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Return to Andalucia After 17 Years

Shel posted a few photos at http://twitpic.com/photos/shelhorowitz (scroll down)

4/20/09, Málaga

A train runs from the airport to the center of town—but you have to somehow intuit the name of the correct station: Maria Zambrano. And due to construction, both directions currently share not just a single platform, but a single track! Once on board, though, it's only a few stops, and the bus station is right there when you exit the train.

We'll see Málaga in detail at the end of our trip. First impression is of a rapidly growing city, most of whose neighborhoods looked younger than 50 years old—and quite a few within the past decade or so. The bus only passed through one neighborhood that seemed older.

Granada

The ride to Granada is beautiful: verdant hills, craggy gray mountains (especially just outside Málaga), olive groves...

We encountered a very helpful and knowledgable information person who gave us a map and told us which bus to take, and half an hour later, arrived at our daughter Alana's apartment and were welcomed by her, her homestay host Monica, and her American roommate Sanya.

From there, with Alana as our guide... and then on our own while she was in class, we walked all over town, Architecturally, Granada is an attractive city, many of its buildings offering such amenities as balconies, rectangular bay windows, towers, sculpted panels. Plus a lot of very handsome churches, government buildings, and commercial buildings—particularly banks.

Art is valued here There's a lot of public art: tons of sculptures, quite a few modern murals, numerous handicraft and fine art galleries, massive statues in many of the numerous plazas and parks…not to mention the two-color walkways that are all over town, with separate sections of light and dark stones to create anything from a simple repeating pattern to complex pictures of swordsmen, flowers, etc.

And art shows up privately, too; we passed by several artist studios—one with a class in session—as well as a number of museums.

Our most dramatic encounter with art was the lobby of the Alhambra Palace Hotel, a castle-like modern building on a hill overlooking the city, a short walk from the Alhambra itself. Done in a style that might be called Islamic Modern, the lobby was spectacular. Paying distinct homage to the rounded niches and intricate decorations of its ancient neighbor, it's at the same time breathtakingly contemporary, extremely elegant, and yet comfortable, even inviting. The cafe includes several tables on a terrace overlooking the whole city (I'm guessing the fine-dining restaurant does as well). It immediately went directly into my list of favorite hotel lobbies.

Since our last visit in 1992, Granada has undergone a transformation. From the extreme monoculture we'd experienced then, the city has flowered into a multicultural hotbed. It's impossible to go along a commercial street for more than a dew blocks without hitting at least one of the ubiquitous kebab or shwarma shops. Numerous Moroccan restaurants and tea houses provide a more upscale option. Other choices include Japanese, Indian, Greek, even Thai.

Alternative culture has also made inroads. We found two Spanish vegetarian restaurants. Raices, around the corner from Alana, where we tried the ample price-fixe lunch, and Hikori, in the university neighborhood. In that neighborhood, we also saw posters offering everything from craniosacral therapy to yoga.

Cafe Futbol, with a vast tented outdoor dining area across the street from the actual cafe, was Alana's choice for the traditional Spanish snack of churros y chocolate: greasy fingers of deep-fried dough dipped in a thick, viscous liquid more like chocolate pudding than what we think of as hot chocolate in the U.S.

Granada is also a walking city with a lot of nightlife. Posters around town offered concerts, theater, lectures, discos, and more. Walking to the river Darro—you can see the entire Alhambra complex, illuminated above you—the streets were deliciously crowded even at 10 and 11 p.m. A temporary book fair is going on right now, with stalls from publishers and booksellers filling a tree-lined pedestrian median. 10 p.m. seemed to be peak browsing time. The stalls hadn't even been open when we'd passed by earlier, around 5:30 p.m.

Following our river walk, we ended the evening at Shwarma Pakistani, a litttle hole-in-the-wall place with five chairs, two tiny tables, and excellent samosas.

4/21

If my shoes have any soles left at the end of trip! We did A LOT of walking today. Starting in Alana's neighborhood, we made a quick stop at the very cute neighborhood library to check e-mail, then walked several blocks along the Rio Genil, lined with shops and a brick causeway. Water level is very low, and with the man-made watercourse, it feels more like a canal than a river, but it was still pleasant.

