A short stay in... Granada

If you want to immerse yourself totally in all that is quintessentially Spanish, this historic, poetic, passionate Andalusian city at the foot of the Sierra Nevada is the place. By Steven Davison
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The Independent Travel
Why go there?

Transport yourself back to the land of the Nasrid sultans, be amazed by the beauty of the palace-fortress, the Alhambra, wander the narrow streets of the old Moorish quarter, and watch life going on around you from the ancient tapas bars. Then follow in the footsteps of Andalucia's greatest dramatist and poet - Federico Garca Lorca, whose El Romancero Gitano, a collection of gypsy ballads, brought him fame in 1928. And all the while, enjoy the scenery of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains, surrounded by fertile plains covered in olive and orange groves.

Only a few hours from the UK, and with all its main sights within walking distance of the city centre, Granada is ideal for a short break.

When to go

In keeping with the rest of Spain, Granada has a varied calendar of festivals and events, the most important being Holy Week and Corpus Christi. Throughout 1998, special events are being held to mark Lorca's centenary. At the beginning of January, the Festival of the Reconquest of Granada takes place, commemorating the liberation of Granada from the Moors by the Catholic monarchs. Next is Semana Santa (Holy Week), one of Granada's grandest festivals which follows Palm Sunday.

Throughout the week there are several processions through the city, including the "Christ of Sacromonte" and the Procession of Silence. In either late May or early June, the Corpus Christi celebrations begin, the largest festival in the city, with typical Andalusian costumes, bullfights and flamenco dancing. The main procession includes people dressed as giants or with oversized heads parading through the streets led by the tarasca - a woman on a dragon. On the last Sunday of September is the Festival of the Virgen de las Angustias, celebrating Granada's patron saint, and during October it is the San Miguel Fiesta, held in the old Moorish district of the Albaicn. As with most festivals, the dates can vary from year to year, so check with the tourist office.

Getting there

Granada has its own airport, 16km from the city. BA (tel: 0345 222111) operates a daily flight from Heathrow via Barcelona to Granada. Transfer by bus to Plaza de Isabel Catlica near the cathedral. The other option is to take a direct flight from major UK airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, East Midlands) to Malaga. For scheduled flights, try BA Iberia (tel: 0171- 830 0011) or British Midland (tel: 0345 554554). For low-cost flights, try Unijet charters (tel: 0990 114114); prices can dip to around pounds 100.

To transfer from Malaga to Granada, you take the airport train (every 30 minutes) into Malaga, getting off at the RENFE railway station stop; from here, walk to the bus station a few minutes away, from where you can get an hourly bus to Granada. The transfer should take about two hours, though it can get quite busy.

Where to stay

Granada has a wide range of accommodation covering all prices. During the summer it is advisable to book in advance. The most expensive hotels are those close to the Alhambra, though there are good options in Albaicn and around the cathedral. For good budget accommodation, try the youth hostel.

Parador Nacional de San Francisco (tel: 00 34 958 221440). A small, beautiful four-star hotel situated in a converted monastery in the grounds of the Alhambra. Definitely the best place to stay, though it is very expensive and requires booking well in advance. Double: 23,000ptas (about pounds 98).

Hotel Alhambra Palace, Pena Partida (tel: 00 34 958 221468). The four- star Alhambra Palace is a very kitsch neo-Moorish building and, like the Parador, expensive. The bar terrace, which offers stunning views over Granada, is open to the public. Double: 23,100ptas.

Hotel America, Real de la Alhambra (tel: 00 34 958 227471). A small but very popular one-star hotel with one of the best locations in Granada, within the grounds of the Alhambra. Double: 14,700ptas.

Palacio de Santa Ines, Cuesta de Santa Ines (tel: 00 34 958 222362). A small three-star hotel situated in the heart of the Albaicn. The beautifully restored 16th-century building with a lovely patio offers good accommodation at a reasonable price. Double: 12,500ptas

Hostal Lisboa, Plaza del Carmen (tel: 00 34 958 221413). A centrally located, affordable two-star hotel close to the cathedral. Double: 5,000ptas.

