Our time in Seville and Granada was a sharp contrast to that of Barcelona. The south of Spain, particularly Andalusia, feels almost like a completely different country from Barcelona, and despite the hordes of tourists, even a little bit more authentically Spanish. Both our destinations were lovely, and we really wish that we could have spent more time at both – especially Granada.
Seville is very much a city whose reputation precedes it: tapas, bullfighting, and Moorish architecture are three big dot points that come up whenever it is mentioned as a tourist destination. And while the middle of those two points was definitely not for us, the other two were more than enough to make our Seville stay worthwhile. On our first morning in Seville, we took a free walking tour through the city, which took us to some of Seville’s most impressive buildings, both Moorish and Catholic. The tour itself was not terrific though (which was generally indicative of our hostel, actually: ‘Oasis Seville’ is big on promise, with the allure of wifi, A/C in each room, personal safes, etc, but did not deliver on most counts. The A/C was particularly wanting in the Seville frying pan heat; our receptionist informed us that it came on only at midnight, but it never did), so we abandoned it to guide ourselves around town. It truly is a beautiful city, with some amazing old quarters, and an impressive Gothic church built on top of a Mosque. We also visited the incredible Alcazar, which like most things in Andulusia, was a fascinating mishmash of the Catholic and Muslim eras. Some people complain of the Catholic reworkings of Moorish buildings as destruction, but to me, it makes it all the more interesting: it is like having your history writ large over every surface.
The tapas, however, was what made Seville for us. For those who don’t know tapas and are unwilling to use Wikipedia, they are small, usually very cheap samples of main dishes. So instead of ordering one main for each person, a tapas meal will consist of half a dozen or more small samples of most things on the menu. It’s a very interesting approach, and one that I wish was more widespread. Our first significant tapas experience was at a local place recommended highly by our hostel and by wikitravel.com, called ‘La Coloniales’. For once, it was a place equally, if not more popular with locals than with tourists; so much so that they employ a blackboard waiting list for tables. Surprisingly, rather than irritating, this helps create a really amazing atmosphere that I haven’t felt anywhere else.
The usual routine is this: you arrive anywhere between 9 and 10pm, as southern Spanish eat late due to the siesta. You then put your name up on the blackboard, usually by this time, behind seven or eight others. You then go into the bar for a drink, and to wait for your table. The waiters don’t speak any English, and you don’t speak any Spanish, so you point at drinks and hope you’ve got it right, and they smile to themselves at this impromptu game of charades and laugh with you as they serve you the correct drinks after all. You then stand, and maybe talk with a similarly-bewildered English-speaking neighbor (we made friends with an elderly New York state couple on our second night there, helping them understand the system and figure out how much they owed the barman) while you wait, watching delicious tapas fly past, out the tiny window in the front to the hideously overworked, but so-on-top-of-things sole waiter out the front. Every fifteen minutes, this sole waiter bends in the window and shouts out the name of the lucky soul whose turn to eat it is. Sometimes, it’s an English name, and the waiter gets the pronunciation so horribly wrong that all the wait staff have a go at it, laughing as they all cry it out to no response through thick accents. Our New York state friends, on the blackboard as ‘Roger’, get ‘Rooohhherr’, but eventually get the idea. When finally it is your turn to go out, you present yourself, get crossed off the list, sit, order, and eat. All the food is good, and all of it is cheap. The second night, we had seven or so plates, bread, and a drink each, and paid 13 euro. It was wonderful.
Granada is perhaps unfairly famous for the Alhambra, the Moorish fort and palace complex which rests on top of its central hill. I say unfairly, because there is so much more to Granada than the admittedly brilliant Alhambra. Not only is Granada incredibly scenic, but there is an instantly relaxed feel to the town. We knew within minutes after arriving that we had short changed the city; two nights would not be nearly enough. Unfortunately, there was no changing things at this late stage, so we would have to make do. It is to a large extent a University town, and it has the overwhelming effect of making you want to find your own private bit of shade on the hill and relax for entire afternoons.
On our first night in Granada, we cooked at our hostel. This was, we are very ashamed to admit, the first time we have cooked since we were in Vienna – a shocking 34 days of our trip. Largely, this was because our hostels as we worked down to Istanbul and Greece did not have kitchens, but it was also because the food was very cheap and tasty. But it was with relish that we finally served up our own meal again. We shan’t lapse for so long again.
We also went out that night to a flamenco/jazz bar, and although there was sadly no bands playing, it was still a lot of fun. We went with an Israeli girl and a Texan girl we had met at our hostel, who were both very friendly and intelligent. Our Granada hostel was really very good, but above all, very small, which we have found creates the best atmosphere; like Budapest and Brasov. I had a local drink, which is a beer mixed with a third of a glass of lemon juice. It sounds horrible, but it was really very nice. I’ll have to bring it to Melbourne.
The next day, we went on another walking tour, which this time, was very good. We saw all the old town, and heard all about the history of the place, the Alhambra, the defeat of the Moors by the Catholics and the religious tensions even today. Later in the day, we visited the Alhambra itself, which is really quite incredible, though huge, and left us both exhausted. It is also fairly packed with tourists: apparently 6000 pass through every day, a number so large that they limit visits to the palatial part to a half-an-hour window detailed on your ticket. Ours was for 5.30pm.
