IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 20 > Granada (Alhambra)

Granada (Alhambra)

I had very rarely been afforded opportunities during the trip to enjoy a long, relaxed sleep, and to wash away the many hours of built up exhaustion which accumulated over the days and weeks. Living in youth hostels usually required taking breakfast before nine o'clock, and whilst this option could be skipped it would only add to the expense in finding food later on, and provide no energy source to get the day started. I had slept well for all of five hours later in the night, but my two room-mates had ensured that my luxury of unconsciousness would be limited.

They had stumbled in after midnight and proceeded to put the main light on whilst they chatted and rummaged through their belongings. When being woken from my drowsy state in this way, the senses would become aware of their surroundings through a hazy sort of tunnel which magnified the things determined to be most important, and it sounded like their booming voices were being pumped through a PA system at me. Their luggage, meanwhile, must have contained pots, pans, glass vases, crockery and lead ball-bearings inside a portable reverberating cathedral.

My dormitory companions seemed totally oblivious to my presence, even though I had met them earlier in the evening and they knew that I occupied the other bed. But most annoying was the French guy's insistence on keeping the door to the corridor open. He and the Korean guy on the bunks opposite were positioned away from the line of sight of all the other hostel residents walking to and fro, whilst I was laying there with pillow marks on my face in front of all passers-by looking like a spaniel's supper. I asked him to shut the door and he grumpily mumbled something regarding the air conditioning, or lack of it.

I had assumed that the pair had both been out on the town, but come the morning the Korean explained how our other room-mate had spent most of the night in the reception, attempting to chat up the female member of staff who was on the night shift. There was little else to do of an evening inside this hostel, and I could forgive them for their desperation to get out, and their subsequent disruptive re-entry. I had an unappealing habit myself of rustling bags full of noisier bags in my dormitory whilst others tried to sleep.

I got the shower-breakfast routine out of the way, thankfully remembering the getting dressed bit in the middle else I'd have put people off their cornflakes. It was still early morning and I felt weary, so I decided to extend my stay for an extra night and cut out the panic of finding a new destination by the evening. It would also allow me access to my dormitory for the morning and a chance to take further rest. My intention was to spend the afternoon visiting the Alhambra, a beautiful palacial Moorish kingdom built on a hill to the north of the city. Several people had advised me to see the place, claiming a whole day could easily be whiled away within the grounds.

After midday I began my journey across Granada to pay a visit. I wasn't sure how or why my legs were still working, since they should have gone on strike long ago. My feet were like a school orchestra; they didn't perform in a way that was wholly satisfying but it would be difficult and ill-conceived to give them a good kicking. At the halfway point I jumped on a bus, an action I reserved for special occasions because it shaved a further Euro off my daily budget. I was dumped off in a busy central district, and I realized that the city suffered from Sintra syndrome, in that once again all the signs to the place I wanted to go seemed to point in completely the opposite direction. I was convinced that ignoring them was the best policy, and I soon found myself in a street surrounded with souvenir shops for visitors to the Alhambra.

Glancing at the crude photocopied map I had been given by my Korean hostel-mate, I could ascertain that I was standing at the foot of a large hill, the Alhambra lay halfway up it, and the entrance was thoughtfully located right at the very top. Access to the site unfairly favoured those in cars, which explained the misleading signs directing traffic the long way around the back of the hill, so I would have to take the laborious pedestrian route up through the gardens.

The surrounding lush walkways and terraced gardens were extensive, and provided a haven of tranquility away from the heaving city traffic below. The pathways were also steep and now it was my thighs' turn to take the strain. By the end of the week my bottom half should have given way and I would be a shuffling torso. Exotic trees loomed above me and birds tweeted in the gentle breeze which swayed the branches. I had begun my travels with a plan to hop from city to city, absorbing the cultural highlights and attractions, but any trip required a mixture of urban adventures and rural retreats, so that each could counteract the other and provide some respite. I had struck just the right balance so far, and here in Granada I had found a perfect setting which offered the best of both worlds within a short distance of each other.

The paths began to level out a little in the unspoilt paradise, and I neared the entrance to the Alhambra. I was channelled into a narrow footway to complete the final stage, when all of a sudden I was accosted by a wizened old heather seller who leapt out at me from a bush. I had been lulled into a false sense of security and this was clever tactics on her part. I realized quickly what her game was, but felt unable to escape on the narrow walkway we both occupied, spotting the second backup heather-basher who loitered a little further up the path in case I got away from the first one.

My Spanish wasn't good enough to fully understand the many blessings she was placing upon me, telling me how I was such a fine upstanding man and how many children I would have as she lovingly gazed at my palm. But all in my life was well, because she said so, although she then relaxed the over-compassionate muscles on her face and held out her hand coldly, demanding I stump up for the sprig of purple weed she had presumably ripped out of a nearby field earlier on. Upon emptying my wallet of coins, I found a total of just 1 Euro and 10 cents in small change, and I certainly wasn't going to be so generous as to give this wrinkled old thief one of my 20 Euro notes. With every coin I offered she moaned and stood arms folded, with a grumpy look on her face that was more tightly creased than a savoy cabbage.

