The divine dawn of Granada

View of the Alhambra

View of the Alhambra

The Albaizín of fountains, bowers, cypresses, of decorative gratings, of the full moon, of ancient musical romance, the Albaizín of the cornucopia, of the convent organ, of Arab patios, of the upright piano, of spacious rooms moist with the scent of lavender, of cashmere shawls, of carnations… – Federico García Lorca

How many times I’ve been to Granada now, I forget. Two, three, four…it doesn’t matter…it keeps pulling me back. It’s one of those magical yet illusive places that always makes you feel like you’ve barely even scratched the surface, and always leaves you longing for more. Too many twisting cobbled streets and stairs to climb, too many whitewashed Moorish walls and courtyards to roam past. The place is steeped in history and there’s always more to discover.

Wandering through the streets of the Albayzín, on the first evening of my most recent trip, I felt a surge of familiarity. But seven years on from my last visit, I’m seeing the city with new eyes, and am looking for new experiences.

The Albayzin at night

The Albayzin at night

I am in love with the mountains and that’s what this trip is about, with Granada sitting at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Having worked in the ski industry for several years, I haven’t really done the whole ‘buy a cheap all inclusive package’ thing, with the exception of one time. It won’t happen again – mainly so I never have to face another rep encouraging me to join in the organised fun ever again. Although it’s not hard to avoid a package holiday, we went fairly leftfield with this trip by choosing to snowboard in the south of Spain. It was a perfect combination of mountains, good food and a stunning city.

An Albayzin door

An Albayzin door

The Andalusian town is rife with contrast. Spain meets Africa and mountains meet beach. Granada is less than an hour from the snow-capped mountains that hover behind the Alhambra, and only a 20 minute drive to the beach.

The food is no exception. In seven days I had some of the best food I’ve ever had and, without a doubt, some of the worst. I had a very questionable moment where in a moment of total insanity, I ordered a plate of spaghetti alla carbonara. What possessed me to do such a thing in a Spanish ski resort I have no idea, other than the remnants of a hangover tricking me into believing it was what I actually wanted. I paid the price though with a plate of lumpy white sauce plonked on top of some sort of reconstituted carbohydrate.

It’s not hard to find exceptional food however, and Granada is one of the few places left in Spain where you still get a free tapa with your drink. There’s a certain endurance test you have to put yourself through to fully reap the benefits, which adheres to the very simple formula of the more you drink the more tapas you get, and the better it gets with each drink. Being a group of eight people who had been snowboarding all day however, we were looking for a little more than a nibble with our drinks, and in most tapas bars there’s a menu where you can order ‘raciones’ – larger portions of tapas you choose and pay for.

Los Diamantes is the place to go for seafood. A modern yet unassuming bar on Calle Navas and buzzing with locals, we were the only English in there. We were given a big plate of champiñón con ajos – garlic mushrooms with our first round. I’m not a massive fan of mushrooms but was forced to try them by my friends. They were gorgeous, buttery, salty and almost caramelised in the garlic, and perfect with a cold beer. The rape frito – fried monkfish was so fresh it melted in the mouth at first touch, so much so no one could understand how it was so tender. But for me the real star of the show was something that wasn’t on the menu but they seemed more than happy to make it for us anyway – Pulpo a la Gallega – Galician style octopus. People are a bit squemish about octopus, yet don’t seem to have a problem with calamari. It’s something I struggle to understand as when it’s cooked well, it has a far less slimy and elasticky quality to it than calamari, and is much more akin to a tender meat. Octopus is hard to come by in the UK, so when I have an opportunity to eat it abroad, I always do. The meat is ever so slightly sweet, incredibly tender, and when drowned in good Spanish olive oil and served with a sprinkling of sweet spanish paprika and warm boiled potatoes, it’s exactly the sort of simple cooking I crave for back home.

Not to be missed is Bodegas La Mancha, which is something of a institution amongst Granadians – so local it doesn’t even have a website. The speciality is a local vermouth which is served on ice from a collection of barrels behind the counter. Big jamones suspended from the ceiling are carved by hand and served with chilled sherry. It’s the perfect picture of Spain and is worth a visit, even just to feel like you’ve taken a step back in time to the day it opened in 1958. I can’t imagine it’s changed much since then.

Jamones in Bodegas La Mancha

Jamones in Bodegas La Mancha

Barrels of vermouth and sherry in Bodegas La Mancha

Barrels of vermouth and sherry in Bodegas La Mancha

Whilst every day was spent up in the mountains, we allowed ourselves one day to visit the Alhambra and wander the town during the day. Some might be tempted to get the bus to save themselves an uphill hike, but the exploration of the streets that lead up to and surrounding the palace is too beautiful to miss. Legend says you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the Alhambra, and once you’ve experienced the beautifully carved walls and ceilings, adorned with inscriptions and stars, and felt the strange tranquility I thought was impossible for a tourist attraction, you can’t help but feel it’s true. It’s hard to leave, but the promise of a crisp white wine in a sunny plaza is too alluring.

Inside the Alhambra

Inside the Alhambra

Tranquil gardens in the Alhambra

Tranquil gardens in the Alhambra

Bar Oliver is nestled amongst a couple of other tapas bars and restaurants in Plaza de la Pescaderia. We were blessed with blazing hot sunshine and a Roma gypsy band playing nearby. The tapas here is considered to be some of the best in Granada, and we weren’t disappointed. The Pulpo a la Gallega was once again out of this world, but the standout dishes were artichokes with clams in a light tomato sauce, melt-in-your-mouth, slow-cooked oxtail in a sauce that begged to be mopped up with white crusty bread, hand-carved jamon iberico, and broad beans with cod and olive tapenade. The broad beans were a variety I’ve never had before – very small, sweet and balanced perfectly with the tender, thin strips of cod and the saltiness of the olives.

Broad beans with cod and olive tapenade

Broad beans with cod and olive tapenade

Artichokes and clams

Artichokes and clams

The cherry on the cake is that for healthy portions of tapas and countless glasses of wine and beer, we only ever paid about 10-15 euros a head. When you’re used to London prices, it feels like a dream to get to the end of one of the most memorable meals you’ve ever had and only hand over a 10 note. You can’t help wondering how they make any money – somehow it seems so unjust for the quality of the food you’re eating. It’s just one more reason to keep coming back, and to keep discovering more of this irresistible city.

 

 

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