Andalucía: the best of Granada and Seville

Despite growing up in Spain I had never been to Andalucía, yet I had always wanted to visit Seville. In fact, at nearly 900 km from Bilbao, it is a stark contrast from the verdant green forest ridden Basque Country I grew up in. And in March, a week before lockdown was enforced in Spain, we made it there!

Having booked our flights way before COVID-19 was even a word in my vocabulary, we were glued to the news on the run up to our departure date. I had cancelled the hotels and car hire, but the flights were not refundable so we waited and waited, glued to the refresh button on Google as we checked for any coronavirus updates throughout the day (more like several times an hour). At 8 pm on Thursday night we decided we would get on our 6 am flight to Malaga the next morning! Nothing like cutting it fine!

Would we have gone knowing what we know now? Probably not. Am I glad we went? Heck yes! And below is an account of what we got up to!

A whistle stop tour of Andalucía

Not sure you can get a more stereotypical Spanish region than Andalucía. It is after all the birth place of flamenco and bull fighting and the home of free tapas. And that is all Spain is known for right? I must not forget paella, but then that originates from Valencia, but is still consumed in Andalucía so that must count too! It has beautiful beaches and plenty of brits, surely another pre-requisite to the true Spanish experience!

Photo of two women dancing flamenco, born in Seville and Granda
Flamenco Photo by Stéphan Valentin

What it also has though, which makes it particularly special, is its Moorish architecture and blended culture following 800 years of being ruled by the Moors. At times it was hard to remember that we were in fact in Spain, and not somewhere more exotic like Morocco.

Day 1 – Granada

Having taken a red eye flight to Malaga that morning we picked up a hire car at the airport and set off on a 1:30 hour drive to the beautiful city of Granada. I must admit, like most tourists, all I knew about Granada was that it was the home of the world renowned Alhambra palace, which was, as a matter of fact, the only reason for visiting the city.

However, we quickly fell in love with the charm of Granada and could easily have spent more than a day exploring everything it had to offer. This is a good thing since we found out you have to book tickets for the Alhambra weeks in advance and there were none left when we got there!

Hotel Casa Morisca

I had booked a last minute guest house within the old town, which my 5 am reading that morning whilst waiting to board the plane, had suggested was the neighbourhood to stay in. It also happened to be one of the only hotels in the old town to offer car parking. What I failed to realise whilst doing my bleary-eyed research, was there is a good reason why no hotels have parking. The old town is a pedestrian zone made of tiny little narrow, steep, windy streets packed with tourists! After many failed attempts, a lot of reversing, many apologies and only one bump of the hire car, we finally made it to our hotel.

All stress evaporated as soon as we arrived though. Nestled by the river and looking over at the Alhambra we could hardly complain! The hotel itself was an oasis of calm; set out like a Moroccan riad and built around a central courtyard with a decorative pool, it was both cool and quiet inside. And as it turned out the perfect place from which to explore the various neighbourhoods.

View of the courtyard hotel with it's central pool in Granada
Hotel Casa Morisca

Sacromonte

First stop: lunch! We both get rather grungry when hungry! Since we were in Sacromonte neighboughood we decided to venture out in search of somewhere to eat. Sacromonte is known as the gypsy quarter as it is here the gypsies settled when they first arrived in the 1400s. Unwelcome in the city they were forced to create their homes by digging caves in the hillside of Sacromonte. This is now the most picturesque neighbourhood in Granda, the whitewashed cave houses dotting the hillside with the best possible view available: they sit directly opposite the Alhambra!

Tiled stairs leading up to the restaurant in Granada
The stairs leading up to the little cave restaurant where we stopped for lunch

We found a cave restaurant in which to have some food (as proper tourists we settled for some tapas!) before climbing up to the cave museum to learn more about this settlement. The museum was unfortunately rubbish. The only benefit to it was the amount of calories we burnt trudging up the steep hill to get to it. At least we would feel a little less guilty about the amount of food we were about to consume that night! What we did learn, however, was that it is in this neighbourhood that flamenco was born. In fact, it is “the” place to be, with hillside caves hosting flamenco shows every weekend. We did intend to come back in the evening to watch one of these shows but we both chose sleep over a night out. I know! We are so boring!

We meandered slowly back from the cave museum doing what we do best: getting lost whilst exploring daily life through the local neighbourhoods. The entire old quarter of Granada is made up of tiny, steep, windy, cobbled streets. Each one more beautiful than the one before!

