The jewel of Granada is, without question or competition, the Alhambra. Perched high above the main city, the Alhambra is a sprawling fortress and palace, with walls, arches, and ceilings so intricately engineered and decorated, it could take endless visits to fully appreciate its beauty. The richness of its aesthetic appeal is equalled only by its history. Built as a fortress in the 9th century and expanded into a palace in the 11th century, it was the last Muslim stronghold in Spain until the Catholics took it in 1492. For a time, it was used by both Catholics and Muslims, however, that symbiosis was relatively short lived, lasting less than ten years.
If I had to pick superlatives from my recent trip to Southern Spain (and I had to because what else do you do on the way home to make the trip last a little longer?), I’d say that out of Ronda, Nerja, and Granada, Ronda was the most charming and Granada the most interesting. From our hotel window at the foot of the Alhambra and overlooking the city center, Granada looked more like a peaceful town or a village than a city. However, once we trekked down the hill and wandered the city streets, we soon learned that the city is full of energy with street performers and artists entertaining cafe goers and tapas eaters, business people traveling to and from meetings, students and professors attending class (but mostly not attending class), and market goers carrying home their fresh fish and olives. Looking back on our few days in Granada, it’s almost a blur of wandering through these scenes, tapas, sangria, more tapas, and flamenco!
After a night in Ronda, we drove through Southern Spain’s rugged and beautiful landscape down to the city of Nerja on the Costa del Sol. Rick Steves has a particularly scathing quote about the Costa del Sol – something along the lines of: If you want to sit in the heat amidst trinket shops and throngs of pasty British tourists slathered in Nivea sun cream, then go to Nerja. Yikes. Our group agreed with Rick to the extent that we certainly wouldn’t want to spend a whole week here, but the natural beauty of the coastline, the caves, and, of course, the made-to-order paella on the beach, made our two days there well worth the drive. It was in Nerja, after all, that we found one of the best paella dishes of the trip at Chiringuito Morendero Moreno and where S and I heard a Spanish guitarist at El Molino who melted our hearts with a voice that was rich and raspy all at once. As the guitarist played at El Molino, a local woman got up to dance during a few of the songs and, by the ease and familiarity of her movements, you could tell it was a dance she had been doing all of her life. Although you may have to look a little harder to find them between the tourists and souvenir shops (it is a beach town after all), the strong and beautiful elements of Spanish culture flourish in Nerja.
In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “If a honeymoon or an elopement is not a success in Ronda, it would be as well to start for Paris and commence making your own friends.” Luckily, my double date with S’s parents in Ronda was a great success and none of us were compelled to escape to the City of Light in search of better companions. That being said, I’d still love to get back to Paris in the near future, but with my current fiancé. Anyway, what I mean to say is that Mr. Hemingway was right about the romance of Ronda. Perched on a plateau that’s split in two by the El Tajo Gorge and surrounded by vineyard-covered mountains, there are few things more beautiful than Ronda as it’s hit by the golden light of pre-sunset. Add to that the fear, awe, and adrenaline that comes from looking over the edge of the gorge, live music in the town’s many squares, delicious tapas, and deep red local wines, and you have one of the most beautiful and romantic places in the world.
“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.” – Luciano Pavarotti
Southern Spain is one of the best places to slow down, take a deep breathe, relax, and savor the flavors of Spanish cuisine. The natural beauty, the music, and, above all, the delicious food served during long meals, all but force you to appreciate your surroundings and your company. Tapas, in my opinion, are the Spanish version of what I termed at the beginning of this year as stopping to smell the cannoli. Leading up to the trip, I don’t know whether I was more excited to see the Alhambra, which I’ve been longing to visit since studying it’s architecture in my junior year of college, or to sit down for long meals of tapas with Ibérico ham and Manchego cheese washed down with a few glasses of cava. Now that the trip is over, I still can’t decide which was more enjoyable. Visiting the Alhambra and seeing a flamenco show were unforgettable experiences, but sitting down to long, slow meals in the Spanish style with S and his lovely parents, P and R, was a true gift. Increasingly tight pants were an unfortunate side effect, but overall a small price to pay. Here are some of my favorite meals from Southern Spain:
It may take me a few thousand hours to comb through the photos from the week that S and I traveled around Southern Spain with his wonderful parents, R and P. While in the early stages of that combing, I couldn’t wait to share a few of my favorite photos with you. As I write this, I’m sitting in my apartment, hiding from what is November in Germany and feeling its gray skies and dry frigid air sucking what little tan I had from my skin. Wow, that is sad. Luckily, I have the promise of a trip home for Thanksgiving to see family and friends and the fantasy-come-reality that is the German Christmas Market when we return. I also have my memories from an unforgettable trip south and I’ve been trying to determine my favorite. Was it dining on tapas in Ronda with the restaurant patio to ourselves and a view of the Puente Nuevo lit up at night? Was it the bartender in Nerja singing along to “Material Girl” while S and I sipped Rioja and snacked on freshly cut ham and Manchego? Was it the guitar player at El Molino? Seriously, is there anything cooler than Spanish guitar? My favorite moment could easily be our morning touring, admiring, and gawking at the beauty of the Alhambra. It could also easily be the flamenco show that we saw in the old gypsy caves of the Albayzin area, or the second flamenco show that we saw in Grenada’s city center, or our three pans of paella, or our five bowls of gazpacho, or our ten plates of Iberico ham, or our countless pitchers of sangria. We ate a lot. Overall, and as sappy as it sounds, I have to say that my favorite part of the trip was the time spent with S, P, and R (with the Alhambra in second place and all of the foods a close third)!
Before last month, the last time that my sister, E, and I traveled together for a week was two years ago, when we spent four days in Paris and three days in Toulouse, for the wedding of my lovely friends, P and A. We ate escargot, gazed at masterpieces of the Impressionists, sipped champagne, ate (really) stinky cheese, and danced into the wee hours celebrating the newlyweds in an old French chateau just outside of Toulouse. So, when E arrived in Germany last month, we had a pretty high bar to meet and exceed if we wanted to keep our sister vacation experience trending upward. With Mainz as our home base, we set out on a series of day trips and one over-night to explore the area around my new hometown. This trip was filled with dirndl shopping, huge mugs of beer, a lot of driving on the autobahn, a lot of wine, some actual wine-making (the grape-picking part), and some more beautifully stinky, French cheese.