All of this gray and rainy weather has me thinking of the trip we took to Spain this time last year, when moving to Italy was just an unattainable fantasy.
It’s been our luck the last few years to meticulously plan vacations that ultimately require rain gear. This trip was no different. The sun made a few guest appearances, but it was mostly a typical misty week in November. It turns out, to no one’s surprise, that Italy has the same Mediterranean weather. I’m not complaining though. I like crisp afternoons and stomping puddles in my rain boots. But now weather like this triggers warm memories of white hilltop towns, jambon iberico, vibrant tile-work, and paprika.
We landed in Madrid, but mostly used it as a place to catch trains, not because we don’t want to see it. On the contrary, we definitely want to give it its due, what we saw was beautiful. But at the time we were both really stressed and feeling anti-city and just wanted to take it slow and see the small towns, nap if we wanted to, and not have a laundry list of things to see. Since we only had roughly a week we chose two cities, Granada, because I was fairly certain I would not die happy without seeing the Alhambra, and Toledo, because it’s a Spanish treasure chest, and my husband found out he could buy a sword there.
First we started in Toledo, only an hour-long train ride from Madrid. But beware, even in the off-season we found out the morning trains were already booked so we had to wait until the afternoon. My advice is to book at least a few days in advance.
Even in pouring rain Toledo did not disappoint. The city itself is perched on a hill overlooking a river valley and rolling golden hills. You enter through the intact city wall under an enormous archway that looks like it used to house a gate or draw-bridge or both. The town itself is a maze of narrow cobbled streets, with venders selling leather, silver, and churros. We did as the locals did and stopped in various restaurants and tapas establishments where I mastered the phrase “Vino tinto, por favor.” It was also here that we first tasted Jambon Iberico, Manchega Cheese, spicy pork stews, and countless tapas with steaming hot bread. (I apologize, in my pre-blog life I often forgot to take pictures that weren’t selfies, so very few postable pictures exist of Toledo.)
There are many worthwhile things to do in Toledo, but for us the highlights were El Greco’s house, which was fun to explore especially if you’re a fan of his work, and the Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo, which is up there with the Vatican and Notre Dame in my opinion.
First of all its enormous. I’m not sure we saw the whole thing, we lost track. Second, it was begun during the 1200s shortly after it was re-conquered from the Moors, and during a time when Toledo became the capital of Spain, thus it had excellent financing to support its grand proportions and plans. Beyond the breath-taking artwork, where stone angels dangle from skylights and insane heaven-high gilt altarpieces, probably my favorite part was the Sacristy, a small gallery on the north side. No one went in here, and I have to believe it was because they just didn’t know. But in this room we had a private audience with Valazquez, Titian, Goya, de la Cruz, van Dyck, Giordano, and of course about a dozen of El Greco’s paintings. And not just obscure early works either, I had studied several of these paintings in school, I think the altarpiece by El Greco even appeared on my art history AP exam. And I didn’t have to wade through a crowd to get to them, it felt as if they were there just for us.
After Toledo we took the train to Granada right in the center of gorgeous Andalusia.
In so many ways Granada is, and seems to always have been a cross-roads of cultures. It was the last Moorish stronghold, but also the burial place of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela. Musicians wail on Spanish guitars next to cushioned hookah bars. Elegant geometric patterns adorn Catholic churches. And you can order mint tabbouleh alongside cured ham. Time hasn’t stood still for Granada, though it obviously honors the past, it’s very much occupied with university students, banks, modern transportation, and a very lively nightlife. To us, it just felt like a exceptional place. The same feeling you get when you stand inside the Pantheon or look up at Monticello; special.
We explored and got a little lost in the Albayzin, the ancient and still occupied Moorish neighborhood that sits opposite the Alhambra. At the top we stumbled upon one of the best views in Spain, complete with a cliff side restaurant where we ate pappas bravas, more jambon, and of course a few glasses of vino tinto while we took in the view. (This is also the place where my camera may have been dropped into a puddle of olive oil, so after this, my pictures have a bit of a halo.)
At night we were smart enough to take some very wise advice and book a tasting at La Oliva, a good move. Sometimes we bring up La Oliva out of nowhere, like we’re remembering a favorite childhood memory, or a dream we had the night before. We want to go back. For a reasonable fee, Francisco hosts a tasting of regional in season Spanish dishes for you and whoever else made the reservation for that night in a relaxed family style setting. We learned about the different types of Spanish olive oil, (sorry Italy, but I think it’s better), olives, cured meats, soups, fresh fish in saffron sauce, salads prepared with oranges, red onions, radish, black olives, cod, paprika, and olive oil, sherry, unique wines, gazpacho, sweet potato puree w/ vanilla olive oil, persimmon salad with walnuts, and finished off with a variety of nougats and more wine. I think we counted at least 15 courses. We definitely felt educated afterward, and Francisco was a gracious and charming host. I’m told that he no longer holds the tastings in his shop, but in the stone basement of a palace now. But definitely check out his shop, it has everything you want to smuggle back to the states.
But everything above was a just a bonus to keep us coming back, the real reason we came to Granada was to see the Alhambra, a 600-1200 year old fortress touted to be one of the most geometrically perfect buildings in the world. I didn’t bring my tape measure, so I can’t confirm this, but the effect of water, tile, and plaster were glorious. I could drone on about the harmony of the building with the mountainside, the ingenious gravity based fountains, the technicolor tile work that made me swoon, the power of symmetry, and the impossibly complex lacey details that covered everything, but I’ll let some of the pictures do the talking.
My usual criticism: it was crowded. Tickets have times assigned to them where they let in about 50 people at a time, but the walkways, and standing areas within the palace are relatively small, so the entire time you are in a shoulder to shoulder crowd. I cannot imagine this place during high season. Despite the near religious experience of being inside something so unique, we were a little happy to leave and be able to move our shoulders with bumping someone. However, what was just outside the main palace we found equally, if not more lovely – the terraced gardens.
I guess most tours don’t bother with this section of the grounds. Only a handful of other tourists were there. More trickling inlaid streams lead down stairways and lightly fed into reflecting pools that were visually even with the pavers that fed into larger reflecting pools. From higher up more streams were integrated into railings, where they popped out of fountains, and drained into more pools. The result was stunning. I want to do this to my own home one day. I just need to build on the side of a mountain, in a county with very loose building codes.
At this point we were wet and cold (as is our custom on vacation), but we warmed our legs with the hike further up the hill towards the Generalife Gardens, once used as the royal summer residence. I think this was my favorite part.
These were gardens that, again, no one was paying attention to, with tall shrubberies cocooning more fountains and pools, and framing sweeping views of what seemed like all of Spain. The small palace itself felt like an airier version of the main palace with pools and fountains, but also taking advantage of the views.
But it was time to leave. Not just the Alhambra and Granada, but Spain. Our trip was only six days. I wish we had more time. This country needs at least a few weeks just to view the basics. One of the most surprising things I found during my research was how uninterested so many people were in visiting Spain in comparison to its neighbors. Many seem to skip it entirely when they plan their grand tour. They are missing out. There is a uniqueness along with the top-notch food, art, landscape, and history. We came across some of the friendliest locals and the most generous hospitality we have ever encountered when traveling a foreign country. And the best part – its soooo affordable compared to the rest of western Europe! We stayed in five star hotels for a fraction of what we would pay in Italy or France. We would order café con leche and get bonus artisanal chocolates on the side. We would order wine and get an included plate of tapas to go with it. So you get a little more for your euro.
Go to Spain, don’t skip it, you will not regret it.