This is my first dispatch from a summer-long stint of living out of my backpack! I moved out of my apartment in Madrid last week and I’ve been exploring Spain with my family ever since. I’m writing this from the common space of a cozy hostel in Barcelona, gearing up for a month and a half of working on vineyards in the countryside of Tuscany. Before that adventure gets underway, though, I wanted to share some of the highlights from our 3-day trip to the south of Spain.
Previously, I’d only been to the city of Sevilla in Andalusía, the southernmost region of of the country. There, I tried gazpacho for the first time, toured the Alcázar (where the Dorne scenes in Game of Thrones are filmed!), and walked about the Plaza de España and the Gardens of Maria Luisa. I adored Sevilla with its flowering trees, historic architecture, and white-washed houses with colorful tiles and orange terracotta roofs. I wanted my family to experience the beauty of southern Spain as well, so I curated a short trip from Madrid to Guadix and Granada.
Guadix is an ancient city located in the community of Granada in Andalusía, tucked into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The city once held a great deal of power while to Moors controlled this part the Iberian peninsula (previously known as Al-Andalus, more on that later). Today, the city is a mixture of modern bars and restaurants, a few testaments to its long-lost power including the massive Alcazaba fortress, and abandoned buildings left to crumble.
We arrived in the area by car after hours of driving through what seemed like an infinite expanse of olive trees. Spain is the world’s largest producer of olives, and the countryside of Andalusía by itself produces more olive oil than anywhere else in the world. Olive trees cover the landscape, all the way up on top of the mountains and all the way down into the canyons, as far as the eye can see. They even fill the empty spaces in the margins along the highway.
There wasn’t much apart from the zillions of trees to keep us company on this journey. We drove over rolling hills and through tunnels, past the occasional gas station, motel/restaurant, or Don Quixote-style windmill, but not much else. The vastness of the landscape was exhilarating (and a little nerve-wracking) as we sped through the countryside.
Arriving in Guadix, we found ourselves in the middle of a massive canyon filled with groves of trees and gardens. We also occasionally caught sight of a cave built into the side of elevated cliffs along both sides of the road. The caves were a welcomed change of scenery; the peculiar landscape was the precise reason we’d come all this way. In this area of Spain, people have been living in houses built out of caves for over 400 years. Tonight, we’d be staying in a little cave home of our very own just a few kilometers outside the city center.
By the time we arrived at our temporary home, it was about 5 pm: siesta. Siesta time in small-town Spain is, for the hungry traveler, a minor catastrophe. We walked through the center of Guadix in search of any open restaurant, desperate for a place to sit down, hydrate, and re-fuel. We found most places closed entirely and any restaurant that was still open would only serve drinks. After about half an hour of wandering around, just as we were ready to succumb to our hunger and resolve to nap in the cave until the city came back to life around 8 pm, we found an open grocery store. We bought roughly three times more food than we needed, returned to our cave, and devoured most of it at once in a somewhat barbaric (and comical) starving cave-dweller feast.
After a short dunk in the pool outside our cave, we returned to the center of Guadix to explore. Our host, the owner of the complex of little cave houses rented out to tourists like us, had shown us on the map where to find an entire neighborhood of cave houses: El Barrio de las Cuevas. He said that between 4,000 and 7,000 people currently live in the caves. The cave neighborhood was absolutely fascinating; most houses consisted of a front door and white facade built into the side of the hill. Some had a front yard with a barking dog. All had white chimneys sticking up out of the hills like meercats standing at attention.
As we walked through the city, I quickly realized that Guadix was unlike any other town I’d visited in Spain. Despite some tourist attractions in the town and nearby, Guadix is not handed to visitors on a silver platter. It’s not polished or censored. It’s rough around the edges. It’s isolated from the big cities and shows signs of economic decline. Buildings in the center have been left empty, many with “Se Vende” (For Sale) signs on the doors and windows. Construction projects remain unfinished. In contrast to Madrid with its souvenir shops and tourist-catering markets and expats/tourists at every turn, walking around Guadix, we saw nothing but typical Spanish families at home living their lives.
At the end of this little excursion, we headed towards the hub of the city, a park built into the dried riverbed that runs through the city. We sat on the terrace of a small restaurant looking over the park to feast on a platter of Iberian charcuterie and fried fish. Thoroughly satisfied, we returned to get some rest in the quiet coolness of our cave.
In the morning, we drove 50 minutes west to the city of Granada. We had time for a typical Spanish breakfast of churros and chocolate before our walking tour with Be Together Tours, led by a native of Granada who has lived there her entire life.
