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Sunday, February 16

Southern Spain- Cordoba & Granada

We’ve been to Spain twice already and it’s peak time I share those experiences. First, of the most recent experience. (Although Mallorca is part of Spain, I view that trip differently; it was a ladies trip.)

When I had not been to Spain, ever (a Spain-virgin you can say), my dream was to move there, buy a bed and breakfast and live amongst the orange groves. After our first trip on a momentous birthday, I knew we would return. The second third time we went to Southern parts in October. I had read Autumn is a good time to go, as well as Spring, to avoid the crowds and the outrageous temperatures.

For this trip we planned to arrive in Malaga and drive to few of the cities nearby and return from Malaga. We drove couple hours and started our trip at Hotel Macia Alfaros Cordoba. It was cramped but our room was sufficient. Our room faced another white building so the view was disappointing but it was to be expected of a hotel in the heart of a city. It has a large breakfast room in the basement and a spacious lobby but otherwise small hallways and small quarters.

On the first night we ate dinner at the highly sought after Bodegas Mezquita. It was busy, as expected; there were locals as well as many tourists with their displayed guidebooks on the dining table. We ordered the pre-fixed tapas menu with 6 tapas chosen by the chef. Salmorejo, garlic and tomato soup, served cold was delicious and memorable. The bean soup with chorizo and Morcilla (blood sausage and both are Spanish) was good however over salted while the garlic covered potatoes were under salted. Eggplant fries were unique because they were light and crispy but unfortunately also under seasoned. The husband’s favorite dish from that night was Ratatouille, stewed vegetables from the late summer harvest and perfectly seasoned and hearty. I was surprised Cordoba serves Ratatouille, isn't it French? Overall the cost and the food were passable with some hits and few misses; if in Cordoba I suggest an authentic place for local food.

Cordoba is unique for one reason, the Cathedral. This Cathedral has enough history to spend a whole day and it is wonderful. It has Muslim influences from when the Moors were in Spain as well as Catholic touches. It was first a Mosque that was converted to Catholic church, back to Mosque and again to church. When the construction first started it was built to face Mecca for prayer. In the last Moorish acquisition it was expanded to hold 40,000 people. If you get to go, an audio guide or a tour guide is a must. The audio guide that comes with the tickets is sufficient.

After touring the Cathedral, we walked over to Casa Rubio for lunch. The server is Spanish (possibly?) and was born in Germany when his parents moved there before his birth. He moved to Spain 15- 20 years ago. He was helpful and it was nice he spoke German. He suggested Boquerones (fried anchovies) as one of our Tapas so we got it. He also recommended another seafood dish that we declined and instead we ordered Potatoes with spicy sauce (against our server’s warning) and Salmorejo. Rookie mistake. The Salmorejo was very good however the potatoes were terrible, as he had implied. But the most memorable plate was the fried anchovies and I am glad we went with his suggestion.

By the way, a trap at Casa Rubio (and many restaurants with outdoor seating, probably) if seated outside, there’s an extra service charge than to sit inside. We chose a table inside and interestingly enough the interior is charming and decorated with crafts from the region.

Jewish quarter in Cordoba is admired by the tourists and it is neat to walk around; 2 hours in the district is plenty of time. In addition to the cathedral and the Jewish quarter, we walked over the Roman Bridge, built in the 1st century.
Taberna Salinas is tucked away in a neighborhood that many tourists don’t venture to. The advantage for us was its close proximity to our hotel so we went for the last dinner in Cordoba. It is highly praised and understandably so, the restaurant was packed with locals and some tourists on a weeknight. Thankfully we were able to get a table without a reservation. One dish that’s recommended is Rabo de Toro (oxtail stew). We shared the stew, Salmorejo (do you sense a pattern?) and espinicas con garbanzos (spinach with chickpeas). The meat in the stew was falling off the bone and very flavorful. The spinach and chickpeas were also tasty; the ratio was more spinach and less chickpeas, unlike how I’ve made it in the past. Salmorejo was fine. The server suggested the day’s dessert and the husband ordered it for me because I have a sweet tooth. Sadly the dessert was average. The server was pleasant and attentive and Taberna Salinas served the best food in Cordoba.

We went for the hot bath before dinner one evening. According to history, these baths were a meeting place for the people (mostly Muslims) when they lived here, and a way to meet, chat, enjoy one another’s companies while also bathing. We were hoping to experience it like in Istanbul. This bath was different. It has 4 rooms; steam room, cold water room, hot water room and a room with swimming pool. The idea is to rotate amongst those 4 rooms for couple hours. The cold room is freezing and the hot water is scorching but that’s the point. And there are masseuses that give guests massages (must be scheduled ahead). Obviously to prevent people from staying there all day, groups are allowed in on set time bases and have to leave at a certain time. Our massages were schedule in the last time slot. Not only was our massage rushed but this experience compared to Istanbul was below average. It was filled with tourists and it didn’t have an hot bath (like they used to do it) charm. The same Hot Bath company owns locations in Granada and Seville; we say don’t bother wasting your money.

If you’re in the area, Cordoba deserves a stop for 1- 2 days. It is easy to see the entire city in a day but it would be a rushed day-trip.