Albergue Juvenil Granada, Camino de Ronda (tel: 00 34 958 272638). The recently renovated youth hostel offers good low-cost accommodation in double rooms with facilities, and is only a few minutes' walk from the railway station. Double: 1,900 ptas; under 26: 1,400ptas.

Camping Sierra Nevada, Avenida de Madrid (tel: 00 34 958 150062). Open from 1 March to 31 October and situated north-west of the city centre (take bus 3 from the railway station). The campsite also has a swimming pool - a bonus during the hot summer. Costs 560ptas per night.

Getting around

Most of the major sights in Granada are within easy walking distance of the centre, and a good bus network gives access to more out-of-the- way places. A route map is available from Tourismo. The main bus station is on Carretera de Jaen (tel: 185011), while the train station (RENFE) is on Avenida de Andaluces (tel: 271272) To make life easier, bus 2 will get you from Plaza Neuva to the Alhambra without the climb and bus 12 goes round Albaicn.

What to see

It is easy, when visiting Granada, to spend most of your time at the Alhambra. But you would be missing out on many other interesting sights. These suggestions cover the major sights, but if you have time, there are many more to discover.

The Alhambra and Generalife (tel: 220912). On the wooded Alhambra Hill lies the Alhambra and the Generalife Gardens, providing some of the finest examples of Moorish architecture in Spain. The Alhambra is made up of three groups of buildings, the Alcazaba, the Casa Real (Royal Palace) and the Generalife Gardens and Palace. Nothing much remains of the Alcazaba, the oldest part built by the first Nasrid sultan in the 9th century. Be sure to visit the Torre de la Vela for one of the best views of Granada and the Albaicn. The Casa Real is the most famous part of the Alhambra and was completed in the 15th century. In the Harem is the spectacular Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions) with its fountain surrounded by 12 stone lions - the archetypal image of Granada.

A short walk from the Casa Real is the less well-known, but no less spectacular, Generalife Gardens and Palace. The Generalife, which predates the Casa Real, was used by the Nasrid kings as their summer palace and was designed to be paradise on earth: beautiful secluded gardens, patios built on terraces, and tranquil ponds and gentle fountains.

The Albaicn. On the hill opposite the Alhambra lies the Albaicn, the old Moorish quarter with its network of narrow cobbled alleys and whitewashed houses. Here are lively plazas surrounded by cafes, bars and restaurants. From Plaza Neuva, the easiest approach for the Albaicn is along Carrera del Darro, following the river Darro. Before leaving Plaza Neuva be sure to have a look at the 16th-century Iglesia de Santa Ana - a good example of Mudejar architecture (a mix of Moorish and Christian styles). Also, don't miss the 11th-century Moorish Bath complex - El Banuelo (tel: 222339, entrance free), on the corner of Calle Banuelo. Inside, you can wander through the brick-vaulted rooms lit by star-shaped skylights. Further along the Darro is the 16th-century mansion house, Casa Castril, which now houses the archaeology museum (tel: 225640).

While exploring the endless narrow streets in the Albaicn, be sure to find the Mirador de San Nicols, close to Plaza Larga, with its panoramic view of the Alhambra against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada. When the sun sets, it shines directly on the Alhambra, deepening the colours. Another picturesque square worth finding is the Plaza de San Miguel Bajo, next to the 16th-century San Miguel church. Nearby is the Mirador del Carril de la Lona, with views across the western part of the city. Beyond Albaicn Hill lies the gypsy quarter of Sacromonte, with its cave homes and flamenco dancing.

The Capilla Real (Royal Palace, tel: 229239, entrance 300ptas) must surely be Granada's most impressive Christian building. In the crypt lie the lead coffins of Fernando and Isabella, along with their daughter Juana and her husband Felipe. It was Fernando of Aragon and Isabella of Castile who drove the Moors out of Andalucia in 1492 and united Spain. Next door is the massive Renaissance cathedral (tel: 222959, entrance free) which was started in 1521. The best approach is along Calle Marques giving views of the impressive facade. After the Capilla Real, the Catedral can seem rather stark, but there is still plenty to see.

Convento de San Jeronimo (tel: 279337, entrance 300ptas). The Renaissance convent, in Calle San Juan de Dios to the west of the cathedral, was founded by the Catholic monarchs in the 16th century and is the oldest and largest of Granada's churches. The cloisters are beautiful, with fountains and orange trees.

