This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Train to Granada and The Alhambra

7:00 am and we were up and out the door by 7:30.  The Atocha Renfre  subway station drops us at the Madrid train station. Things go so smoothly that by 8:00 we are sitting in a cafe having breakfast.

We're about to depart Madrid after a much too short stay to make any real judgements about the city. However, I will make an attempt. It is, in many ways like any other major city in the world. It is crowded. There is a lot of tagging of public and private buildings, I think more so than the average. But it is clean. The fountains in the squares work, the people are helpful and generally friendly. It is a big city and that also means there is a lot to do. Big nightlife with theater, music, fine food and world class museums. It would be nice to stay a little longer and sample more of this place, but we are on our way to Granada, home of The Alhambra, a place I have long wanted to visit.

About our hotel, the Hotel Rigente. This was a 3-star hotel and was in a really good location for seeing all the prime sites. However, the staff were not at all friendly, but business-like helpful. Our room was unimaginative in decor though functionally adequate. Faux hardwood floors, twin beds with horrible mattresses, a very nice shower. Our room was adjacent to a breezeway that ran up the center of the building with an outlet to the sky. Many of the rooms had windows that looked out onto this space. Unfortunately, at the bottom of this shaft was the backside of the restaurant next door and until nearly midnight the employees tossed trash, dishes crashed, and all sorts of noise echoed up the shaft making sleeping with the window (the only source of ventilation for the room) open impossible. The hotel advertises air conditioning and the controls in the room indicated it as a possibility, but the switch did nothing. Not even the fan would work unless the heat was on. So, open the window for some fresh air? Not if you wanted to sleep before say midnight or one am. We used ear plugs but without the window closed, it was very difficult to sleep.

We had an odd sort of breakfast in the train station. A glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, yummy! A croissant, a cup of very strong and tasty coffee, and a chicken sandwich. Odd choices and pricey but it all hit the spot and after over-indulging yesterday, was considerably easier on the tummy.

I am thinking this will be my final trip traveling in this style. It is just getting too hard to drag my luggage through the streets to the hotel or the subway or the train station. The idea of having a tour bus waiting at the door to the hotel and dropping you off wherever the next stop is in your itinerary is so attractive. Or perhaps an extended cruise in which my hotel room travels with me. My clothes come out of the suitcase once, hang in a closet, unwrinkled. I leave the ship to climb aboard a bus that whisks me to and from my excursion ashore and I have several very good restaurants onboard to choose from or, with enough time ashore, perhaps an adventure in dining locally. No worries, no stresses, low cost if you look in the right places for your adventure bargain.

With the cost of Europe these days for Americans, travel bargains there are a little tougher to come by. So, why not other destinations where your travel dollar goes further. Try Africa, Australia and New Zealand, Asia--all places you should expect your dollar to go farther.

Purchase a tour package and many of your travel worries evaporate. Someone else drives, someone else takes care of the details at your hotel, well, perhaps you can see the advantages. What are the disadvantages? Hmmmm, okay, give me a moment. Yes, you do give up having control over where you go, when and how long you stay there. Options, side trips, changes in plans are all lost in favor of this method of travel.
Back to our current journey.  The train left the station in Madrid right on time--9:05 am and we sped across country.

The view out our train car changed quickly from urban to suburban Madrid and finally to the rural country side. Rolling hills dotted with olive groves here and there, the occasional small village in the distance with the obligatory church steeple. This is decidedly agrarian with light industries here and there mostly tied to the farming going on.

In many ways it reminds me of the area where I grew up in California's San Joaquin Valley. Basic brown ground except for a month or so in the spring when the earth bursts forth with a green ground cover that quickly dies off.
Hilltop castle from the train

Spring seems to be making itself known here in the countryside. Here and there are trees covered in blooms, scrub oak or perhaps they are cork trees, are leafed out and in many places the ground is being prepared for planting.

Another thing I noticed along the way is the level of infrastructural improvements on the roads and rail lines. New rail lines and roads and rail lines that operate at higher speeds. Our train, which is not a high speed train is still traveling much faster, smoother and quieter than any American train I've ever been on.

Cattle and sheep also roam the country side.  We pass through the occasional tunnel as the terrain becomes more mountainous. Scrub oak is replaced by forests of pine trees and eucalyptus then finally back to the oaks again.

Our train arrived in Granada after a few stops along the way. It was a smooth and calm ride all the way. I love train travel. No seatbelts to keep fastened. No lines through security. Plenty of leg room. Ahhh, train travel!

The Granada train station is rather rustic compared to most of the others we stopped at, but we pulled our luggage along behind us to the front of the train, crossed the tracks, walked through the station lobby and out into the street. Our directions told us to proceed straight out of the station and up the street to the first major intersection, then turn right. In a couple of blocks we found a group of others standing at a bus stop. It was the one we were looking for. We boarded and bought a bus card good for 10 rides. After about a 5 minutes ride we got off and started pulling our luggage to a TI that was supposed to be across the street. It wasn't there so we headed for the new location where we got maps and directions to our hotel.

On the way to the hotel we came across a gelato stand that called our name. I got a tangerine flavored one that tasted like a creme sickle. Leslie got hazelnut. Refreshed, we headed for our hotel with luggage in tow. The directions were accurate and in about 15 minutes we arrived and checked in. Beautiful location and very nice room.
Church near the TI in Grenada

We got unpacked and relaxed. I was pretty done for the day but Leslie did go out and explore until just before dark. When she returned we headed down the street to the big department store that has a grocery store in the basement and purchased cheese, sausage, bread, olives, etc.--the must haves for a picnic. When we travel here in Europe we tend to do this a lot. With the prices of food in restaurants, the prices in Europe in general requires us to find creative ways to eat well and still enjoy ourselves. We find exploring grocery stores in most countries to be a fun activity anyway. So we bought enough food to last us while we were in Granada for breakfast and one other meal. Then we will eat one meal out so we don't feel like we are missing out.

