Tales of Granada

A Journey that starts with tapas & ice cream is a good journey. 

With a twinkle in his eye and tapping his pointer finger on his watch, David nodded and thus granted me – and the group standing behind me eagerly awaiting my success in negotiating skills – a few minutes to ‘very quickly go get ice cream’…

Earlier in the evening, we had all arrived in the city of Granada as part of our blog trip “A Una Hora De”, which is an initiative sponsored by Guadalinfo and various city halls around Andalucia to promote tourism in the provinces, and not just the capital cities. After checking into our hotel at the foothills of the Alhambra, we had been treated to a tapa-hopping tour at various locations of La Carmela group of restaurants. So with satiated bellies after having eaten pescaito frito at El Pescaito de Carmela and a variety of more modern bites at La Cuchara de Carmela, we were casually strolling back to our cars to make our way back to the hotel. A full itinerary and a very early start awaited us the next day.

But…as we walked along Plaza Puerta Real en route to the carpark, a capricious impulse and a I-must-absoultely-have-one-now-or-I-don’t-know-when-I’ll-have-this-opportunity-again feeling engulfed me. I got it on my mind that an ice cream from Los Italianos had to be my dessert, whether I had room for it or not, and whether I was going to risk David’s reprimand or not as well. You see, when I used to spend Christmases and summer holidays in Granada during my teenage years, we used to always come into the city just for ice cream at Los Italianos. There are a million and one ice cream shoppes in Granada, but my favourite, and where I was initiated in the art of eating gourmet ices, was Los Italianos. I tried my first stracciatella in this establishment. I waited in countless long, unsatisfying queues (not that any queue is really all that satisfying per se) just for one cone of that melt-in-your-mouth, luscious, creamy sweet slice of heaven. So, yes. I bragged a bit to the group, convincing them they were going to indulge in the experience of their lives, and then proceeded to haggle a few minutes out of David.

About half of the group and I quickly sped-walked up the street, crossing the intersection at Reyes Católicos, and went up Calle Los Mesones, with great anticipation of what awaited us. When I reached the ice cream shoppe, it looked a little different than I remembered. Granted that things can change in fourteen years since I was last in Granada; but with an institution such as this one and a city where time seems to stop for many of the prized establishments, I was starting to feel like something was not quite right.

So, as we starting ordering our ice creams, I entertained a conversation with one of the shoppe attendants and found out that we were in the wrong place! We were at Heladeria Giolatto, yet another Italian enterprise, but not my idolized Italianos. Of course, we didn’t have time to keep looking; and I joined the chorus of happy customers, all indulging in our sweet cravings. The stracciatella was as delicious and creamy as if it would’ve been from the right place, mind you. But in case you are wondering, Los Italianos still does exist. It just happens to be a few streets up from where we ended up, on Calle Gran Vía de Colón 4, one of the side streets from Reyes Católicos. (By the way, it was founded in the 1930s by Italian Paolo de Rocco; and aside from being idolized by me, it is one of the most emblematic and iconic ice cream shoppes in Granada. I do recommend you give it a try if you’re in the neighborhood, although you may want to stop first at Heladeria Giolatto for comparison.)

Granada Eating-Out Tips: 

When visiting, don’t miss out on pescaito frito (deep-fried fish). Just about anything from the sea can be found in Andalusian restaurants in a variety of forms. But it’s the pescaito frito that will leave your palate wanting for more; and Granada, although it’s not on the sea, is famous for its deliciously juicy take on this quintessentially southern dish. Fish and seafood are lightly salted, then delicately coated in a mixture of chickpea and wheat flour (one can purchase this combination readymade in stores), and then very briefly deep-fried in olive oil, creating a golden, crispy crust that seals in all the moisture and deliciousness of the seafood within.

Another quirky thing about Granada is that one tapa is always free with one drink. So if you need to quench your thirst regularly, you’ll be treated with a free tapa to accompany every beverage you order. You can also order more tapas if you wish; but you do need to pay for them separately. 

Alhama de Granada, along the romantic Washington Irving Route. 

