lunch.

  

It wasn’t exciting food but good and fresh and suited us just fine.  After eating we wandered through the narrow streets and looked in some of the shops. They were ‘touristy’ but actually a rather upmarket kind of ‘touristy’, some selling some very nice things, from foods and ceramics to leather goods like handbags and belts. I couldn’t resist buying an ice cream (Crema Catalunya) in an ice cream shop while Linda’s bought some things in a shop specialising in oils, vinegars and preserves.

   

   

   

There are a number of small museums to visit, a traditional house, or you can just wander around as we did enjoying different amazing views from various viewpoints. It was a glorious day of sunshine and clear air for making the most of our outing. As we left early afternoon a few coaches were arriving full of tourists and we were glad we’d got there early in the day when it was still reasonably quiet. I really enjoyed seeing it and the stunning scenery, both at Guadalest and on the drive to and from it.

 

 

Restaurant Review: The ‘New’ Joe Allen

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When Joe Allen closed its doors in Exeter Street after 40 years at the end of July, despite knowing they were only moving 25m down the road to 2 Burleigh Street, I couldn’t help feeling a little distressed that one of my very favourite restaurants was no more. This Covent Garden institution, known as the ‘West End’s canteen’ to its many theatre land devotees, had been a kind of ‘home’ for about 20 years. Frequently there with my good friend Annie, when we ventured elsewhere for our regular meet ups, we’d always after a couple of times say, ‘Let’s go back to Joe Allen next time.’ It’s our ‘home port’, where we’re most relaxed and comfortable.

It was a day of spontaneity. I made a sudden decision in the morning to head into central London to see the Bloomsbury Art & Design exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery. When I emerged, it was almost lunchtime. I’d planned to grab just a sandwich and coffee somewhere before going home, but then the thought came … I was really close to Joe Allen. It was just a short distance down The Strand and into Burleigh Street; less than 5 minutes. Well, I should at least take a look. Once there, I couldn’t of course resist actually going in. But what would I find? Would it be strange and different or might I really find dear Joe still there in essence if not actually within the same walls.

Happily, it didn’t take me long to realise that while it was a little different it was reassuringly very much the same. Their famous posters and theatre photos hung on the walls; their glorious long, dark wooden bar gleamed across the end of the main dining area; it seemed they had the same tables and chairs too, though I can’t be sure; everything had been carefully transported down the road. It was all the same yet with a sparkling and rather exciting newness to it.

Also the same were the friendly familiar faces giving me the same warm welcome; it was good to see ‘old friends’ – the Joe Allen ‘crew’ who’ve been there for years. Soon a menu was in front of me, a glass of fizz, and I was happy to be back at Joe’s.

Their set menu (lunch and early evening) offers 3 choices each of starters, main courses and desserts at £15.95 for 2 courses, £18.95 for 3. I’ve long thought it one of the best set menus on offer in London. I could have eaten any of it but chose to begin with ‘Buffalo mozzarella with grilled courgettes, kale pesto and toasted hazelnuts’.

It was wonderful. The flavours were fantastic and the mozzarella divine, so soft and creamy in the middle it was almost like burrata. I loved the kale pesto and the nice occasional crunch of the hazelnuts. What a great combination of textures and flavours.

For my main I went for their classic ‘Joe Allen’s beef chilli, sour cream & tortilla chips’.

There were vegetarian pasta or fish alternatives, but I rather fancied the chilli. I like chilli but don’t cook it often – and it was quite cold and autumnal outside, so something warming would be good! The chilli was great: small chunks of meltingly soft beef in a rich chilli sauce.

There were some tempting dessert options on the menu – lemon tart or warm chocolate brownie – but the two courses were enough for me for lunch. I had just an espresso to finish. I realised it had been the first time ever – in all these years! – that I’d eaten there alone but so warm was the welcome, so relaxed the ambience, that I felt quite happy in my solo dining. Joe Allen was obviously still alive and kicking up a storm of great food and hospitality. All fears of ‘change’ were put to rest and I surprised myself by feeling that maybe, perhaps, the ‘new’ Joe Allen was even a little better than the ‘old’.