La Cartuja (tel: 161932, entrance 300ptas). On the northern outskirts lies La Cartuja, a lavishly decorated Carthusian monastery founded in 1516. The Baroque chapel with its marble and ornate plaster work has been described as a Christian attempt to upstage the Alhambra.

Food and drink

The food on offer in Granada has a wide range of influences, though the strongest is Moorish. There are restaurants covering most tastes, however, while in Andalusia it is worth looking for places offering local specialities, such as habas con jamn (beans and ham), San Anton stew (meat with beans) and tortilla Sacromonte (vegetable omelette). If you get the chance, try some vino de la costa (coast wine) which comes from the mountainous Alpujarras region - a golden wine that is deceptively strong. Or for a refreshing drink, try some sangra - a blend of red wine, fruit juices and chunks of fruit. (The prices below are based on two people having three courses including wine, unless otherwise stated.)

Bar-Restaurante Sevilla, C. Oficios (tel: 221323). Situated opposite the Capilla Real, this is one of the best known restaurants in Granada, where Lorca would meet his fellow poets. The menu includes many specialities of Granada and Andalusia. Around 8,000ptas, pounds 33.

Restaurante Chikito, Plaza del Campillo tel: 223364). Serves local dishes such as ham and beans, and piononos (anise cakes), in an intimate setting. Past diners have included Lorca, Rudyard Kipling and HG Wells. Around 700ptas.

Mirador de Morayma, C. Pianista Garcia Carrillo (tel: 228290). The entrance to this Albaicn restaurant is via a small, easily missed door in the high wall (ring the bell for entry). Inside is a delightful garden courtyard in a 16th-century house with superb views of the floodlit Alhambra. The restaurant serves local specialities including kid fried with garlic, and some delicious desserts (try the Zafra cake, made by the nuns of the Convento de Santa Catalina de Zafra, just down the hill. Around 6,000ptas.

Pilar del Toro, C. Hospital de Santa Ana (tel: 223847). Situated in a beautifully restored 17th-century house near Santa Ana church. The Pilar del Toro has a cafe-bar in a lovely leafy courtyard, and an intimate restaurant. Around 7,000ptas.

Casa-Cepillo, Plaza Pescaderia. A low-cost centrally located restaurant between Plazas Bib-Rambla and Trinidad. Good food and menu. Around 2,000ptas.

Tapas bars. While in Granada, be sure to visit some of the many tapas bars, where a drink comes with a small portion of food - ranging from olives to fried anchovies. It was Andalusia that started the tradition of tapeo - moving from bar to bar sampling a dish at each. Some of the best tapas bars, with outside tables, can be found in Plaza san Miguel Bajo in the Albaicn, or try the area around the cathedral and Plaza Neuva. Around 150-300ptas per drink and tapas.

Los Italianos, Gran Via (opposite the cathedral). This is the place for delicious ice-creams. The only problem is deciding which flavour to try. Around 200-500ptas.

Out of town

If you have time, you can take a bus to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, Spain's highest mountain region with 14 peaks over 3000m. Snow lies on the high summits for most of the year and there is skiing in the winter. The bus is run by Viajes Bonal (tel: 273100/272497) and tickets can be bought from Bar El Ventorrillo, which is next to the Palacio de Congresos, from where the bus leaves (at 8am and 9am, returning at 5pm, with the journey taking under an hour). Or, if you want to hire a car, try a tour of the high villages of Las Alpujarras on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Until the 17th century, these whitewashed villages were the last Moorish refuge. They are now famed for their dry- cured hams.

Deals and Packages

For city breaks to Granada, staying at a range of hotels, contact Magic of Spain (tel: 0181 748 4220). Prices for a two-night break start at pounds 230.

Further information

The currency is the peseta. For leaflets, guidebooks and maps, visit the Tourismo in the 14th-century Corral del Carbon, C. Mariana Pineda, near the cathedral, and the Tourismo Municipal, Plaza Mariana Pineda (tel: 226688). In the UK, contact the Spanish National Tourist Office at 23 Manchester Square, London W1 M5A (tel: 0171-486 8077).