Granada, Spain Part I – First Impressions, Staying & Getting Around
Hellooooo everyone, Happy New Year and welcome to 2022!
We’re back in France after our ~3 week holiday, and what a whirlwind of adventure it’s been! These past weeks we’ve hidden from away all the craziness in the world in a 16th century villa in Granada, Spain. We’ve spent precious time with family, seen incredible sights and discovered an area that both surprised and amazed us, in ways we didn’t expect.
In truth, I don’t think there’s another city in the world quite like Granada.
It’s the most fascinating blend of history and time, where Muslim, Christian and Jewish influences are wound together like a complex tapestry. You’ll find cave dwellings that overlook majestic monasteries, one of the most beautiful Moorish Palaces in country, and the 2nd largest Cathedral in Spain. And all of it is set at the base of the highest mountain range in the country.
I didn’t expect it to be so big and the center of town to be so crowded, but I also didn’t expect to find so much serenity and beauty both within and in the surrounding mountains.
It would take weeks to unpack everything there is to see in Granada and months to explain all its history, but of course I’ll try to do my best in a rather shorter format.
I’ll start with a more practical post on the city, a smidgen of history, where to to stay, how to get around, and of course how all this played out during COVID times (one cannot ignore the elephant in the room). Then I’ll move on to the sights; the incredible UNESCO Heritage Site of the Alhambra and the many other gems there are to see around it. Perhaps two or three blog posts will do a passable job? We’ll just have to dig in and see.
In any case I hope you’ll ride with me to this magical place; of oranges and olive trees, of Sultans and palaces, mountains and snow. Enjoy the virtual trip, my friends.
Southern Spain Is A High, Dry Climate
Driving to Granada from our last stop in coastal Peñíscola was a fascinating experience.
Southern Spain, in case you didn’t know, is both an arid and mountainous place that often reminds me of parts of Western USA. There are stretches of desert plains that look almost exactly like the desert in Arizona, mountains of pine forest that remind me distinctly of the high passes along Hwy 395 in CA, and long, lonely roads with white-topped mountains that could easily be photocopies of Nevada.
The key difference here is oranges. Miles and miles (and miles) of orange trees, that transform to equally impressive olive plantations as you rise in altitude and approach Granada. It’s perhaps no surprise as you traverse this landscape to learn that Spain is the 6th largest producer in the world of Oranges and the 1st in the world for Olive Oil (they’re the largest by far, producing almost twice the tonnage of anyone else!).
And of course winter is the perfect time to visit. It’s sunny and mild with pleasantly chilly nights that belie the crazy, pounding heat they get in summer. I loved our time here right now, but I’m not sure I’d enjoy it quite as much later in the year.
Granada is A Perfect Reflection Of Its Mixed History
In the midst of Southern Spain, at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the region known as Andalucía, lies the gem city of Granada. Located at 738 m in altitude and surrounded by mountains, it’s a bustling place of ~230,000 that attracts more than 2.5 million tourists (!) each year.
The big draw, apart from it’s pretty location of course, is it’s fascinating architecture and history.
The oldest stories date back to 5500 BC, and the first Muslim influences date to the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors* in 711 AD, but there are three slices of history that are particularly significant to the way Granada looks today.
The first big piece happens in the 11th century when the Zirids (Sanhaja Berbers from modern-day Algeria) founded the Taifa of Granada, and (by most accounts) the city of Granada itself. With a Muslim King and a powerful Jewish vizier known as Samuel ha-Nagid (in Hebrew), the city thrived and also became a center of Jewish Sephardi culture and scholarship. In fact early Arabic writers repeatedly called it “Garnata al-Yahud” (Granada of the Jews). The Albaicin section of Granada developed during this period, and is now a World Heritage Site in its own right.
