Cycling and Exploring Granada
Once Eka and I agreed that Spain would be the cycle touring location that would take the smallest toll on our budgets (particularly after a year of freelancing for me), the next question was where to go? Due to limited time and funds, we obviously couldn't wander around like the traditional cycle tourers do, spending months away from normal life as we know it. Since Eka has always had a connection to Flamenco - he can actually play it on the guitar - a decision was made to see the remnants of Muslim rule in the south of the country, with Granada our main destination. Since there are no direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Granada, we opted to use Barcelona as a base arrival point, before taking a connecting flight to the city, arguably the most worthwhile to visit in Spain as a whole.
The journey from Malaysia took almost a full day, since the flight to Barcelona alone was 17 hours with one stop, after which we spent about 4 hours waiting for our connecting flight, taking the flight itself and getting to our accommodation in Granada. As always, be prepared to wait a bit longer when traveling with bikes. Because the Changebike was in a box, we could not bypass oversized luggage and go to the online or express check-in counter, which the Reach and its clever little flight case can usually sneak through. In truth, Sevilla would have been a better option for a transit point, considering it is much closer to Granada (only a fourth of the distance from Barcelona). We'll definitely be back again sometime, since we did not get to see Sevilla, Cordoba, Zaragoza and Malaga, namely other cities that are also well known for their Moorish past.
Obviously over the centuries Granada has grown to be more than what you see in tourism pictures today, and the city is just as modern as any in Europe.
The historical district of Granada is however concentrated in an area that has six main districts: The Realejo, The Cartuja, Bib-Rambla, Sacromonte, Albayzin and Zaidin.
This is where you will find all the cultural and historical attractions, but beware of cobblestone streets and steep inclines, which require good walking shoes. However, driving in Granada is not an alternative because it can be a bit of a nightmare, with narrow one-way streets that are often restricted to certain vehicles only.
This makes the historical area of granada a good place to explore by bike, provided you have a strong set of legs and a decent pair of wheels to get you up the climbs.
We realised quite fast upon arrival that Granada is mountain bike territory, with commuter bikes usually fitted with e-assist systems to navigate the hilly terrain. Granada is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains after all, sitting at an average elevation of 738m above sea level. On the other hand, Eka and myself also had the chance to try out e-MTBs in the nearby Sierra Nevada Park, which was some of the best fun we've had off-road!
But before jumping on the bikes, we had to do the obvious – enjoy a slow walking tour of this beautiful city!
Wandering around the Alhambra
Originally built as a small fortress in AD 889 on the remains of Roman fortifications and renovated and rebuilt in the mid-13th century by the Nasrid emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Emirate of Granada, it was converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. The citadel and palace is simply breathtaking, and I truly regret not having enough time to really wander around the massive place and take it all in. Most reviews will say book both a morning and evening slot (tickets are for different times), because the Alhambra's wonders reveal themselves slowly to you over the course of a day. We managed to squeeze in a guided tour ticket that included a walking tour of the surrounding Albayzin area, but in truth that was a little rushed for me.
We managed to find a splendid little Airbnb apartment nearby the Colegio Mayor Santa Cruz la Real or residential college, which was within walking distance to the Alhambra. It was located in Realejo, which is less than 2km away from Alhambra by foot.
You can cycle there, but it does involve a fair bit of hill climbing and there weren't many parking spots for bicycles at the main entrance. Also keep in mind that Spain in general registers a fair bit of bicycle theft, so we were a bit wary of leaving our bikes locked but unattended for so many hours. If you're not too worried about this, you could still cycle in and leave your bike at the bicycle parking. If you're staying a bit farther out, you could opt to take the tour tram that takes you to interesting spots around the city. Also note that the Bono card is good for public transport if you are there for more than 3 or 4 days, since it comes with discounts to the major sights.
Either way, the Alhambra is not to be missed. I mean really, look at these photos. Even using handheld mobile phones you can still capture the sheer beauty of the place quite well.
The maze-like Albayzin
From the windows of the Alhambra you get an amazing view of the surrounding Albayzin "barrio" or neighbourhood, which surrounds the citadel. This is the old Arab quarter, where there are numerous monuments from different eras, mainly the Nasrid period and the Renaissance. After the end of our walking tour we spent a lovely afternoon getting lost in the district, which still retains the narrow winding streets of its medieval Moorish past.
As you walk around the cobblestone streets and ascend and descend the many uneven stairs, you will see a number of beautiful doorways that only hint at what the dwellings inside look like. We did get a peek into an artist's home turned museum, and the architecture inside is just as maze-like as the layout of the rest of the neighbourhood.
