Granada has three significant historical districts, explained my host when I arrived Friday afternoon, that form a bit of an L-shape around the Alhambra. Our apartment was in Realejo, the Jewish quarter. To the northwest was Albaicin, the Muslim neighborhood, and connecting the two like a joint was el Centro, the Catholic area, which today is just a shopping district crowded around the cathedral that contains the tombs of some Spanish monarchs - among them Ferdinand and Isabel.
My host got quite excited when describing the commune of Sacromonte, a sort of extension of Albaicin, because that's where the gypsies took refuge after being driven out of the city proper. Actually, I'm not entirely sure that he was talking about gypsies on account of his thick Italian accent. The word he used sounded like it could be "hippies," except that the way he enunciated the first syllable made me imagine it began with the letter "g." Anyways, they - whoever these people were - carved caves into the mountain and invented flamenco music.
The following morning I set out to explore Sacromonte and Albaicin, which my host had deemed to have priority over the other neighborhoods. From his enthusiasm and wild gesticulations in relating the history of Sacromonte, I was expecting to see something bizarre and exotic, maybe like that TV show "Swamp People" except on land. Instead, I couldn't help but feel a bit let down when I found a little hilltop community that looked like it could have been transplanted from Greece - whitewashed walls, blue trim, cobblestone terraces. Pretty, but nothing like the savage cave-dwellers I had in mind.
Albaicin, however, did not disappoint. Imagine the impossible maze that Ellen Page's character draws in Inception, plopped on a steep hill and with ancient and unevenly cobbled "streets" (some are barely wide enough for a car to pass) that alternately make you trip and slip. Each time I attempted to navigate using the map on my iPhone, it was as though Google was placing my blue dot at random, constantly jumping around even when I myself hadn't moved an inch. The fun was in discovering all the hidden shops, restaurants, and scenic view points - as long as I could see the Alhambra, I vaguely knew which way I was going.
Now, any account of Granada would be remiss in not mentioning the food, because legend has it that it's where tapas came from. But what are tapas? For the longest time I thought it was something fancy and exclusive, because of the swanky tapas bar that I often drove past at home to get downtown. Turns out the origins are much more modest.
Way back in the day bars gave out slices of bread to cover your beer and prevent fleas from landing in it. So, now, tapa is just a general term for a small plate of food to be consumed with a drink - like an aperitif. Granada is one of the few - possibly only - places where tapas are still given out for free with your beverage. Generally you'll pay, say 1-2€ for a beer, and shortly after the waiter will come out with the food.
But although they're free, not all tapas are equal. At best I've received a decent portion of paella; at worst a sandwich featuring an unidentifiable cut of meat whose pink coloring rubbed off on the bread in a most unappetizing manner. My advice: steer clear of any place advertising FREE TAPAS as they're more inclined to offer sub-par fare to tourists.
3 places to go for tapas:
- Bar los diamantes, Plaza Nueva, 13. They specialize in sea food so expect a plate of calamari, clams, or something similar.
- Bodegas Castañeda, Calle de Almireceros, 1. Traditional bar with excellent service - this is where you can get paella.
- Plaza Campo del Principe. One side of the plaza is lined with restaurants featuring nearly identical menus. The food isn't amazing but it's a nice atmosphere to sit and snack while you wait for dinnertime to roll around. (Spaniards tend to eat late - even by European standards - so except for touristy restaurants, kitchens won't be fully up and running until 8:30pm or possibly later).