Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Spain Part Four: A Vacation from Vacations and Granada

There's an old adage that when you come back from a vacation you need a vacation. We were starting to feel that way after Tarragona: we'd been going pretty much nonstop, driving was extremely stressful, and we just wanted to relax for a night. So we opened the Rough Guide and found a quiet little town called Vinaros. The guide said:

The beaches of the scruffy port-cum-resort Vinaros, next along the coast, are small but rarely packed.

Beaches? Port? Scruffy? Rarely packed? Perfect. We drove into town, ready to put on our bathing suits and hit the beach, when wonder of wonders it began to rain. Not on the plain, but in Spain, it rained. At the beach.

We instead contented ourselves with cheap but delicious small-town food and a walk along the docks, where fishermen were literally loading catches onto carts bound for restaurants across the street. It was relaxing. There was no pressure. Liz tried anchovies (you read it here first folks!) and just what the doctor ordered.

The next morning we looked at our map and realized we were due at the Alhambra in two days time and we were still a long way from Granada. Like, a whole day's travel from Granada. Spain doesn't look all that large on a map, but it's bigger than you might think, so we packed it in and spent most of the day driving. But first, we made a hotel reservation. And here's where things start to get funny.

Part of the adventure of traveling without an itinerary is that you are booking hotels the day you stay there. Inevitably, that means rooms can be hard to find. Or you can find a room for one day, but not both. Which is what happened in Granada: we had a room for two nights, but not the third. This was to become a recurring theme in our travels - plodding across a city with our suitcases in tow, relocating from one hotel to the next. Not that I'm complaining, but it's damned inconvenient, especially when check-out times (noon) and check-in times (4 pm) don't always mesh.

But we made it to our first hotel after a hair-pulling adventure through Granada at rush hour, and the bellboy parked the car for us (I have no idea where the car went, and frankly I don't want to know.) And we set off to explore Granada.

Granada used to be the seat of the Nasrid sultanate, and after Ferdinand and Isabella conquered it, they were so taken with its beauty and the majesty of its palace, the Alhambra, that they relocated their court there. Rumor has it Granada is where Columbus received the go-ahead to set off in search of a western passage to China. The town reflects this history, with a Moorish quarter (the Albaicin) and - even more interesting - a gypsy quarter (Sacromonte) where gypsies still continue to live in caves, although by all reports the cave-houses are quite comfortable.

We spent the next day touring around and, if you can believe it, hauling our laundry halfway across the city and back to have it washed. We hit two main tourist attractions: the Cathedral and the tomb of Ferdinand and Isabella, neither of which were terribly remarkable but were interesting in contrast to the Moorish architecture around town - an excellent point-counterpoint to the styles of Europe and the Muslim world at around the same time. The gothic and early Baroque styles of the Cathedral and tomb reached upwards, towards heaven, while the Alhambra was a sprawling complex firmly rooted in earth, with natural additions like gardens courtyards and fountains everywhere. It's almost a perfect symbol for the Platonic influences on Christianity and the Aristotelean influences on Islam.

After touring Granada, we spent an entire day in the Alhambra - not difficult to do considering its size, immensity, and beauty. I promised myself I wouldn't make value judgments, but in retrospect the Alhambra was probably my favorite sight in Spain. Built over a few hundred years first as a fort, then a palace, then a building of sublime beauty, the Alhambra was my first real exposure to middle eastern style architecture and is fascinating in ways completely different than European architecture. When I walked into Canterbury Cathedral, I felt as I'd always expected to feel in the presence of God. When I walked into the Royal Palace of the Alhambra, I felt I was in a peaceful place that amplified the presence of nature. Again, I'm returning to Plato and Aristotle, but there you go - it's remarkable really.

I could describe in intimate detail every part of the Alhambra we visited, but somehow I doubt that's necessary. Check out the pictures on my Flickr stream; unfortunately, it's one of those places that's hard to capture on film. And it wrapped up our adventure in Granada, which was fine because we were ready to head to our next destination - down to Andalucia and the British colony of Gibraltar. It was time to stock up on English-language reading material.

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