Spanish Tapas
Travel Inspiration

View from inside the Alhambra. If only we had the place to ourselves.

The walls of Bodega la Antigualla heave with all kinds of medieval, touristy shtick, from Knights Templar-emblazoned shields and lampshades, to metal breastbones and forearm armour.

A far better indicator of this bar’s quality is that it’s also filled with locals, as testified by the scrunched-up paper napkins covering the floor and the steady stream of tapas leaving the kitchen.

I say tapas, but in reality the piled-up plates of bocadillos with jamon and cheese, fries with aoli and crisps are not media raciones or even raciones. They are full blown meals. And they only cost 2 euros, including your drink.

Welcome to Granada, the last bastion of the Moorish empire before it fell to the Christian Monarchs in 1492, and the last bastion of free tapas in Spain, where every bar in town is honour-bound to provide some sort of snack to accompany your drink free of charge.

Some bars are meagre with their offerings, providing perhaps a bowl of olives, or crisps. Then there is Bodega la Antigualla, where if your segundo tapas (second serving) is returned finished, they haven’t done their job.

Tapas bars in Granada, and some other parts of Spain including Madrid, improve their offerings the more you drink. Bodega la Antigualla’s primero (first course) is the aforementioned bocadillos or ham and cheese grilled sandwiches with fries, crisps and aioli. Segundo is a hamburger (you read that correctly) with a plate of marinated olives and crisps. Tam and I would have liked a third drink, but were too full to order.

Browny or Stoney (two legends of Melbourne’s chicken parma scene), if you are reading this, travel to Granada and uncover the mystery of the third course, or fourth, if you dare.

While Bodega la Antigualla trumps all for sheer quantity, Bodegas Castañeda, around the corner and just off Plaza Nuevo, takes line honours for the quality and breadth of their tapas menu. We tried Jamon con Melon, Jamon con Queso tostas and a tasty potato salad mixed with salmon and served on bread, whose name I forgot to request, among others. The waiters – all professionals in their 40s and 50s – gave the most prompt service I have witnessed in Spain, an impressive feat considering the bar was never less than three quarters full.

Besides being a snacker’s paradise, Granada is simply a beautiful city. We stayed in the old Moorish quarter or Albayzín district, a maze of winding streets and narrow passages perched on a mountain directly opposite Granada’s most famous building, and world heritage site, the Alhambra.

It’s amazing to think this masterpiece of Islamic architecture was left to decay for hundreds of years by the locals until American writer Washington Irving travelled to Granada in 1829 and, finding the Alhambra abandoned, decided to move in. His novel, Tales of the Alhambra, inspired a fresh wave of interest from the west, leading to a massive restoration effort and the 6000 tourists that visit the Nasrid Palace, Generalife gardens and Alcazar fortress daily.

No matter what time you visit the complex, there is no simply way to avoid the crush of Japanese, German and Russian tourists. But even the occasional elbow in the solar plexus can’t distract too much from the incredible beauty of the palace. There is no way to describe in words the intricacy of the carvings in the stalactite vaultings or the precision of the canopy stonework. You just have to see it for yourself.

The Alhambra is all-day affair. After six hours of ohs and ahs – with only the wanky commentary of a fake Washington Irving on the audio guide to distract us – we left this remarkable place but continued the Arabic theme, despite being even more directed at tourists than the Alhambra.

Hammams de Al Andalus claims to be built of site of an old Arab bath house, and while the interior, with its aromatic candles and star shaped sun roofs harkens to an earlier age, it’s definitely catering to 20th century, mostly western crowd. Tam and I opted for the full Andalucían scrub and massage, and while fearing I would be at the whims of a hairy-backed dungeon master named Fahzel, was pleasantly (or unpleasantly) surprised to find my masseuse was a petite Spanish girl.

After a rub down (legitimate!) we hit the baths, although my board shorts were clearly out of place. Trunks are all the go here in Spain, it would seem.

The following day, we trekked up to the Sacromonte region, famous for its cave dwellers. Twenty years ago, the caves were full of gypies and hippies, but these days you are more likely to find a flat screen tv than a bong inside the myriad of cave homes built into the hill side. Like Fitzroy in the late nineties, the artists are moving out and the middle class are moving in, even if the Spanish Government is reportedly about to start a second round of forced evictions (the last round was twenty years ago after a series of cave collapses and several deaths). The cave museum also provided an interesting insight into the lives of the early cave dwellers.

No visit to a Spanish city is complete without a visit to the local cathedral. All churched out, we passed on the main cathedral and entered the royal chapel, home to the interred remains of Isobel and Ferdinand, the Christian Monarchs who united Spain and completed the Reconquista of the Iberian continent. They look shorter in person.

However, someone looking bigger is, to be blunt, myself. With Tam working on photos, I strapped on my running gear and hit the pavement. Despite my Elwood shirt and Osborne sherry running cap, I was still taken for a local and asked for directions to the Alhambra. “Tienes ir a arriba,” I told them, pointing to the giant building on the mountain side. Were they taking the p$ss?

Granada will be hard to top, but last stop in our Andalucian adventure is Cordoba.

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