As a lone traveller without a car, it can be very difficult at times to escape the trap of simply travelling from city to city to city without ever escaping into the countryside. My heroic attempts at hiking in the Serra da Estrela in Portugal had come to naught and although I knew that the Sierra Nevada mountain range rose up behind the city of Granada, I had no plans to visit it.
This is where the awesome organization at the Oasis Granada hostel comes in. On my very first night I saw that a trip to a thermal pool outside the city was running that evening for 12€ so I hopped aboard. I have no idea where exactly we went, or what the pool was called. All I know is that we bumped along unholy roads before being dropped off, in total darkness, at the pool. It was warm, the stars were bright, some nice folks from my hostel shared their beer with me, and I had an interesting and relaxing evening (my evening made more interesting by a group of men whose actions I will perhaps recount someday as The Tale of the Naked Frolicking Spaniards). Then it was back into the too-full van, back onto the unholy roads, and back to the hostel, where I discovered a layer of bright red clay now covered me and my bathing suit. In some ways, though I’m sure I was completely safe the whole time, the experience felt so weird I’m just glad we all returned unscathed.
On Monday, on a whim, I decided to join up with a walking tour into the Sierra Nevada. I am so glad I did. Our guide took us on the bus to a little mountain village called Monachil and from there led us on a hike into the mountains, over wood and cable bridges, through a gorge, into a gorgeous valley with the red cliffs of the Sierra on all sides, and back again with a stop at a small waterfall. I’m glad I had good walking shoes because the hike was a little more intense than I had anticipated: crawling almost on my hands and knees under rocks, walking on an embankment so narrow that where the rock face hung over the trail there were handles put into the rock so you could lean back over the river and navigate around the rock without falling backwards. The landscape was impossibly rugged and wild and beautiful, with cacti, boulders, and a backdrop of blue sky everywhere you looked.
Such is the artistry of Mother Nature.
If you are interested in human artistry, Granada can certainly provide it in the palaces of the Alhambra, the city’s most famous landmark:
While the Alhambra and Generalife (garden) complex is actually huge, the most beautiful (and famous) parts of the site are the Nasrid Palaces. These are the parts you need to pay to see, and these are the parts you need to purchase a ticket for. If you want to purchase a ticket on the day you go, people begin to line up at 7am or so and the available tickets are usually gone shortly after the site opens. I did NOT line up at 7am, I paid the extra 2€ to book a ticket through my hostel (I could have saved a little booking on my own online but I would have needed to do that two weeks in advance).
I ended up spending almost five hours in the huge Alhambra complex and about 45 min in the Nasrid Palaces alone. These palaces are the location of some of Spain’s finest Islamic architecture (I’d make the leap and say it’s the finest but some people I met liked the Alcazar better). The attention to detail and the level of skill required to make something so intricate and so beautiful is absolutely mind-boggling, almost overwhelming, and truly has to be seen to be believed. My photos hardly do justice to the exceptional work of the artists who created these palaces.
The entire time I was wandering through the Alhambra I tried to imagine what it would have been like for the noble personages inhabiting these grounds: what it would be like if the Generalife gardens were mine for my own private enjoyment, how it would feel to be a commoner summoned to one of these palaces for an audience with royalty, how daunting (or perhaps excitingly challenging) the task of decorating and maintaining these spaces would have been. I wonder if any of those people had an inkling that one day, long after they were gone, these palaces would be here still, with thousands of people walking through these rooms daily, exclaiming at their beauty, taking photographs, writing blogs and postcards, and wondering.