Friday, 23 January 2015

Alhambra in January

It was about 60°F (that's 15°C for you Europeans!) in full sun down in Nerja, east along the coast about an hour's drive from Malaga, but up in Granada, you could shave another 15°F off that (so 7°-ish C) in the shade, making me wish I'd brought gloves and a hat for our jaunt. Happily, as the day wore on, the sun bore down ever brighter, warming things up.

What's astonishing if you're seeing it for the first time, is the juxtaposition of palm trees against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, which alone makes a trip to the Alhambra at this time of year worth it. But there's another bonus: you mostly have it to yourself. Not entirely, but as close as you can probably get. So, tip 1: dress up warm, pick a sunny day and go in the middle of winter.

Among the delights of this 13th-century fortress-cum-palace-cum-extensive gardens is how you can wander about. I couldn't help thinking that, in another 10 or 15 years, they'll have laid down plank-covered walkways and you won't be able to just tramp over the ancient tiles. But, for now, what a delight to walk in the footsteps of all those who went before.

Granada seen from the Alhambra
Tip 2: Pre-book your ticket to visit the Nasrid Palace. It costs about €15 and you have to choose one of the half-hour entry slots (ie, 11am, 11.30am, etc). Once in, you can stay as long as you like, but you need to be in the line about 10 minutes beforehand.

We booked a 12.30 entry and arrived at the Alhambra at about 11am. I think we could have got there a half hour earlier or booked a slightly later entry, as the way it's laid out, you can see almost everything else before you go in to the Palace and, afterwards, head up to the Generalife gardens and building, which then feed you back to the car park. We tried to see most of the place, including some of the woods down below (though we skipped the art museum) and were in the grounds a total of about 6 hours.

One other thing to know about that ticket for the Palace: hang on to it! It will get you into Alcazaba, the old fortress, and the building in the Generalife gardens.

Alcazaba Fortress
Tip 3: The audio guide (€6.50) was almost useless (sorry, Alhambra!) and became something of a little joke between my companion and I. Mostly, it described what we could see when we arrived at each room or destination. I think, if you really want to go deep with the place, booking a human guide would be the way to go. Alternatively, the free map has an overview and timeline.

Lion fountain
We loved the old Moorish filagree windows and plasterwork, but best of all was the lion fountain. There was something so pure and simple about all that white marble against the intricate pillars and ceilings all around that was soothing and simply beautiful.

And the Generalife gardens, which contained various elements considered essential for a pleasing outdoor space – that is, water, spaces divided into equal parts and long walkways – provide plenty of picnic-spot possibilities, or just nice spaces to walk through and enjoy the views.

One final tip: driving in Spain is very straightforward, the roads aren't crowded, signs are clear – in fact, the ones for the Alhambra are in red, making it very easy to find from the highway (motorway, autobahn, whatever you call it!) – and our car rental, from Autos Tivoli in Nerja, cost us €45 for the day, plus about €10 in gas (petrol), so between two, it felt like the most comfortable way to travel, as we could suit ourselves. However, there are buses as well.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Good-bye 2014 and hello 2015!

What a year! Plenty of the good stuff, including travels near and far, good times with friends old and new, and the positive progression of life, so I will look back fondly on this one. I do know it has been unbearably tragic for some, and I am thinking now of those whose travels ended in terrifying ways and the people who loved them; those who are caught up in seemingly endless conflict; whose lives are turned inside-out by the cruelty of pestilence and more everyday illness and diseases, which are no less devastating. So to them I say, may 2015 be kinder to you and may we all find ways to live beyond the sadness, be strong and live happy.

Not to be all preachy, but I think we may as well enjoy the beauty and opportunities to hold happiness close when we can, because none of us knows when it may be snatched away. And, on that note, it must be time to move on to tales of... Andalucia! Viva España!

Christmas tapas lunch on the terrace
This year's Christmas week was spent in what must be the town of Nerja's most charming house. Apologies for sounding so smug. It looks like the least imposing place on its pedestrianised street: just a door most folks would have to duck a little to get through, a single window above it, the façade as simple and plain as can be. But go inside and it widens out from the point of its front like a triangle, and has three terraces, five bedrooms and – best of all – a garden with fruit trees that runs straight to the sea.

I don't want to give its location away entirely, so will just add that it has strong family connections to Spanish poet and writer Federico Garcia Lorca.

Of course, we all know that much of the southern coast of Spain has seen overdevelopment in the form of not-so-charming holiday home development, but there is still plenty of beauty here and it's worth remembering that there's usually a reason an area becomes a popular holiday destination (ie, year-round warm sunshine, natural beauty, good food, pleasant ambience [can you tell I'm refraining from saying 'friendly, smiling locals'? But there is a general sense that visitors are a welcome addition rather than a curse]).

One of the jolly things to do here is using the cheap and reliable public buses: €1.17 will take you, for instance, to Frigiliana, an archetypal, but no worse for that, white-washed hill town about a 20-minute ride inland. It has a fascinating history as well, filled with trouble and strife, the story told in painted tiles on walls as you walk up. Up being the operative word and, when you get reasonably high, look out for a tapas place offering terrace views.

If you pick up a map from the tourist office, you can follow the trail right out the top of town and up to where there was once a fort. There's no sign of it now – just three more-recent balustrades at strategic points to look out from – but you get the satisfaction of tremendous views, both to the sea and to the Sierra Tejeda, Almijara and Almara Natural Park inland –  and having somehow achieved something.

One small word of warning: there is a notice painted on walls at two stages, one just before the final ascent and another at the top, which shouldn't be ignored. They tell you that the donkeys which graze up here can bite. I don't know about that, but I do know they can charge and, also, quite aggressively try to kick you, so do not be taken in by their seemingly friendly manner if they start to approach. They are definitely not coming to say hello!