There’s something magical about Granada

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I took a whirlwind trip to the Andalucia region of Spain a few days ago. I’ve made a habit out of travelling for my birthday — I spent 2020 in Ticino and Italy, and 2019 in Paris. But this year, in Spain, I sometimes felt sad and out of place. I wrote a brief post here on the melancholy of solo travel.

As I had only accumulated a small number of vacation days at my new job, I could only take a short trip this time. I spent a day and a half in Granada, half a day in Sevilla, another half day in Malaga, and perhaps a whole day altogether on regional buses.

Getting there

I booked a roundtrip journey on Easyjet, which was the only airline offering direct flights between Geneva and Malaga. The flight time was around 2h20m.

This was the second time I’ve flown this year, and the second time I’ve flown since the beginning of the pandemic. Even though the rush of the August holidays was over, the planes were still packed. I guess others had the same idea, to put off travelling until it was officially September and most children were back in school.

To enter Spain by air, the Spanish government requires a passenger locator form completed up to 48 hours before the flight, which generates a QR code. When boarding, the airline checked to make sure that we had the QR code and a COVID certificate, which is slightly different for each country but is recognized across the EU and Switzerland.

Later, after touching down in Spain, the first thing we encountered was a large room in which officials barked chaotic orders and impatiently waved passengers through after briefly looking at their QR codes. We then proceeded to a desk where another official scanned the QR code before allowing us into the rest of the airport.

From the airport, I took an ALSA bus to Granada’s central bus station, a roughly two-hour journey. From the bus station, which is kind of on the fringes of the city, I took the 33 bus to my hotel in town center.

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Tons of drivers at the airport waiting for pickup.
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The bus stop. There was no one working at the ALSA kiosk outside the airport, so tickets had to be purchased online or through the bus driver if there was room on the bus after all the pre-booked passengers had already boarded.

Where I stayed

I stayed for two nights at Marquis Hotels Issabel’s, situated in a busy, touristy part of Granada, just blocks away from the Cathedral and Royal Chapel. It’s a little further from the Alhambra, but I was able to walk there in under half an hour the next morning.

While the hotel was nice overall, I felt like I had been catfished by its photos. Here was the view advertised for the type of room I booked, with “city views.”

And here was the actual view — they put me in the last room at the very back of the hotel. Bummer!

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I had breakfast at the hotel on the second morning of my stay. There is a vegetarian restaurant operating out of the hotel called Wild, and I found the food to be delicious, especially the avocado toast. The server was friendly and the food prepared quickly.

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Breakfast for 12 euros

Day 1

After arriving at my hotel in Granada in the early afternoon, I walked around the immediate neighborhood, trying to find a hair salon that would take walk-ins. I was in bad need of a haircut but hesitated to make an appointment in Geneva, because my usual place charges 90 francs.

The first salon I tried was closed for the siesta, the traditional midday break that people take between 2 to 5pm to avoid getting heat stroke. The second place had a rope on the outside of the door, literally prohibiting access. I looked inside for a moment, confused, and one of the employees came outside to speak to me. I explained that I was hoping to do a walk-in. She explained that tough shit, they didn’t have any availability until the following week.

I landed a same-day appointment at the third salon I went to. The service was super kind and friendly, and the cost was only 35 euros. However, big caveat: the cut itself was terrible. Even as I walked back to the hotel and took a selfie on the street, something felt off: the hair seemed chunky and uneven on one side. The next time I washed and dried my hair, the result was much more obvious. My hair looked like it had been chewed by a dog. Lesson learned: make an appointment next time. If someone isn’t all booked up, there’s a reason.

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I mean, yikes

In the evening, I attended a walking tour of two neighborhoods in Granada, Albaicín and Sacromonte. Both are neighborhoods that were historically ethnic and/or religious enclaves; the former was occupied by Muslims and the latter by the Romani. Interestingly, that term was one of the first things mentioned by the tour guide at the beginning, heading off any discussions of political correctness. “Listen, we have a different culture here,” he said emphatically. “Here we do not call them Romanis, in fact they prefer to call themselves gypsies, the term is not offensive.”

It was one of the most informative and interesting tours I’d ever been on. In two hours, I learned so much about the history of Spain as well as the Andalusia region — how it used to be a caliphate, but Islam was outlawed starting in 1492, and Muslims were either forced to convert to Christianity or be expelled to northern Africa. I learned that Granada means pomegranate in Spanish (in French it’s grenade, so pretty close!). The guide showed us examples of former mosques that had been sloppily refashioned into churches, sometimes just slapping a cross on top of a minaret and calling it a day.

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Where we started the tour — a church with Moorish influence
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Overlooking the enormous neighborhood of Albaicín
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Wherever we were, the Alhambra was always in the background
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Former mosque turned church
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A prominent wall that marks the Sacromonte neighborhood. The residents were so poor that they built their homes out of caves in the sandy hill.
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Can’t tell if this is a riff on Monte Carlo?
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At sunset, we made our way to a panoramic viewing point called Mirador de Morayma.

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The tour ended at 9:30pm, which was a little late for my liking. It had become completely dark, and making my way down from the mountain was tricky, as the alleyways were dark and paved unevenly. Several times, Google Maps would tell me to go into a particular alley, but I would avoid it and instead take a much longer route because there wasn’t a living soul or lamp in that direction. However, it was clearly prime time for the locals and tourists alike — the outdoor restaurants were packed with people enjoying dinner.

Day 2

I had an early breakfast at a restaurant near the hotel called La Auténtica Carmela. It was a ‘traditional’ brunch option of foods both savory and sweet — great start to a long way of walking.

Also, I’m puzzled as to why pork seems to be such a huge part of Spanish cuisine. Perhaps it came about as a result of driving out the Muslims? The tour guide from the night before did tell us that a lot of restaurants used to hang pig legs from their ceilings as a sign that Muslims and Jews weren’t welcome inside their establishment.

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After that, it was time for a morning walking tour of the Alhambra. There is no official tour offered by the Alhambra itself, only private operators, so I just booked this one. The tour was in English, and the guide was very knowledgeable, professional, and respectful, making sure that visitors didn’t accidentally touch or stand on things that were off limits.

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At the entrance of the Alhambra. Notice the Hand of Fatima above the door.
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I was enthralled by how the Alhambra and its surrounding environments were paradoxically so dry and lush at the same time. It really seemed to have a sense of magic about it — like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Even though there were tourists everywhere, it felt like travelling back in time to ancient eras of fantasy and magic, of warlocks and dragons, princesses and fortune tellers.

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This guy in my group tapped me on the shoulder to make sure that I saw this grasshopper blending into the wall, ha!
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Granada is a photographer’s dream. Everywhere you go, there’s a scene of manmade beauty in a way that also feels natural and authentic.

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In this room, the tour guide explained that the intricately designed roof represented the seven levels of heaven. “At the seventh level, if you were a man, they believed that there were virgins waiting for you.”

“But what if you’re a woman?” asked a woman in the group. “What’s waiting there for you?”

Without pausing a beat, the guide replied: “A new microwave.”

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In the gift shop, I bought cushion covers and coasters modelled after this gorgeous pattern.
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The gift shop carefully wrapped my souvenirs in beautiful, flowery paper.

Some other miscellaneous memories from Granada….

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Shang-Chi posters everywhere downtown.
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Kiosk at a park showcasing a local artist.
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The local cathedral. Cool, I guess.
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Dinner view.

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