Friday, April 04, 2014

The end of Granada and on to Madrid



With the Alhambra out of the way, we were free to explore the rest of the town. Two days are recommended and judging from what remained on our list, that suggestion seemed about a half a day too long. The weather had changed a bit - it was clearly going to rain off and on but at least the heavy gray skies had broken up a bit. A nice flash of blue appeared across the valley and above the Alhambra, just enough time for a photo before it was obscured by a shower.

Our now favorite coffee shop was mobbed so we went up the street to another place. Less charm, but more tables and decent Americanos. MLW asked about a Napolitano and the waiter said “yes” and brought us what seemed to be a large slice of tiramisu minus the rum-soaked lady fingers. It was hardly breakfast food but it was delicious. Sugar and caffeine fortified we decided to climb the hills of the Albaicín. But first, a quick stop at the Capilla Real, final resting place of Ferdinand and Isabella.

The chapel is attached to one side of the main cathedral and reached from a separate paying entrance. Los Reyes Catolicos as they are known were first entombed in the Alhambra having completed their Reconquista of Spain and having made themselves known to every American schoolchild as the venture capitalists behind one Cristobal Colon. Their remains were moved here once the cathedral was completed by their grandson Charles V. They are forever memorialized by a very ornate sarcophagus carved from Italian marble and placed at the center of a relatively small chapel. Small as in not as giant as your typical Spanish cathedral. Lying next to them, on an interestingly elevated dais, is their son Felipe and his queen, Juana the mad. Ferdinand is memorialized as a devout Catholic, pillar of the church and slayer of Mohammedans in Latin on one end of the tomb. Their bodies though are not actually there - they lie below in a crypt accessible by a steep flight of narrow stairs in two lead coffins, sealed with copper bands. Felipe and Juana are down there too, along with Miguel, the Prince of Portugal whose story is obscure.

Of all the museums and churches we’ve visited I found this one to have a very personal feeling. Not only because Ferdinand and Isabella have loomed so large in my personal history, having had their story driven into my memory over the course of my education, but because the two of them are actually right there before your eyes. It was like being invited to visit the grave of someone you actually knew. I liked it, and the rest of the place was pretty good too. A decent collection of 15th century art depicting the Christ Child as a miniature adult, well wise beyond his 3 month old appearance along with Ferdinand’s sword and Isabella’s crown. This box checked, it was time to head uphill.

The one thing that had become apparent to us was that in spite of the perils of the staircases and the other faults of our apartment, we were lucky to be only two levels up the hill. The Albaicín is the ancient Arab quarter and supposedly one of the best remaining in Europe. Our two days of negotiating slick slanty cobblestone lanes had confirmed the authenticity as well as imparting a sense of just how little you’d want to leave your place if you lived up top. I suppose in a way that I was glad we were doing this now and not in 10 years when knees and legs would make this an even bigger challenge. We had a superb view and a place with a reasonable climb. A good combination considering that the apartment was rented blindly.



We followed the road that runs parallel to the Darro River stopping in the occasional shop and reading the historical markers. One store had some very unique and beautiful plates, and I asked if they were typical of Granada. “No” the shopkeeper said, “They are typical of Turkey.” Such is the nature of modern Granada, still providing the same link to the Middle East that it had for a thousand years.



The road turned up at the edge of town and we took a quick spin through the city archives. Not much to see save a beautiful building and peaceful grounds. And a nice break from the 45 degree street. It startled sprinkling again but stopped almost as quickly as it began, a small gift from the rain gods considering our walking surface. About halfway up the hill we passed a turn that went off to the right, to Sacromonte, the original Roma community and home to cave houses and squatting Trustafarians. While it sounded interesting, it wasn’t enough to compel us to add another 10% to the grade so we continued on towards Mirador San Nicolas, reportedly the best view in Granada. At the top of the hill we took a left, dropped down a bit and then found ourselves at the base of the steps leading to the Mirador.



It’s a beautiful plaza with a 180 view stretching from the Sierra Nevada on the left to the valley of Granada on the right. The view of the Alhambra and Generalife was sublime and I could imagine how nice it would be to stand there at sunset as the lights on the walls of the fortress come on. On this morning the plaza was crowded with a school group and some very shaggy hippies, one of whom waited for the kids to leave so he could pick through the trash they’d deposited for breakfast. He found a nice half sandwich and after tearing off the chewed part, he sat down on the edge and enjoyed the rest. We stopped in the 15th century church off the square and purchased some very unique curios.



