En la palma del ‘Al-Andaluz’

November 2021 —

Per usual I arose early to give myself plenty of time prior to leaving for my 7:30 a.m. train to Granada, Spain. The chilly morning breezes awakened me as I waited to catch my bus to the Atocha Renfe train station in the southern part of the city, an approximate 15 minute journey from my apartment. This is one of my favorite stations in Madrid because it is so well organized, connected, and easy to navigate. Boarding the train was fast since I had selected my seat ahead of time. At this hour in Madrid the sun is beginning to rise and one is naturally greeted with the emerging rays of a brand new day. What I love the most about heading to Southern Spain, the region known as Andalusia, is the groves upon groves of olive trees! Their green symmetry weaving around the landscape gives a scenic vibe whether traveling by car, bus, or train. 

The three hour Ave train, a high speed train, provides ample time to reflect on just how special it is to be able to travel again. The past almost two years, have been filled with ups and downs, but also frustrations and desires to continue exploring the unknown. I am thankful for this first journey back into the person that I desire to be. In choosing Granada, Spain I had several reasons. The first being I wanted to continue expanding my familiarity of Spain by checking off places that I have not yet visited. Secondly, the Alhambra! And thirdly, this was a localized trip so it would get me back into the swing of things both mentally and physically with traveling. 

If you have not yet done your homework on the ancient citadel El Alhambra, or the Alhambra, you should! ‘Al-Andaluz,’ as it is historically known from its Islamic creators, dates back as early as the 8th century and has had many different occupants and faces over the years. Predominantly it was once the prominent stronghold of the Islamic religion and its Golden Age influence on the Iberian Peninsula. That control continued up until the late 1400s when the Catholic reign of Isabel and Ferdinand took hold uniting the kingdoms of Spain under the Re-conquest of the peninsula. The expulsion of all religions except Catholicism led to the end of the last Islamic state in Europe.

 

My Travel Circuit

  • Saturday –

I arrived to the Granada station late morning giving me plenty of time to explore around before checking in to my hostel at 3 p.m.. Since the train station is well centralised according to the city, it is possible to walk to wherever one needs to go in the city center. I reserved two nights at the TOC Hostel & Suites Granada for my Saturday to Monday stay in a 4 bed room with a private bathroom for 30 euros a night. Although I opted to add the 6 euros/day breakfast to my stay making the price per night slightly more than I prefer, it was still a great price! I reserved this hostel through my favorite accommodation app Booking.com, and was pleasantly encouraged by the excellent location, and amazing cleanliness ratings of over 9/10. This was one of the best hostels I have stayed at quality wise!

Leaving from the train station I decided to walk the 30 minute uphill jaunt to visit El Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción “La Cartuja,” a monastery perched on a hill overlooking the city. Let me tell you its a lot more steep of a walk than it looks! Whoever said that vacations were not for exercising was kidding you! I would definitely recommend visiting this monastery because it is very ornately decorated on the outside by red leaf vines and simple adornments that are accented by the lovely courtyard filled with roses and fruit trees. The entrance costs are not very much, for a student it is 3.50 euros, for adults I believe it is 5 euros, and for kids even less. It is well worth the meagre entrance cost to visit this less famous yet more everyday side of history in Granada. No matter what you believe in spiritually, the architectural impressions are great! There are also some nice views from the stairway entrance. 

Next I walked for another half hour of so to the Mirador de San Cristobal, a lookout location for the city. Here you have some of the best city views of classic red clay roofs and white walled houses as far as the eye can see. Beyond these there are some moderately high mountains in the distances as Granada has a higher elevation than its Southern counterparts. An added bonus of this sight for me was that I could even see snow capped mountains! This sight however was quite busy and was hard to get good pictures because there were so many people in the way. If you wanted to take the bus instead, there is a bus stop at the top of this hill making it accessible for all. The views here of the Alhambra are also fantastic! All around it is a free way to see what the city as a whole offers!

From there I headed to the city center, but as it was quite a hike to get to the top of the lookout, you can imagine that it is equally difficult to descend. As I began the narrow pathways between the cobblestone streets, cars, and precariously places doorways began to remind me of my time in Athens, Greece. I suppose that the older picturesque European city vibes are synonymous across many places in Europe. Bustling streets are a ritual to any Saturday in Spain, and Granada did not disappoint in this regard!

I made my way toward the Puerta de Elvira, or the Gate of Elvira, a plaza near the main focal points of the city where I could sit to eat some snacks and take in some Mediterranean sun. People watching is one of those activities I think we often underrate but rather we should reconsider. It provides relaxation, entertainment, awareness of what happens in an area, how we as humans look/act, and of course cultural insight. I always encourage practicing self-awareness and that of your surrounding when going to an unfamiliar place. For more information on this, check out my safety tips post for the best experiences in Be Smart, Vigilant & Observant. After an hour or so, I made my way towards the true center of the city where I was staying at the TOC Hostel & Suites Granada. Settling into my room and storing my bag, just my regular NorthFace backpack for this shorter trip, seemed like a perfect time to eat a sandwich and grab my mini collapsible backpack to scope out the surrounding streets.