Back to Alana's apartment to pick her up after her class, we walked through downtown and then up a hilly street lined with Moroccan boutiques and tea shops to a Lebanese restaurant. The food was quite good (a bit salty) but the waiter was kind of snotty. To get a better taste in our mouths, we stopped at the Meknes, one of the many teterias (tea shops) for an enormous selection of sweet Moroccan teas. Rafael had one called "dreams of the Alhambra," tasting strongly of black cardamon. Alana got the traditional mint, Dina had an absolutely delicious Pakistani blend with milk, and I was so overwhelmed by all the tea choices that I ended up with a less-than-stellar Arabic coffee.

Continuing all the way up the hill deeper into the Albaicín (Arab quarter), we found a nice plaza with a church, a cafe, and a postcard shop. Around the corner, there was a small playground, another plaza—and a fabulous view of the entire Alhambra complex with the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains. (I'm gussing it's the plaza bounded by Calle San Augustin.)

From there, we wandered all around the upper reaches of the Albaicín to another lookout, Mirador San Nicolas. While the first plaza was almost deserted, this one was packed: close to a hundred tourists and perhaps a dozen hippie street vendors. We actually liked the view of the Alhambra slighty better at the earlier spot, but San Nicolas offered great views of the city as well.

Alana had arranged to meet a friend who'd show us a good flamenco spot for tomorrow, so we went back down to Plaza Nueva to meet him, only to discover that his choice was all the way back up in the Albaicín. At least it's a fascinating neighborhood and we got to see four different paths through it.

And we weren't even close to done walking. One of Alana's professors had recommended a concert at the music conservatory, located in an elegant neighborhood between the big, beautiful domed Church of San Juan and the massive main cathedral (I think it might be even bigger than New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine). And then, with aching feet, back home for a dinner of homemade winter squash ravioli and fresh parmesan that Alana had bought from an Italian-owned fresh pasta shop. In all , I'm guessing we walked at least seven miles, maybe nine. An excellent day, at least above the ankles.

4/22

Breakfast at the Flamboyant, a wonderful cafe right where Manuel de Gongara becomes Brucelas, just a few yards from Alana's courtyard. I had cafe con leche and a typical Andalusian pastry called a poyonan: a small but intense combination of cream, custard, liqueor and lots of cinnamon. Both were delicious. We had four different pastries and three hot drinks including a capuccino for a very reasonable nine euros. Now, if they'd just figure out the need for a nonsmoking section, it would be perfect.

In Alana's neighborhood, one of the landmarks is the Palacio de los Congressos. We expected an imposing old government building holding perhaps the provincial government—but it turned out to be a very modern convention center.

Catty-corner across the street, the Gardens of Boabdil honor the Moorish king for his tolerance and wisdom. This is a small grove of olive, orange, and palm trees, with a statue and plaque—and a spacious playground.

To finish the morning, a riverside stroll down the north side of the Genil: better landscapes starting with an elegant little park sretching a few blocks behind the library, quieter, and much more pleasant than the side near the convention center.

We've also been staying with Monica, Alana's host, and her roommate Sanya, and much of the day was built around social events with them. Monica cooked us a big lunch, and then in the evening we took Sanya to see flamenco, and after that, Monica joined all of us for tapas.

After lunch and before flamenco, we climbed up to the Alhambra, where we discovered that both the palaces—one of the highlights of my life when Dina and I saw them in 1992—and even the gardens were completely sold out for the day. It's become explosively popular, and it;s now recommended to get tickets well in advance. For the Nasrid palaces, your ticket is time-stamped for a specific half-hour, and only 300 people at a time are allowed in.

However, you don't need a ticket to walk the grounds. The road up the hill crosses onto the property and immediately goes through a dense, gorgeous, and immensely tranquil forest, not at all crowded, as most people arrive by bus or taxi. The palaces stand on a large plateau with great views of the city, thronged with tourists and now with a few eateries, craft studios, book and souvenir shops. The stores don't dominate, but it's a lot more developed than it was seventeen years ago.

And back then, at least during our off-season January visit, you could just walk in and pay admission.

With some time to pass before meeting Sanya for the flamenco, Alana and I sent the others to reserve a good table, and we headed down a narrow, ancient alley near the cathedral, lined with craft and souvenir shops (both Spanish and Moroccan).

The first shop in the alley sold damasquina, the exquisite black plates hand-decorated with thin, elegant real gold etching, typical of Toledo. On our previous Spain trip, we'd toured the studio of damasquina artisan, and purchased a small (four-inch diameter, roughly) piece. Today, I bought an even smaller one, about three inches, for €19 (I'd paid about $45 or $50 the first time).

