If you want to visit the Alhambra, one of the finest palaces in Europe, book your tickets at least two months in advance. On the website it advises you to book in advance, and you CAN book as little as two hours before you want to go. We found, when we tried to book the evening we arrived in Granada, that there were no tickets available for nearly a month. That took us to something like the 8th November. And even in December there was limited availability.
On the flip side, a trip to Andalusia, about as far south as you can go in Spain, is a wonderful place for a week away in the sun during a northern hemisphere autumn.
Never having been there, and booking the plane tickets to Malaga only a couple of days before we set off, a quick read suggested that heading east would take us away from the more built up and commercial areas of Torremolinos and Marbella to some quieter and less commercialised coastline. I also wanted to visit Granada (home to the Alhambra) also to the east so that was the way we headed.
I was surprised at how busy the accommodation was in the area. Many places were fully booked, but we found a hotel, the Peña Parda Bay, in a small town called La Herradura, a few kilometres along the coast from the more well known (and developed) Nerja.
An exhausting stroll across a road from the restaurant/bar in front of the hotel ended at the end of a long curving beach with clear azure waters. Not soft golden sand, more a mixture of grey sand and fine pebbles, but quiet and peaceful. Back on the hotel side of the road there are a selection of little restaurants and tavernas, so no dramas finding somewhere to eat. In fact it turned out that there were restaurants and chiringuitos (small beach restaurants that typically specialise in fish and BBQ dishes) all the way around the bay.
It’s a quiet town. In October anyway. There’s a small market, about four stalls, church and an old part oftown stacked up on the hill overlooking the bay. On Friday there’s a market in the square, maybe six stalls.
Whilst there may not be anything of great interest in La Herradura culturally or historically it’s genuinely a place that when you get there you just want to sit in the warm sun, read, drink wine, eat tapas and let the world drift serenely by.
As I’ve already mentioned, Granada was on the itinerary. A search led us to renting an apartment for a couple of nights in the Albaicín district of town so after a day on the beach and a couple of nights chilling we headed inland.
Historically known as Albayzin, this is one of the oldest parts of the city with its roots dating back over a thousand years. Much of the barrio still retains the narrow winding streets that date back to the medieval Moorish days of the Nasrid Dynasty who ruled in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Evidence of a city on the site has been found from Roman times but nothing is really known about the city until it was founded by the Zirid kingdom (a North African dynasty) in 1013.
The streets are, as advertised, narrow, winding and steep. It really is a maze and when you put the map away and just wander through the back streets and alleyways you’re soon lost. There are now Christian churches, mosques and many palaces dotted about the area.
Along with a fair smattering of tapas bars. Eventually you end up on a terrace with grand views across the valley below to the Alhambra itself. And at sunset the area is packed with tourists (and allegedly pickpockets).
Interestingly, whilst it is obviously a big worldwide tourist destination, while we were there at least the Albaicín area still retained a distinctly local ambiance. Maybe, as it’s up a steep hill, the day tourists and five star visitors don’t make it up to the higher streets. Whatever the reason we were pleased to be able to pop into local bars and eat tapas and ‘toastados’ for breakfast with the locals.
Whilst we couldn’t get tickets to visit the palace itself, there are some areas that are open to the public so we took the opportunity to stroll down through the narrow lanes into the valley and along the river below the massive walls towering above and up into the palace.
It really is a beautiful and atmospheric place. There is as much a feel of Asia (and India oddly, with lots of familiar textiles and iconography about) as there is of Europe. And even though it was too busy for us to get tickets the narrow streets weren’t so crammed with people that you couldn’t walk around.
Even the open areas are impressive, and I was slightly disappointed that we couldn’t go in to see the best parts as I was interested in comparing it with some of the palaces we visited in Rajasthan. However, it is impressive, and upon the hill where the palace is located it is more like a small town. Much more than a fortified palace, in fact one of the old buildings, the former San Fransisco Convent, is now a Paradour Hotel! There are also the usual assortment of souvenir shops and food outlets.
One of the things Helen was keen to do whilst in the area was go to see some Flamenco. I know nothing about it really, but apparently the area is well known for it, and the host of our apartment who’s family are quite big in Flamenco circles (his uncle I think, is a famous singer) so he recommended that we visit the Jardines de Zoraya. So we did. And it really is very impressive, and loud! How hard do they stamp in time to the music and how fast are their feet? You could see the boards of the stage bending under the onslaught. The group of dancers and musicians were certainly very entertaining and very talented. The only disappointment for us was that as we had booked into the early performance so we could get a table directly in front of the stage there were more empty tables than full ones, so the atmosphere was maybe not as intense as it would have been for a full house. The flip side was obviously an unobscured view of all the action.
It also allowed us to get out in time to watch the sun setting for the second time.
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but our apartment was right at the top of the Albaicín district. It also had a small private terrace with an unobstructed view of the Alhambra. In fact it was a better view than you get from the packed terraces that most tourists aim for. So we made it back in time to sit with a glass of Spanish wine and watch the sky migrate through those spectacular colours you get watching the sunset where the air is clear and the skies dark.
After a bit of discussion we concluded that there were too many places that we could go in the area and that rather than try to fit too much in we’d go back to the coast. After all the hotels we booked during our year away finding somewhere that night proved to be the most troublesome of any place we went. Not a lack of accommodation as such, but the first AirBnB didn’t respond so we cancelled that booking. The next apartment we tried through another site accepted our money and then when we arrived we found nobody there to greet us. Phoning the host she said they couldn’t accept late bookings! Great.
So we went back to the sister hotel of the Peña Parda Bay back in La Herradura for another few days of relaxation and to take the opportunity to make the short drive into the hills to visit the traditional whitewashed town of Frigiliana on market day.
A few people had suggested it as a place to visit, as had Lonely Planet. Like many towns in the area it has an old and new section and virtually every building is whitewashed, gleaming in the sun and contrasting beautifully against the clear skies.
The new part of the town is pretty, steep narrow streets, many with steps making them car free. The old town is, well, older but also steeper, narrower and prettier. Most of it is car free (they wouldn’t fit even if there weren’t steeps steps). In fact they still use mules for carrying loads to the top of the town, in fact we saw one, loaded with building materials right at the top of the old village being unloaded by a local builder.
The market was bigger than the one in La Herradura. And busier. But oddly, apart from a stall selling some local ceramics and some selling leather and food products most of the clothes were imported from Italy. But it was spectacularly located, on a terrace looking straight back down the valley to the glistening Mediterranean.
I think I’ve caught the travel bug properly. Seven days is nowhere near long enough to visit an area. Particularly if you want to spend some of the time relaxing and not moving on from place to place.
But a week in Andalusia is well worth it. Cheap flights from the UK, empty beaches, history and a wealth of towns and cities to visit make it a great autumn destination. You go expecting to spend time seeing a load of history (which is there in abundance) but very quickly fall into the Spanish way of life.
Mañana. We’ll do that tomorrow….