I’m not sure I can properly describe our experience in Granada other than to say it was a bit bewitching. We felt unsettled, discontent, uncomfortable, and both figuratively and literally lost, but we were also charmed, enamored, dazzled, impassioned and wrapped in its embrace. It reminds me of how one might feel after being charmed or hypnotized by a beautiful, mysterious enchantress in a children’s fairytale. It feels slightly dangerous, but mostly exhilarating.
After two unforgettable weeks in Arcos de la Frontera and exploring as much of Andalucía as possible, we set out somewhat reluctantly for Granada. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to visit one of Spain’s most renowned Andalucían cities; quite the contrary, we couldn’t wait to see the Alhambra and the labyrinth of corridors that is the Albayzín. No, I believe our subtle, but collective, malaise had more to do with leaving a place that has made such an indelible impression on our very souls. A place that felt comfortable and even, like home.
The whole of an experience is influenced by any number of factors: scenery, weather, the company, moods (our own and those of our companions), luck, choice and of course our senses. No two experiences are alike. I preface this story as such because our experience in Granada was not what we expected, nor is it complete.
We had high expectations for our two brief days in this beautiful city at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Alhambra, a stunning hilltop fortress remaining from the Moorish reign, is one of the top tourist destinations in Spain (maybe even in all of Europe). Everything we heard, read and saw had us bursting with anticipation to tour its palaces, patios and gardens. We bought our tickets through a tour company in advance knowing that this attraction regularly sells out, which also included time at one of the Arab baths for which Granada is renowned.
Now, I should note here that many of Granada’s central areas are off limits to cars unless you’re a resident, a taxi or have permission through the police to drive a specified route to your hotel. So, upon arrival in Granada, we first had to find a safe place to park the car on the outskirts of the city for two days and then figure out how to get our seven months-worth of luggage to our very centrally located apartment. This was managed without incident, but loading and unloading our tiny little car and carrying our four suitcases, six backpacks, two laptop bags, accumulating stash of wine, and keeping from wanting to kill one another is likely the biggest source of stress on this trip.
Unfortunately after two weeks of rest and feeling comfortable, this transition was enough to set both the kids up for increasingly bad moods. Upon arrival we had a mandatory rest time at our apartment (which was small, but very well appointed) before heading on our evening “paseo.” It was a Sunday and the streets were full of families, couples, friends and tourists strolling up and down the road along the river with the Albayzín rising on one side and the Alhambra high above on the other. It was beautiful. Feeling a little better, we stopped for tapas before heading to our Flamenco show.
We had seen a Flamenco show a few years ago in Madrid, but after having taken a dance lesson in Sevilla this time around, we knew we wanted to see another. Miss A is absolutely enamored with Flamenco. I cannot aptly describe the focus she had during our lesson, but she performed with both seriousness and intensity, hanging onto our instructor’s every word and movement. She even prepared a presentation on the history of Flamenco, complete with a video of her demonstrating a dance, for her class back home. So, needless to say, given that Flamenco has a long and rich history in Granada, it, like our rest time, was mandatory.
Fortunately the show was enthralling. It was an hour long, set in a small room with about 20 chairs, which were half full. The stage was small, but suitable enough for the guitarist, singer and dancer. The room was dark, the audience riveted (except for the woman next to Mike and Mr. N. who was playing on her cell phone THE ENTIRE TIME), and the performance was absolutely spellbinding. The music drew you in to a rhythm and the singing, clapping and dancing took your emotions on an intense journey of love, sorrow and passion. It was poetic, artistic and energizing.
Unfortunately the next day our passion was a bit more on the negative side. Our tour of the Alhambra set off at 8:50 a.m. – early for our Spanish rhythm. Our group numbered around 25 and our guide was only audible through a headset, of which we were only given two (despite paying for four tickets). The kids did not get headsets. Now perhaps some kids wouldn’t care about the history lesson and would be content to wander about without hearing the tour, but not our kids – especially when a headset is involved. Miss A is rather obsessed and particular about “managing” the headsets. So, while Mr. N and I were sharing a headset, Miss A was getting rather, shall we say, assertive, regarding “hers” and refused to share with Mike.
