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The Alhambra and Other Adventures
Having been in Granada for six weeks, in my typical restless manner, I have set out to explore this ancient city as much as possible. These ventures serve multiple purposes for me, including getting out of my now roommate-free apartment, keeping my mind from racing with a washing machine of continuous, cycling thoughts, and last but certainly not least experiencing both popular and hidden attractions and sights within the city limits. Beginning with next week I will be traveling for all but two of the remaining weekends of the semester, so I have made it a personal mission to see literally as much of the city as possible Monday through Thursday. I have become a more solitary person than ever before in my life, but that is not to say I am without friends here - that is far from the case. It is simply a reflection onto how my own method of getting to know this city has been on a very intimate, tactile basis; by not only seeing the sights but also absorbing the smells, tastes, sounds, and many feelings this diverse place has to offer, I am slowly but surely coming to love Granada for all that it is worth.
My initial reaction was certainly mixed, as the city is much larger, louder, smellier, smokier, and more urban than I anticipated (this expectation, one of the few I held before coming here, is certainly my own fault), and the process of settling in to a new home and a new culture did not take place immediately. However, through daily explorations going to and from the gym, by trying to never take the same route twice, and by talking with and listening to locals, I am slowly unearthing treasures that have helped stem the tide of loneliness that accompanies a move to a foreign location. These adventures have taken many forms and yielded different results and benefits, but have all been welcome, wonderful aspects of my time in sunny Southern Spain.
Those who know me now are certainly familiar with my love for fitness and staying active in general, and this drive has been a huge part of my acclimation to Granada. I joined a cheap gym that is about a twenty minute walk from my house, and this has enabled me to realize dual purposes of staying in shape and walking around town. I am really amazed at how I literally can take a different path to and from the gym every day, and I have scouted out places to visit slowly but surely during my walks to not only the YO10 gym but also the bus and train stations and a memorable foray up to the university campus to attend class. No matter how far it is (the bus station is a good hour from my house) I walk everywhere, and have loved being on my feet. Apart from the Casa de Los Tiros Museum and the Press Museum that I mentioned in the last post, I also visited the amazing monastery of San Jeronimo last week with Kristen and Natalie. What seemed to be an ordinary religious sanctuary was instantly transformed into a spectacular experience upon entering the chapel, with a dazzling display of intricate artwork covering every square inch of the walls, and the admission price was instantly validated.
In addition to the gym, I have also even running as much as possible while the weather is still warm, and these runs have taken me all over: to a mountain up above the Alhambra overlooking the city, to a nice park alongside one of the city's four rivers, to the famous Mirador de San Nicholas viewpoint before sunrise, a particularly memorable one that took me up the deserted, steep, incredibly narrow and twisting streets of the Arab Quarter, the Albaycin.
I have also stumbled upon random spots like a specialty Russian grocery store and small art galleries around town. The street art is amazing, and while I expected Granada to sing a constant tune of traditional tango, there are definitely patches of the Beastie Boys mixed in to this hip, young, bustling metropolis.
Walking, when I am able to avoid the crowds and the persistent clouds of smoke that hang in the air, has been a joyful, integral part of my life in Granada thus far.
Endless nooks, side streets, and vistas aside, this week I finally was to lucky enough to experience the crown jewel of the city, the region, and possibly the whole country: the Alhambra. It is the most visited sight in Spain, and I can finally say that this fact is with good reason. The site is of extreme historical importance, as it was the capital of Islamic caliphates in the Mediterranean region from 711 to 1492, when the Catholic armies of Isabella and Ferdinand were presented with the key to the Alhambra by Boabdill, the last sultan, at the culmination of a protracted military campaign. Although extremely crowded with hordes of mostly old, loud, and smelly tourists, for once I fully accepted the role of the outsider and simply set out to enjoy the moment. While a bit rushed, we saw all the main points of the palatial complex. The tour began with the Alcazaba, including the military fortress and iconic towers that rise above the city.
