La Alhambra, Caves and Flamenco, Oh My!

Granada, Spain proudly boasts it’s rich history of three different religions and cultures, namely Islam, Judaism and Christianity. There are many cities with these three communities in the south of Spain, otherwise known as Andalucía, and Granada is one of them. I must say, Granada has been my favorite city so far, for many reasons. Then again, I haven’t seen Cádiz or Sevilla yet! What I love about Granada is the coastal feel, the white homes on the hills, the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance, the strong history, the rich culture and the COLORS. Man, this city was SO colorful, and I loved it!

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After seeing only gray or brown Catholic churches for the whole time I’ve been in Spain, this was a refreshing difference. Don’t get me wrong; Catholic churches are beautiful, but after a while the monotonous plain color, solemn replications of the crucifix and gothic architecture gets old after all while and everything blends together.

Between 711 and 1492, the Arabs ruled the south of Spain and there was a religious tolerance in the community—unlike when the Catholics who ruled after (Spanish Inquisition, anyone?)! Nowadays, people give the Middle Easterners a bad rap but in reality it was the Roman Catholics who were the real jerks in history. The Moorish influence is seen very evidently in Granada and in the south of Spain as a whole. In fact, these guys were pretty cool! Their architecture and design was a little different. They didn’t believe in having human images, so they substituted them with spectacular and extremely ornate designs, colors and tessellations. The intricacy is simply stunning.

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Tessellations on a balcony

The fact that the ceramics, stone and wood are hand-carved is a million times more impressive!

So here’s how it all began, our journey to Granada during Valentine’s Day Weekend: we opted for an early evening bus so that we could have a full night’s rest in an actual bed at the hostel. Last time when we went to Barcelona, we thought we would save time by “sleeping on the bus” overnight. Ha, what a joke. I may have accumulated a pathetic 2 hours of light sleep during that whole ride.

Needless to say, I am glad we chose that particular bus option. Upon arrival, it was too late for busses to still be running so we were stuck taking taxis, which are overpriced as we all know. They even charged us for putting our bags in the trunk—what a rip! But we had no choice. The hostel was a great choice. Snugly nestled behind the main road on Calle Padre Alcover, this hostel is designed with inspiration taken from the city it is in. A beautiful courtyard with elaborate stonework lies in the middle and wooden and adobe textures surrounded us. The beds were very comfortable too, like the ones I mentioned from London!

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The courtyard inside our hostel. Beautiful atmosphere for only 13 euro a night?! I’ll take it!

The next day was Valentine’s Day and the best gift I received was news from my buddy, Pearson, letting me know I passed my edTPA and that I could therefore go into the field of teaching. Thanks Pearson. You may love me, but this still doesn’t change my feelings for you. We’re just…incompatible.

After our free breakfast at the hostel (coffee/tea, toast, croissants, yogurt) we headed out on the “free” city tour. In many major cities that I have visited in Europe, “free” walking tours are offered to hostel guests. I’ve taken one in London, Barcelona and now here in Granada. My tour guides are always great, and I am always not only obligated, but willing to give them a donation. That’s why these tours aren’t technically free. Plus, I’d feel like a scumbag if I just walked away without giving them a tip/donation.

Anyway, our tour guide was really cool. He took us around the sites of Granada not usually seen by tourists—all of these sites were uphill. My calves! Thank goodness I already have calves of steel from my daily trek to class at Geneseo.

We took in some beautiful views of the city and the surrounding mountains and took in the fresh air, and the occasional whiff of mala hierba stung our noses in some areas. I’m probably going to say this a million times, but man, the COLORS. Wow. Absolutely stunning, vibrant and uplifting! In fact, the street signs which were made of ceramic were hand-painted hundreds of years ago and still remain intact. Lovely flowers and plants were dispersed around us and contrasted exquisitely against the white homes.

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Me and the view over the hills

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One of the VERY MANY hand-painted signs

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So adorable!

Let me take a quick moment to brag a little bit. (Sorry!) When we went to Granada, it was about 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit…back in N.Y; it was about 20-30 with blizzard conditions. I was walking around without a coat, taking in sunshine! That is all.

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No coat! 🙂

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I’ll never get over this view!

Back to the regularly scheduled programming. So after the tour was all said and done, we got some hand-crafted souvenirs at a local shop. That’s one thing I love about Granada and Spain in general—the predominance and appreciation for mom & pop shops. There are few mega corporations that run the country (*cough, cough* McDonald’s and Wal-Mart!), but rather there are so many stores run by actual local people who care. And the money that is spent there goes back into the community’s economy, not some grubby CEO’s pocket. The artistry was very creative, thought out, and wonderfully executed in each item I purchased.

