And, at last, Granada
Trains in Spain cross mostly the plain and they do it at better than 165 mph. Until you get to Antequera in Andalusia. Then you transfer to bus; a nice bus, but it doesn’t go quite as fast. South from Madrid reminds me of South Texas with vast horizons, rolling hills in various shades of brown and patches of green given the recent weeks of rain.
Those rolling hills become taller hills Taller hills become foothills. Foothills start challenging your dismissal. And then somewhere on the highway east of Antequera you pass between two hills large enough to block your view and you emerge to see two enormous snow capped ranges.
I don’t know what the one on the left is, but out of the right windows of the bus are Pico Veleta, the third highest peak on the Iberian Peninsula, and Mulhacén, the highest peak on the peninsula. Suddenly the distinction between mountains and hills is unambiguous. Not only are they snow covered, they dominate everything around them. All other high ground is in a separate category of irrelevance.
These peaks are the whole point of the Sierra Nevada National Park. Everything below these peaks is derived from them, and is still spectacular. Granada and many other Andalusian towns sit on the flanks of these mountains. The Sierra Nevada, like the Alps, are driven up by the African tectonic plate rear ending and diving under the Eurasian plate.
Geographers use a term “prominence” to describe how high a mountain peak stands above any other nearby feature. So a 10,000 foot peak that stands beside a nearby 9,000 foot peak has a prominence of only 1,000 feet. Denali, in Alaska, has no other mountain remotely nearby. Its prominence is an impressive 20,156 feet or more than 3.8 statute miles base to peak.
Granada’s center city sits at an average altitude of 2,421 feet above sea level. Mulhacén, visible from the city and even more impressive from the outskirts of town, has a prominence of 10,778 feet. Granada is on its slopes so not all of that is the difference between Granada city and the peak. Nevertheless, it is an impressive, looming presence.
I got twice lucky on the bus ride from where the train dropped us off in Antequera to Granada. First, after four days of dragging stupid amounts of luggage, I fell asleep on the bus. I nearly never sleep in a moving vehicle. Second, and more luckily, I woke up just before the Sierra Nevada became visible.
The outskirts of Granada are not appealing. Some city planner had the good sense to contain all the light industry in one area. Houston could learn a thing from its much smaller cousin. The neighborhood where the train station is is not much better. That is where the bus dumped us but fortunately an armada of taxis were standing by.
An eight euro taxi ride got me to the hotel in minutes and once again the desk agents were more than kind. US hotels should steal this idea: the three hotels that I have checked in to this week all had a table by the front desk with fruit-infused waters, bottled water, and brilliantly in Madrid, a chilled bottle of cava. Being greeted by a cold beverage while you are filling out the check-in paperwork is delightful.
Since I will be in the hotel Victoria in Granada for a week while I hunt for a semi-permanent apartment, I unpacked almost all of my luggage and showered. I thought about a nap, but decided against it and went in search of an early (by Granaíno standards) dinner.
Being tired I settled for a nearby rather than an authentic experience. I did get a tapa after ordering a glass of wine, but I also ordered an entree to get done and back to my bed du jour.
Asleep near a normal hour just before midnight and awake the next morning at seven. That is a good night’s sleep for me. Since at that hour we were near the forecast high for the day of 60F, I flung open the doors to my balcony. The Hotel Victoria sits at an intersection that is always full of cars, taxis, buses and scads of pedestrians. Once again it was raining.
People were out and about, the crosswalk signal was beeping, cars were honking their horns and the nearby cathedral bells tolled. The bells were ringing at somewhere between sixteen and twenty-nine minutes after the hour, I never figured out what they signified. Later in the day I heard them on hour or half-hour intervals.
I did a brief walk-about in the local area. I started off up the street that leads out the top of the photo, which is Calle Reyes Católica. Those Reyes would be Isabella and Ferdinand, who took up shop in Granada after running the last of the Nasrid emirs out in 1492, which left them time to finance some Genoese fellow’s vacation cruise.
