Exploring Spanish Cities

img_2391One of the cities we visited in Spain was Ronda. Ronda is a mountaintop city in the province of Malaga, Andalusia. The town is set dramatically above a deep gorge. Puente Nuevo, a stone bridge spans the gorge. Plaza de Toros, a legendary 18th-century bullring, is one of the touristy city’s landmarks.

Another hill side town we visited was Compéta. It is on the Costa del Sol and is eye blindig white. img_2529Up in the hills, along hairpins and winding roads, we drove. Along the way we had been told to keep out an eye for another village with a beautiful cemetery. Of course, passed it and then had to drive a few extra kilometers before we could make a U-turn. But it was worth it. I’ve never seen such a unique cemetery: it reminded me of a beehive. Apparently this is the only round cemetery in Spain. The origins or reasons are not known but new graves are stucco’ed on top of each other. img_2523

Another few kilometers uphill is Compéta. We parked the car as soon as we could and then walked through the steep, white village and on for a hike in the hills.

Then we made our way to Grenada to visit the Alhambra. As a small boy, Kees learned about the Alhambra and never forgot his visions of this mystical, mysterious place so it was high on our bucket list. The first lesson we learned here was: plan ahead. All the websites had told us to buy entrance tickets ahead of time, even though we would visit on a Tuesday in November. So we went to book online, about 3 or 4 days ahead of time and were told that all tickets were sold out. The websites also stated that a limited number of tickets would be available on the day of the visit but you would have to line up at 8 AM. We read several accounts of people who tried this, only to stand in line for a long time and then to be told there were no more tickets for that day. We hoped to avoid that.

img_2547It seemed to us that we would always be able to join a tour and obtain tickets that way. But when we tried to book a tour, they were full – even two days ahead of time! We were now starting to worry.

But when we arrived at our hotel (see the previous blog of our crazy race through Granada), they told us they would check online that night. And voila, tickets magically appear for sale again. We were happy not to have to join a tour group but to buy the (much cheaper) regular tickets. We rented audio tours at the entrance so that we still had all the pertinent information on the history of Alhambra. The only other confusing thing that was online, was about selecting a time. It sounds like your ticket is limited to a few hours each day, but this is not true. You just need to decide which time you’d like to tour one of the sites: a palace. They limited the number of people inside so you pick your own time, show up and get inside. The rest of the place is open to you all day, both before and after your palace tour.

img_2584We had pictured Alhambra as a Moorish mosque. However, it is an ancient walled city with remnants of houses and streets, restored palaces and gardens. You can easily walk around all day.

Click here for historical details and a virtual tour: https://www.alhambradegranada.org/en/info/historicalintroduction.asp

Our hotel was in Albaicin, a neighbourhood that is believed to predate the Alhambra, which has its origins in the 9th century. We found it reminiscent of Jerusalem.

The old palaces, reflected in pond, with fountains and incredible ceilings were the highlight of our visit.img_2597

If you visit Grenada, we do recommend the hotel at which we stayed (http://www.casabombo.com/espanol/) but be sure to contact them for directions! I’m told they can even meet you somewhere. If you go by car, I’d stay somewhere else! But the rooms and the views are great.

Right in the backyard of the hotel, but you have to walk around the ‘block’, is a treasure of a restaurant: https://www.facebook.com/trilloalbaicin/  It absolutely had the best food we had in all of Spain but was pricey (so we celebrated our last night in Spain – a day early…).

And then our month of exploring Spain came to an end. I learned many things. I didn’t know that Spain had so many mosquitoes…. I learned that most people here drink coffee in glasses rather than cups. I found more dog poop and people smoking here than I had expected, kind of like Holland ten years ago. I learned that basically all stores and offices close at 2 PM, then stores and restaurants all open again at 7 or 8 PM. The streets are deserted around 3 or 4 PM, but around 7 PM people start to reappear. They stream back into the streets, populate the squares. Kids, people with strollers – they all come out at night, especially on the Plaza Mayor of any town. It was neat to see such a social street life.img_2606

Madre Mia! Driving in Granada

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Compéta

Don’t ever think that you’re a pretty suave traveler, because you’ll immediately get punished. I felt that we were doing pretty good – having driven all over Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, New York; all over Costa Rica, found our way in old Jerusalem, survived Bangkok and Shanghai.

But then we visited Granada.

Our previous AirBnB was in a tiny little village on the coast. The address had a name and a number so we felt confident. But once we found the highway exit to the village, we hit dirt roads and potholes. Each corner led to another narrow dirt road without a name. We tried them all and ended up in so many backyards. After three turns into the same driveway, a Spanish woman in an apron came to talk to us. She used her hands a lot and between that and her rapid Spanish, we figured out that she had NO idea where this ouse might be.

A German couple in the next house came outside. They spoke no English but between German, Spanish and gestures we understood that they, too, had NO idea where we had to go. After a long debate, the man pointed up one road and up, up, up. We left to give it another try. They called after us, in German, “If that doesn’t work, come back and we will have a room for you to stay!” Such kindness.

img_2472The road up, up and up was the right one. It was the same width as our car without any barriers between us and the valley floor below. There were several houses at the top but none with numbers. In despair, I emailed the AirBnB and with seconds, the door opened and it was our hostess!

After driving through many Spanish cities, we decided that we had enough of traffic, narrow streets and none-existing addresses. Seville was OK because we stayed on the outskirts with our car and walked into the old city. La Linea/Gibraltar was OK but a bit unnerving, especially since they don’t seem to have street addresses and we could not find our B&B for the life of us.

