Tut, tut, it looks like rain

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.

[source:  http://caminetedeluna.blogspot.com.es/2013/09/ascenso-al-pico-mulhacen-sierra-nevada.html%5D

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.

Granada 13Mar18

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:

Granada 13Mar18_8

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.

Granada 13Mar18_2

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.

A Near Pointless Side Trip


Sunday arrived and it was still raining, but I had to check out and move on to Toledo.  A cab took me to the Atocha train station, where a rental car awaited me.  As far as I know it is still awaiting me.  I dragged my ridiculous luggage around (literally around) the station inside and out for over an hour and a half before I gave up and bought a train ticket to Toledo.  Infuriatingly Hertz never answered any of the phone calls I made to discover where they were at the estacion.

I got to my lovely hotel late afternoon and set out to walk a bit.   In my exhausted state I started off in the wrong direction and was unknowingly heading down toward the river.  Toledo is a medieval walled city on a hill surrounded on three sides by the Tagus river.  The cathedral and other sites are at the highest point in the old town.  I was going downhill, away from everything interesting, including food.

After my half marathon with luggage I didn’t last very long exploring the wrong side of Toledo and returned to my hotel, ate last night’s leftovers and went to bed early.  I was so tired that I slept through the night as if I were in my home time zone.  Delightful.

Predating cars by a couple of millennia, the street design Of Toledo is very interesting to see and walk on,  but I was never so glad not to have driven somewhere.  In the US we have signs warning drivers of low over head clearances.  In Toledo:

Toledo 12Mar18_1

That sign to the left of the street tells drivers that the road ahead is 1.9 meters wide.  1.9 meters is a fraction of an inch wider than I am tall.

Monday morning was going to be my only opportunity on this visit to see Toledo so I got out early and went uphill this time.  The cathedral was pretty easy to find, being both one of the taller buildings and also sitting on high ground.  Easy to find is not the same as easy to get too.  It was only 200 meters from my hotel, but there were very steep bits for an old guy in those 200 meters.  It was a pretty morning though:

Toledo 12March18

I circled about 270 degrees around the outside of the cathedral before I found an entrance.  I went in, oohed and ahhed a bit in the fenced in area that I supposed kept us tourists from those doing actual business in the cathedral, turned and went back outside.  A fellow that I had seen inside crossing himself and generally doing those Catholic things you expect to see in a cathedral was walking out at the same time as I.

Once we were outside of the hush-hush zone, he spoke to me in Spanish.  To which I replied in my only well-practiced phrase, “Lo siento pero no hablo español.”  To which he said something in Spanglish that I took to mean, “Do you want to see the inside of the cathedral?”  “Si, gracias”, I replied and he took off, uphill at a speed that told me he was a life-long Toledan.  I gasped and huffed as I tried to keep up.

After stepping aside for some cars passing we got about a quarter of the way around the cathedral to a large plaza.  I realized that the very far side of the plaza was where I had come up from my hotel and turned right, just missing the main entrance to the cathedral until now, when I had completely circumnavigated the building.  Good exercise at least.

Eleven o’clock, my guide said.  They open at eleven o’clock.  These are not in quotation marks because that is simply what I think he was saying.  I had to be out of my hotel by noon, still had to sort out how I was getting to Granada without my rental car and, so could not stick around until eleven.  I thanked the kind man and wandered off to take some pictures of this side of the cathedral.

When I finished I started to exit the plaza down the street that led back to my hotel, when my tour guide magically appeared next to me.  “The monastery is open today and it is free.  Would you like to see that?”  “Sure,” I said and tiredly set off down an entirely different street.  A little ways on, and mercifully downhill, we ducked down some stairs and through a doorway.  My guide rapped on the glass in a locked door and called a name.  No answer.  More loud rapping and a louder call of someone’s name.

After a few minutes someone slowly unlocked the door and my guide ushered me in to workshop area with a half dozed workbenches lining either side of the room.  Very detailed broaches and small, decorative platters in various states of completion were on the benches and on cabinets.  They were very colorful and highly detailed.

Toledo 12Mar18


Toledo 12March18_1

We then walked through a door into another room.  While the objects were beautifully made and very attractive, I realized that my guide was a busker and this was a souvenir shop.  Those little medallions in his hand above were tagged at 175 to 250 euros.  Swords and other items were much, much more expensive.  I looked around a bit and then slipped out when the shopkeepers were occupied.