Back in the room, we broke open the items we purchased and had a nice simple dinner. The rest of the food went into the room fridge. Tomorrow we'll pack a lunch for The Alhambra.

This morning we had breakfast in the room with the food we'd bought last night and packed a lunch to have at The Alhambra. We took the mini bus up the steep hill to The Alhambra in plenty of time to enter with our time sensitive tickets. In case you are planning a trip that will include Granada, you MUST buy your tickets ahead. You do not want to stand in the line to buy one when you could be inside enjoying the place. It is incredibly easy to do on-line and there are kiosks in town where you can print out your tickets when you arrive. No standing in line. The ticket will tell you what time you need to arrive at certain parts of the huge grounds. A window of time allows you plenty of time then to see everything.  Of course, being here in March instead of the summer months made our experience much nicer where crowds were concerned.

Inside The Alhambra
We saw the entire place, uphills, down, every which way. It is a massive site that took us over 5 hours to cover. We arrived for our 9:00 am time and figured we would start at the lowest part of the hill and work our way to the top, beginning with the Alcazaba, the mostly ruined fortress which is also one of the oldest parts of the Alhambra.

Construction began in 1237 when Muhammad I, founder of the Nasrid dynasty chose this site to install his court. A Muslim presence stayed on this hill until the famous year 1492 when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finally defeated the last Muslim stronghold in their country. 

It was also from one of the rooms in the Alhambra that Queen Isabella heard Christopher Columbus plead his case and granted him the funding for his first voyage that lead to his discovery of America.

Our next stop was the Nasrid Palaces. This is where the most beautiful parts of the Alhambra are located. Built in three periods, from 1314-1391. The water features, the mosaic, the writings on the walls, the gardens, it is absolutely a masterpiece of beauty and human creativity. Everywhere you looked there was another Kodak moment.

We walked through the Palacios de Carlos V which he had built after visiting the Alhambra in 1526. It is interesting because it is a square building with a round interior court yard. It was designed by a student of Michelangelo and is considered one of the most important works of the Spanish Renaissance.

Up the hill further, we explored the gardens of the Partal. More water features and the palace of Yusuff III.  Further up we reached the gardens and palace of Generalife with its even more elaborate water features and gardens. This was the recreation area for the kings of the Alhambra, a place for them to get away from everyday life in the court.

Finally, we reached the uppermost part of the grounds which was the point at which all the water, that was so important to the survival of this hilltop fortress and palace, was collected and channeled to where it was needed. It was an engineering marvel in its time.

We walked down a forested lane to the exit, the waiting minibuses and the short trip down into Granada. What a truly amazing experience. I had read about the Alhambra, seen photos, but none of it prepared me for seeing it in person. The beauty, creativity, and engineering. This must have been an amazing place to spend your days. The quiet of the courtyards, the peace filled gardens, alone with your thoughts while sitting by one of the quietly burbling water features. It is just breathtaking and a must for anyone's list of things to do before you depart this life.

We headed back to the hotel and were peacefully napping by about 3:00. Leslie went out on one of her explorations on her own. I stayed in to catch up on my journaling and logging my photos of the day.

About 8:00 we went out to dinner only to find our place was closed. So we headed towards our second choice a few blocks away in the Playa del Carmen called La Cueva de 1900. It came well recommended and it did start out well. We ordered first courses of  a local speciality called salmorejo and an ensalada de pimientos asados. The salmorejo is a tomato based soup but the base is whirred in a blender with ingredients that include bread and almonds and then served cold. I'll run a recipe for it that I have in a later blog. The ensalada was a beautifully presented plate of roasted red peppers surrounding a center of tuna and black olives and sliced hard boiled egg dotting the top.

 We also ordered a glass of red wine and a small beer for me. That would have been the place to end the meal but we ordered mains. I got the huevos rotos con patatas y jamon. That is a plate heaping with French fries and topped by a fried egg and slices of the local ham. This is supposed to be a local specialty. They need a new one. We also ordered another local specialty. Habitats con jamon. Basically, beans (couldn't figure out what kind but they looked like over cooked elongated peas) cooked with ham and topped with a fried egg. Again, it was a mistake. We tried adding the available table condiments of olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt and pepper, but nothing helped this lost cause. Now the real question I have is, did we get a good example of what these dishes should taste like? Having no frame of reference we are just left with the disappointing taste in our mouths.

Churros in Granada!
We headed off on a rambla through the back narrow streets and across well lit plazas lined with restaurants and bars all bustling with young and old alike, all out to enjoy the crisp evening. Walking around Bibrambla, a beautiful, but for some reason not very popular plaza tonight, we stopped in at the Alhambra Cafeteria Churreria Chocolateria and sat down to try our first churro and hot chocolate. This is a specialty in Madrid but we left before had a chance to try it there. Churros are a deep fried doughy dessert. Served hot out of the fryer, sugar coated. A half dozen of these delights are served with a hot cup of very thick, very rich chocolate. The churros are dipped in the hot chocolate and eaten after getting an appropriate soaking. Really good for you, but oh so delicious!

A 15 minute stroll home through the still bustling back streets and we were ready for bed by 10:30. Another big day in Granada tomorrow. The second largest cathedral in Spain and the Albaicin, a part of town known for its views of the city, interesting restaurants, caves that are lived in by gypsies and local hippies. If that doesn't get you to read the next episode of this blog, I give up!