Eventually she took the coins and also whipped the heather back from me, shaking her head. She resented my presence and my offerings. I argued and demanded my money back, and she began cursing my life, muttering threats which although in Spanish, were clearly along the lines of 'you will die as will all of your deformed children, everybody will detest you and your home will smell of Morocco, before your life ends diabolically in some painful freak mishap'. She ripped off a tiny sprig from the generous portion of heather she had previously placed upon my shoulder, shoving it in my hand like it was the embodiment of death itself. I was desperate to eke out my revenge and shove her in the bush, then take a photo of her yelping like an enlarged animated beetroot in a dress, but images of Spanish prison cells washed through my brain and I walked on.

I knew that this must be an infamous local tourist trap and I threw my own curses back at her, ensuring mine were larger and more heartfelt than her own, and wishing for her untimely demise when winter approached and she lost her grip on the slippery slopes of the Alhambra, sliding all the way down into town like an amateur luge enthusiast having hallucinations, and ultimately squelching under the wheels of an unstoppable taxi. Well I was quite angry anyway. Perhaps falling in the hedge would have sufficed.

The Alcazaba seen from the Generalife gardens in the Alhambra

I finished my trek and arrived at the entrance, where I was immediately met by a familiar sight. There amongst the crowds stood Eric and Susanne, looking a little puzzled and concerned. I approached with a degree of caution, knowing that my latest intrusion into their lives would arouse perfectly justified misgivings involving the keywords 'stalker' and 'Englishman'. I really hadn't expected to meet them again, although today would definitely be the last time because they were setting off later in the evening to another town, from where they would catch a plane home.

A problem was facing them, in that they had no money remaining to gain admission to the Alhambra, and the only cashpoint nearby was out of order. They had come prepared but had fallen for the same trap as myself only minutes beforehand. Likewise, my German friends had been confronted by the nasty heather-pusher, but had panicked and responded in a far more generous way than I, giving the old bat the only 10 Euro note they had. Whether they had known that I would later appear again beside them due to our strange magnetic attraction of recent days, and had stood around waiting for my help I don't know, but I offered to pay for their tickets to save them running all the way down the hill to the nearest unbroken cashpoint.

In a further twist of fate surely cunningly devised in secret by the Anglo-Germanic Goddess of Unity looking down upon us, we were issued with a joint ticket which we could not change for separates. Effectively, this meant that as the ticket was required for entrance to different sections within the Alhambra, we must stay together like a family unit for the rest of the afternoon. They were like a mother and father, and I, their worryingly grown up son.

It provided for some company and we now had no need to ask strangers to take photos. Our first discovery in the Alhambra was the Generalife gardens at the top of the hill, from where we could look down on the rest of the beautiful site, incorporating the Alcazaba (above) and the Palace of Charles V (right). The exterior of the Palace of Charles V, which contained a large circular outdoor theatre within

A view across a district of Granada from the tower of the Alcazaba
Eric and Susanne in the Alcazaba fortress We then strolled down to the impressive Alcazaba fortress (left), which commanded stunning views over Granada and the surrounding mountainous landscape (above and below). I longed to be seven years old again, as this place was heaven for hide and seek.

Another view of the mountains surrounding Granada, seen from the eastern side of the Alcazaba

There were plenty of places to explore within the Alhambra, although we were somewhat rushed as Eric and Susanne needed to depart early in order to make their travel connections. Once again the heat was overpowering, and large numbers of people were crammed into the small souvenir shop in the middle of the complex. It soon became apparent why, as it contained a drinks machine. We had all splashed out a fair amount already on liquid refreshment, and I was determined not to spend a penny extra once I spotted an opportunity to acquire some more for free.

Beside the entrance to the shop, wedged down behind the drinks machine and probably lost for years, was a sealed bottle of mineral water. This was to be my challenge, acquiring this trophy would be a poor tourist's equivalent of striking oil. The difficulty lay in the menacing gaze of one of the shop assistants, and I had to use Susanne as a visual barrier. Standing with one leg outstretched behind me in the cobweb-strewn recesses between the wall and machine, trying to look casual, I managed to drag out the bottle with my foot. I sat down on the steps and finished the raid with my hands, at which point I discovered the alarming intensity of heat which radiated from the bottle. Wedged up against the pipes behind the cabinet, the water inside had been cooking for months.

I sipped it grudgingly throughout the afternoon, wondering if I was the only European traveller this summer stingy enough to resort to such pitiful measures just to fend off dehydration. In fact I already knew that I wasn't; Susanne had stolen an orange from the life gardens earlier on. We were in this racket together.

Eric and Susanne marching off beside the giant, leaning walls of the Alcazaba

Some of the elaborately decorated walls inside the Alcázar palace We had been allotted a half-hour slot in which to visit the main attraction of the Alhambra, the Alcázar palace (left and below). This sumptuously decorated suite of halls, chambers, terraces and courtyards contained an astounding wealth of intricately carved surfaces.