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This is the store (above) where I got many hand-crafted souvenirs from the friendly owner!

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A business with MORE hand painted signs. Notice, they sell churros con chocolate!! 🙂

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Bocadillos (sanswiches)!

On our way back to our hostel, we stumbled across a bar/restaurant owned by a famous Flamenco dancer. We had worked up a pretty good appetite from walking all morning, so the lady welcomed us in gleefully with some dancing and a big smile. She was the sweetest lady! When browsing the menu, we couldn’t help but notice a photo of the owner beaming next to the United States’ first lady—Michelle Obama. We must have been in a good restaurant!

I ordered paella with a side salad and a glass of red wine. For dessert, I sampled my first authentic Spanish flan. It was SO delicious, and very rich! Everything was exquisite, from the food to the atmosphere to the service.

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Loved the decorations!

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The inside of the restaurant

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Paella, nom nom!

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FLAN! 😀

By the time we arrived back at the hostel, our next tour would be starting soon. A few of us (eventually turning into all 7 of us) decided to go on a cave tour. Now, think for a moment. When you think of a “cave tour”, you probably picture dark, dank, humid and smelly caves in the mountains. That’s what I thought we were in for…boy was I wrong!

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Granada’s version of a trailer–a cave.

The caves of Sacromonte, or just el Sacromonte, is an area of Granada entirely covered by cave dwellings. Yes, people nowadays still live in caves! Our tour guide was awesome—he explained the history of these caves, saying they’ve been around for hundreds of years and that during the Franco dictatorship they were abandoned because it was illegal to stay there. After his reign ended, people returned, and are still excavating, designing, upgrading and just plain pimping out their cribs. Cave homes can be as primitive or as modern as the owner wants. There are a lot of cats and dogs roaming about, people (that look like hippies) walking around and playing music or chatting and chickens clucking. Some caves dwellings even have sewage and electricity—even wi-fi! But those are the “upper class” ones. Incidentally, those are also the ones owned by the government that people actually pay to live in.

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Caves on the hill

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This guy had is own chickens (you can also see on the table that he’s eating another Spanish traditional meal. Pan con tomate-toast (or bread) and tomato

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The inside of someone’s cave home!

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Our tour guide said that this area is going to be worth a lot of money someday. Probably because these homes here are looking RIGHT AT the Alhambra!

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A modest cave

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Isn’t it crazy that people still live like this?

The more basic package—a whole in the wall and a tiny plot of land—is entirely free. First come, first served. If you leave your cave for an extended period of time, someone has the complete right to take it. You don’t have a deed! Sucks to be you. Wait—why on earth would anyone choose to live in a cave? IT’S FREE! Hello! With the rising costs of housing and literally everything else, some people choose to live in a cave to save money. Not a bad idea.

Also, with the whole crisis going on in Spain right now, many hard working blokes like you and I have been pushed out onto the streets with no other option.

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That cave cat just looks so content. Man…

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Some beautiful grafitti

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Clearly, the cave tour was a good idea. I learned a lot about the history of Spain from a different perspective and even got to go inside someone’s cave dwelling! Our tour guide also told us about this little convent off in the distance where the nuns have a special “marriage stone”, and whoever touches it gets married within the next calendar year. I kept as far away from that thing as possible.

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There’s the convent! This as as close as I got, and that was good enough for me.

After the tour, our guide invited us into a tiny hole-in-the-wall (literally!) tapas bar at the bottom of the hill that was built into a cave. What a perfect way to end the tour! We snapped some pictures in front of the Alhambra (which we would be seeing the next day!) and went inside. 20140214_192614

After we left the bar (above)…View of the Alhambra

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Our group! 🙂

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Inside the cave bar! 🙂

So remember all my talk about tapas from previous blog posts and about how basically their God’s gift to mankind? Okay, here’s another lesson about them. Some tapas bars don’t give you a choice of what tapas you get—that’s actually the original way tapas were served. The bar gave you whatever they had on hand that evening. That’s how this cave bar worked. It was a different experience for me, as I am used to ordering my own. We got the epitome of Spanish foods: olives (aceitunas), bread (pan) and Spanish ham (jamón ibérico). Man, those Spanish love their ham!! (I’ll tell you why another time!)20140214_190838

Tradition!

I ordered my first mojito ever, which is pretty good and it was a strange combination of mint and citrus. I liked the touch of real mint leaves in the drink.

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Boy, what a night!

LA ALHAMBRA

Drumroll, please! The Alhambra. Just…wow. It was everything I imagined and more. Rewind—I remember sitting in my 10th grade Spanish class and leafing through my Spanish teacher’s photo album of Granada, when she visited La Alhambra and talked to us about it. I remember seeing pictures in text books and hearing about its huge significance in Spanish history. And here it was—staring me dead in the eye (metaphorically speaking) with its herradura arches, colors, tessalations, intricate designs, mosaics and a wealth of history. My group was smart and bought our entrance tickets ahead of time, since buying them at the door won’t guarantee you a spot in.