You can’t tell from my photo but that street is uphill, steadily. It heads from the center of Granada (Centro) to the foot of the promontory that the Alhambra sits atop. I’m old and out of shape so I stopped more than once to catch my breath. Locals walked around me without pausing. Shortly passed the city government offices and a nice statue of Isabella. To my right is the Realejo, the old Jewish neighborhood. To my left a block or so is the Cathedral of Izzie and Ferd and the foot of the Albacin. The Albacin was the Muslim neighborhood for centuries and sits atop a hill almost as tall and steep as the one the Alhambra surmounts.
I didn’t feel up to any more steep climbs so I kept straight ahead and walked along the Darro river through a neighborhood called the Sacromonte. This historically was where Romani (gypsies) lived in caves beside the river. Modern gypsies, that we know as hippies, live here in those same caves. [I may have made that up.] The caves of Sacromonte are also home to clubs that feature Flamenco dance shows.
The Albaicin has a breath-taking view of the Alhambra. From the Sacromonte you crane your neck to see the tops of only the tallest towers. Pretty, though against the blue sky:
Keep in mind that I’m walking up the river. The Darro and the Genil, the other, larger river that flows through town, come down out of the Sierra Nevada to the east and are fed by snow melt and, this week, rainfall runoff. The Sierra Nevada are just over ten miles away, so this is a steady uphill slog.
As the Darro flows past the western end of the Sacromonte it disappears from view. The river goes on, but as Granada expanded west, they built the town over the river. Few tourists in Centro have any idea they are walking on water. I suppose the river reappears somewhere west of town. [Wrong, I later learned. The Darro makes a left turn and flows beneath Calle Acera del Darro until it reappears and joins the Genil.]
I get to where the buildings are thinning out and little of interest appears ahead, so I turn left to check out the Albaicin. I get halfway up the first block, which is an even steeper climb, and give up. Note to self: no apartment shopping in this barrio. Wheezing, I turn around and head downhill, back toward the center of town.
When the ground flattens out, relatively, I turn left and explore the Realejo, the former Jewish quarter of town. The Realejo sits directly under the Alcazaba, the most western feature of the Alhambra complex. The Alcazaba (“fortress”) of today and of Nasrid times was built upon the site of a Roman fort dating back to the occupation of Gaul – that would be here. From this promontory the fortress commanded a view over the then extent of Granada and the surrounding approaches. Unfortunately for me, this piece of history is nearly straight overhead so there is no view.
I won’t even call where I walked streets. They would be called alleys in America, but scooters and small compact cars negotiate their way between the front wall of peoples’ homes and pedestrians. These alleys never continue in a straight line for long, reminding me of a line from one of the first, text only, computer games. When in the game you stumbled into some place you shouldn’t have gone, your only clue from the game was, “A maze of windy passages, all alike.” That is what navigating is in the Realejo. At least if you can see a a vertical wall of rock, you know town is the other way.
Most of the man-made stuff in Granada, and probably many other Andalusian towns, is very small to an American perspective. The buildings are tall, but irregularly shaped, but they do not encompass a great amount of square footage. Every bit of land that could be built upon and was not set aside for roads or plazas (lots and lots of plazas) has already been built on. So like Manhattan, they went up. Ordinary residential buildings are five or six stories.
In my current hotel room, I kept trying to straighten the bed because the foot of it did not line up with the hardwood floor. I pushed one way and the other to no satisfaction, then went to the head to see if something was behind and blocking the headboard. Then I looked at the ceiling. The bed was flush against the wall. The room was not square. When this place was built, I suppose the lot available was irregular, so they simply accommodated the space available.
Nearly every block has several tiendas (shops) and tapas bars. In many cases the cash register in the tiendas and the bar in the bars occupies about one half of the floor space. There is room inside for perhaps a dozen customers, all standing. When Granainos rub shoulders for an after work drink, they literally rub shoulders. Because of the limited indoor space, many restaurants and bars spill into the streets and plazas.
You see that little shelf, bolted to the outside wall with wine glasses and a plate? That is not a busboy station. That is a table for customers to stand at, while they drink, enjoy their tapas and chat. As you can see, it gets used.
At this point I was tired from my little walk and from days of travel and a few weeks of packing and preparing to get here, so I headed back to the hotel. There will be time for more exploring tomorrow.