Travel 2008 — Granada (Spain)


Spain loves its fast trains. We had wizzed from Madrid to Córdoba in 1h45m in an AVE fast train. A distance of approximately 300km. After staying in Córdoba, we travel on to Granada. The carriages are the same oddly stubby ones as for the AVE (perhaps half the length of a carriage you or I might know), just an earlier generation, but this train is called an Altaria. It ain’t so fast. Same but different. It takes almost 2h15m to travel about 130km.

Granada’s RENFE station is just under 2km to the northwest of the centre. We walk up to Avenida de la Constitución to catch a bus. The bus stops are poorly marked – we can see a pile of them, but we can’t easily see any numbers. The buses are full and we’re not in the mood for squeezing in with the lunch rush hour. We walk. The weather’s beautiful.

The streets are buzzing with people. Where Córdoba felt small, Granada feels distinctly city-like. We turn onto the Calle Gran Vía de Colón. Elegant apartment buildings line the street. At ground level are all kinds of shops, from clothing to cafés and numerous banks. As the street comes to its end just southwest of the Plaza Nueva, the streets are buzzing with locals and tourists either loitering in front of the cathedral, wondering why it’s closed (this is lunchtime in Spain, stupid!), or popping in and out of the sidestreets which are lined with bars and restaurants.

Our hostal is two blocks further east from this hive of activity. A pedestrian street with strongly tourist flavour (how many languages are those menus in?) leads us to the surprisingly friendly, relaxed Hostal Costa Azul. The ladies who seem to run the place are genuinely warm and helpful. Add to that a surprisingly spacious room, the best shower I’ve had in a two-star place anywhere, and free WiFi. in the lobby. Such a nice place that we were even able to overlook the large numbers of American guests abusing the Spanish language in unimaginable ways.

Granada is home to the Alhambra, a fortress complex of palaces, gardens and fortifications. It stands high on a verdant hill overlooking the surrounding flatlands. In the distance you see the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada.

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Visiting the Alhambra requires some planning. The number of tickets for the morning, afternoon and (more limited) evening timeslots is restricted and booking tickets online in advance is wise. Failing this, some hotels can find tickets, or otherwise you can try queuing for hours at the site’s ticket office. The Alhambra is a comfortable bus ride or a steep walk up from the Plaza Nueva.

The rest of Granada is not an ugly duckling dominated by the Alhambra. The cathedral is impressive, the centre is stylish, and other points of interest include the Albaicín quarter and the gypsy caves of Sacromonte. Flamenco is big. The tourism industry is enormous. Read between the lines.


Granada is rich with restaurants, tapas bars and bocadillerías (sandwich and lunch places). As a real city, normal life co-exists pretty well with the hordes of tourists. The fancier bocadillerías aren’t overflowing with tourists and the fantastic heladerías (ice-cream shops) aren’t gouging ice-cream lovers with ludicrous prices. Small panaderías sell rather plain bread to queues of old women, and business people hurry to and from a (hopefully) delicious lunch.


Harry and I had one delicious meal. We aren’t thrilled by our guidebook’s recommendations and many promising places are closed on a Monday. We happen upon a rather touristy place with a vaguely enticing menu. Surprisingly, the waiter is markedly jollier than any previous experience in Andalucía and this, along with a rich, delicious plate of rabo de toro (oxtail stew) and an enormous skewer of grilled pork, makes for one of the most relaxed, enjoyable evening meals.


One afternoon we find an almost-empty pastelería. The lunching public has moved on. It’s about 2.30pm. The weather is warm and we need a drink and something sweet. I order a horchata (typically in Spain, a drink made of tiger nuts – chufas, though in Latin America usually made with almonds). It’s sweet and a bit powdery on the tongue. Our cakes were more interesting: a pionono de Santa Fe, made with a rolled sponge flavoured with cinnamon, filled with cream and topped with an eggy custard, lightly caramelised on top. Harry has a creamy orange and chocolate cake. It is, in fact, less creamy than many of the popular cakes in Spain.


Harry flies back to Paris the next day while I stay on. A morning highlight is an ice-cream from a place called (I think) Heladería Los Ángeles on the Acera del Darro. A mandarin ice-cream to make you cry. A quick visit to the central Mercado San Agustín reveals row upon row of seafood, meat and charcuterie, some cheese, but barely any fruit or vegetables. A number of stalls are shut, so I’ve no idea if they would offer non-animal sustenance.

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I pack my things and catch a very slow bus to the estación de autobuses, located some distance northwest of the centre. Luckily I’ve bought a mohina to keep me nourished for the journey to Sevilla.