There's a bit of a romantic feel to the place, as if you've been transported back in time to when the Arabs ruled Granada, with plenty of running fountains and hidden squares that have small open air restaurants for al fresco dining. Don't put a time limit to your time exploring the nooks and crannies of Albayzin, because you would want to relish every moment there. Because of the limited access to cars, that means normal bicycles may also have a tough time navigating through the area. A good alternative is to opt for an MTB (or e-MTB if you've got limited time to tackle the steep inclines), because these can actually take on the uneven streets and steps without any issues thanks to their suspension and big, knobby tyres.
One of the best spots in Albayzin is the plaza of Mirador de San Nicholas, an amazing viewpoint that gives you a splendid view of the Alhambra, and the surrounding city that has expanded as the modern world progressed. The square is named after the Church of San Nicolas, which was built on a mosque like many other churches in Granada. The building, which is of the Mudejar and Gothic style, was closed for restoration during our time there, and it seems it has been for a while already.
Either way, the square is a superb place to catch the sunset, with a view of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Approaching sundown the entire square is full of people, shutterbugs, tourists, locals and foreigners peddling wares. You'll also get to enjoy some good gypsy music here too, it's some of the best that we've heard throughout our travels in Spain. If you don't like the crowds, head there during sunrise like we did, when the rapidly changing light gave us so many different images within as short a time as half an hour.
Realejo, the OLD Jewish quarter
I mentioned earlier that we stayed in the Realejo area of Granada. During hundreds of years under Muslim rule the Jewish community mostly prospered there, but in 1492 Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabel ensured the destruction of a lot of Jewish buildings in the area, and issued a decree for all Jews to leave Granada, including those who had converted to Catholicism - also called Moriscos. Two years later the homes of 200,000 Jews were demolished to make way for a new hospital and cathedral. It's a sad fate for a community that once prospered there, as academics, tax collectors, doctors, ambassadors, craftsmen or tradesmen.
Since our Airbnb was near a residential college, many apartments in the area are also fairly affordable. They're not big, but for Eka and myself it was plenty of space, even with two bikes inside the apartment (one of them full sized, mind you!).
If you're interested in staying in this renovated old Andalusian home, you can check it out here. This apartment sleeps three (it has a loft bed and sofa bed) and is run by Tomas and Pilar, who gave us some good recommendations of places to eat and things to do there.
If you're a budget traveler, there's also a working kitchen with basic utensils for quick meals and a washing machine for laundry days. And despite being in a student area, the apartment was tucked away in a blissfully quiet corner; it actually took a bit of getting used to since Eka and myself live in a fairly busy area in KL!
You can opt to stay in the Albayzin or Sacromonte areas in a really lovely heritage home too, but remember that both areas are spread out over the hillside really near the Alhambra, which means you have a steep walk back up after a day of sightseeing in the general historical area. Not so great either for us and our bikes! So we opted for Realejo instead, since the old Jewish quarter is close to a lot of infrastructure, namely a lot of restaurants and cafes, as well as all manner of shops. It isn't flat terrain, but still a hell of a lot easier to cycle through than other areas. We also found a lot of nice places to eat and drink there (plenty of bars and taverns with Granada's typical tapas), with our Airbnb just a short walk/ride away after we were done.
I should also take this opportunity to mention that you only get free tapas with alcoholic drinks. Initially I got a bit confused because I expected these whenever I had a cup of tea or coffee or peach juice (melocoton in Spanish). Besides all manner of tapas, one of the things you should try are the deep fried eggplant/aubergines served with molasses or thick honey syrup, which is an Andalusian specialty. Another interesting thing I noticed was the churros, which is bigger than the normal variety and is more akin to the Malaysian char koi in terms of flavour and texture. It doesn't come with chocolate or caramel syrup, but you dip it into thick and goopy hot chocolate instead. Crazy good! We also tried the Piononos, a sort of rolled up sponge cake and bathed in a sweet syrup, but that was too much even for my sweet tooth.
For those of you who like pork-based foods, I've been told that the Iberico ham (that's jamon in Spanish) is a delicacy that is not to be missed. It comes from an ancient breed of pigs native to the Iberian peninsula. The animal supposedly forages for acorns in woodland, giving the cured ham a unique flavor, texture and hue. I obviously can't vouch for this claim since I don't eat pork, but the Andalusian Spanish folk are really proud of the ham. I have a friend who has tried it, and she claims it does indeed live up to its reputation. Pork products and alcoholic drinks (think wine, sangria and all manner of booze) are aplenty in Granada, another way to enforce Catholic rule and push out the Muslims and Jews back in the day.