Our guide provided a huge amount of historical context behind some of the oldest buildings tucked away in the winding alleyways the city. She highlighted a number of the city’s quirks, like the 500 year old graffiti painted on the walls of the old cathedral in bull’s blood to advertise the names of young men who had graduated from the university and were looking for jobs. She showed us where Isabel La Católica, the queen credited with unifying modern-day Spain (while exiling or executing thousands of Jews and Muslims in the process) and known for sending Columbus westward in search of new trade routes, is buried.
The guide explained the importance of the year 1492 beyond Columbus’ journey across the ocean blue. This was also the year that Queen Isabel took over the last region of the Iberian peninsula controlled by the Moors and the capital city of the Moorish kingdom Al-Andalus: Granada. While the oldest neighborhood of the Moorish part of Granada, the Albaicín, was nearly impenetrable due to its maze-like streets and cobblestones that were difficult for horses to tread on, Isabel and her supporters eventually seized control. She exiled all of the Jews from Granada and gave their property away to those who helped with the overthrow of the city, renaming the Jewish quarter “El Realojo” (the Royals). This beautiful city and its famed Alhambra, the fortress-like castle on the hill that was the seat of power for all of Al-Andalus for 500 years, was now part of the Catholic country of Spain.
Following the advice of our guide, we had a quick snack at a Bodegas Castañeda, just a few blocks from the main cathedral. We ordered one of the tablas (platters) in order to split a number of different tapas between the four of us. The platter contained ham croquetas, cheese fondue with salmon, solomillo, peas cooked with Iberian ham, roasted peppers, blue cheese, and Spanish tortilla. It was the perfect amount of food, combining many of Spain’s most popular flavors, for only 13.50 Euros!
Though we didn’t have time to experience the bars and restaurants of Granada to the fullest extent, this city is an incredible destination for foodies. Granada is one of the few cities in Spain where it’s still standard procedure to serve a few tapas with each drink. That evening, we had dinner at Bar Patio Braserito (which claims to have invented the popular tapa huevos rotos) and after ordering one round of drinks, we received a bowl full of perfectly cooked shrimp and croquetas made from spinach and almonds. Both were spectacular. In order to maximize the quality and quantity of free tapas while out and about in Granada, check out these tips!
Next, we headed up the hill towards the Alhambra. I’d purchased our tickets months beforehand, as they sell out months in advance at all times of year. Though we got lost for a bit and I ended up running around trying to figure out how to print tickets that did not need to be printed, we finally entered the incredible palace. Stepping into the first terrace, I gasped audibly. Taking in the centuries-old architecture in all its stunningly intricate detail was well worth the weeks of planning and waiting.
We took our time exploring the palace, the gardens, the fountains, and the towers of the Alcazaba overlooking the city. We saw views of the mountain range and the old Moorish neighborhood, easily identified by its white buildings. We saw the famous bell tower and carvings of pomegranates in the walls of the main entryways (pomegranate, “granada” in Spanish, was brought to the area hundreds of years ago by the original Jewish population).
A few hours later, exhausted and overheated from walking around in the Andalusian sunshine, we returned to our air conditioned Airbnb for a refreshing night’s sleep.
The next morning, we made a last-minute decision to stay a few extra hours in Granada rather than heading south to the beach. We agreed to spend the morning and early afternoon meandering about the Albaicín, the old Moorish neighborhood we hadn’t yet seen, before driving back to Madrid. I was relieved to have a bit more time here; my favorite way to travel and get to know a new place is by getting lost in it. As our guide had warned us, this was very likely to happen in the Albaicín.
Off we went, up alleyways and through streets only a few feet across at their widest. The cobblestone paths, the original stones set by the Moors during the earliest days of the Al-Andalus empire in the 700s AD, were jagged and slightly treacherous, but charming. The white buildings were covered in vibrant rose bushes and draping wisterias. We passed the oldest mosque in the city and listened to the call to prayer. We paused in the shade to catch our breath and consult Google Maps, which proved to be incapable of capturing the complexity of the neighborhood’s pathways. I eventually ditched my phone and when it was time to head home, we conceded to simply walk downhill and hope to end up in the center of town sooner or later.
This trip had all the makings of a dream vacation: family, perfect weather, old cities with castles and gardens, delicious food… and caves, I guess, because why not!? As if I needed more reasons to love Spain, these last few days have made it especially hard to say goodbye. Though I’m off to whatever comes next, I hope to be back andando por Andalusía, tapeando and getting utterly lost in its narrow cobblestone streets, very soon.