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Travel tips

Granada: As in most of Spain, maps aren’t always oriented to North (I’ve only seen this in Japan before). this means that comparing maps of teeny, curving streets and landmarks and bus-stops and train stations can be more than a little challenging. At the Alhambra this was particularly bad, with ‘orientation’ maps of the complex being rotated seemingly at will. I think it’s done to keep the tourists on their toes.

The train station is not too far from the centre. The bus station is a long way, and you should allow considerable time for a local bus to get there through at times heavy traffic.

Travel 2008 — Córdoba (Spain)

Córdoba is the first port of call in Andalucía. It’s famous for what would have been the world’s largest mosque (the Christians buggered that up), and for a smooth gazpacho. It is absolutely crawling with tourists. A pleasant place to visit and, perhaps, to eat.


In the centre of a labyrinth of narrow streets rises an enormous rectangular building. Through the grand wooden doors, framed by ornate stucco, one comes to an orange garden. The ground is laid with pebbles, making attractive patterns. The garden feels uninviting. Under the arcade queue tourists, seeking tickets to the Mezquita.


In front of us are two elderly Spanish couples. Like an organism, we find their number multiplying as the two couples become a gaggle of pensioners swapping money to pay for tickets. “Buy two for us.” “We need three.” “Five of us here.” When the original queuers reach the booth, they have a daunting wad of cash to hand over. As out turn approaches, a northern European tourist somehow overlooks the 50 metres of queuing visitors and barges straight up to the booth.

The Mezquita is breathtaking. A forest of narrow columns would once have formed the greatest unbroken prayer space in the Muslim world. Now, plonked in the middle, is the Christian element which makes it a cathedral rather than a mosque. A strange setting. At least no-one destroyed the Mezquita completely!


Our pension (hostal) is modest, but located close to the Mezquita and the Guadalquivir River. The old man at the reception speaks no English. Our room is small and the emailed request for two beds has morphed into a short double bed. Ho-hum. The bathroom is tiny and although the towels are plush, they absorb nothing. Curious.

I drag out my list of restaurants, compiled from guidebooks and the wise people at eGullet. I go down to reception and attempt to ascertain locations from the new elderly man. He speaks no English. His Spanish is fast, local, barely intelligible. X marks the spot, I think. It’s mid-afternoon. Time to eat, Spanish time. We wander. Our first option is too daunting. Curtained windows, closed doors, loud voices. I’m a bar-nelly at the best of times, so a tapas place which does nothing to invite entry is not working for me. Fellow traveller Harry isn’t much better. The next destination looks slightly more inviting (the door is open, the menu is long and interesting), but it’s rather full. Let’s look for the extra special tip I found on eGullet. Taberna la Lechuga. X marks the spot. We get lost. We re-find ourselves. X marks a building being gutted. La Lechuga is no more.

We head back to the second place. Any chance of a table (the bar is packed)? No, says the waiter. We wander aimlessly. Hunger makes us unusually bold (or was the door now open?) and we venture into the first place we had considered. At Casa PePe de la Judería, we queue to request a table. An hour’s wait. Okay. We’ll have a beer in the bar. It’s small, with standing room for perhaps fifteen people (comfortably). We’re stuck at the pointy end of the bar. At least we can escape quickly. Five blokes next to us are ordering food. The plates arrive. Some tapas, some medias raciones (half serves, larger than a tapa).

Hunger is getting to us and we decide to eat in the bar rather than waiting for the restaurant. We order salmorejo (a thick puréed tomato/garlic/bread/oil gazpacho, local dish), a flamenquín de solomillo (rolled pork sirloin, filled with jamón, crumbed and fried), berenjenas fritas con salsa de miel (battered, fried pieces of eggplant, with a honey sauce), and croquetas caseras (potato-cheese croquettes). All are delicious, except the salmorejo. I had made this dish in the weeks leading up to departure and had a reasonable idea of what it would be like. Alas, this one is unexpectedly bitter and not something I can eat for enjoyment. Spaniards in the bar don’t seem to mind. A friend later suggests the oil used in making it may have caused the bitterness.

Córdoba is, quite literally, jam-packed with tourists. It ranks with Carcassonne or Mont Saint Michel in France as one of those places where reality is suspended for the tourist income. The only difference from the familiar hordes of Americans, Germans, Japanese, Chinese and Spanish elsewhere is that the majority of tourists here are actually Spanish.

Strangely, finding the tourist office is not easy. There are no helpful signs on street corners, pointing you to a familiar green or blue ‘i’. My guidebook map shows two offices. One is long-defunct, the other is quite simply unlocatable. We should have gone to the branch at the train station, Córdoba Central (which is misleadingly peripheral).