Off to the north, the sky was turning very ominous shade of gray and a wind coming off the front was very cold, so we decided to head down into town via the far side of the hill. As we descended, the nature of the homes began to change – up top was clearly more prosperous and desirable, down here, much more reflective of the Albaicín that the guidebooks warn you to avoid after dark. Lots of graffiti, bars and grails on every window, multiple deadbolts and no door handles add up to that kind of crime that emanates from the wonderful combination of a transient population, students and dark alleys. Just like any college neighborhood I’d ever lived in, and in some cases far worse.

We dodged a sprinkle or two before deciding to stop for a quick lunch at a bar along Calle Elvira, one of the busier lanes ringing the quarter. Continuing with my good luck ordering a caña I got my beer and we got a couple of slices of baguette topped with big slabs of half-melted Brie and a drizzle of warm cherry-balsamic jelly. We followed that with what were reported to be the best croquettes in Granada - one ham and one chicken and bacon. It was a grand lunch in a ¾ empty restaurant and a nice way to escape the downpour that had started when we come in.

Most of the afternoon was spent at home, eating Piononos and watching the rain come down. It seems that every region in Spain has its private pastry, and the Pionono is Granada’s or more specifically that of the small nearby town of Santa Fe. Like a small jelly roll, it’s comprised of layers of sponge cake rolled up and soaked in some sort of fermented syrup. It is crowned with a big dab of clotted cream and served in a small paper cupcake wrapper. We purchased a box on our first day here and had been allocating them daily and I have to say, they are one of the best dessert specialties I’ve tried, second only to ponche, the Cake of Segovia that is actually pretty similar. As the light began to fade, we went out for a second walk in search of the Mudejar art museum missed on our earlier walk up the river and now found, like so much of Europe, to be “closed for repairs.” Not all was lost though because we stumbled on an excellent little site, free of charge, and that was mentioned nowhere – a very well preserved 11th century Arab bath. It turned out to be quite nice, much better even than the one in Jerez, very well preserved and quite evocative of its original purpose. Located in what was the district of wealthy merchants and businessmen, this was the neighborhood gathering spot. Several rooms, devoted to different temperatures of water, each lit by skylights in the forms of stars and moons. I really enjoyed it, even more so because it was an unplanned stop.

Ironically we had to cut our venture short because I had work to do. When I retired I was invited to join a consultant council that provides a link between content experts and people needing knowledge. Over the last 3 years, I’ve heard nary a peep and then suddenly I had a request for a meeting - right now - that simply couldn’t wait. So I took the call and spent the next hour talking about stuff I knew to an incredulous host. When that was done, I had a second call from the consultancy I had recently joined about yet another opportunity. So, my two years of retirement isolation ended, all in one evening when I just happened to be on vacation.

Work out of the way we decided to head out for a small dinner and chose to go to the coffee shop that we were unable to get into in the morning. Tonight’s caña was a slice of baguette with cream cheese and a pickled pepper, very nice. We ordered a tapa each of garlic mushrooms and pork in tomato sauce, both turning out to be excellent and the latter being not quite as good as the pork cheeks in Jerez but on par with the previous record holder, the lomo y tomate from the Santa Teresa bar in Sevilla.



It was an early rise for us to catch the train to Madrid, and still pretty dark at 7AM. We cleaned the place up (we always strive to leave our rentals in a manner that makes the agent say “wow") gathered our goods and bumped our suitcases down the cobblestones, glad again that it was not raining. We caught a cab after purchasing the New York Times and headed to the station. I had a chat with the driver, asking the official name of the train station. It turned out to be The Granada Train Station and not something exotic like Puerta de Atocha, Santa Justa or Santes.

The name is about as disappointing as the station itself, woefully inadequate for a city of this popularity. We arrived about 45 minutes before departure and got into the line that was forming in spite of time. It seemed they did the Madrid loading differently than any of the other regular boardings we’ve done. More checking, more security, much earlier.