Lots of places in and around Granada for flamenco. Last time, we'd hiked all the way up to the gypsy caves in Sacromonte, a good 45 minutes uphill from the far end of the Albaicín, for mediocre, overpriced flamenco; this time, we followed Alana's friend Bobby's recommendation and made one turn at the end of the river street and then up into the Albaicín about four blocks, to the Zoraya, a pizzaria with no cover charge for flamenco.

It was a small troupe, just a female singer, male guitarist, and female dancer—but all of them both skilled and passionate, and with great chemistry among them. In short, an excellent performance.

As promised, Monica met us downtown and led us to one of her favorite tapas bars, one with many vegetarian choices. It turned out to have a Moroccan/Arabic menu, including an excellent veggie couscous. But I have to confess that every time I've tried tapas, the experience leaves me wondering what's the attraction of standing jammed in a crowded bar, guzzling drinks, eating tiny portions of bad food, and in this case being poisoned by cigarette smoke.

Ronda

The riverfront in Ronda is spectacular. Almost like those pictures of Chinese mountains rising straight up some huge distance from a flat plain far below, Ronda towers above the rich green valley that surrounds it, offering panoramic views of both the valleys and the high mountain ranges some distance out. It sits 744 meters above sea level, and most of that seems to be right at the cliff edges along the river. This beautiful hilltown in Malaga province, 2-1/2 hours by train from Granada, is worth a short detour—and quite the tourist destination. A rather bigger city than one would expect, it has a population of 40,000, with another 25,000 in the outlying municipalities.

Downtown along the river, pretty much everywhere you look is an amazing, dramatic view. But especially, the park just east of the New Bridge, the bridge itself, and the incredible canyon that runs between the New and Old Bridges. Access from the east bank is free, but by the time we discovered that, we were already touring the mine and gardens in the Casa Del Rey Moro on the west bank, just a few meters from our excellent lodging at the Hotel Ronda, and worth the €4 admission.

The downtown shopping district stretches many blocks, and near the riverfront, some of the menus are printed in five languages: Spanish, English, German, Italian and French.

Ronda´s food choices are much more limited than Granada´s, mostly Spanish and Italian (there are at least two Chinese restaurants, too. We chose Nonno Pepe, Calle Nueva, 18, one of several Italian shops offering homemade pastas—a very good choice, and reasonably priced. For dessert, we shared flan, profiteroles, and sherry around the corner (on the main tourist street near the bridge over the canyon) at Restaurante Don Javier, Calle Virgen de la Paz, 7, very Spanish and very elegant.

4/24, Algeciras

From everything I'd heard, Algeciras would be a dumpy, seedy port, no reason to go except to catch the Morocco ferries. Rarely has a place so thoroughly surpassed my expectations!

Though it suffers from sprawl and could not be described as beautiful, Algeciras is quite charming, not to mention much quiter and less congested than Granada.

We had several hours between the arrival of our train and the departure of our boat—enough that we considered a day trip to Gibraltar. But between the logistics and not reading anything exciting about Gibraltar, we opted to stay and explore. Here's what we found:

  • A wonderful central market, mostly produce but also artisan cheeses, meats, breads, etc.
  • An archeological dig of medieval muralles: city walls
  • A beautiful park with a fountain, Moorish-stile benches, many flowers, and both temperate and tropical trees (tall, magnificent London planes right next to mature palms)
  • A small museum with an exhibit on Visigoth life in eighth-century Spain
  • From the port, a view of Gibraltar (the Rock is quite dramatic)

All in all, a very pleasant, unexpected day. And now, on to Africa!

Three Days in Northern Morocco

Málaga

4/27

Arriving last night around 9:30, we discovered that we'd once again chosen very well. Our hotel, the Alameda, is on the eighth floor of a downtown building, close to everything but three short blocks down a side street—nice and quiet. They gave us a family suite with two twin beds in one room, one queen bed in the other, all done very tastefully in a reddish-brown wood with some texture in the design, and a nice brocade pattern for the bedspreads and drapes. There's even a walled patio with picnic table, benches, and two reclining lawn chaises. The walls are high, but if I stand on a bench, I can see the Mediterranean a few blocks away.