In the winding streets of the old centre you find cafés, restaurants, bars, hotels, tourist junk shops and, rarely, normal offices. No bakeries. No supermarket. No shops for normal people. Wander northwards and you eventually burst the tourist bubble, finding shopping streets, eateries, offices and normal life. Wonderful. We trek eastwards along the river to a shopping mall we can see in the distance. Harry goes nuts in the menswear shops (Spain has a better boy-girl balance in the clothing branch). Teenagers stare at us. We buy lemon granizadas in a simple café. People stare. We venture into the hypermarket. The staff look at us furtively, perhaps praying we don’t ask for directions.

We dine earlier the next day. El Churrasco is one of the most renowned restaurants in Córdoba. The menu is long on grilled meat and fish. At the front is a dark bar area for eating tapas and enjoying a drink. Behind this is a series of bright dining rooms, many bathed in natural light. Most guests are well dressed and Spanish, though a few foreigners lunch here too. I suspect more appear for dinner. The type of establishment also means a higher likelihood that someone, anyone, might speak a little English. Indeed, our waiter in his late 50s speaks enough English to make ordering simple when we can’t manage the Spanish. We order some fried eggplant again (if Casa PePe’s was great, El Churrasco’s should be stunning, no?). Harry orders calamares (he’s a rubber-ring addict) and duck fillet in a Pedro Ximenez sauce. I’m interested in salted Ibérico (ie, the meat of the pata negra (black foot) pig), but the waiter thinks I should go for grilled Ibérico shoulder instead. Okay. I also order a gazpacho blanco (white gazpacho, made with pine-nuts).

The calamares are okay, though less consistently good than the simple place in Madrid. The gazpacho is delicious, light, refreshing. The eggplant is presented in large slices, some still firm and all distinctly bland. We’d overlooked the lack of sauce in the description.

The duck was delicious, while the pork was, well, grilled perfectly. I’d hoped for something more to say. It was slices of excellent, tender, well cooked meat. Understanding a dish and what to expect for a given price is a cultural thing. I’m not there yet for Spain.

I order dessert. ‘Gin tonic jelly with lemon sorbet.’ Great. Firm pieces of gin-flavoured jelly with some thin liquid. Tuiles of caramel. A few juniper berries. A delightful lemon sorbet anchored, unfortunately, on a blob of sweet, thick, UHT whipped cream.

Our dining area is shared with two elderly Spanish couples, dressed well, with pearls and gold prominent. One of the ladies attacks a chunk of salmon. It fills her plate. The other lady looks on as her husband orders more food. They were already eating when we arrived and are still ordering as we prepare to leave. A platter of rabo de toro (oxtail stew) arrives. She shakes her head gently. He serves her a piece of oxtail. She tuts. He removes the piece and finds her something smaller. They both tuck in. I need to write about Iberian appetite another time.


Travel tips

Spain: knowledge of English is still very thin on the ground. Many restaurants in tourist areas have a translated menu, but don’t expect any English to be spoken by waiters except, more often, in upmarket establishments. The same applies to hotels. Our accommodation (Hostal Almanzor), listed in a number of common travel guides, had no-one with more than the odd item of English vocabulary. All email correspondence for reservation was in Spanish, even though we enquired and wrote in English. Have a phrasebook. Read it before travelling.

Córdoba: the bus and train stations are adjacent to each other, in the northwest of the city, approx 40 mins by foot from the Mezquita. Local buses are easy to use, but the routes are sometimes confusing. For more normal life, venture north beyond the Juderia area (where the Mezquita is). It’s easy to spend about two full days in Córdoba, but I would avoid weekends (crowds, and closed shops in the normal town).

Travel 2008 — transiting Singapore, Paris, Madrid

On the road and gathering experiences. I’m writing travel notes here. Something different to the normal fare, but perhaps of help to others, or mildly entertaining for regular readers. This post takes you to Singapore Airport, then Paris and Madrid.

Some heavy duty travel tips are listed separately at the end, more to help people searching for specific travel info.

Singapore Changi Airport: The new Terminal 3 is lovely, open, bright (though it’s website is just a pain in the flash animation). None of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the other terminals. Lots of free internet access too. The new transit (airside) hotel is simple but comfortable, though I’m amused by the curtain along one wall, simulating the place of a window. There’s just concrete wall behind the curtain.

A good mix of eateries catch my eye, including a dumpling and steamed bun place on the main concourse. For this non-seafood eater, dumplings present many hazards. On the menu are ‘crystal chive dumplings’. A faint yum-cha memory gives me hope these would be friendly dumplings. Bzzzz. A mouthful of prawn meat has me spitting. Luckily I’ve bought a cha siu bao (steamed pork bun) as back up. Okay. Good hoisin sauce flavour. Wash it all down with a kopi – brewed coffee with condensed milk. Sweet and strong.