However, the resulting cuisine in Granada still has many traces of Moorish rule mixed in with other Spanish specialties. You can also taste real Moroccan food here too, since this is the closest you will get to the North African country without actually going there. There are plenty of Moroccans in Spain in general and Granada especially due to its proximity. They are essentially the migrant workers and labourer class in Spain, similar to how there are many Indonesians working and living in Malaysia. A note of caution though, because the siesta timing is still very much in effect in Granada, which really affects the time you can eat. For Malaysians who are used to getting food 24/7, a bit more pre-planning for meals may be necessary when you are there.
The Gypsies of Sacromonte
This is the traditional neighbourhood of the gypsies, where you will find charming cave homes carved out of the hillside. They settled in the area after the Christian conquest of Granada in 1492, when the Jews and Moors were expelled from their homes. Sacromonte is high up the hill and in the valley of Valparaíso with whitewashed homes and cobblestone streets, and lovely views of the Alhambra and the River Darro. You can also opt to stay in a cave home here, if you don't mind the walk back uphill for the night.
Unfortunately we didn't do a lot of exploring here, save for zipping through the street on e-MTBs and a second night of flamenco. It gave us a nice comparison to the flamenco that we watched in Realejo, which although was performed by highly skilled dancers, did not have the same rawness of what we caught in Sacromonte. Even though they cater to big groups of tourists who will arrive by the busloads (we even came across a bunch of Malaysians traveling in a group), it is still the real deal. Most of these are pre-booked with the help of a tour agent, but you can wander in and buy tickets on the spot with either dinner or a drink included.
Try Cueva de La Rocio, which was a great place to see the traditional and authentic Zambra flamenco style, unique to the gypsies of Sacromonte. The place is managed by the Maya family, well known in Granada for its great tradition and for producing some of the greatest Flamenco artists in Spain. Be prepared to get pulled up to join in on the fun by the end of the performance too! (Eka and I were still full of dinner and the drink that accompanied our tickets, so we both politely declined).
Bib Rambla and Zaidin
These two areas are where you'll find more of modern-day Granada, right next to the older heritage areas. This is where the main shopping district is, and there are a lot more cafes, taverns and bars, as well as some really nice al fresco eateries. This is where you will find a number of stores selling Granada souvenirs, and quality artwork like paintings of the Alhambra. Here you can also find Al Caiceria, what was once the Grand Bazaar of Granada. It is the only one to survive from Spain's time under Muslim rule. The doorway is almost hidden, but you can find it if you look hard enough.
Inside there are a lot of souvenirs from all around Spain, and I also spotted a number of items that are also sold in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Not everything is authentic, but there are leather goods that are supposed to be from Morocco like bags and ottomans.
The main department store of Corte Ingles is in Zaidin, where you can get essentials like clothes, toiletries and the like. I do believe there is a Sephora somewhere in there too.
There is a nice riverside bike path (coming out of Zaidin and the main square) that you can take along the Genil River if you want to just ride and take your brain off. However, at one point it becomes a trail and you would really need an all road bike or MTB to proceed until the end.
Exploring the Sierra Nevada Park
After doing the normal tourist thing, Eka and I opted to explore the idea of something completely different. Since we have a little bit of the road cyclist masochist mentality, we do tend to enjoy a bit of a suffer fest now and then, and were looking for a bit of a challenge beyond climbing up the hilly cobblestone streets. Next on the list was an e-MTB tour of the Sierra Nevada Park with two guides. I was a bit skeptical about riding an e-bike, but it turned out to be a perfect example of 'don't knock it until you've tried it'. It ended up being arguably one of the most enjoyable things we did in Granada.
Our English guide was unable to make it for the day due to an emergency, so we had a German speaking guide Maria (as well as her husband) taking us and a Spanish couple around on the local trails. It became quite clear minutes into the ride that the couple wasn't too used to cycling, since we left them somewhat far behind as we barrelled down the trails with Maria.
The e-MTBs took a tiny bit of getting used to, because it was akin to having a turbo setting on your bike that you cannot control, giving you a bit of a boost now and then when you need it. We realised that day, what great fun e-bikes were.
The terrain was a mix of single track, gravel road and technical trails, rode a little bit down a highway, dodged pedestrians on the cobblestone streets of Sacromonte and the fringes of Albayzin, and we eventually emerged at the base of the Alhambra. It was a gorgeous day, perfect for a day out in the park on the bikes. I've become a strong proponent of e-bikes since then, and will no doubt be looking forward to doing another e-bike tour if it is available at our next cycle tour destination.