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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Where to eat, sleep and shop in Granada, southern Spain

A major cultural centre of Moorish southern Spain, Granada is best visited before the heat and crowds of summer set in

The Alhambra with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. Pixabay
The Alhambra with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. Pixabay

Why Granada?

Even for its backdrops alone, Granada is worth visiting – it sits in front of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. But Granada has a special history, too. It was the last bastion of the Islamic caliphate that spread over much of southern Spain, finally being conquered in 1492.

It was the defence of Islamic Spain that led to the construction of Granada’s top attraction – the Alhambra. This hilltop complex of gardens, palaces and fortifications is one of the world’s great sights.

Architectural detail from within the Alhambra. Pixabay
Architectural detail from within the Alhambra. Pixabay

But it sits atop a hugely likeable city with a distinctive character. It’s very clearly Spanish for the most part – evenings are often spent tapas crawling. But the Moorish influence is still strong here, with several streets that could easily be mistaken for Moroccan souqs, with teahouses (called “teterías”), hookah lounges, and tiny shops selling slippers and lamps. Book ahead and travel outside the summer peak season for the best experience.

A comfortable bed

The dream stay – which books out weeks in advance – is the Parador inside the Alhambra complex. It’s a former monastery, blessed with sumptuous gardens of its own, a swoony interior courtyard and lashings of beautiful wood and stone work. It’s the sort of place where proposals are made. Doubles start from

€187 (Dh823).

Elsewhere, the Hotel Gar-Anat is one of several riad-esque hotels in historic buildings. But this one ladles on the charm. Sumptuous wood carvings, walls with quotes from Granada-linked poets painted on them, and a giant metal “wishing tree” centrepiece that guests can leave feedback on are among the delightful oddities. Doubles cost from €119 (Dh524).

The Monjas del Carmen is in that classic “won’t excite anyone, but won’t disappoint anyone” territory. But it’s comfortable, has sofa beds for kids as standard, and is about as central as it’s possible to get, making it a bargain at from €54 (Dh238) a night.

A royal palace in Granada. Pixabay
A royal palace in Granada. Pixabay

Find your feet

Kick off in the Capilla Real, where the monarchs who united Spain – Ferdinand and Isabella – are buried in an ostentatious marble mausoleum. Then head along the Darro river to the Palacio de los Olvidados. Inside, there’s what looks like it is going to be a bog standard museum of torture instruments, but it’s much more interesting than that. It’s more about who was doing the torturing – the notorious Spanish Inquisition – and why the gruesome methods were used to extract confessions.

The palace is one of several private palaces in the historically Muslim Albaicín neighbourhood, which is a mystifying maze of cobbled streets, teterias and lookouts. The best of these is the Mirador de San Nicolás, which stares out at the Alhambra. The simplest way to find it is to take the steepest uphill option every time you come to a fork in a lane.

Moorish architecture in Andalucia. Pixabay
Moorish architecture in Andalucia. Pixabay

Meet the locals

Granada is a justifiably popular place to learn Spanish. Escuela Delengua offers intensive two-week, small group courses for €260 (Dh1,180). But the key is that it offers several daily activities alongside the classes that are designed to introduce learners to Spanish life and the local population.

Granada's historic centre. Pixabay
Granada's historic centre. Pixabay

Book a table

The €40 (Dh176) evening jaunt around the city’s tapas haunts with Granada Tapas Tours (www.granadatapastours.com) is a great way of getting to know Granada’s food scene. The joints visited vary every night, as do the dishes served up – which might be cod-stuffed peppers at one stop, and home-made meatballs at the next.

The Restaurante el Trillo in the Albaicin has a gorgeous leafy terrace with trickling fountains and bird boxes. Dishes are beautifully presented, and have traditional Andalucian sweet-toothed leanings with things like prune sauces and fruit garnishes. Mains cost around €16 (Dh71).

Shoppers’ paradise

The riverside Carrera del Darro has a few interesting shopping options, including Patio de los Perfumes, which not only sells perfumes but also makes its own from ingredients behind the counter. There’s also a small perfume museum,
where they run workshops for anyone wanting to concoct their own fragrance. A little further along is Alea, which specialises in photography, but also does has some lovely 3-D photo/art hybrids, which have opening doors and windows, or foregrounds physically in front of backgrounds. It’s a cute concept that works.

What to avoid

Summer. The Alhambra is rightly Granada’s jewel, but it is so popular that restrictions are put on how many people can be inside at any one time. In practice this means that between April and October you’re probably going to need to book in advance – follow the links on alhambragranada.org. This is particularly the case for the Nasrid Palaces, for which tickets are required.

The Alhambra is busy with tourists between April and October.
The Alhambra is busy with tourists between April and October.

Don’t miss

The Alhambra is as good as its reputation would suggest. Often mistakenly referred to as a palace, it’s more a series of palaces added through the generations as part of a hilltop town. Several things will strike while walking through – keyhole-style doorways, lavishly intricate stonework, arches designed to show off the city below, surprise courtyards emerging at the end of seemingly unpromising staircases.

Inside the Generalife in the Alhambra, Spain. Pixabay
Inside the Generalife in the Alhambra, Spain. Pixabay

The gardens are beautifully kept, and full of peaceful nooks and crannies, while the Alcazabar pulls off the intimidating, austere fortress thing with aplomb. The Nasrid Palaces, though, are where decoration reaches its pinnacle.

Getting there

Emirates and Etihad fly direct from Dubai to Madrid, then codeshares with Iberia on to Granada, from Dh3,500 return including taxes.

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