Spain in a glass
Join Australian-born photojournalists John Cokley and Pip Hanrick on their adventures in Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Singapore. Including "A Mapas of Tapas" and "Foot Photos on the Run" (March 29), and others already published.
It’s springtime in Spain and a conga line of chubby red minibuses, Uber rides and taxis shuttles tourists day and night up and down the al-Sabika mountain to the Alhambra gardens and palaces in Granada, south-eastern Spain.
It’s a wild ride. For €1.40 per passenger, the bus drivers, like jet pilots with terrain-following radar, guide their charges at speed through the centuries-old streets up from the city below, then into the more rarefied zone of forests and finally into the huge parking and turnaround area outside what looks like a giant historical and horticultural theme park … which is exactly what the complex is.
We had booked our tour tickets online months before arrival but still had to scamper to get to the doors of the 14th century Nasrid palaces at one end of the complex because we had been sternly warned “they open only at 9am”. It turns out they close again very soon after 9am too (about 30 minutes) letting in only a set number of ticket holders and to make way for other guided tours through the buildings at the same time.
Then we were in!
This is a tour for travellers who love tramping through Spanish architecture up close and personal … but not too close. When John reached out to feel a beautifully tiled wall, he was instantly approached by staff warning: “don’t touch!”
It’s because the tiles are mostly fashioned from gypsum plaster – or basically “chalk”, as one tour guide later told John – so even the faintest pressure from a human hand is likely to make a not-so-welcome impression. Signs at the palaces informed us that gypsum is one of the softest known materials, traditionally manufactured in low-temperature kilns, and can deteriorate quickly.
Up, up and up we climbed the ancient stone stairways, into rooms lined with thousands of those delicately carved and formed tiles and latticework. And what goes up must come down, so we descended too, into legendary Moorish/Muslim patios, water gurgling, fountains poised.
We wandered through the Mexuar section (think medieval “administration” block), the Comares Palace (where the king lived) and the Palace of the Lions, where the harem lived. There are so many tourists and guided tours that you’ll have no trouble at all overhearing professional explanations in many languages. Alternatively, visitors can rent multilingual digital audio guides, which are common at nearly every Spanish museum, gallery or cathedral we visited.
There’s very little furniture in the palace complex so it’s a bit clinical and not very homey. But that environment softens dramatically when we exited the final door and entered the sprawling Alhambra gardens.
Can you imagine a network of gardens that’s almost “too big” to take in? The rulers who built these gardens over the centuries clearly liked strolling for hours along hedge-lined paths, taking in the bouquet of myriad blooms, and even surveying what were clearly vegetable patches for the palace kitchens.
Walking uphill from the palace complex and gardens, along battlements and past fortified towers, Phillipa and I entered the Jardines del Generalife (the Architect’s Garden) and this is the prize exhibit. From here the monarchs (and us) could survey not only their palaces and forts, but all the gardens and the whole city of Granada across the Darro River.
We lost count of the types of roses, camelias, wisteria, ranunculus and even – in the kitchen gardens – rows of broad beans.
We stayed for hours. There is plenty of seating and very clean restrooms so there’s no need to rush. Finally, we descended back to the entry-exit plaza, looking for food and beer.
Trust Spain: there’s plenty of both available just near the bus stop (at Restaurante La Mimbre) and so we refuelled on beer and those local ham sandwiches called “bocadillos” (€14.20) before catching one of the trusty Number 32 chubby red buses, crammed in with locals and visitors alike.
Together we hurtled down the lanes, then to crawl along the flat street next to the Darro River, honking and navigating around pedestrians, until we reached the terminus at the main city square.
But a day’s journey is never complete without coffee. Phillipa’s search for the perfect cup has taken us into many cafés in our travels but Granada was to provide what she named the best coffee in Spain that day.
How did we know? The waiter told us, of course, but he did not lie. In the tiny establishment known as Café Lisboa, at Calle Reyes Católicos 67, Pip agreed that her “extra-strong flat white” (€1.60) was a joy to behold, a thing of rare beauty and flavour, and worth the gong of the Best in Spain.
Perhaps that’s not surprising, since Café Lisboa informs us that they’ve served more than 5 million cups of 100% Arabica in the past five years and, beyond that, have been in the café business more than 30 years.
“We have been betting on specialty coffee for five years, toasting our own coffee (at the Santo Amaro roasters) and training baristas through the SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) certification system,” the management says on their website.
“Each coffee we serve is prepared by a true professional of this product, with knowledge and authentic passion for the world of this plant.”
Where we stayed
Two nights at the Hotel Santa Isabel La Real, at the other end of the Number 32 bus route, in the Albaicín quarter. This 16th century building, which has a human-sized but mouse-hole shaped door directly on to the street, is now fully restored as a 3-star bed-and-breakfast with Andalusian patio, television and Wi-Fi.
It boasts achingly good views to the Alhambra gardens and palaces, as well as to the snow-capped mountains (in winter and spring) beyond. Up the cobbled street is a corner market called Hay De Todo (which translates as “a little bit of everything”) and next door is the Santa Isabel La Real monastery and church.
On the other side of that, less than a minute’s walk, is a plaza full of tapas cafés and restaurants. We enjoyed a delightful traditional paella (€11.50) at Bar Lara, with friendly, attentive table staff.
Two nights at Hotel Santa Isabel La Real cost us AU$560.00 = about €350.
#1 THING to do at night in Granada
Window-shopping Phillipa noticed the sandwich-board sign first. It advertised a flamenco performance and dinner and stood outside a tiny organic food market in the Albaicín quarter, just off the Plaza San Miguel, next to the Santa Isabel La Real.
In she went and bought two tickets to what turned out to be – for us Australian-born travellers – one of the big nights of our Spanish journey.
Up and over the hill from our hotel and down the cobbled Granada streets we went to Restaurant Zoraya, home of the flamenco troupe Jardines de Zoraya.
For the next hour (for a surprisingly cheap €15 cover charge each) as the sun sank into evening, we watched, clapped and listened to the quintet of two singers, a guitarist and two dancers as they exhausted themselves on the cosy cabaret stage.
The tall, skinny and to-die-for young male dancer (so Phillipa tells our friends) and his female dance partner left everything on stage as they were accompanied by the medieval, deeply emotional chanting and wailing of the singers and the crisp, upbeat strumming and ornate, intricate finger work of the guitarist and the omnipresent clapping and percussive clatter of leather heels on timber.
It was so emotionally exhausting – wild fun always is – that we simply had to stop on the way home at the Bar Aixa, and, in a moment of quiet, admire the ceramic pots and jars the owners have mounted on the external walls above the plaza.
How to get there
We arrived in Spain by Lufthansa from Sydney via Singapore and Frankfurt, then to Granada by bus from Seville and departed by Iberian/Air Nostrum to Madrid.
Australian-born photojournalists John Cokley and Pip Hanrick toured Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Singapore and some of their collected notes, advice, new stories and original images will appear here, our Shop Your Way to Success brand and in other travel publications (see links as they're published). Contact John and Pip by email through their publisher, Small Batch Books.