The next big splash of history comes from the Nasrids, the last Muslim dynasty in the Iberian Peninsula, who ruled the Emirate of Granada from ~1237 until 1492. During this time Granada expanded vastly, with huge mosques built, and the construction of the Alhambra, a self-contained palace-city with its own mosque, hammams, fortress, and residential quarters. The Alhambra is now a UNESCO Heritage Site and the Nasrid Palace remains one of the most stunning examples of Moorish architecture in Spain.
The final big sweep of change came with the Christians. In 1492 the last Muslim ruler in Iberia surrendered control to the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile). Over the next several hundred years mosques were replaced by grand churches, a Renaissance palace was built, and the Jews and Muslims that had initially been allowed to remain were forced to convert or flee. The massive downtown Cathedral, many of the monasteries, and King Charles Palace in the Alhambra all date from this period.
All this is a massive oversimplification of course, but it illustrates the inter-weaving of Jewish, Muslim and Christian history which makes Granada so fascinating, and it’s why people come here in droves to visit. Plus of course there’s the mountains and the Alhambra itself (but that’s a story for my next blog post…). It’s quite a unique mix.
*Who Were The Moors? You’ll see and hear a lot about the Moors around Granada & S. Spain. The term is not ethnically specific but rather refers to the Muslim population (originally Berbers from N.Africa, but also Arabs and Iberians) of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), the kingdom that occupied most of modern-day Spain & Portugal from 711 to 1492. In turn, the word Moorish is often used to describe the art and architecture from that that period.
Where To Stay, In Town Or Out?
For our stay in Granada we decided to stay rent a beautiful, sprawling 16th century villa just SE of the city center through Airbnb.
In general we love Airbnb for Spain, especially for travel with pets and this choice ended up being perfect for our trip. The house was large enough to accommodate everyone who was planning to come (11 people in all) and was superbly good value for its size. Plus it was only ~15 mins drive to the Alhambra and downtown, and ~10 mins drive to the mountains. That said, it was an older, quirky place and a bit of a hassle to get into downtown requiring us to call out a taxi and wait (which also meant someone had to stay home with Polly). For that reason we only went downtown a few times during our stay.
If downtown is your main interest I’d recommend one of the many hotels that are right there instead. You can easily find something nice for around EUR 50 – 70 a night, including pet-friendly spots (I find booking.com always has a good selection). It’s by far the most accessible choice.
For travel by motorhome, you can park in the oversized lot by the Alhambra (but at EUR 31.20 it’s pricey!) or in one of few campgrounds outside the city (Area Camper Granada and Camping Reina Isabel seem to be the best-rated), and take public transport in. For the latter you won’t be in the very center of town, but the cost is reasonable and you’ll be close enough for an easy visit.
For a big family I think renting a villa like we did can’t be beat, but in normal (non-COVID) times I think downtown would be the place to be with restaurants, sights and Flamenco shows right at your doorstep. If we ever come back just the two of us, that’s what we’ll do.
Getting Around Can Be Complicated
One thing I really didn’t know before we came to Granada was that downtown is NOT a place you want to drive (trust me on this).
Besides the narrow streets and dizzying maze of one-way directions, much of downtown is actually prohibited to cars except for taxis, buses and local residents, and most of the time you won’t know you’ve entered one of these areas until you notice a bright yellow sign happily alerting you to the massive fine you’re about to get for doing so. Oooops….
There are parking areas outside of the restricted zone of course, but IMO only a few are worth it.
The parking by the Alhambra is huge, spacious and easily accessible both for cars and motorhomes. It’s pricey, but well worth it for the visit, plus there’s a nice hike here too (the road up behind the Alhambra to Mirador Silla de Morro) which will take you to one of the quietest, scenic overlooks in the city (a nice little local secret). Also the parking by some of the monasteries well outside the city center (e.g. Sacromonte Abbey, La Cartuja Monastery) are easy access and hassle-free.
The rest frankly, require more guts and lost car parts than I am willing to sacrifice. There are several garages on the edges of the city center, but almost every review laments how small and tight they are which is waaay too stressful for me. My sister and her husband tried one (Parking Palacio Congresos). They did survive, but vowed never to do it again.
