Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Andalucia: Parte Un, Malaga y Granada

Not your average DoubleTree—overlooking the Mediterranean near Malaga
Last Sunday I arrived a few minutes after 5 p.m. in the Malaga airport, after the usual LBB-DFW-MAD hop. It was another one of these meet-Sabine-in-the-airport encounters: She had arrived coming from Munich just 20 minutes earlier. It has become so easy to plan such trips, yet as the events in Paris just a few days ago have shown us, we can't take anything for granted.
Costa del Sol
Sabine and I had planned this vacation for a month or two, making plane and car rental reservations and making sure that we had lined up hotels for the next two weeks. Actually, I was in charge of the hotels this time around, and looking back now I have to say that I hit them right. Our first one, the DoubleTree just outside of Malaga, was definitely an unusual one: Forget what you know about US-based DoubleTrees and rather think of a modernistic, artsy hotel overlooking the Mediterranean, with floating mirrors in the room and an infinity pool on the roof. Works of art were displayed in the caracol-shaped atrium (plus an MG from the '50s and a beautiful wooden skiff) and the corridor used shrill neon light to create a surreal effect. This was quite NOT Andalusian.
First glimpse of the Alhambra
Second glimpse over Happy Hour
Monday morning we took off for Granada, our first designated target. We took the auotopista along the Costa Del Sol and stopped over for a bit of beach-town walking in La Herradura, one of hundreds of small towns that cater to mainly German and British tourists during the summer but that at this time of the year are almost forgotten and have scaled back services and noise to a lovable level.
Granada's Old Town, the Albayzin, is scenic beyond belief
Flamenco is revered here
Typical house front in the Albayzin
From here the road turned inland and upward. This is not a great place to ride your bike, I'd think. I was reminded of the hinterland of the French Cote D'Azur where mountains loom right behind the coastal strip. Same here. Our little VW Polo zipped up the slopes—what a fine motorway. The land became very arid very rapidly, and I was reminded of the western US. We saw a few modern windmills on some of the ridges, but otherwise it was mostly rocky fields and not much civilization outside of smallish villages that were whitewashed and seemed forgotten by those traversing the countryside on the four-lane highway. BTW, this fine road was not a toll road as it surely would have been in Italy or Austria.
The view from our terrace at the Casa Bombo
By mid-afternoon (late start, beach walking in La Herredura) we topped the sierra and looked upon the vast, funnel-like plain over which Granada holds vigil. Forget the deep blue skies that had looked so refeshing—here we were greeted by smog, less from cars than untold fires lit to burn trash and dead vegetation. No, this was not so savory looking and really quite a let-down.

Granada as seen from the Alhambra
We knew that our hotel was located in the Albayzin, the old city center on the other side of the Alhambra, a medieval-and-earlier maze of tiny and even tinier roads that are OK for a pedestrian or a donkey, but not a car. Somehow we managed to find a parking spotlet (fold in the mirrors; park in a way that the driver has to climb out the passenger door; hope for the best) and walked the final 500 meters to our hotel, Casa Bombo. We opened the door to our room—and there was the Alhambra on the opposing ridge. Oh man, what a place!
We stayed for two nights in Granada. Number one: Do yourself a favor and stay in the Casa Bombo if you go there! Number two: Don't worry about getting lost. If in doubt, just go downhill and eventually you're going to figure out where you are. And numero tres: The Alhambra is really as fabulous as you may have heard. I was reminded in so many ways of the Sultan's Palace in Istanbul as well as the Taj Mahal in India, iconic places in their own right. The architecture is stunning, but what really is going to get you are the gardens and all those fountains and water works. Visiting a place like this with a landscape architect such as Sabine is, of course, deadly, but even without her I would have started to develop ideas about how to incorporate water features into my backyard to make it livable. I'll let some of the pics speak for themselves.
Speaking of photos: It is so difficult—really, impossible—to visit a place like this without being totally overwhelmed by the urge to snap pic after pic. At least we don't carry selfie-sticks.... To imagine the Alhambra at the height of the tourism season is sheer insanity. We had been able to buy (online) tickets with only a week to spare (and we were lucky!), but in the summer better allow a few months' advance notice to score tickets as access to this World Heritage Site is tightly controlled and if you don't have tickets, well, you're simply SOf''nL.
Happy hour overlooking the Alhambra, about 24 hours after touching down in Andalusia. Falling asleep with a view of the Alhamabra. Having a wonderful breakfast on the veranda overlooking the Alhambra, twice. You'd think it'd be enough. Well, it wasn't too much, that's for certain.
Sabine's outstanding photo of the Flamenco
We did other things, but all of it paled in comparison: yummy tapas and dinner, Flamenco in the caves, strolling through parks, getting lost in the Albayzin. By themselves, any one of these would be the most memorable experience most people I know have enjoyed all year. But the Alhambra and it's mesmerizing gardens eclipse it all.
Truly a UNESCO World Heritage Site
And that was just the first two days of this trip. Please come back for more on Cordoba and Sevilla before we turn to Portugal's Algarve.


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