Photo of a picturesque house surrounded by beautiful flowers in Granada
Exploring neighbourhoods

Albayzin

Colourfully Tiled doorway in Granada
You could easily confuse parts of Granada with Morocco

After an hour of walking with nobody about we made it to the Albayzín neighbourhood, the Moorish quarter. It was much more lively here, with an abundance of tea shops, souvenir shops and bars. Touristy, but beautiful nonetheless. We settled for a spot of people watching and discovered that Granada is one of the few places in Spain where the tradition of free tapas with drinks still exists. At least there is no such thing as drinking on an empty stomach here!

We really liked this neighbourhood so settled in Albayzín for dinner, picking a really highly rated Moroccan restaurant. Wow!! The food (and the service) were incredible. We had hummus and meat keftas (meat in filo pastry) for starters and then shared their speciality meat cake. Made again with filo pastry it was both sweet and savoury. It was made with chicken, almonds and a sweet cinnamon sauce. It was surprisingly nice but would be far too stodgy to have as a regular dish! Too full for baklava we waddled back to the hotel room along the river under the watchful eye of the Alhambra.

Day 2 – Change of Plans

The plan was to get up, pack up and head to Seville for the rest of the weekend, however, we decided to check the Alhambra website once more only to find there were now tickets available! It seemed a pity not to visit the Alhambra, since it was in fact the only reason we had come to Granada, so we booked the 1pm tickets and set out to have a relaxing morning whilst we waited for our slot.

Photo of a bell tower sitting on top of a roof in Granada
Running is enjoyable with views like this

For Doug, that meant a stroll to the coffee shop for a pastry breakfast. For me, a run along “Camino de las Beas” (translated to Bea’s Way”). Aside from it being very hilly and hot, it was a beautiful run through the Sacromonte (cave) neighbourhood. I went much further than we had walked the previous day leaving the city behind as I followed the windy narrow road that took me further and further into the countryside. It was bliss!  

View of the Alhambra from Sacromonte, Granada
Not a bad view at the finishing line either!

Alhambra

After an otherwise lazy morning we headed up to the Alhambra (a 0.5mile walk or a 15k drive!). We drove so we could hit the roads straight after (not because we are lazy!).

The Alhambra is a complex of palaces and a fortress built by Nasrid Emir Mohammed be Al-Ahmar in the 1300s. It has then gradually been extended by the various royals that have resided within it. Despite different influences the Alhambra is without question one of the most beautiful pieces of Arab architecture in Western Europe. I’ll let the pictures do the talking:

Photo of two doors, Alhambra, Granada
So many doors to take photos of in the Alhambra
Tiled wall leading up to a door with an arch over it, Alhambra, Granada
The Alhambra
Arches reflected in the water of The Alhambra, Granada
The Alhambra

After we’d had enough of trying to capture in photos the beauty of the Alhambra we set off on the 3 hour drive to Seville, though, not before stopping off for one of my favourite lunches! A bocadillo! Essentially, a baguette filled with Iberian pork. Simple, delicious and very cheap!

Seville

Seville is a very different city to Granada. Busy, bustling and loud! Loud because of the chatter! We arrived at 6 pm and every bar was heaving with patrons spilling out on to the streets. Not just one street or one bar, but every single bar we passed! And they are everywhere! In fact, there are 3,000 of them!

We did what we do best and walked the streets observing life around us until we found something interesting. In this case the cathedral. It is the 10th largest church in the world and the largest gothic church. I believe it! It was huge and beautiful!

One of the imposing towers of Seville Cathedral
Seville Cathedral

Surrounding the cathedral were many horse drawn carriages. After much decision making, having checked every horse, their condition, their feet and their soundness, we finally decided on Luna. A rather hot young mare that was new to carriage driving and who was thoroughly enthusiastic.

Photo of Luna, the carriage horse that showed us round Seville
Meet Luna

The tour took us past all the key monuments including the General Archive of the Indies (there were lots of other monuments and buildings celebrating the conquest of the Americas by Christopher Columbus), the bull ring (most important bull ring in Spain), the docks (once the most important ones in the world), the University (which was once the largest tobacco factory in Europe with its own moat surrounding it to control the humidity) and finally the Plaza de España, which houses the very fancy government buildings.

Plaza de España with the carriage horse in front of it, Seville
Plaza de España

I’m sure a different guide would have provided us with thrilling stories to make each of those significant buildings much more interesting, however, truth be told, we were both happy being rocked in the carriage as we navigated the beautiful streets of Seville whilst the sun set around us.  