The patterns and inscriptions woven into the surfaces of the walls, ceilings and floors left me agape. The honeycomb ceiling of one chamber alone must have taken a team of craftsmen half a lifetime to complete. Beautiful, elaborately patterned and colourful tile mosaics also covered most of the floors. More views of the outdoor terraces of the Alcázar

It was sad to see many parts of the structure perilously close to collapse and being desperately supported by iron bars. Other sections of the decorative walls were crumbling away, and the floors had been worn down so far that the fantastic designs were barely visible. It was all an inevitable result of the throngs of tourists passing through on a daily basis, of which I was one. One courtyard was notably exquisite, containing a glorious patio with a fountain as its centre-piece (below), but again the condition of some of the buildings around was worrisome.

The majority of the fixtures and furnishings were still intact, however, and I was left with a lasting impression of a magical Moorish legacy. The Alhambra had been worth visiting for this palace alone, and it was only a shame that we had to pass through it with some haste. I could have enjoyed a whole afternoon examining the fine details of the surroundings, but each batch of tourists had a limited period to view inside, and we were guided around on a one-way route which soon ejected us outside.

A beautiful patio with a central fountain inside the Alcázar palace Eric and Susanne needed to leave anyway, as they were cutting it fine with their timetable. We said our absolute final goodbyes, ten days after our first of so many encounters, and confident that this was most definitely the last. From now on it would be just me, and my bottle of hot water.

I stood outside in the gardens looking up at the dominant tower in the centre of the site (right), and trying to shield myself from the severe effects of an object several million miles away. For a heat source so distant, it seemed implausible that my travelling a few hundred miles to a point on the Earth so fractionally closer to it, could result in such a dramatic difference in temperature.

I'd always held a belief that the world was a fake, and everything existed underneath a huge dome. I was either an experiment or the subject of some very tedious entertainment being broadcast to the 'real world' beyond. Everything and everybody was a plant, just acting for my benefit. Even a box-office smash a few years earlier which had explored this very concept, was purely devised to try and convince me that my paranoid beliefs were entirely natural. A big-headed notion certainly, but until earlier in the year I had never been aboard a plane, and before that experience occurred I had no method to disprove the theory. My several short hops across the skies to Belgium during business trips in the spring had not really solved the matter either, as I had only risen to 21,000 feet and had therefore come nowhere near the perspex surface of the big dome. The amount of work which had gone into organizing that particular adventure for me was extreme, but in my thirtieth year of life the masters up above had decided it would be too suspect if such a flying visit was postponed any longer. So I was in fact being scorched today by an array of giant hairdryers a few miles above.

Looking up from the gardens at a bell tower inside the Alhambra

With that bastardized scientific concept firmly understood, I felt I should best seek some shade. I tried to muster some enthusiasm for the gifts in the souvenir shop, but the bottle of hot water I had salvaged earlier was probably my most desired item. I had seen everything there was in the Alhambra, sometimes at a greater pace than would have been ideal, but it had been a well spent afternoon, and I set off back down the steep hill, this time putting my calf muscles through their paces.

Stopping for a sorbet, some tiny Alhambra gifts for the folks back home and more supermarket provisions, I made my way back across the city in the rush hour traffic. Nobody was moving fast in this weather. As I observed the lazy summer life of this Andalucian city, and surveyed the grand buildings and historic culture, I had another moment of realization that strolling carefree in this magnificent land was so far removed from the miserable, humdrum life I had suffered for so many years in Salford. Even the tramps here looked inspired. When the sun was shining so brightly all troubles seem to be washed away for the day, and there was a relaxed mood in the city. There was still a strong gypsy presence in parts of Granada, and many occupied makeshift homes and even caves. It all created a timeless feel about the place, and had an effect of luring travellers to hover around for a while, as nothing and nobody was in a hurry.

I arrived back at the hostel, and it was deserted. My room-mates were out, and little seemed to be happening. I then remembered the fate that lay ahead for me tonight. It was washing night, a prospect I never savoured, but it had to be done. In the space of four hours I piled in the various monotonous tasks of washing, eating, showering, changing, reading timetables and sorting out arrangements for the following day.

By which time it was late, and the last hours of the evening were spent chatting with a South American guy who now occupied the bed vacated by the Korean. He enchanted me with his determination to explain the merits of 1980s rock bands, detailing with a total lack of shame his enthusiasm for outfits such as Iron Maiden and Whitesnake. I made enough mild, head-nodding movements to avoid either physical exertion or controversy, and sat on my bed wishing I had either the energy, money or boldness to go out clubbing amongst the throngs of lovely ladies I'd spotted in Granada. My cell-mate was also an advocate of the open door policy, leaving me exposed to the glances of all the other inmates. It did have its benefits though, because across the corridor directly opposite was another open door to a female dormitory, which contained a gang of giggly girls lollopping around on their beds. I was beginning to warm to the door idea, and it provided something more entertaining than the South American-influenced lyrics of AC/DC with which to occupy my mind, until I fell asleep.

HOSTEL REPORT: Albergue Juvenil Granada - see day 19

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