La Alhambra displays such amazing and skilled artistry through its choice of colors, use of fountains and arches, etc. The Moors used tessellations (interlocking shapes into an unending pattern) for a couple of reasons. 1) They didn’t believe in graven images of humans. 2) The unending, infinite nature represented the eternal nature of God, Allah. Arabic inscriptions meticulously carved into the wooden walls flowed throughout the entire palace, to emphasize that point.

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Arabic inscriptions and tessellations. 

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The ceilings

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THIS IS HAND CARVED!

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The location of the Alhambra is on top of a hill, overlooking its kingdom at one time, making it difficult for intruders to enter. It is surrounded by mountains, the Río Darro and some woods, making it a perfect location for a palace. Beginning in 889, it was constructed as a small fortress. Many years later after its neglect, it was rediscovered in the mid-11th century by the Moorish king Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar (doesn’t that name sound oddly like “Alhambra?” Hmmmm…) In 1333 it was converted into a palace by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada.

Enter the Reconquista. 1492. The Catholics come in and screw everything up: they abolish religions, expel people, torture people for not wanting to follow their religion—you know, the usual. So Charles V sees this place and he’s like, “Hey, this is a pretty sweet place. I think I’ll live here”. They add on some structures, not nearly as incredible as the Arab ones and call it a day. We knew when we reached the Catholic section immediately because it suddenly became plain and boring.

Fast forward a couple centuries—approximately 300 years. The Alhambra fell into disrepair and was rediscovered by European scholars in the 1800’s. The rest is history. It is now one of Spain’s major tourist attractions, boasting the country’s most significant Islamic architecture, meshed together with 16th-century and later Christian building and gardens.

The Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is a big deal.

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We enjoyed the day in the Alhambra, and I got some pretty magnificent photo opportunities!

Prepare yourself–I got PLENTY of pictures for you to enjoy! 🙂

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The granada, or “pomegranate”, the city’s symbol!

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On our way from the Alhambra, the group decided that it would be fitting to try some Middle-Eastern foods. The best place for that? The Albayzín of course! The Albayzín is the district of Granada that we had been touring, with its narrow, winding streets radiating of their Moorish past. In specific, we visited Calle Calderería, a street with a heavy North African influence in regards to the community, shops, restaurants, teterías (tea shops) and street vendors and artists. This street and the ones surrounding it are home to the modern Muslim community.

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At the restaurant we chose, for about 7 euro, we got a three course meal; another good thing about this place was that it was 100% vegetarian. For the “primer plato”, I got some falafel, which is basically fried hummus. This was served on top of more hummus. As the main course, I ordered vegetable lasagna which was also pretty good. There was less pasta (a plus for me) and more filling. Our dessert was something very new for me. It was a pretzel looking shape, all contorted and glistening from its honey-glaze. Sesame seeds were sprinkled on top. Chebakia. Man, was this stuff good! It was lightly sweet, flaky and sticky—a good compliment to a cup of tea.

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Chebakia!

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The inside

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Falafel

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Veggie lasagna

Speaking of tea. I figured, since this area is so big on tea, I should order some. I got the “especialidad de la casa” which was the “house specialty”, being a blend of green teas. My friends ordered another type of tea, which I tried and fell in love with. It was called, “té Pakistani”, or “Pakistani tea”. Instead of being brewed with water, this tea is brewed with hot milk and a little sugar is added. It’s unique and delectable blend of black tea, vanilla, cinnamon and cloves gave it the flavor of rice pudding—no lie, this stuff could be a dessert!

Needless to say, I bought a couple bags of it at a shop nearby.

That night, we went to a Flamenco bar. Luckily we found one with open space for 15 euro and it included a free drink as well. (Boxed wine, beer or juice, but hey—I’ll take what I can get.) This flamenco show venue was extremely small and intimate, very…makeshift looking. It almost appeared as if someone had just set this up in their basement.

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However as we all know, we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and here’s why. The troupe that performed on the tiny little stage in front of us consisted of only about 5 people: one dancer, singer, guitar player, pianist, and percussionist. Just by watching this production, it was evident that this group had a special chemistry by the way they nonverbally communicated throughout the performance and followed each other’s cues.

That’s not all either! Every single member was extremely talented. Let me start with the singer. First of all, this girl who was but my age and of a small build had such an amazingly powerful voice, you would not believe that such a strong sound came out of her! She sang so soulfully and every note was perfectly pitched and executed. Just…wow. The pianist and guitar player both kept with the rhythm and performed each note skillfully. The drummer was multi-talented, utilizing a variety of instruments to keep the beat and carefully following the lead of the dancer.