We found our seat and after struggling a bit to find places for our luggage (some guy kindly removed the shoulder bag he shouldn’t have had there) we sat down. Almost immediately we were confronted by a woman who claimed that I was in her seat. I said “no,” this is mine. She tried to sit across the way and sure enough those people arrived and kicked her out. Now she’s standing there and looking at me and I’m smiling and not yielding. A Spanish woman two rows down explained to me, in English, that this is her seat and that I must be mistaken. She started a bit when I responded, in Spanish, that this was my seat as was written on my ticket. She then offered that they must have sold it twice, implying that I had perhaps not claimed mine in time. Ignorant of course that I had bought it 3 months ago. A second woman showed me the car designation on her ticket, attempting to show that I was in the wrong place. Meanwhile, the aggrieved traveler is beginning to exude confidence that she’s right and I’m wrong, based on the support of her paisanos. It was then when I snapped to it and asked her “what car?” She looked and said “Car 3” and the English speaking busybody proclaimed “Oh, this is Car 5!” I gave that one a wry smile and a long hard look at the woman who had caused the dust up who was now smiling serenely and waving as she walked to the car where her seat actually was.

I am always amazed at just how much uninformed people are willing to dig in to assert their uninformedness. I went through this dozens of times in China, where no one could read the seat numbers, and probably gave more English lessons than I can remember. I’ve even been in the wrong place myself, but I’ve never dug in once confronted. For some reason though there is strength in sticking to your guns even when you are completely in the wrong.

We departed precisely on time, and I spent a few minutes watching the young backpacker couple sitting across the aisle. They were traveling with a large expedition pack each as well as regular backpacks and multiple plastic bags. He got up and went to the WC and returned with a thermos of hot water. He poured a heaping pile of what appeared to be cat litter into a ceramic mug and then topped it off with water. I was supposing oatmeal but it turned out to be some kind of tea as he drank it through a straw. He opened one of the plastic bags and removed a slice of pasty that he proceeded to split with such deliberation and slowness that I was tempted to get up and tear in half for him, just to put an end to the painful process of division. Meanwhile, his waifish wife/girlfriend took out a big, brightly colored notebook, sort of like one I might have given my kids when they were 5, along with a glue stick and a big pile of tickets and passes and began to carefully glue them into the book, with the same slow deliberation that he had applied to the pastry. I guess when you are traveling rough you make every millisecond count.

The train rolled on through another endless expanse of olive trees, pertinent announcements coming every once in a while in Spanish and a comical attempt at English that featured about ½ the words necessary to make a complete sentence. The backpackers fell asleep, the phone belonging to the woman behind me kept ringing its irritating salsa ringtone and we made the occasional stop including one to change the gauge of the tracks to the “international” standard. That took about 10 minutes, making me think of my friends who had taken the Trans-Siberian Express whose gauge change had taken 12 hours. I noticed the name of the station and it was the same as one we’d passed coming over from Sevilla which made me wonder if we had taken the wrong train.

I found it odd when I began to notice a lot of the same landmarks I’d seen last year when returning from Sevilla, in addition to that same station name. It would seem we were on the right train and that I was right in suspecting that we were retracing our route. Even more right than I expected when we rolled into Cordoba, the next major stop on the Sevilla line. I suppose it makes sense to Renfe but it sure seems odd to me, to head all the way back to the middle of the country before going north instead of just angling NW from Granada proper. Granada must be on some old spur line with a different gauge and largely ignored any attempt at system modernization. Like the poor station without a name I am surprised that a city that is such a rich tourist destination isn’t treated with more respect, although if the subpar station and slow trains aren’t stopping people from coming, why spend the money to upgrade? At least I now understand why we return to the station on the south west side of Madrid and not one on the other side of town.

We arrived a few minutes early and planted ourselves in a coffee shop for snack. I called the rental agent and he asked for about 45 minutes more for the cleaning crew to finish up. We ate, collected our stuff and grabbed a cab, forgetting (once again) that you can only get into one on the far side of the station.

Javier met us at the door of the building off to the side of a pleasant square with a handful of restaurants. We’re not in our old favorite apartment - it’s gone to long term rentals and so was unavailable to us. This one is new, in the same part of town but across Calle Mayor from where we have traditionally been. Javier turned out to be great guy, so friendly and with excellent English. He took us up to the 4th floor and brought us in. MLW mimed “Wow!” on her first quick scan. What a place, living, dining, kitchen, two bedrooms and two full baths. And no marble stairs. A great view and just what you’d expect from a sophisticated European apartment. We unpacked and headed out to get our bearings.

(click on photos for an enlarged view)














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