About 40 minutes outside of the city of Granada lies the little town of Alhama de Granada, in a natural environment characteristic of romantic, nineteenth century novels and Goya paintings…

In 1826, at the bequest of the American Minister (Ambassador) to Spain, the American writer Washington Irving joined the diplomat in Madrid, and thereby started what could be called his Spanish period, resulting in a number of books on the history and legends of Spain, including “Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada” and “Tales of the Alhambra”. During his time in Madrid and fascinated by the exoticism of Moorish Spain and the richness of Andalucía, in 1829, Irving travelled to Granada and convinced the governor of the Alhambra to let him stay in the palace, which at the time was pretty much in ruins. Apparently that same year, Irving also travelled from Seville to Granada along a route of towns and villages that today are known as the Washington Irving Route.

Alhama de Granada is one of the towns on this romantic road that covers the approximately 350 kilometers from the capital of Andalucía to the last Moorish enclave of Spain. Perhaps what Irving saw almost 200 years ago was a distinctly different picture of what we can see today. Spain had recently suffered through the Napoleonic Wars, with many towns and villages having been ramshackled and pillaged by the French troops.

And maybe his perspective would have been a stark contrast to that of today’s traveller. Andalucía’s fame as a tourist destination actually maybe started with Irving himself (it is said that the reconstruction of the Alhambra was encouraged by Irving’s books) … whose interest in turn may have been sparked by Francisco de Goya’s romantic paintings of Andalusian life and landscapes.

But what may transcend for all of us – Irving and the modern traveller alike –  are the emotions evoked by Alhama de Granada’s privileged geographical location and timeless, picturesque beauty. The town is perched atop a hill with terraced farms that slope into the gorge of the Alhama River below. Over time, the slowly rolling, yet constant waters have also forged vertical walls that line the gorge and offer a spectacular view of the valley beyond.  With the summer in full bloom right now and having had a lot of rain this year, the verdant scenery is mesmerising. But I know Alhama is beautiful any time of year, as I’ve seen photos of autumn, with a cadence of oranges, reds, ochres, and greens populating this natural balcony; and in the not-too-far distance are the year-round, snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, offering a backdrop that is irresistible. (By the way, we used the hashtag #IrreSixtible during our trip because Sixt had sponsored all the cars we used.)

Alhama de Granada’s name comes from the Arabic al-hamman, or baths, making reference to the thermal waters found near the town. The Romans had discovered the thermal waters and settled here long before the Moors, calling it Artigi, and leaving behind a Roman road, a bridge, and the foundations of a spa (all of which Washington Irving would’ve seen). But it was the Moors, who bedazzled by these waters, renamed it Al-Hamma and founded the walled town.

Alhama can maybe not-so-proudly (depending on one’s historical perspective) boast to have been the first town to capitulate to Christianity during the conquest of Spain. Yet, due to this surrender, today we can enjoy an eclectic mixture of buildings ranging from Moorish and Mudéjar to Gothic and Renaissance, some of which during Irving’s time would’ve been in ruins just like the Alhambra and others may not have existed, but which all together make up the kaleidoscopic history of what defines Andalucía.

Today, despite its small size, Alhama de Granada encompasses a number of architectural treasures and has been declared a Site of Cultural Interest. So on top of all the natural beauty surrounding it, Alhama offers a wealth of subjects for the history buff. For example, Alhama can also brag about having had the first “blood hospital” in the Kingdom of Granada, founded by the Catholic monarchs in 1485. A “blood hospital” is one that is located near the battlefield. But in this case, it was housed in a rich merchant’s home near the center of town and became a permanent fixture.

Castril, the river canyon and Jose Saramago. 

Literally on the other end of the province, bordering Jaén, and about 150 kilometers from the city of Granada lies this idyllic hamlet nestled in the verdant mountainous countryside.

I probably would’ve never discovered Castril had it not been for “A Una Hora De”. And if that would’ve been the case, albeit in ignorance, I would’ve been all the less richer than I am today, for I count my blessings not only by the experiences and the memories I create (either alone, with my family, or with my friends), but also by the places I visit.

Castril’s rich history of course includes the Romans and the Moors. And more recently, the influence of Jose Saramago, Portugal’s novelist and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, has left its mark on this little enclave in the Sierra of Castril. The town is renovating its sidewalks and walkways with mosaics of square-cut stones so typical of Portuguese pavements. Jose Saramago was married, from 1988 until his death in 2010, to Pilar del Río, a native of Castril.

There’s an anecdote that Jose Saramago, an self-declared atheist, used to tell about his grandfather and his grandmother that is particularly poignant and gives me goosebumps; and that I wish to share with you here. It is written on a signpost at the entrance of the Cerrada de Castril path and exemplifies the feelings I have when I travel this beautiful world.