Tapas

There is one thing every guide book tells you to do when in Seville, and that is to go on a tapas tour! And we LOVE a food tour! In fact, it has become a must do on every one of our holidays now. The challenge however was that they all started before we arrived, so we had to settle for Bea Adventurous’ own tapas tour! I did a little bit of research, scanned a couple of blogs and started walking us around the city from one bar to the next as we tried all the must have dishes that Seville had to offer.

The Spanish tapas culture can feel quite intimidating as Spaniards don’t care much for personal space. The bars with the good tapas are always undoubtedly heaving with locals, all of whom will be shouting louder than the next. If you want to be heard you have to speak up! The atmosphere is always warm, but it is also chaotic and waiters don’t wait about so you better have your words straight when you go to order! What always amazes me is the fact that you pay at the end. How do they ever remember what you have had?

At the first bar we enjoyed some Jamon Iberico, some Albondigas (meatballs), chips (why does Doug always want chips?!) and some croquetas (Doug’s favourite).

We then continued walking on to the gipsy quarter, Triana, where we had a montadito (like mini baguette) of pork steak and jamon and some more croquetas (because there is no such thing as too many!).

Day 3 – Seville

We got up early on the final morning of our whistle stop tour to return to the Plaza de España in the hope of avoiding the crowds. We certainly succeeded in that. There is a reason they don’t go in the morning…. the light is in the wrong place! And the fountain is turned off! That made getting nice photos impossible. Still, it’s an impressive building nonetheless. Semi-circular it represents open arms to the new world (and probably an element of “aren’t I great” too).

Having spent far too long trying to get good photos without much success I ran back to the hotel along the river front whilst Doug took the more lazy approach of riding an electric scooter back. These are readily available all over the city and are operated with an app. You scan on and then you get charged at 20 cents a minute until you scan back off again. Doug did no more walking after he discovered these existed! In fact, we made our own way to all remaining attractions, Doug whizzing along on the scooter and me walking behind. He may have been faster, but my navigation was better!

Bull Ring

The only other attraction we had time for whilst in Seville was the bull ring. Bull fighting is a large part of the culture in Spain, one I don’t agree with, but a big part of Spanish history all the same. And the Seville Bull Ring is the most important bullring in Spain (although I’m sure Madrid would say the same about theirs!). It is without a doubt a very impressive building, however, the tour was rubbish.

After showing us some paintings and some Toreador (bull fighter) clothing they took us to where the horses are tied up whilst they wait to go in the ring. I have to say, the stable yard was impressively well swept considering it’s laid with cobblestones, but that is the only part of the experience I could appreciate. And that is only because I have tried to sweep cobblestones before!

The tour also took us to the little chapel where they pray before they go out and torture the poor bull for the entertainment of the sadistic audience. As we stood in the centre of the bull ring, watching young kids playfully pretend to be bull and bull fighter I couldn’t help but be angry at myself for having spent money on an enterprise that uses animals’ suffering for the entertainment of others.

I know there will be those who will argue the fact that it is a part of life and culture. But then so was the Colosseum in Rome, but we no longer have gladiators! Maybe it is time to make bull fighting a part of history.

Pottery

We spent the final hour wandering the streets of Triana, the gypsy neighbourhood across the river from which most flamenco and bull fighters originated from. The bars give homage to this with no end of bull fighting photos and posters adorning the walls. We picked one that focused on ceramic instead, made me feel much more comfortable than being stared at by a bleeding bull.

Triana is a beautiful district though, colourful and lively and bustling with life. Seville is famous for its ceramic tiles ,and it is in this neighbourhood that you’d find the most famous tile workshops and potteries. Almost every tile you see as you wander the streets of Seville, whether it on churches, bars, houses or even the impressive display in Plaza de España, will likely have been made in Triana.  

For lunch we sat at one of the bustling tiled bars watching the world walk past whilst enjoying some montaditos. These are mini baguettes filled with any number of fillings. My favourite today: spicy chorizo and cream cheese! The perfect end to a whistle stop tour of Andalucía.

Seville or Granda? That is the question!

Truth be told 3 days is simply not long enough to explore both cities. We didn’t scratch the surface of either of them. However, what I can tell you is that they are both beautiful and both worthy of visiting.

I’m undecided as to which I prefer. Seville was loud on all the senses, whilst quaint, beautiful and quiet Granada suited my personality much better. However, this observation could simply be a result of the areas we were staying in and I would not want it to cloud anybody’s judgement. Therefore, I can only think of one suggestion: visit them both, and visit them for longer than we did!

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