Granada - where the living is free(ish) and easy

by Mark Roulston

A tour of the city of Granada in Spain in search of the very best in free food

It is Saturday afternoon and the beginning of a tour of Granada. The brief is simple: to show my visiting parents the historic delights of this majestic Andaluz city. My wife and I also want to prove that some things in life still come for free. Not only is Granada famous for the Alhambra, that 13th century Moorish fortress that rises above the city, but it is also one of the few remaining places in Spain where, for the price of drink, you can dine out gratis.

Our lodgings is a guest house in the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Albaicín quarter. Set around a courtyard, the 15th century Casa del Aljibe has splendid, uninterrupted views of the Alhambra. We are greeted by our host - Swinging Sixties fashion designer Michael Rainey – before, suitably hungry, we hit the town.

The Realejo barrio is our first destination. The colonial mansions of the former Jewish quarter stand cheek by jowl with ramshackle apartment blocks and spit-and-sawdust bars on the western slopes of the Alhambra hill.

We walk into the friendly El Cortijo 16 on Calle Molinos. Our order of three beers and a tinto con casera blanca (a red wine spritzer) is taken by landlady Patricia. “Cuatro primero.” Four firsts, she shouts through to Antonio, her husband in the kitchen. Tapas in Granada are graded with your third tapa being typically better than the second being better than the first.

We take our seats as Patricia brings us our food: a plate of quisquillas de Motril (shrimp caught that very morning in the waters of Motril, 70 kilometres to the south). Delicious, we say, as we down our drinks and leave.

We cross the road to the Plaza Campo del Principe, which was built in the 16th century by the Catholic Majesties, Fernando and Isabel, to celebrate the wedding of son Juan to the daughter of Maximillian I, the Germanic Holy Roman Emperor. It is Realejo’s largest square and the focal point for its busy day - and night - life. We enter the plaza from the south, with the orange, mock-Moorish Alhambra Palace hotel directly above us.

Along the southern edge of the square is a constant row of bars and restaurants, all with tables and chairs spilling out onto the plaza. We plump for the popular La Esquinita at the far end.

Elbowing our way through the throng to the bar, our order is quickly taken. The barman shouts through the kitchen: “Tapa para cuatro.” Tapa for four. When it arrives it is the house speciality - broad beans with jamon serrano. While fellow punters around us are busy drinking, chatting and eating their tapas, we stare at the many photographs on the walls of the famous people who have visited El Esquinita – including the current monarch King Juan Carlos I. Ricardo, the bear-like owner, is present in all of them; his huge frame dwarfing the visiting celebrity. “We are a Granada institution,” he tells us.

Hunger sated, we return to our lodgings the scenic way. We head up the steep Cuesta del Realejo, with the snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada far to our right, into the grounds of the Alhambra and down the Cuesta de los Chinos with its unrivaled panoramic of the Albaicín. We cross the river Darro and wind up the narrow, cobbled streets to Casa del Aljibe.

We reconvene at 6 o’clock and we are just in time to see the day’s last light hitting the Alhambra. The fortress glows from ochre to crimson and we now know why locals call it the Red Palace.

Our first destination of the evening is Bodega Castañeda on Calle Elvira. Here, barrels of American oak containing regional wines are stocked behind the bar while hams, dried in the mountain village of Trevélez in nearby La Alpujarra, hang above us. Two of our party has been in this bar many times and know the first tapa is always a damn fine tortilla de patatas. Our order of two glasses of Rioja (a pleasant 2002 Loriñon crianza) and two dark, sticky sweet wines from Málaga is taken by the famously dry bar man. The drinks arrive with the best potato omelette in Spain.

We then go to La Chicotá on Calle Navas. It is a warm evening so we sit outside as the waiter brings us two red wines (the ever-dependable Yllera) and two whites (Calvente, produced nearby in coastal Almuñecar). Our tapa here is queso de cerdo. Its direct translation is pig’s cheese, but no sow has been milked for this acquired delicacy. This is brawn, or jellied pig’s head.

We return to the Albaicín and Plaza San Miguel Bajo. At the head of the square is the San Miguel church, built in the 16th century on the site of a mosque. Its architect was Diego de Siloé, responsible for Granada’s cathedral. Opposite is the oldest bar on the plaza, the 20-year-old Yunque. Its owner is Antonio Cirre, a flamenco singer of some local renown. “Tonight he is performing in Baza,” his waiter Ali tells us. We order and the wine comes with mussels. “Does he ever sing here?” I ask. “Only when there are plenty of pretty girls in and he has had a few to drink,” he replies. On the walls are photographs of Antonio in concert and at work behind the bar. A man in one of these pictures looks familiar. “That is Enrique Morente [Grammy-nominated flamenco singer]. Every Sunday he comes here when the bar has closed. Antonio and he eat, drink and sing together,” says Ali. It is midnight and, jealous we will miss the following day’s show, we retire for bed.