“La Arboleda Pedida” (The Lost Forest by Jose Saramago – translation by yours truly)

“Many years later, when my grandfather had left this world and I was a grown man,  I came to understand that my grandmother also believed in dreams. No other meaning could be derived from the fact that one evening, sitting in front of the door of her poor house, in which by then she lived alone, looking up at the stars, both big and small above her head, she uttered the following words: ‘the world is so beautiful and I feel a great sorrow in dying.’

She didn’t say she was afraid of dying, but rather she felt sorrow in dying, as if the life of hardships and continuous labour which she had lived, in that almost final moment, through the grace of some supreme and final farewell, [was erased because] she received solace in the beauty revealed. 

She was seated at the door of her house, a house which I believe there have been none other like it on Earth, for in it had lived people who had been able to sleep with pigs as if they had been their own children, people who felt a great sorrow in leaving this life only because the world is beautiful, people, and that was my grandfather Jerónimo, shepherd and storyteller, who when faced with the premonition that death was knocking at his door, went out to his orchard to say goodbye to his trees, hugging them, one by one, and crying because he knew he would never see them again.”

From 2001, Castril has been recognised as a place of historical interest. With several buildings dating from the 15th century, its cobbled streets, typical whitewashed façades, and the use of Andalusian tiles and wood to decorate the houses, Castril is an example of an authentic Andalusian village, in which one could say time has nearly stopped. From its privileged location atop a hill and its steep,  narrow streets offering stunning views of the neighbouring mountainside teeming with olive and almond trees and dotted with white sheep and goats, Castril is a must-see destination for both the nature-lover, as well as for those in search of genuine substance.

Castril’s privileged location in the Prebética mountain range and being surrounded by a beautiful natural park makes for lush, green forests during the warmer months and snow-covered mountains in the winter. Various natural springs and the River Castril are found nearby; and for those looking for a bit of family fun and excitement – but not too dangerous – there’s an elevated, wooden walkway around part of the river, similar to what used to be found in el Caminito del Rey in Málaga, but on a smaller and safer scale. Along the path, there are a number of spots where one can descend to the riverbed and even go dipping in the very chilly and crystalline waters.

The town used to also be known for its glass-blowing industry during Roman and Moorish times, but which today is sadly a thing of the past; and only a small museum is testament to what could have rivaled Murano artisans.

Malahá & Padul, two other towns we visited and worth short stops. 

In Malahá, a town’s whose name is hard to pronounce even in Spanish, we visited the saltworks. Salt has been produced in Malahá since Roman times. And the town still retains some remnants of the importance it once had within the empire, such as a Roman bridge. Today, however, it is little known and visitors are generally local. It is worth a quick stop, especially if you want to dip into the thermal waters of its outdoor spa.

Padul, on the other hand, is a bit more grand. It’s only 13 kilometers south of the city of Granada and offers a number of interesting tidbits worthy of a detour. It has the greatest peatlands of the Mediterranean basin, known even during Roman times. In 1982, the fossilized remains of a mammoth were discovered in the peatlands by a group of farmers. Since then, the town has proudly created a number of tourist attractions, all of which relate to the mammoth, who by the way is not yet on display. The farmers have been allowed to keep the remains in their homes, while Padul has built a museum, where they plan to house the mammoth very soon. The wetlands are really impressive and can be viewed from a series of wooden walkways bordering the peatlands.

Another interesting site, which is no longer in use, but shows the importance it once had in the daily life of the people of Padul, is the Fuente de los Cinco Caños, or the old, communal laundry. Women and children used to gather here to wash clothes; and then men used to come by to look for future wives and discuss business. It was the pulsating heart of Padul from its inception in 1897 until the middle of the 20th century.

And lastly, for a peak into palatial, country life, check out the semi ruins of the Castillo Palacio de los Condes de Padul, which was built in the 16th century. What makes it special, aside from its architectural features, is that it’s one of the few remaining palaces within the Province of Granada that was a “Palacio de Asiento“. A Palacio de Asiento had seats built into the entrance walls or doorways, which served as resting places for the poor while they asked for food and compassion.

Disclaimer: This blog trip was organized by Guadalinfo and sponsored by Sixt and the various city halls and business who hosted us. Although I am under no obligation and have not been directly compensated, in exchange for the hospitality and all the paid expenses, I have written this post and used my social media channels to promote the towns and locations who hosted us. All ideas and opinions are my own. And I take full responsibility for any inaccuracies in the information shared.