The first time my confirmed Francophile husband (CFH) went to Spain was on a Contiki tour with a bus load of Antipodeans. He has hazy memories of dancing fountains in Barcelona but not much else.
The second time was with me, some 28 years later. I was keen to impress him with all things Spanish. How could he not love the land of bodegas and bocadillos, of paella, tapas and flamenco, of Rioja and Albariño? We’d been touring south-west France and took the opportunity to cross the border to the Pais Vasco, stopping for lunch with friends in Hondarribia before heading along the northern coastline towards Asturias.
It rained continually for four days, the majestic Picos de Europa were shrouded in mist and CFH was frustrated that he couldn’t converse with the locals as he can in France. He was not impressed.
Last year we tried again. A trip to Madrid with friends and family, after which the two of us would head south to Andalucía, where I had spent a semester studying in Granada back in the day. Surely it wouldn’t rain in the south in July? Surely he couldn’t fail to be enchanted by the Alhambra? I was anxious he would be disappointed again, feared the magic I’d experienced decades previously would no longer weave its spell. I desperately hoped it would be a case of third time lucky.
CFH was sceptical.
Forty degrees in the shade
Madrid is a winner, from the moment we land on a steamy July day. Hot, heaving and heavenly all at once. A very accommodating taxi driver whisks all seven of us to our apartment for no extra fee, we quickly sort rooms, drop bags, then head out into the heat of the summer evening. There is colour everywhere. Colour and noise and life. The city’s heartbeat is loud and strong, a call to live life fully, to savour each moment and the space between each moment. To be present.
It’s still forty degrees in the shade but we walk everywhere, stopping when thirst dictates, the accompanying salty tapas ensuring we stay a while before wandering again.
First stop, the Plaza Mayor, my favourite square in all the world, echos of my 80s self ringing with bitter-sweet nostalgia in my head. I just stare for a while. I stand and I stare. The perfect square, the perfect moment, the prelude to a perfect week.
CFH is intrigued. This is not the Spain he thinks he knows. Our friends depart and we head south.
Visiting Granada without spending at least half a day at the Alhambra is a bit like staying in Paris without scaling the Eiffel Tower. I’d been several times, back in the days before online bookings and queues and strict schedules, a time when you could just wander in and sit awhile amidst the fountains of the Generalife, planning where to consume your next copa or caña.
Granada for a bunch of language students in 1982 was all about the bars. Our favourite camareros would refill our glasses with seemingly unlimited supplies of ginebra con limón, long into the night, rarely keeping tabs. We lived on tapas. Seven years after Franco’s demise, our pesetas stretched to luxuries (vices) we could ill afford back home.
I remember a particular afternoon spent at the Alhambra with some friends who had driven through the night from a less idyllic posting in Northern France to visit those of us lucky enough to be in Andalucía. I still have photos of us all on that day, standing high on the Alcazaba, the contrast of city and Sierra a spectacular backdrop. There we were, wide-eyed with wonder, in love with life and each other.
I didn’t want to taint that precious memory with a less than perfect second visit. Visitors to the Alhambra are now restricted to a certain number each day, each ticket holder is allocated an entrance time for the Nasrid Palaces and advance online purchase is strongly recommended. I envisaged crowds and selfie sticks and it didn’t look pretty.
Mañana, the online site kept saying when I tried to book ahead, please refresh. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe I should leave my memories intact.
Eventually, the technology gods aligned and I was in possession of a pair of tickets for our last day in Granada. (A word of advice. Be sure to persevere with any glitches and book your 14 euro tickets – an absolute bargain – through the official site. Many imitators charge exorbitant amounts for ‘guided tours’).
Back to the present. A swift four-hour coach trip takes us south. The pressure is on. Will Granada match Madrid?
Not just the Alhambra
For several glorious days we explore the lesser known delights of this magical city. Granada is so much more than the Alhambra: a stunning guided walk through the gorges of Monachil and high up onto the Sierra Nevada; hours lost in the winding wonder of the Albaicín; sunset from the Plaza San Nicolas; a cooking class in a gypsy cave in Sacramonte; the Cathedral precinct with its markets and spices; chocolate con churros in Plaza Bib Rambla; numerous strolls beside the Rio Darro along one of the prettiest streets in the world … the list goes on. And the bars, Granada is still very much about the bars – Australia’s version of tapas bears little resemblance to the food served, free of additional charge, with every drink. ordered.
CFH is falling in love.
On the last day we climb the hill to the wonder described by Moorish poets as ‘a pearl set in emeralds’. There’s magic in the air, still. It’s busy but not overcrowded. The policy to restrict numbers is a good one (take note Palace of Versailles). We are both enchanted. We speak little and gaze much. The seduction is complete.
We head to Seville next, but that’s for another time. I had him at Madrid.
So impressed was CFH by our summer adventures that we returned on the last day of 2019 to experience Spain again for three weeks in winter. So inspired was he by our winter trip that he is now learning Spanish and planning to cycle from Santander to Cadiz in the not too distant future.
Me, I’ll book us a nice little apartment in Cadiz and meet him there. I’ll be waiting in a shady square with a glass of white sangría and a bowl of glistening olives. ¡Salud!