After a few moments of staying as far away from Mike as she could and demonstrating her exasperation, her camera battery died (and it was the one day – of course – that I left the extra batteries behind). This did not help the situation. She was fit to be tied. Fortunately, we managed to calm her down, but she spent the rest of the tour in a salty mood. And my mood tends to rise and fall with hers, so things were getting a bit tense. At home, I could I could either ignore or diffuse the situation, but in a foreign country and on a tour, I have to be extra alert, making sure she stays out of harm’s way, doesn’t run off and isn’t antagonizing her brother (who was doing rather well off on his own with the headset).
The tour situation did not help either. It was far too fast, it provided very little information beyond the surface story and didn’t allow much opportunity for taking photographs as the next group was literally right on your heels. By the end of the tour, we had seen our share of the Alhambra, but still felt like we had seen nothing at all. It’s a big place with intricate and beautiful details as well as a rich history. I am certain it would have been far more interesting had we bought a guide book and explored on our own.
The rest of the day was also full of highs and lows. Moods were not much improved after our tour, but we decided to head for San Nicolás overlook (which promised stunning views of the Alhambra from the neighboring hillside of the Albayzín). We knew the Albayzín was a maze of narrow corridors that curved in all directions and were prepared for getting lost and exploring at our leisure. However, we were not prepared for getting as lost as we did when we were as hungry and thirsty as we quickly became. Finding a restaurant and the overlook proved a bit more difficult than we expected.
Fortunately the view paid off and the live Flamenco music at the café made up for the previous 45 minutes of whining, grumbling, and exasperated sighing (from all four of us). We spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly and trying to get a better feel for this city, but it is in a word – complicated. It has a different vibe than the rest of the cities we had explored and for the first time Mike and I felt uneasy. It’s not that the city was unsafe by any means, but he and I both felt “off” and as such never really relaxed. As a result, the kids never did either. It’s hard to describe, except to say that it felt strange and unsettling for no real apparent reason.
As for the Arab baths – what an amazing experience! We had an hour and half at the Hammam al Ándalus and it was a thrill to all the senses – absolutely beautiful. It was billed as family friendly, but I would recommend going earlier in the day. Unfortunately our tour schedule required us to be there in the evening, and it was definitely more for couples at this time. So, we visited the pools and got out as fast as reasonably possible (But not before Miss A skinned her knee! Trying to keep that little one from moving too fast is darn near impossible!). That said, the waters were amazing, the kids LOVED the tea and I had the best massage of my life.
We finished our evening with a one of the most delicious meals of the trip. The funny thing is that I don’t even recall the name of the establishment or what we ate, but the food was some of the best we had! It was prepared creatively and expertly. The ingredients were fresh and the servings plentiful. Maybe it was the relaxing baths, the massage, the wine or the food, but a sense of calm again washed over us. We sat for a few hours, talking, eating and imagining the adventure that lie ahead.
We left Granada the next morning and unable to find a cab near our apartment, we walked a mile and a half with our 375 pounds of luggage back to the car. I suggested to Miss A as we left that she let either Mike or I carry her heavy backpack (she was already pulling a suitcase). This was a not a welcome suggestion. You see Miss A is not a carrot or a stick type of girl; however, challenge her ability to do something and you ignite a fire. She not only walked, but speed walked, the entire route with a 35 pound backpack and a 50+ pound suitcase. Then she said rather smartly as we dropped our bags at the trunk of the car, “See, I can do it!”
We got in the car, breathed a sigh of relief and left Granada and all our bad mojo behind. Now you might think that this was a bad experience, and while it does certainly pale in comparison to our serendipitous times spent elsewhere, and while we did have our share of disagreements and trying moments, there was something alluring and mystifying about Granada that made an impression. While not as overtly positive, it was equally as magical. Will we remember it? Certainly. Will we go back? Absolutely!
It’s a beautiful city full of vibrant life and I know we barely scraped the surface of its depth. It’s not a city that can be understood or even evaluated in a mere two days. Sure you can hit the tourist sites and do all the recommended sorts of things, but to do only that is to do this city an injustice. Granada’s soul lies beyond the Alhambra, the baths, the Flamenco shows and restaurants, and I do believe it will be well-worth discovering someday, but preferably after the kids are grown. Because while it’s not kid-unfriendly, it certainly requires your complete attention and begs for you to engage all your senses – neither of which is possible while keeping children safe, happy (or at least not throwing fits in public) and healthy.
Granada whet our appetite and we’re grateful for the opportunity to dip our toes in its alluring waters, but this story will have to remain unfinished….for now.