So when Granada was next, we decided NOT to try and drive into any old parts of the city. Muchas gracias. We would stay OUT of the old city. We’d be smart and stay away from AirBnB’s that mentioned the words ‘central’, ‘close to’, or ‘old’. In fact, we decided to book a modern looking hotel that offered free parking. That way we would just walk into the old city.

Great.

Good move.

We booked it online, entered the address (an actual street name and number!) into our GPS and left the coast for Grenada.

First we decided to swing by the cute town of Compéta. That turned out to be a twisting, winding 30 KMs from the coast up into steep coastal hills. The road hairpinned left and right, along steep slopes, with not much of a guard rail. But we made it and it was worth the drive. Gorgeous, quaint town – eyeblinding white buildings. Beautiful.

The way down was windy-ER, steepER, twisty-ER!

img_2536But then we drove a big highway and sailed, unsuspecting, into Granada.

Our GPS kicked in and we meekly followed its instructions, left here, right there. UNTIL… it sent us closer and closer into the city center.

“Can’t be right…” I thought fleetingly.

Kees was driving and started grinding his teeth as the streets got narrower.

“Is this right?” he asked as the GPS wanted to send us across a main road and up a very narrow looking one. “I think so….” I hesitated. In that instant we both decided that the wider road looked more attractive and, ignoring the GPS, Kees turned right instead of going straight.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

We found ourselves driving down a lovely wide street. The problem was that the lanes were only for “Taxi” or “Bus”.

We tried to look like a taxi or a bus but it didn’t seem to work. People looked at us funny.

We drove several blocks hoping the lanes would change their minds. They didn’t.

At some point, waiting for a light to change, a big guy on a motorbike knocked on our window. Kees rolled it down. “‘Ola!” the guy grinned, “I ‘elp you, yes?”

“OK, yes please…” We were ready for some help here because we were now right in the city center driving in wrong lanes and our GPS kept yelling at us to turn left, no right, no recalculating!

The guy said ‘follow me’ and we happily did but then realized that he didn’t know where we were supposed to go. He guided us up a street that ended in a plaza with no way out. We parked, I hopped out and showed him our iPad with the hotel’s address. He glanced at it and said, “OK, I take you there. Follow me!” (I think, because he did not speak English).

We managed to turn the car around and followed this big guy on his motorbike.

img_2560He zigged here, zagged there, left, right, left. The roads got narrower and narrower.

We went up steep hills, around crazy sharp corners.

“He doesn’t really know where we’re supposed to go, does he?” I asked Kees who was concentrating hard on not losing this one big motorbike rider in a city centre full of motorbikes.

We stopped again. I explained, in Spanish, the hotel name, the street name, the closest main street.

“Mia madre!” he exclaimed. “Si! I know. Follow me.”

And back he jumped on his bike, racing this way and that.

The streets became alleys. The hillside steeper.

A sign said ‘historic old city’…

At one point he jumped off his bike to help guide Kees between two walls with literally one centimeter on either side of the car. We had to fold in the side mirrors or we wouldn’t fit. I felt like we were driving into a trap that we’d never get out.

“What if he’s taking us some place totally different?” I asked Kees.

He nodded, gripping the steering wheel tighter, trying to think of alternatives.

“Let’s just forget about this,” I said after an hour, “We’ll cancel the hotel, skip Granada, go somewhere else.”

Kees nodded but kept following the motorbike rider who finally stopped again.

He made Kees park and follow him on foot, down some stairs. I stayed with the car with visions of Kees being lured somewhere… What if he never came back?

But eventually they both came back, shaking their heads. We drove on and started to recognizes corners, walls with which we had earlier close encounters…

The GPS was no longer yelling at us. In fact, a few times it said “Park your car and walk to the address.” Then she lapsed into silence all together.

We stopped again, after about an hour and a half of this, and discussed the situation, in Spanish, with some parked taxi drivers who all sadly shook their heads and mimed parking your car and walking down steep stairs…

“No way!” I said, “the hotel advertised with parking. It’s not in the city…”

They shook their heads more sadly and agreed that “parking must be elsewhere. This hotel you can only reach on foot….”

We found a parking spot, which seemed to be a sprayed-painted-over bus stop. “Ees OK,” our motorbike friend insisted as we left the car and now followed him on foot down staircase and through alleys where even Granada drivers don’t seem to venture.

After more wandering, more asking, more head shaking, we found it.img_2509

In an alley that reminds us of Jerusalem, we found one house door with one tiny tile above it ‘Casa Bombo’ – by god, the name of the hotel we booked!
We were shaking by now. Didn’t even know where we left our car so we dragged our motorbike friend inside and made him tell the hotel guy, who was very understanding. Obviously we were not the first shaken guests who had wandered for hours. He poured us water, made us do some deep breathing exercises and ignored our wish to cancel the reservation.
We said goodbye to our motorbike friend. We still weren’t sure why he helped us for two hours. Was he a Spaniard proud of his city? Did he want money? He never said so but we did give him some.

Then the hotel guy piled us into a tiny little van that was totally scraped and scratched, busted and dented, and drove us – like a bat out of hell – up stairs and around bends through alleys that no sane driver would ever drive. ‘Lo and behold he found our car.

We transferred our luggage and hope to find the car back in the same spot in 2 days but we have no idea where. He took us back, showed us a gorgeous room with breathtaking views of the Alhambra, fed us beer and sangria and said “Everything’s OK.”

I actually saw a car driving up stairs here! Next time, I’m NOT booking a hotel in an old city center.

I hope.img_2554