Granada is best known for the Alhambra and the Albayzin. But it has another big selling point, too - bet you didn't know that a night on the town would earn you a free dinner!
Granada sits at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, an easy drive from Cordoba and Seville, and a stone’s throw from Malaga and the Mediterranean coast. Situated in Spain’s southernmost province, it boasts great weather year-round. So good, in fact, that when I lived there for three (winter) months in 2002, I went to the beach to swim and the mountains to ski all in the same day. I have since been back in the autumn and would recommend this time of year, in order to avoid the hordes of tourists who visit in the summer.
Most people know Granada for its famous hilltop palace and citadel, the Alhambra. What most people don’t know is that this is one of few cities left in Spain where they still serve free tapas with every beer or wine you consume. Sound like the perfect holiday? It gets better. Not only is the food free, but the beer is cheap. It costs about €2 for a 250ml glass and if you know where to go (don’t worry, I’m going to tell you), you can eat like a king for your entire holiday and not pay a cent for it.
What strikes me is how many people have been to Granada and don’t know about this. My boyfriend and his mates have been visiting the province for the last five years, an annual lads’ getaway, which consists of beer-drinking, gambling and lazing by the pool in their mate’s house nearby. They did the typical whistlestop tour of the three famous Moorish cities – Seville, Cordoba and Granada, taking in la Giralda (Seville’s gothic cathedral), la Mezquita (Cordoba’s awe-inspiring mosque) and the aforementioned palace, Granada’s key tourist attraction. In their rush to see everything, they missed one of the best parts!
A day trip to Granada simply does not do it justice, especially if you spend most of it in a queue for tickets to the Alhambra and then hours in the hot sun waiting for your time-slot (allocated when you buy your ticket) to enter the Nazarene palaces, the highlight of the tour. The palace is, of course, a must on any visitor’s itinerary, but it’s worth booking ahead so that you don’t have to wait around (and, as above, I highly recommend visiting outside peak season). I also suggest that, if you get the chance, you should first view the palace from afar, at the Mirador de San Nicolas, incidentally a good point to start our food tour.
Boozing and eating
Granada is an easy city to navigate on foot and this is the best way to see everything. If you wander up the narrow winding streets of the Albayzin, Granada’s Moorish quarter, you will most likely stumble upon the Mirador; I wound up there by accident myself. Once you’ve sat and soaked in the view and the atmosphere - it's always buzzing - head away from the view to one of the plazas close by, Plaza de San Nicolas, Salvador, Larga or Placeta de Aliatar (aka Caracoles). All of these offer plenty of places to polish off a few beers al fresco. In this area the tapas gratis are usually something simple, as they get a solid tourist trade, so are not trying to impress. You can expect to have some olives, a slice of tortilla (Spanish omelette) or some boquerones (white anchovies) to accompany your drink.
The same is true of the Plaza Nueva, at the base of the Albayzin and a few minutes' walk from the centre of town. This is a nice place to sit in the afternoon, but is mostly frequented by tourists. My rule is that you should be wary of places with a big paella sign out the front. Pictures are a prominent feature of Spanish menus, but the branded paella boards are basically an advertisement for the fact that the restaurant in question is heating up the contents of a freezer bag for your pleasure. Likewise, I can’t speak much for the tapas in the bars of the bottom half of the Albayzin, except to say that if you are going for quantity over quality, this is where you want to be. Most places here serve a burger or toasted sandwich with a hefty portion of chips. You will find it hard to get through more than two beers and their accompaniments here.
A short walk from here you will find Calle Navas. This is where the real culinary tour begins. This little street, just off the Plaza del Carmen, is crammed with little tapas bars offering all sorts of treats – from jamon y manchego (cured ham and sheeps cheese) and chorizo to puntillas (fried baby squid) and patatas del pobre (potatoes with a spicy sauce, a welcome alternative to the more common patatas bravas).
Northeast of here is the tiny Plaza del San Domingo. Here you will find a tiny basement bar, stacked to the ceiling with cases of wine and serving some less traditional snacks, such as blue cheese with cured meats. There is a great selection of wine at very reasonable prices, sourced by the owner-cum-waiter-cum-barman. I’m sorry to say I don’t know the name of this bar, but you will know it when you see it; it’s the only one. Further northeast is the Campo del Principe, a rare green space, in what is otherwise a largely built up city. Most of the restaurants are frequented by people wanting to have a full blown lunch and dinner. But never fear: they will still provide you a tasty morsel with your drink in what is a truly magical setting.
I could go on forever, there are so many great places to eat and drink, but here are a few favourites, without which any tour would be incomplete:
Meson La Cueva
Calle Pedro Antonio de Alarcon; http://www.lacuevade1900.es/
In the modern part of town, south of the centre, this deli-bar-restaurant gives you the opportunity to try its vast range of charcuterie and cheeses for free, in the hope that you might be inclined to buy some to take with you, although you are by no means obliged.
Further along Pedro de Alarcon, turn left into Calle Socrates and you will find my old local haunt. This small family-owned bar is one of the few places where you get to choose your free treat. There are about eight items on the menu and it has not changed since I was there in 2002. Try the lomo (grilled pork tenderloin) and huevo cordoniz (fried quails egg with ham on baguette).
This is one for those with more gourmet palates. The free tapas are nice, but if you are seduced by the menu, do allow yourself to succumb to the temptation. The venison carpaccio was well worth the extra dosh.
What to do once you're stuffed
The trickiest thing is saving room for more. The camareros always seem bewildered, sometimes offended, if you don’t want their freebie. I suggest moving to the pub at this point. In Spain, they use this word to refer to what we usually call a bar - somewhere you go to drink, maybe to dance, but not to eat. There are lots of good pubs in the area near Calle Pedro de Alarcon, as this is where most of the university students live. Otherwise, the bottom half of the Albayzin is a good bet. Granada 10 - cinema by day, club by night - is a favourite among locals and tourists alike. Later head up to las cuevas in Sacromonte. Some gypsies still live in these caves, which are dug into the side of the hills. In Sacromonte, they’ve been turned into clubs and flamenco bars, which are open until well into the madrugada (early morning).
Where to stay
I recommend staying somewhere central, so you are well positioned for walking to any of the areas I have discussed. When I went back recently, I stayed in the Hostal Arroyo, just off Gran via del Colon. It was clean and comfortable and very cheap: about €15 per person for a private double room, right in the centre.
If you have a little more cash to spare, I suggest the Hotel Molinos. A short walk from Calle Navas and the Campo del Principe, this hotel boasts of being the narrowest in the world (in the Guinness Book of Records). Ask for a room at the front with a window; about €39 per person for a double room with bathroom.
Disfruta y que te aproveche! (Enjoy and bon appétit!)