In Granada our Bed & Breakfast, Los Rebites, was comfortable and spacious but away from downtown. Our room had a large bathroom as well as a balcony, overlooking the city of Granada. Although the B&B was satisfactory, the daily commute into the city was not.
Since we arrived late to Granada, we went to the local supermarket to stock up on olive oil, canned fish and cured meats. Iberico Jamon (ham) was pricy so we opted for Chorizo instead. After shopping we were completely lost in the city and couldn’t find a restaurant on my list so ended up back at the Bed & Breakfast.

We were back in the suburbs and it was late so our host recommended a restaurant on the next block. When we entered the restaurant was empty, a discouraging sign. However after a long day we chose to sit. The young server didn’t speak much English so we tried our best to get some recommendations. He suggested the daily special, lamb chops and we agreed to share a plate. For appetizer we ordered spinach croquettas which were binded with mashed potatoes, breaded and fried. In the croquettes the spinach had a hint of nutmeg, a memorable touch. For the first course we got potato ensalada (salad- typical to Andalucía), on the house; it was exceptional with garlicky and olive oil notes. Instead of lamb chops we got pork with french fries. We asked about the lamb and the server couldn’t explain the problem. Lost in translation. The pork was perfectly cooked and garlicky unfortunately it was swimming in olive oil and greasy. And the French fries were overkill with potato salad on the house as well as croquettas with potato binder; another vegetable would’ve been appreciated.

Granada is systematic and has a comprehensive public transportation system. From our bed and breakfast we took the bus into the city each day. The first full day we visited the neighborhood of Albayzín. It is an UNESCO site because it’s one of the oldest neighborhoods on a hill overlooking the valley and filled with white homes and has panoramic views of the Alhambra. The architecture reflects the Moorish culture with brightly colored tiles and balconies. When the Muslims were pushed out of other Andalucían cities, they settled in Granada (particularly Albayzín), the only city that wasn’t conquered, yet.

We went to La Ladrillo for lunch. This place had locals sitting on the patio. And they offered menu of the day, a welcome change from the tapas. For the first course, we each ordered Migas, fried bread crumbs with whole roasted garlic cloves topped with fried sardine. The flavors were distinct because of the fresh sardine and roasted garlic but the bread crumbs were not crispy. For main I ordered cerdo (pork pieces) and the husband ordered pork back. Both were garlicky and delectable. I love the Spaniards love of garlic. The husband’s pork was slightly overcooked in some parts, easy to do when it’s thin filets. For sides, we got fries, again. I don’t love the Spaniards’ love of French fries. For dessert I ordered flan and he got coffee. The flan was ordinary.

After visiting the Cathedral and walking around other parts of the city, we went back to our room to relax. Later we headed back to Albayzín to watch the sunset and see the Alhambra at dusk before walking to dinner. We were determined to find a Moroccan or North African restaurant due to the strong Muslim influence; we found Restaurante Arrayanes for dinner. I ordered a Chicken Tagine with preserved lemons and olives while the husband ordered lamb with vegetables. Both dishes were great, a tad under seasoned but still terrific.

On our way to the Alhambra the next morning, the husband wanted to get shwarma from Shwarma King before heading to the palace. It was below average and we both agreed expectations have to be low when buying food from a restaurant on the main road to a tourist sight/ the Alhambra.

Alhambra is a combined palace and fortress on a hill, with initial construction in 9th century. It was neglected until the Moors and the King revamped the palace in the 11th century. The visit to Alhambra requires advanced planning; visitors must book tickets online and are given a specific time for entrance. Due to high volume of visitors per day, the center is strict about entering on the scheduled time. Each time slot allows 4 hours per visit and many areas have an automated machine that scans ticket. Audio guides can be rented and we both recommend them. Following the ticket instructions, begin at the Nasrid Palace. There is a lot to see and learn in the palace and due to its magnificent size it’s easy to get lost in.

I will honestly say that Alhambra is worth a visit while the husband was shocked at the rave reviews from visitors. For someone that has seen Arabic influenced architecture in India & Turkey, to be precise, he was underwhelmed. For me, if there was an 8th wonder of the world, the Alhambra deserves that spot. It is impressive inside and out.

In one of the guidebooks, I had read about convents in Granada selling cookies. Of course I had to find one myself. While in Albayzín, we located one but unfortunately they were closed. The next day, before the Alhambra, we found Monasterio de Santa Catalina de Zafra with the help of a tourist office suggestion. They are conveniently located on the path to the Alhambra. Inside the instructions state to ring the bell and order from a list of 3-4 cookies. After waiting 3-4 minutes, a nun answered. Here’s the neat part. The nuns are behind a rotating carousel window (lazy susan with covered window) and customers can’t see them. She asked me what I wanted so I asked for Polvorones and Mantecados. She put 500 grams each and turned the wheel. After seeing them, I requested in my broken Spanish 250 grams of each. She took them back, repacked them in smaller bags and charged me 6 Euros. I put my money in the carousel and walked away with homemade Polvorones and Mantecados from the convent.

Polvorones and Mantecados are shortbread cookies made with fat, powdered sugar and sometimes contain almonds. Mantecados are made with lard. They are crumbly because it’s mostly butter or lard and nuts, great with coffee or tea. Word of warning, don’t buy these BEFORE the Alhambra tour because food can’t be left in lockers and you have to walk around for 4 hours with the cookies; it will yield crumbly cookies when you’re home. None the less I loved the idea of nuns selling their homemade food. And the cookies were rich and delightful.

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