Paris: An early morning arrival at Paris Charles de Gaulle Terminal 1 (fondly known by some as the ‘concrete doughnut’) usually means horrendous queues of queue-jumpers at passport control. This time, not only am I off the plane promptly, but passport control is sporting neat queue ropes and only two people are ahead of me. Hooray! Just 20 minutes later I have my suitcase and am on the automatic train to the urban railway station (RER-B T1). This little shuttle train, the CDG-VAL, is a godsend after many years of confusion at the shuttle bus-stops. (Existential question of that era: how many Americans does it take to find the right shuttle bus?)

Escaping Charles de Gaulle so quickly puts me on an RER train before 8.00am – no fighting with baggage and grumpy Parisian commuters. I alight at Gare du Nord (the main northern interchange) and the second smell greeting me is sweet, fresh puff pastry and caramelised sugar (the first smell is stale urine… it’s Paris).

These seductive aromas emanate from the bakery of a normal supermarket (Monoprix) in the station. I buy a tresse aux noix (walnut plait). Fantastic. Light pastry, a pale nut caramel inside, and caramelised walnuts on top. EUR 1.30 (less than A$ 2.50). This is why I complain so about Australian bakeries.


I meet up with Harry, friend and occasional commenter on Syrup & Tang, and later that day we head for Madrid. Having to negotiate the same airport twice in one day is not fun, and though Terminal 1 isn’t much fun, it’s still eye-catching, whereas Terminal 2 is just a horror of people, dirt and stressed people. And bad tartes aux framboises. Does the pastry *have* to be this thick?

Madrid: It’s a holiday long weekend, so almost every hotel listed in the guidebooks of the world is booked out. I had managed to secure a room in a mid-level hotel on the Paseo del Prado, opposite the Retiros gardens and just down the road from Madrid’s most famous museums. We arrive and leave outside of their opening hours, but I can just feel the culture seeping down the street. Uhuh.

The hotel room is small. And hot. The aircon hums, but emits no chill. ‘It’s a long weekend so there’s no way we can get a technician,’ says the receptionist. ‘The whole system is broken.’ But you still charge us EUR 78 for the privilege.

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We walk northwards past grand buildings and hordes of Spaniards. Our target is the Chueca area, one of Madrid’s most vibrant quarters (and previously more than a tad seedy). We wander aimlessly until hunger is overtaking the sightseeing drive. Shortly before we become irrational from hunger (read this sometime, it’s interesting) we finally see a small restaurant which seems neither too daunting nor too full nor too empty nor too expensive. The waiter is brusque. It’s Spain. The clientele is a mix of tourists and regulars. The lighting is bright. The staff exude a sense of tension and efficiency. Harry rises into a calamari nirvana, while I slurp at a tasty fabada asturiana – a broad bean stew with a few pieces of chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage). Thoroughly delicious. A good start to the Spanish holiday.

A rotten sleep (no aircon, remember) later, we’re ready for breakfast. Step 1: find somewhere not too daunting, not too full, not too empty, not too expensive. We just aren’t ready for small bars overflowing with morning crusties. Nor are we brave enough for the bocadillerias overflowing with prettier people and tourists. Opposite the Atocha train station we find an enormous, bright, uncrowded yet clearly popular bocadilleria. We plonk down, famished and after only four attempts have managed to attract a waiter’s attention. I simply must do the chocolate con churros thing, despite my first experience, now six years hence, having been a greasy tummy-torture. Harry’s primary nourishment is coffee (or beer), so he’s happy with a cafe americano.

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My churros are greasy but fresh. The chocolate is thick and pretty good, though the Iberian obsession with UHT milk is unmissable.

We go to board our train at Atocha. Our baggage is x-rayed. One of those meaningless security measures, but natural after the bombings of 2004.



We’re on our way to Córdoba, Andalucía.

Travel tips

Singapore: Changi airport has many distractions to keep you busy during a long layover, but the absolute winner, in my opinion, is the transit hotel in each terminal. They don’t cost a lot – less than SGD 60 (A$ 50) for the first six hours, at the time of writing. The rooms are a tad sterile but if, like me, your legs no longer deal with the economy class squeeze very well, don’t miss the opportunity to lie down, or shower, or watch awful Singaporean television. Advanced booking is often necessary.

Paris: The CDGVAL means that getting off the RER at the wrong terminal at Paris Charles de Gaulle (Roissy) airport no longer matters as much. You can just hop on the CDGVAL (it’s free). Heading into or out of Paris, avoid Chatelets-Les Halles station – it’s a nightmare on earth. There are probably skeletons in shadowy corners of this labyrinthine travesty.

Madrid: When taking the metro into Madrid from Madrid Barajas airport, it can be useful to look at the map and choose interchange stations which are less popular. The crowds at Nuevos Ministerios interchange station can be large, as can the distances between lines.

Madrid-Atocha (RENFE): Allow time for the security procedures (though they’re nothing like an airport). Train departure ‘gates’ are on the upper level.