After checking in, we strolled around the city center. Almost immediately, we hit a month-long international festival with live music and dance performances, food court, and craft booths—a fun place to hang out for an hour and get a bite to eat. We settled on Greek and enjoyed an excellent vegetarian moussaka and other items, but the small portions were highly overpriced. Some of the other stands appeared quite bit more generous with their portions.

Then around the massive and very unusual cathedral, with its round towers, and into a shopping district of high-end department stores and boutiques, including several pedestrian-only streets.

This section of Málaga appears to have been developed earlier but built up in the 19th- early 20th centuries and is very beautiful. The buildings have ornate graphic accents, many balconies, and a wide range of color schemes. The cathedral and a huge park with a castle and ramparts anchor it all. And it's very walking-friendly; distances that look quite far on the map turn out to be less than ten minutes—say, from the Alameda Principal all the way to Picasso's birthplace on Plaza Merced.

Which was our first stop after breakfast: fun, studenty neighborhood and the site of a just-completed major film festival. Málaga, although peaceful and comfortable, has a lot going on. I saw a poster for yet another festival: of theater, starting the day after we leave—and numerous advertisements for various concerts, plays, lectures and courses. Not to mention quite few museums: one covering music, another, flamenco, contemporary art, two different museums about Semana Santa (Holy Week), bullfighting, local anthropology, popular fashions, transportaion, wine, and several others. And that doesn't even count the castle, cathedral, or various palaces. It's competing for the designation as "cultural capital of Europe" for 2016,

Our first choice was the internationally known Picasso museum, but unfortunately, our Málaga day was a Monday, and it was closed. So we settled for the small museum at his birthplace, which happened to have a special exhibit on his bullfight-related art—a side of him I hadn't really paid attention to. Particularly striking: a series of simple ink drawings of a bullfighter with some women, all nude including the matador). In one, a woman shapes her hair into darts. In another, the bullfighter charges at the women, holding a bull's head (the title of that one translated as something like "bullfighter's game").

The gift shop offers a wide selection of Picasso memorabilia, including many prints of his work throughout his long career; the two smaller sizes are only €6.60 and €8.80 as of April, 2009.

On the same block, we chose to lunch at the Cañadú, a vegetarian restaurant. Since everything was meatless, we could actually take advantage of the four-course fixed-price lunch special, and the best food was a lot better than at Raices, back in Granada—the only other place we'd been able to do so.

Three dishes stood out: ajo blanco, a garlic and almond soup; couscous with almonds and raisins in a curry sauce, and judiás blancos, a tomato-based soup of white beans, thick green beans (judiás verdes), and other vegetables. Food was uneven, however. The salad with avocado dressing was mediocre, the cauliflower croquetes Raf ordered were greasy and flavorless in my opinion—but he liked them. And my opinion of the place slid dramatically when the brown rice that came with my very tasty eggplant dish was half-raw and way too salty.

After lunch, we took a long ride on the #11 bus out to El Palo, which is supposed to be the best beach. Though we glimpsed some fancy resorts on the hill at the far end, the beach was unimpressive. Yes, the water looked beautiful, but it was much colder than at Tangier and several areas were strewn with litter. Still, off-season with most of the shops closed, it was a nice, quiet walk.

On the way back, we got off at the Plaza del General Torrijos, a very busy rotary with a big fountain, on the opposite end of the park from our hotel. From there, we could climb—and I do mean climb—the ramparts of the Castillo Gibralfaro, with amazing views of the entire city and harbor. From the highest lookout before paying the castle admission fee, we could actually watch matadors practicing their cape maneuvers in the empty bullring, far below!

On the way to Picasso's house earlier, we'd spotted a chocolatier, Cacao Sampaka, Calle Granada #49. Now it was late enough to buy something, and we chose gelato (very good) for right there, and cocoa beans to take home (in Spanish, they're called pepitas de cacao, as differentiated from pepitas de calabacín, pumpkin seeds).

We had a relatively extended conversation with the owner, Miguel Rivas Valdés, who seemed surprised to meet Americans who could formulate complete grammatical sentences in Spanish—not that ours would win any prizes—and asked where we'd learned. Turns out he also teaches English.

In all, we found Málaga quite charming and I could have done with another few days there, but that will have to be another trip.

Shel Horowitz is the Editor of Global Travel Review and author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty With a Peasant's Pocketbook.


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