After finishing the Alhambra, we came home and collapsed, which we needed to do, as we were going to meet Tash’s friend from high school, Bree, that evening. Bree is studying in Granada, and it was a huge relief to see a familiar face: something we haven’t experienced since we left Rune in Norway. We must say that we were hugely impressed by her: when she left Australia, she didn’t speak a word of Spanish, yet when we met up with her, only four months down the track, she was speaking like a local, and had even had a law exam in Spanish that morning. Very impressive, although it just reinforces how much I want to learn a language myself. Anyway, she took us to a nice local eatery, where we had more tapas, this time of a North African style. I should also note that tapas in Grenada usually have the distinctive advantage of being free: a lot of places include a tapas with every drink, which makes for an economical evening out. Another Spanish invention that should have made its way to Australia.
On the whole, Granada feels like exactly the sort of place you’d want to spend weeks and weeks doing nothing in particular: Bree has picked one of the best places in the world as a backdrop to study. Like so many places we’ve visited, we were loathe to leave, but we had an appointment with Madrid, and in turn, Segovia and Toledo.
A trip to the station
As the station is a bit of a hike from the city centre, we booked our tickets out of Granada on the day we arrived; so, we knew in advance that we had to be at the station early. Our hostel is quite difficult to reach by public transport; either there are two buses or a long walk and one bus. So to get here, we took a 5 euro taxi, which is roughly the same cost as two buses anyway. Very good. To get back to the station on the morning of our departure, we assumed we’d take the same route. We asked at reception what to do about a taxi. She could order one in the morning, and there’d be no problem, she said. All well and good. Miniature, distant, and ultimately ignored alarm bells rang at this point – we were catching a 9.45 train, and were planning on leaving at 9ish, which wouldn’t give much time for error. But hey, the only other time we’d caught a taxi from our hostel to the station was in Romania, at 6am, and that arrived outside our hostel quite literally in under a minute. It was a good precedent.
So, the morning of our departure arrives, and we patiently get up, have a slowish breakfast, involving several coffees for me, and a surreptitiously made sandwich from the hostel stores for lunch. Suddenly, by the time we get to check out, it’s 9.15. How that happened, we don’t know, but we now have 30 minutes or less to get to the station. Our new receptionist looks slightly alarmed when we tell her what time train we have to catch, and could we please order a taxi. She calls. She is put on hold. She stands there for several minutes, not talking into the handset. During this moment of silence and suspense, Tash reminds me that there are only two trains leaving for Madrid today: our one at 9.45am, and the second one, at 6.00pm. This is not a reassuring reminder.
The receptionist hangs up. She tries again. No taxis in the area. She explains that the taxi company sees their number when she calls through, and will just hang up if there isn’t an available taxi nearby. She calls again. She hangs up. There’s a taxi rank in town, she says, down the hill in the main square. If we go there, there’ll be a few taxis waiting. That’s our best bet as there is roadworks near our hostel anyway, and a taxi won’t normally be coming close.
Our the door. Down the cobble-stone, myriad-like streets, Tash’s suitcase-on-wheels that she bought in Istanbul machine-guns us along. We come close to flying with all our bags, like two tortoises surprised to find themselves in the 100 metre downhill sprint. Five minutes later, we’re at the bottom of the hill and at the square. Five empty taxis. We run to the first one. He doesn’t speak English, we don’t speak Spanish, but we communicate our destination. Quickly we throw our bags into the back. It’s 9.30. We pull out of the curb.
Into traffic. A dead stop. Two full minutes. We start forward, moving several body lengths before stopping again. The lights have turned red for the second time without us making it passed. Forward again. We round the corner – into more traffic. It is 9.35.
I’m sure that the taxi driver has got the idea that we’re very late, by all our sighing and moaning at every pause, but we show him our train ticket with the 9.45 departure time anyway. “Traffico!”, he says, with a lift of the shoulders and a wave of the arms. Not much he can do, we agree, but what we wouldn’t give for our Jack Brabham-style Athenian taxi driver now. 150 kph down the sidewalk would not be an unwelcome change. We stare mournfully at the bumper of the car in front.
Finally, a stretch of open road. Our driver floors it for at least 100 metres before running into more traffic. A detour is taken, off the main road and into back streets. This will surely get us there quicker, but as luck would have it, we round the final bend into roadworks. Full stop. Car horns. It is now 9.40. Five minutes. The train station is in visible on the other side of the workmen. The car at the front of the queue dementedly mounts the curb. The line starts moving. Our driver inches forward, turns left, and lets loose completely the instant there is open road in front. We’re at the station. 9.44. I don’t remember if the taxi’s wheels had stopped before we were out of the car. 10 Euros to our driver for a 5 Euro trip and into the station. We show our tickets to the concierge and we’re through the security gates, onto the platform, our feet barely touching solid ground before leaping onto the train.
It’s 9.45. The train slowly pulls out of the station, with us, its most unlikely passengers, on board. We breathe for the first time in 45 minutes. And on to Madrid.
For more Seville photos, click here.
For more Granada photos, click here.