And oh, man. The dancer. This girl is MY AGE. She had 4 costume changes throughout the production, performing by herself almost nonstop for an hour and 15 minutes. Every single movement was carried out with passion, expression and meaning. She not only danced—she interpreted the music and I felt as though I was in a story. From the melancholy to gleeful lyrics to the changing beat, to the emotion and flowing movements of the dancer, I was in a new world during each and every number.

Now my expectations for Flamenco shows are extremely high.

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There are many different variations of Flamenco, depending on the area you are watching it in. In this particular show, they didn’t use “castañuelas”, those clicky things that you sometimes see dancers with. In this version, there was a lot of tap dancing and of course, the flowy and sometimes seductive movements. I really enjoyed the entire performance and I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, enthralled by every movement. Totally worth every “céntimo”!

So there you have it. That was my time in Granada, a lovely and historical city in Andalucía. I hope that one day I can return to this beloved city again!

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MÁS DIFERENCIAS

Smoking

In Spain, there is a very high rate of smokers in comparison to the U.S. I see dozens upon dozens of people smoking every day and sometimes I am unfortunate enough to walk behind a smoker on my way to class. Heck, they even sell cigarettes in VENDING MACHINES here!

“Smoke up, Johnny!”

Although there have been some recent reforms, the prevalence of smokers is still relatively high. Approximately 30% of the entire population smokes tobacco every day, versus about 18% in the U.S. That’s a pretty great difference if you ask me!

Gender Roles and Family Values

Let’s begin with el machismo. What is this exactly? It is the sense of being “manly”, essentially. What “machismo” represents is the opposite of what feminism stands for—equal rights for women and an equal attitude toward them. This is a cultural thing, and very traditional in nature; men believe that it is their job to protect and provide for the family, and the women must take care of the household.

Growing up in the U.S., this is obviously seen—but not to the extent as it is in Spain. Spanish people pride themselves in sticking to traditions, and this is one of them. For example, the men don’t cook at home—ever. My host brothers need a female figure there for them every day to prepare and serve their “comida”. So what happens when my host mom can’t be there at lunch time every day? You would think that the boys could heat it up, right? Nope. Abuela comes over and takes care of it. A very different world than I grew up in, where we got home from school and scrounged our empty cupboards for something to heat up—on our OWN, mind you.

However, there is a good balance you see. The boys respect their mothers and female figures in their lives. The boys do chores around the house and study when they are told. My host dad always does the dishes after every meal. So maybe traditions aren’t so bad. The key here is respect.

Women face the same frustrations as American women. They want to go out into the work field, but are faced with lower pay scales and the expectation to have a double workday—meaning that on top of a man’s normal work day, they must also take care of the household, which is too a full time job. My host mother is like a supermom. She is going to school, working a full time job, and cooking every meal and cleaning the house on a daily basis. I have no idea how she does it! She is always tired though, and it’s a pity that she never really has time for herself. Such is the plight of women.

And another thing—families eat together more here at home. Very rarely does a Spanish family go out to eat at a restaurant—or at least by what I’ve seen.

After Franco’s dictatorship, the gender roles here have improved and 41% of the workforce is women.

Still, women walking down the street in some areas will be catcalled. “Ayyy, guapa!” Will be heard, but that’s about it. That’s just normal, and actually it is accepted as a compliment.

Although I toyed with the notion of meeting a tall, dark and handsome Spanish guy with soulful brown eyes and scruffy beard, I threw all of those hopes out the window when I learned that most Spanish guys are momma’s boys. *Sigh*. A girl can dream, can’t she? Yep, since the whole financial crisis, guys are living with their parents up until their 30’s. Yikes! They also in general are your typical momma’s boys. They want their moms to do mom-things for them that they could otherwise do on their own. That’s a deal-breaker, ladies!!!

“No pasa nada!” 

This phrase encompasses the whole Spanish attitude toward life. “No pasa nada!” (“Nothing even happened!”) is what you’ll hear when a Spaniard wants to assure you that everything is fine, and tells you not to worry. They are such a laid back, relaxed culture. I will admit, this phrase has reassured me dozens of times as well as the perspective of, “hey, chillax.” This is one part of the Spanish lifestyle I want to bring back to the states with me!

TAPAS OF THE WEEK

We went to a tapas bar while in Granada that offered your choice of THREE tapas and a “bebida” for only TWO euro!!

It was fantastic!

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SUPERTAPAS!

Thanks again for reading! Please share and come back next week, when I talk about my time in TOLEDO! 😀

Adiós! 🙂

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