gilest.org

A few days in Spain

We travelled a lot in our 20s, when we had no children to think about, and earned enough money to afford it. We went to Turkey, Russia, Oman, Italy, Jordan , and enjoyed briefer visits to Canada, the USA and India. But despite its proximity, we never went to Spain.

OK, we did – a cheapo package holiday break to some coastal resort (I can’t even remember which one) for a few days, but that doesn’t count. We didn’t really travel anywhere that time, we just sat by the pool and read books.

This year we wanted to do something different, because we were celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary. So while Barney spent a few days with his grandparents, we went off to explore a tiny bit of southern Spain.

We flew from Stansted to Seville. The plan was to spend three nights there, then get a train to Granada, where we’d have another night and the following day. It went pretty smoothly, all things considered.

Landing in Seville, I inhaled the fresh air and smiled. There was a pleasant foreign place smell, something I hadn’t experienced for years. This was my first trip abroad since Barney was born. The bus from the airport to town was cheap and fast, and dropped us off centrally. There were plenty of other tourists, and we had a map, so between us we worked out roughly where we were and which way to go next.

Kate and I walked for about 25 minutes to reach the hotel we’d booked, the Hotel Maestranza, which was recommended as a mid-range choice in the Lonely Planet guide to Spain.

I wouldn’t recommend it though. The room we were given had damp mould patches on the walls. The room was clean, the bathroom spotless, but it was soulless and the damp was very unappealing. Too tired to fight for a better room with the dragon who guarded reception at that time of night (“I give you key for safe, but you must. Not. Lose. It. Understand?” Thanks. And welcome to Seville to you, too;) we slept there for one night and spent an hour or more finding another room the next morning.

After considering several options we settled on the Hotel Simon, just a few streets away. This also gets a mention in Lonely Planet but is more deserving of it. The staff were lovely, the room small and spotless but full of character. The tiles on the walls were an experience in themselves.

Wall tiles
Wall tiles in our room at Hotel Simon

Accommodation sorted, we could start really exploring Seville. A lot of it was in a bit of a mess, because work was underway to build a new tram system. It looked like a major project, taking tram lines up and down many of the major streets and public squares. And useful, too, because Seville is somewhat choked with traffic.

We visited the cathedral and the Alcazar, taking in the architecture and the history. Much of the rest of our time was spent finding places to eat, or just mooching around the alleyways and back streets, soaking it all up.

I particularly liked the pedestrianised shopping areas, full of quiet streets and tucked-away squares. Another favourite was Cafe Los Angeles, just two minutes walk from Hotel Simon. This lively place served excellent breakfast, including our first (and only) experience of churros con chocolate, or deep-fried doughnutty things that you dunk into a mug of thick, rich, incredibly sweet hot chocolate. Not like a drink of hot chocolate; more like a bar of chocolate that’s been melted and poured into a cup for you. Neither of us could manage a full portion of churros.

Buying a train ticket to Granada was nice and easy. There’s a RENFE rail ticket office in the centre of Seville, on Calle Zaragoza. Unlike rail ticket centres in the UK, we had to wait for just two minutes before talking to a helpful agent, who knew some English, and got our tickets and seat reservations in no time.

Seville railway station
Interior of Santa Justa station, Seville

I loved Santa Justa station, Seville’s rail gateway. Big, modern, a sexy transport terminus if I ever saw one. Good job, because we had to hang around for 20 minutes or so longer than expected, awaiting our delayed train. On boarding, we found it like most European trains – quiet, clean, nice to be in. Although the journey was three hours or more, I noticed very few locals eating or jabbering on mobiles, like people do on British trains. The carriage, though nearly full, was amazingly quiet.

We passed through some astonishing mountain scenery on route to Granada, including the Pena de los Enamorados, a rock formation that looks startlingly like an up-turned face in profile.

The rest of the landscape was very rural. We’d read in the LP book that this would be the case, but I hadn’t been prepared for how different it makes the place look. British countryside is spotted with villages, hamlets and small towns. In Spain, villages are few and far between. Either you live in a city, or in an isolated farm. From the train, almost everything we saw was cultivated (including some steep mountainsides).

Granada was not what I expected at all. It’s quite a big city, with a large student population. Consequently it’s quite hip and fashionable and packed with shops, clubs and bars.

We stayed at the Hotel Plaza Nueva, which was quite nice and well located. Our only complaint was that despite assuring us by email that we would get a double room with a double bed, we ended up with two singles. When I mentioned this to the receptionist and showed her a print-out of the email conversation I’d had with the manager, she gave me a confused look. “We don’t have any rooms with double beds,” she explained. Never mind.

On arrival in Granada, we went for a walk around the historic Albayzin Muslim quarter. Having built up high expectations, we were unimpressed, mainly because the whole area was filthy. Dog excrement was everywhere, forcing us to keep our eyes on the ground rather than admiring the surroundings.

Plasterwork detail
Detail of Alhambra architecture

The thing we came to Granada for was the Alhambra palace, a spectacular final remnant of southern Spain’s past under Moorish rule. We’d been looking forward to this, and enjoyed the visit despite grim weather that left us freezing cold and a little damp. To warm through after a morning touring through the palaces, we spent a fiver on expensive hot chocolates in the post hotel in the centre of the Alhambra site. A fiver well spent.

We returned from Seville airport (rather nice, as airports go) to Stansted, pleased to have had a break and time to explore, read, and spend adult time together. Needless to say, we’d missed our son terribly, and couldn’t wait to see him again.

I would like to return to Andalucia when the weather’s a little warmer. Another visit to La Alhambra would be nice; the opportunities for photos there would be much improved with a little sunshine.

(6th March 2007)