We then made our way through the Nazari Palaces, a famous, wonderful collection of the Arab Sultan's palace, with amazing geometrical decorations and structures at every angle.
We ended in the gardens of the Generalife, a stunning compilation of precise, beautiful flora, with a self-sustaining irrigation system snaking through the hedges.
After the group departed, I had a late bocadillo of tortilla and tomato in the gardens and then spent the following two hours in a secluded corner writing this blog, soaking in the smells and sounds of the gardens, enjoying an amazing view of the palace and the city, thankful for the late afternoon shadows as well as relief from the earlier crowds. I stayed until the guards kicked me out at closing, and I took so many pictures both my camera and my phone died. The massive pink setting sun over the Alhambra is an image that will stick with me the rest of my life.
The entire experience is almost indescribable, as I am at a loss for words when attempting to recount the wondrous imagery I just witnessed. It is easily as good as advertised, a lavish architectural masterpiece that while probably not without equal in the world, certainly ranks as one of the most amazing experiences on earth. My time in Europe has taught me that "touristy" places are not always bad, because there is a reason why everybody wants to see something. A 1400 year old, massive multi-cultural palace that is wholly preserved definitely meets the criteria necessary to warrant a visit.
This weekend, I added a pair of outdoor excursions from small mountain towns near Granada to the list. On Saturday I hiked up above Alfacar with a new friend, Morgan, and had a nice day in nature.
Sunday, after setting out with an international group of two German guys, Dominik and Mario, and Belgian and French girls, Hélene and Nina, to hike above Güejar Sierra, we ran into a group of Spaniards and accepted their invitations to join them on their gastronomic tour of the countryside. They showed us the best spots to pick and eat all kinds of berries, nuts, grapes, and other little goodies along the walk down to the village of Quentar, and it was a very Spanish experience indeed.
A relaxing weekend outdoors and outside the city limits with new friends was exactly what a boy needed to get away from the bustle of life and served as a wonderful calm before an impeding storm of five consecutive weekends on the road.
As my enticing slate of continental travel looms, I can say with confidence that weekend visits will not be so much an escape from Granada as much as opportunities to visit other places, because the weeks here, while filled with classes (yes I am in school here, contrary to how I make it seem), will also contain a fun life in a very entertaining city. My life in Granada up to this point was pretty much perfectly summarized by my hero Anthony Bourdain, and I highly recommend watching the episode of his trip here to see a good account of local life, with a perfect combination of tapas, traditional family meals (mainly lunch), and special cookouts like the birthday party I attended.
After watching Bourdain, I stumbled across one of the bars he visited on a frequented path from the gym, and it was as good as advertised.
Going out for tapas is unbelievably fun and a great way to meet both flamenco legends and friends of my host parents as well as some of the more than 70,000 students that attend the university. Being hungry when walking through the city is the worst thing possible, because it seems as if there are restaurants situated on every street, alley, and tiny plaza one might find. Spaniards are natural born foodies lacking adventure, but when the food tastes as good as it does here, I can see why they rarely eat anything else (after six weeks of hearing about how much I miss spicy food, my host mom made me eat a dried cayenne pepper...needless to say it left me speechless, and reinforced a fundamental personal commitment to always respect the pepper).
In reality, the city, while not without it's drawbacks, is full of truly magical adventure, and I am overcoming previous attitudes to slowly love this city that is crazy about some of the joys of my life, including football (soccer) and food. Additionally, a culture that revolves around relaxation views personal fitness with a fair amount of distaste, so my workout routine is relatively uncrowded, a welcome change from back home. After I complete my activities for the day, including exercise, school, and cultural immersion, I get to sit back with new friends from many different backgrounds and enjoy the moment. As the shadows grow long, stretching across the flowerbeds of the Generalife, I am looking forward to three months of experiences ranging from Big Ben to the Hagia Sofia, with a healthy amount of tortilla, olive oil, flamenco, and relaxation mixed in. My magnificent, fortunate life, especially following positive perspective and reflection, continues to amaze me with its paralyzing capacity for opportunity.