IMO a much better option is taxis and mini-buses.
For taxis, they are literally everywhere downtown (you can flag one down or call one or use the Pidetaxi website/app). It’ll cost you EUR 5-10 downtown, depending on where you’re going. If staying outside central Granada (like us) however you can’t use the app, but you can call an inter-city cab (we used +34-608-058-709) and for around EUR 20 or so they’ll come get you and drive you in.
For minibuses there are four main buses (C30, C31, C32 and C34) that cover all the main sightseeing routes downtown. Trip cost is only 1,40 € (for an individual trip) or 0,83 € (if you buy a reloadable travel card, multiple trips). They’re by far the easiest and cheapest way to get around the city center.
Is It Dog Friendly? Ho-Hum…
So what about the paws? Hmmmm…..well…..depends.
Polly had a great time in Granada, hiking in the mountains outside the city. Once you get into the natural areas which are only ~10-20 mins drive away, there are endless miles of trails that are both incredibly scenic, pleasant and dog-friendly. So from that point of view the place got four paws up.
Inside the city however, it’s rather another matter.
Granada downtown is probably one of the lesser dog-friendly places we’ve been to in Spain. It’s very crowded, with steep and narrow roads, and dog are not allowed in any of the main tourist attractions (even the outdoor areas of the Alhambra) or on public transport. There are a few walking areas (e.g. around Paseo de los Tristes) with outdoor restaurants terraces which aren’t too bad, but generally it’s not a city Polly would recommend.
We took Polly to walk in the mountains daily, but otherwise kept her home and split our city sightseeing into small outings (separate groups) so that one of us was always in the house with her.
COVID Did Impact Our Experience (Somewhat)
I have to say Omicron did change how we experienced this historic and vibrant town.
Eight of us gathered for this event from wide and far. Paul’s dad and stepmom flew all the way from USA, while my sister and her family flew from Sweden (my brother and his family sadly, was blocked by new restrictions just two days before they were set to leave UK). Critically we had to stay COVID-negative so that everyone could fly home again, and that meant we had to be super careful throughout our time there.
No simple task with a super-mutated-super-spreader variant on the loose!
So, we didn’t go out to any restaurants or see any Flamenco (for which this area is famous!!!), we took taxis with windows open (rather than mini-buses) and we did all our sightseeing outings early in the mornings to minimize crowds (the Spanish are a late-rising culture). Plus of course we were fully masked everywhere we went.
So, I can’t say we really got the full “vibe” of the place, as it would be in normal times.
That said we enjoyed the sightseeing we did manage to do, we absolutely loved the mountains, and we did cater Christmas Eve at the villa with a superb local chef that gave us the full Spanish tapas/paella experience at home. If you ever go to Granada and want that experience for yourself, I can highly recommend Sue Pompillo (+34-692-191-766)
Perhaps most importantly we did (miraculously!!) stay COVID-negative, a fact that we checked regularly both on arrival and throughout our stay thanks to a slew of home-tests that I’d bought along for the trip. Call that a win?
In The End It Was An Incredible Experience
Despite COVID and all the hassles and complications of getting our family together this Christmas, I have to say that Granada was a fabulous visit for us all.
It’s sometimes hard to appreciate experiences like this in the moment, especially when you all travel so far, you’re all so tired, and the days seem to zoom by at supersonic speed with everything packed into ridiculously compressed timeframes. It’s one of the reasons I write a blog, and take hundreds of pictures.
But looking back in reflection I’m so very happy we did it.
Granada is a place and a vacation we’ll always remember. A fab mix of city, history and nature that suited us all. And as with all good travel it was a long way to go, but so very worth it in the end.
Over the next few blog posts, I hope to give you a taste of that, and perhaps one day you’ll even make the trip here yourself. One never knows what the future might hold 🙂SPONSORED LINK:
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