48 Hours In: Granada, Spain

Striking mountains, tasty tapas and the magnificient Moorish palace of the Alhambra: Simon Calder is seduced by the sights and smells in this lively Andalucian city
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

The summer crowds in this jewel of Andalucia, making October an ideal month to visit Granada. Other Spanish cities exude class, but only Granada has so dramatic a setting in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, topped by the gracious Alhambra.

TOUCH DOWN

Granada's airport opened in 1972, but was virtually ignored by airlines from Britain until this year. Monarch (08700 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com) flies daily from Gatwick, while Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted and Liverpool. From other UK airports, Malaga is the obvious alternative; the bus journey from the Costa del Sol's main airport to Granada takes about two hours.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The bus from Granada airport (00 34 958 49 01 64) runs to the city centre nine times a day, taking half an hour for a fare of €3 (£2.20). For most visitors the handiest stop is near the cathedral on the Gran Via, the main east-west road.

However good your sense of direction, the tangle of streets and alleys in the older parts of Granada make getting lost fairly certain.

The city's social hub is the Plaza Nueva , at the heart of the Old Town. The main tourist office (00 34 958 247 146; www.granadatur.com) is on the east side of this square. North of here is the up-and-coming district of Albaicin, where Granada is rediscovering its North African heritage - there is even a newly opened Islamic Centre.

Facing Albaicin across the Rio Darro is the Alhambra: a forbidding fortress concealing palaces and gardens.

CHECK IN

You can, if you choose, stay within the Alhambra. The Parador de San Francisco has the best location in Granada, in the midst of the fortress (00 34 958 221 440; www.parador.es). The public rooms in this 15th-century former monastery are as lavish as the location. A double bedroom costs €262 (£187); breakfast is another €11 (£8) each. The Palacio de Santa Paula is even more stylish, with sublime lighting, clever angles and sombre tones at the street entrance, giving way to the impeccably preserved cloister of a former convent. The facilities are 21st-century, and a double-room special rate of €133 (£95), excluding breakfast, is often available. The only drawback is the location at Gran Via 31 (00 34 958 805 740; www.ac-hotels.com), slightly away from the action. A third former ecclesiastical choice is the new Palacio de los Navas at Calle Navas 1 (00 34 958 21 57 60; www.PalaciodelosNavas.com). A chic double room costs €128 (£91), including breakfast.

Granada has plenty of budget options. The Hotel Molinos , at Calle Molinos 12 (00 34 958 227 367) boasts of being in the Guinness Book of Records as the narrowest hotel in the world, yet it manages to be comfortably well-appointed. The double-room rate of €62 (£44) excludes breakfast but includes internet use.

TAKE A HIKE

Before you visit the Alhambra, cultivate a proper sense of awe. Come out of the door of the tourist office on the east side of the Plaza Nueva and take a sharp left up the staircase marked Almanzora Baja. This leads up through an arbitrary collection of houses, over a hill and descends to the Cuesta de Gomerez. Turn left when you reach this road, and follow it onwards and upwards. It will lead you along the side of the stern skirts of the Alhambra, up to the ticket office for the site. Here, pre-book your ticket for the complex - ideally an evening visit. Then take the Cuesto de los Chinos, a footpath that starts with a few lines from Lorca: the poet was killed in Granada by Franco's nationalists soon after the civil war began in 1936. It swerves downhill and across the river to the Paseo de los Tristes .

TAKE A VIEW

Granada has more fine panoramas than the whole of Lithuania. The best of the lot is from the Mirador de San Nicolas in Albaicin, from where you can simply sit and stare at the miracle of the Alhambra.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Your trip will probably revolve around the Plaza Nueva , since it has so many good places to eat and drink. The Café Central, on the south side at Calle Elvira 3 (00 34 958 22 97 06) is an elegant split-level café serving possibly the best toasted sandwich you will ever eat: the ham, cheese and tomatoes crammed into the Serranito (€2.60/£1.85) melt with flavour, and is best accompanied by juice from freshly squeezed Andalucian oranges (€1.95/£1.40).