Back at the hotel I cleaned up, packed up and went down to the lobby.  Elaina, at the front desk, had offered to help me get in contact with Hertz to find out how to resolve the problem of the rental car.  She called several different locations in Madrid and had the same result that I had the previous day.  Over thirty minutes of calling resulted in no answer at any office in Madrid.

Fed up and tired I decided to forget about the rental car and be done with it, so off I went in a taxi to the Toledo station, then back to Madrid, then, finally to Granada.  After months of planing, paying for, packing and schlepping, I felt like my trip had finally begun.

Adventures in Tapasland


This is Tuesday.  I got to Madrid this past Friday night a bit more than twenty-five hours after leaving my sister’s home in Bainbridge, Washington.  It took two cars, one boat, two trains (airport shuttles) and a couple of jets to get me here, but I’m here . . . or rather, I was there.  Now I’m in Granada and I’m still achy sore from dragging my luggage through three airports and three more train stations.

I ran into some equipment failures and contracted business service failures, but I am having a wonderful time and everyone I’ve met here in Spain has been extraordinarily friendly and helpful.  Other than the pedestrians.

Spaniards walk around a great deal.  They are talking while they are walking, so traffic avoidance is somewhere down the list of things to which they are paying attention.  Everyone is moving on the diagonal.  I’m a somewhat conformist American so I try to keep to the right.  Everyone else appears to be changing direction simply get directly in my path.  Four or five times each block I have to skid to a complete stop to avoid running over someone who darted at the last moment under my feet.

No pictures from Madrid because it was raining endlessly the entire time I was there.  This is a good thing as a local friend told me, they weren’t exactly in a drought, but their rainfall for the last several years has been below average and the reservoirs (embalses – see, I really am learning Spanish) are quite low.  I had noticed this on Google Earth while preparing for this trip.  Wide brown borders around all bodies of water.

The first night I woke up at 2:30 am local time after about four hours of sleep.  That wasn’t as bad as I had feared for the first night on Central European Time.  After about thirty minutes laying awake in bed I gave up, got up and got dressed.  I had heard that Spaniards are late night carousers and I heard various voices in the street below my window, so I set out for a walk.

The security guard in the lobby had to unlock the steel doors to let me out of the hotel and he chuckled as I set out.  I walked about for a couple of hours and was surprised at how many people were on the streets from 3 to 5 am.  Crowds huddled outside bars and clubs, music spilled out into the street.

A very nice woman from Mexico who has lived in Madrid for the past eleven years offered to meet me when I arrived and give me a tour of her adopted home town.  She is an architect and had great historical and artistic insights on the places she showed me.  Remember that I said it rained the whole time I was in Madrid?  This nice woman led a near stranger around the hidden gems of Madrid for over four hours in the rain.  An online expat community is one of the better uses of the internet.

While we were touring Madrid I mentioned to Rocio, my new found friend and tour guide, that I had been surprised on my late night walk to see first, so many people out at that hour and, second, women walking alone.  Rocio laughed and said she too had been taken by that when she first moved to Madrid but learned that unlike big cities in the US and Mexico, it is very safe on the streets so long as you pay attention to where you are.  If you are inattentive, you might get pickpocketed but nothing worse than that.  Physical violence is very rare.

Both nights I got very lucky with my choices of restaurants for dinner.  The first night I picked a spot that was right behind my hotel.  It was actually right under my balcony, but was a bit of a walk to get to from the front of my hotel.  “Hola,” greeted the first face that I saw.  As chirpily as I could I replied, “Hola.”  I was shown to my seat and the waiter returned with a menu.  It was in English.  I had not said a word in English but he knew.  So much for not standing out as a tourist.

The following night I wandered aimlessly for over an hour and finally picked a book by its cover because I was simply tired of walking.  The cover of the book undersold the contents.  Once I got downstairs from the bar, the dining area was cozy but chic.  The food and service both nights were above par from my experience in US restaurants and they even sent me home with my leftovers when jet lag slapped me in the face mid-meal.

A gourmet doggy-bag in the early am when you really want to be asleep is a fine consolation.