 

The atmosphere of palm trees waving in the wind, cafes filled with people, and artesian vendors scattering the streets leaves one with a certain touristic warmth.  @The_Traveling_Guapa

 

For that afternoon I had purchased in advance my entrances into El Catedral de Granada, or the Granada Cathedral, and La Capilla Real, or the Royal Chapel, where ‘Los Reyes Católicos,’ or the Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel are laid to rest. They are perhaps the most well known Spanish royalty around the world, as well as their grandson Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor during the better part of the 16th century. Ferdinand and Isabel were essentially the cause of the expulsion of all faiths from Spain during the mid to late 1400s except for Catholicism, more commonly called the Re-Conquest of Spain. Additionally, they funded the ventures of Christopher Columbus to the Americas.

Therefore it is quite an important sight to visit, and although their history was filled with mixed positives and negatives, I think that the Royal Chapel and Granada Cathedral are well worth a visit! I found them to be impressive in stature once inside but still for me my favorite so far has been the Salamanca Cathedral in Northern Spain. I should also note that yes they are connected in the same building, but that they have two separate entrance tickets and entrances. The entrance prices were not very much either, it was 7.5 euros for both places. While walking around I also happened upon La Alcaicería, a traditional open air ‘Arabic Market’ tucked between the alleys of the various buildings. It was filled with traditional Islamic and Arabic influenced objects like lanterns, scarves, jewellery, dried fruits and spices, and much more. It does however have many entrances and can seem a bit like a maze, so watch which direction you come from. Afterwards I returned to my hostel to eat a sandwich I brought with me for dinner.

  • Sunday –

Finally on Sunday I had the entire day to admire, explore, and check out every nook n’ cranny of the legendary El Alhambra!! I woke up plenty early and ate a wonderful buffet breakfast in the hostel restaurant. To start my plan was to grab the mini bus up to the summit and then walk back down to the city center in the afternoon. This however didn’t quite pan out because there was an early morning marathon running event for which they had the center of the city closed, and therefore the bus schedule was also disrupted. As a result I had to go on foot, rather speed walk the 30 minute trek up the Sabika hillside where the complex is situated in order to make my entrance time, which was 11 a.m. for the Palacios Nazaríes, or the Nasrid Palaces. There are very very strict rules for some of the sights and it is important to follow the entrance rules for bringing your passport along as your ticket.

You can only buy your tickets ahead of time!!! And I will add that it is quite a hot seller so you must be attentive and plan out well advance when you want to go. Check out my post on Plan Ahead: Do More & Worry Less for more tips with planning out your itinerary in advance. On top of that you need to consider the type of entrance you would like to purchase. You can look at all of the different options here, and below in the picture I have included, but essentially if you are going to take the time to visit it as ‘a once in a lifetime visit,’ you might as well buy the package ticket and see everything! The key sights which form El Alhambra include: Palacios Nazaríes, Generalife and its gardens, the Alcazaba, and the Palacio de Carlos V. There are also two options for this, a daytime visit or a nighttime one. That is for you to decide, but the package ticket is the way to go for 15 or 20 euros.

The first sight of the palatine city that I entered was the Palacios Nazaríes, the Moorish style palace where the royal family lived. This building is in pristine condition, and perhaps this is the reason it is the most controlled sight of all. While waiting to enter just looking around at the stunning views can give you chills since one is very elevated in comparison to the city below. I was soo eager to take a journey back in time and walk where those who once shaped history had walked, ‘to be in the palm of ‘Al-Andaluz’ was beyond rad! The ceilings inside are inverted with jaw dropping detail in each and every sculpting. The ornateness of each figurine and indent is outlined with hints of blue and gold. It is inconceivable to consider just how long it took to carve out and piece together the entire palaces’ Arabic archways, tile walls, and courtyards. No doubt about it this is an extraordinary building in itself!

When you exit from this sight, which was an approximate 45 minute walk through, you end up being located in the Jardines del Partal slash Jardines del Paraiso, or the Partal/Paradise Gardens which are utterly enchanting! In this zone I felt like a princess in a movie walking in and throughout exotic flowers, hedges, pomegranate trees, and fountains accompanied by castle towers. This was my favorite garden area of the complex given how mystical it felt! From there, I chose to enter the Alcazaba, or the medieval fortress since it was on the same end of the premises. This building is perhaps the most striking from afar because of its distinct reddish walls and stout Moorish appearance. Overall it is very well preserved and the best part about this sight is that they permit you to climb the various towers, and balconies making it a complete visit of the fortress. The tallest tower has an extremely narrow spiral staircase to the top where one can enjoy the tallest viewpoint of Granada.

Afterwards I made my way around the Palacio de Carlos V, which is an intriguing structure in comparison to the others because it is not Moorish but rather was added much later when the Christian kings had reclaimed the city. I would say that this was not as significant to me because of this reason, however there is a free admission El Alhambra museum inside that is worth a good look through. Moreover, as you walk around the overall complex there are various placards with valuable information as to the significance of the major sights and if there is only remnants of a building it can help you to imagine what it once looked like.