WINDOW SHOPPING

A short way west from the Plaza Nueva, the Caldereria Nueva resembles a cross-section through a Moroccan souk that has strayed across the Mediterranean to Granada. Exquisite rugs and intricate tea sets are on offer, alongside itinerant translators promising "Your Name in Arabic". The odd shop out is the Tienda de la Solidaridad, specialising in politically correct gifts such as Liberation rum from Cuba.

More familiar retail offerings are to be found along Calle Mesones, with colourful and interesting housewares at Detalles de Casa .

AN APERITIF

Granada is about the last city in Spain where it is customary to offer a free tapa with a drink; order a caña (small beer) and you can expect a tasty snack to accompany it: perhaps a tranche of ham or cheese on a slice of bread. Sometimes you are given a more elaborate treat such as a bite-size helping of beef in a piquant sauce.

There is no better place to enjoy this very civilised practice than the Gran Taberna (00 34 958 228 846) on the east side of the Plaza Nueva . This friendly bar feels as though it has been there forever, and is surely the last place in western Europe where you can get a beer and a snack for under €1.40 (£1).

CULTURAL EVENING

Few tourist attractions have the demand or the panache to open late in the evening - but the Alhambra is an exception. This fortress is also far more pleasant and uncrowded at night than during the day.

Evening admission begins at 10pm and continues to 11.30pm. You are given timed admission to the main attraction, the Palacios Nazaries , but in practice these are not checked as assiduously as they are by day. Take time to appreciate the delicate Mudéjar detail inside the palaces; the graceful decay elsewhere in the fortress; and the cool tranquillity of a moonlit visit.

The Alhambra (00 34 958 227 525; www.alhambra-patronato.es) opens daily 8.30am-8pm and 10-11.30pm; from November to February the hours shrink to 8.30am-6pm, with evening opening only at weekends, 8-9.30pm. Admission is €10 (£7).

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

After a tour of the Alhambra, descend to the Bodegas Castañeda , just off the Plaza Nueva at Calle Almireceros 1 (00 34 958 21 54 64).

This compact cavern of bonhomie is a good candidate as one of the finest hostelries in the world. Besides sherry or malaga straight from the barrel, you can order a tray of Andalucian specialities: fish, ham, roasted vegetables and spicy omelette.

A whole plate will knock you out for €15.10 (£11), while the half-size version is €10.50 (£7.50).

For a less formal dinner, grab a table at the Casa de Vinos just east of the Plaza Nueva. Or, for Moroccan food, try the cluster of restaurants at the top of Albaicin .

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Granada's cathedral is dreary compared with the city's wonders. Far more impressive is the adjacent 16th-century Capilla Real . The "Chapel Royal " is a suitably sumptuous place of worship, whose crypt happens to house the tombs of the reyes Catolicas - Ferdinand and Isabella, who sealed the Reconquest of Spain at Granada. It opens 11am-1pm and 4-7pm on Sundays (from 11.30am during the week), admission €3 (£2.20).

OUT TO BRUNCH

The Via Colon restaurant , on the corner of Gran Via and Carcel Baja, gushes with 19th-century exuberance. A soup (gazpacho, naturally) and salad will set you back €11 (£8). On a fine morning, which they tend to be during autumn in Granada, you can sit on the terrace that is actually down the street and around the corner.

A WALK IN THE PARK

For a proper walk, head for the muscular hills and mountains that crowd upon Granada. But if you merely want a cool, shady space to write a postcard, seek out the university's 19th-century botanical gardens at Plaza de los Lobos in the south-west of the Old Town.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

It is all too easy to focus inwardly on the dazzling city, rather than looking outwards at the startling landscapes beyond Granada. The best way to sample the scenery is to head north from the Paseo de los Tristes into Sacromonte, a warren of whitewashed houses and troglodyte dwellings that funnels into the Darro valley, revealing superb views north of Granada.

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