Joe Allen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pompi – Rome’s Famous Tiramisu Comes to Richmond upon Thames

I did a quick leap from my favourite English dessert – apple crumble – to my favourite Italian dessert: tiramisu! A few weeks ago my lovely Italian friend Lucia told me about a famous tiramisu café coming to London. She couldn’t remember the name … so of course when I got home I googled ‘Rome’ and ‘tiramisu’ and ‘London’ and discovered that Pompi had not only come to London but to my very own town of Richmond. I then checked back in the blog, all the way to 2012 when I was last in Rome, and discovered my friends Robert and Jenny, who have an apartment there, took me to their local Pompi (click here), telling me how famous it is and that they specialise not only in classic tiramisu but tiramisu made from strawberries, pistachios, and other exciting variations. It was Easter when I was there and they even had Easter eggs filled with tiramisu.

  

Pompi in Richmond was a fairly recent discovery but it will surprise anyone who knows me well that it’s taken a little while for me to investigate. That’s mainly because, while I go into Richmond from Twickenham a lot, I rarely walk up Hill Rise (where the café is) which leads into Richmond Hill, because that’s the opposite direction to the main part of the town once I’ve crossed Richmond bridge.

I was making my way home from Richmond this morning after doing some shopping and then, as I approached the bridge, I suddenly remembered Pompi, and decided to walk up the hill in search of it. I thought I’d just take a look. It was almost empty inside, just a couple of guys sitting at a counter. The shop was once an old creamery and is beautifully tiled with a nice view out on to Hill Rise.

I’d already had a coffee so didn’t want to stop to eat and drink but I talked to the woman behind the counter, checking that they were indeed the famous Pompi of Rome.

The tiramisu comes with a choice of flavours: classic, strawberry, banana & chocolate, pistachio, hazelnut, and there are gluten- and lactose-free choices too.

They come ready packed, which to be honest made me slightly suspicious, but it was a doubt completely unfounded as I later discovered. I talked to the woman and she offered me some strawberry to try, so I sat down with my tasting portion.

It was so delicious, I decided I had to buy some to take home – the classic version – which I’d share with Jonathan and Lyndsey, who love tiramisu too. The portions at £5.50 don’t come cheap but then they’re big – for me ideally feeding two people; I’m not sure I could manage a whole one in one go, unless I was feeling particularly greedy. They also sell ice cream – ‘gelato not ice cream’ they proclaim outside.

I’ll definitely have to go back to try gelato one day. The tiramisu comes in different sizes and apart from the single portion (£5.50) there are 4 (£15.50), 8 (£28.50) and 10 (£35.50) portion sizes, which you can buy fresh or frozen, to take home.

I see on their Twitter page that they also sell best quality Piemonte chocolate & hazelnut spread (much better than Nutella), Tregothnan tea from Cornwall and you can pop in for just a coffee too. But as far as food goes – it’s just tiramisu, no cakes or pastries. Oh, and of course the gelato too. This is a celebration of one of the best tiramisu you can buy anywhere. They are famous for a reason and that’s because their tiramisu is exceptionally good and the real thing. It’s been a much adulterated dessert in this country at times and I rarely order it in a restaurant because it’s so often disappointing. If you want to know what it should really taste like, you need to get along to Pompi fast (there are other branches in London). Meanwhile, I carefully carried my box of tiramisu classico home.

I decided to divide it into three and take the 2-portion slice to Jonathan and Lyndsey’s when I go over to pick Freddie up from nursery in the afternoon. I would put my slice into the fridge to have after supper.

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As I licked the spoon that I’d used to transfer my slice to a small plate, I found myself in tiramisu heaven. It was amazing; wonderful. There was no way I was waiting until suppertime to enjoy this. I sat down and ate it slowly, enjoying every bit. My goodness. What temptation! I’m going to have to be very strict with myself about not venturing up Richmond Hill every time I go into Richmond and save tiramisu for just weekend treats.