Lastly, but not least I went to the other side of the hilltop where the Generalife, a palace and multilevel gardens are located. Once on this side you have a completely different perspective of the hilltop palatine city and it keeps the visit refreshing since it is at the very least a 3-6 hour visit. This palace is similar to the Nasrid Palace but significantly smaller and more flora oriented. The gardens leading up the the entrance are really swell, fragrant, and enjoyable to gallivant around the various carved hedges, palm trees, rose patches, orange/lime trees, and many other flower species. The inside of the palace is very open-aired and has focal points centered on the natural landmarks around it. Leaving this section you enter the last section of the Generalife gardens with has an intriguing gravity flow water system with a mini forest glen to walk through. Definitely a tranquil and gorgeous way for me to make my way out. On an ending note, I strolled though the Paseo de los Cipreses, a taller tree garden on the other end of the Generalife gardens which leads up to the main entrance to El Alhambra, Pabellón de Acceso a la Alhambra.

That afternoon I enjoyed a pleasant sunny walk back to my hostel and decided to stop for some lunch at a wonderful restaurant aside the little river that runs through the city. The restaurant, Puerta de los Tristes, does not have great reviews but my experience was great! I ordered some ‘patatas bravas’ and a Coca cola for a total of 8 euros with tax, so for me that was a very good price. The size of the dish was quite large and it filled me up just to eat this. This restaurant is well located being right at the bottom of the pathway up or down from the hillside of El Alhambra. I would recommend it if you find yourself famished after a long day of sightseeing. Later that evening when I finally returned to my hostel, I took some time to organise and write down some of these very ideas written here. I also decided to walk across the street from the hostel to the pizzeria Grana Pizza, where I was more than pleasantly surprised with my meal and the quick service I received. This was one of the best pizza ordering experiences I have ever had anywhere! I ordered, waited, paid, and was back in the hostel within 10 minutes I swear. Amazing service and the Margherita pizza was made completely from scratch in front of me. Definitely stop in for a bite if you find yourself in the area!

The next morning I had to leave extremely early for my 7:15 a.m. train and thus the staff at the hostel even made me a to-go breakfast because I asked about what to do since breakfast did not start until 8 a.m.. They are super friendly and beyond helpful at the TOC Hostel & Suites Granada. If you are looking for a superb place to stay in Granada, be sure to check them out! My train ride back was very nice and all around I returned back to Madrid late Monday morning with time to spare. : )

 

Tips for the Best Visit

Now with everything that has been happening in the last couple years, it is becoming more and more normal to buy everything through the internet, and this could not be more true with buying entrance ticket/s for El Alhambra. They ONLY let you buy them online, they are extremely strict with ticket control to/from sights, and you have to arrive before your designated time for the Palacio Nazaríes or you will not get in! That being said if you want to ensure the smoothest visit possible with the least amount of hiccups you should consider planning out your trip in advance anyways.

Additionally, part of my preparations the morning I departed included making several sandwiches, and grabbing plenty of snacks so as to decrease the amount of money I needed to spend on food. It is also super convenient to have sandwiches all made and ready to grab when walking around or in route to one’s destination. I suggest thinking ahead in terms of food budgeting or at least bringing as much as you can with you because it really adds up quickly to buy all your food at restaurants! For example, I lucked out food wise for this trip as I spent no money on food the first day, only 2 euros for a coffee on the train ride. Then the second day I had breakfast at my hostel for 6 euros, I ate snacks until lunchtime, then I spent 8 euros at the one restaurant, later I spent 7 euros on my pizza, and the last morning I had breakfast at my hostel again for 6 euros. All together for a two and a half day journey I only spent a total of 29 euros on all my food! That is pretty good, with about an average of 11.6 euros a day!

Lastly, depending on what time of the year you are planning on visiting, it will either be hotter than you think or colder than you realize due to the higher elevation and wind. In my case because it was November, it was windier and a little bit chilly at times on the hilltop. So I would propose that you double and triple check that you have layers and exactly how the weather will be!

Be sure to check out my other posts for more solid tips! : )

From sunny rays to pomegranates to snow capped mountain views to pristine Islamic architecture -- what more could you want? If you have the opportunity to visit Spain, El Alhambra and Granada should be on your list! Nowadays it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the best remaining architectural preservation from the Islamic Golden Age. 

Above, my train ride through the olive groves of Andalusia.

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Below, a collection of photos from my first day jaunting around Granada.

The entirety of the sidewalks around the courtyard and the steps leading up to the monastery are engrained with these wonderful hand pieced depictions.

The Granada city center is where the TOC Hostel & Suites is located, as well as El Catedral de Granada and El Capilla Real. If you are planning to stay in Granada, I would suggest looking in a 1km radius of here as it is also super central for walking around and to El Alhambra. 

El      Alhambra 

These are all the different types of ticket options for El Alhambra. ~ Click on the image to bring you to the website!

Below, are the precious gardens, or Los Jardines Partal / Paraiso. These were quite possibly my favorite part of the grounds. 

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