“I have bad news. Tickets to visit the Alhambra have been sold out for our dates.”
“What? No, you can’t be serious,” I said to Pooja, cradling my phone between my neck and shoulder as I rushed to turn on the laptop. “There must be some other way. What about the Granada pass?”
“That’s sold out too. Apparently they sell a limited number of passes to prevent overcrowding in the Alhambra. And April end is the start of their peak tourist season.”
“Wow,” I sighed, browsing through the Granada tourism website. “One of the comments on this site says that the only other way to get tickets is to stand in line at 6 a.m. on that day itself.”
“Ugh. So we’ll have to figure it out there itself. I hope it’s still worth it, spending two whole days in Granada.”
I had met Pooja in the Spanish class I’d been going to since a year, and this summer, we both decided to go on a month long trip to Spain, with Granada as our first stop. Granada – an Andalusian town in the south of Spain, is synonymous with the Alhambra, which is a medieval Moorish palace, and also the most visited monument in the entire country.
The bus journey from Madrid took around five hours, but I knew we were in Andalusia when the dry plains gave way to green hills and miles and miles of olive groves along the highway. Getting down at Granada, we came across a tourist information booth by a tour agency called ‘Play Granada’ and decided to take one last shot at getting the precious tickets.
“I’m sorry, but they are sold out,” said Laura, the woman at the booth in a thick Italian accent. “Normally you have to book at least two months in advance to get them.”
“Is there any other way?” I pleaded, “We decided the trip at the last minute so we couldn’t book them in advance.”
“The only way I can think of is standing in line at 4 o’clock in the morning. But to be honest, there’s no guarantee you’ll get them even then. There’s no limit to the number of tickets one person can buy, so they could easily get sold out before you reach the front of the line,” she said. I shared a disappointed glance with Pooja.
“But what I recommend will definitely make up for it,” continued Laura. “You should do the Night Adventure Tour we organise at Play Granada. It’s a guided walk / trek through the beautiful Albayzin neighbourhood and the Gypsy quarters of Sacromonte. You will get to explore the Gypsy caves, meet people from all over the world, and experience a non-touristy side of Spain. It generally costs thirty Euros, but I can give you a discount and make it twenty.”
“Should we do this?” Pooja and I looked at each other and mulled it over. “It sounds fun. Plus we have two whole days here and not much to do. I mean, all the blogs about Granada only talk about the Alhambra.” The girl, Laura was very convincing.
“We’ll take it,” I said, turning to Laura.
“Awesome. I promise you, you will love it,” she said, smiling widely. “Be at the Play Granada office by 7 pm tomorrow.”
We reached the hostel we were staying at, which was ironically called ‘Alhambra Zoom’, in slightly raised spirits. Our roommates turned out to be really cool people. Vince was from Canada, and he suggested some fun things to do in Sevilla, which was our next destination, since he had just been there. Jose from Colombia told us about parts of the Alhambra, like the Puerta de la Justicia, that we could visit as they were free to the public.
Walking along the charming streets and squares of the historic centre made me feel like I’d stepped back in time. We stumbled upon a group of people in vintage outfits outside the Renaissance styled church of Santa Ana, where a themed wedding had just taken place. I felt like we had walked onto the set of a period film, with the light spring rain setting the perfect mood. We visited the enormous Cathedral of Granada and the Alcaiceria market, and then spent the evening bar hopping and eating tapas, which are small savoury Spanish dishes. Granada is like the land of free tapas; it’s one of the few places in Spain where you order a drink at a bar and the waiter will surprise you with a plate or two of their selection of tapas. And if you’re lucky, they will also give you a free refill of Alhambra special – the local beer.
The next day, thanks to our roommate Jose’s suggestion, we visited the Justice Gate, Palace of Charles V and other parts of the Alhambra and Generalife which did not need the infamous tickets. The rest of the afternoon was spent eating Tortilla de Patatas – the famous Spanish omelette washed down with some Vino Tinto or red wine, and window shopping along the streets of the historic centre. We went back to the hostel in the evening for a short siesta, because ‘When in Spain…!’
We reached the Play Granada office by 7 pm, trying not to have too many expectations, but at the same time hoping that it would be worth it. We met the others in the group, and after a quick round of introductions, set off on the Night Adventure Tour, climbing along the maze of narrow, winding lanes of the Albayzin neighbourhood. The soft strumming sound of a flamenco guitar being played around the corner added to the magical atmosphere, as we learnt about the history of the city, about how the Moors, Gypsies, Jews and Christians living here at different periods over the centuries had created the unique culture of present-day Granada. Our guide, Tibo was from the Basque country and had travelled all across the world, including India.
“So here’s a really interesting fact about the Gypsies. Do any of you know where they originally came from?” Tibo asked us. We had reached a small square which overlooked the city below.
“I’ve heard they were from Egypt, and that’s where the word ‘Gypsy’ came from,” someone replied.
“That’s a common misconception people have had since ages, which led to the name. But in fact, they were originally from a place called Rajasthan in North India. Did you guys know that?” Tibo asked, turning to Pooja and me. I was really surprised by this new information, and it piqued my interest in the Gypsies and their culture further.
“The ‘Gitanos’ or the Roma community as they are called, were nomads who travelled from India across continents, a group of them reaching here and settling down in these caves sometime in the 15th century,” he continued. “These caves, carved out of the hillside have a really cool feature – they maintain their temperature all year round, so they stay cool in the summer and are warm during winter.”
We had reached the Mirador de San Nicolas, a popular tourist spot to admire the view of the city below, which kept getting better the higher we climbed. But it was too crowded for our liking, so we decided not to wait there. We sat down and had a drink in one of the small restaurants in a plaza overlooking the city, talking and getting to know everyone in the group. Apart from Pooja and me, there was a guy from Mexico, a family from Holland, and a few people from Italy, France and America.
“So at present there are two parts of the Sacromonte caves, the legal and the illegal parts,” our guide, Tibo said, as we continued our uphill walk. “Most of the Gypsy community now pays taxes to the government, and in return is provided with roads, water and electricity, but they’ve constructed a facade over the caves, giving them the appearance of regular houses.
“The more interesting caves however, are the illegal ones on top, where we are headed now. I know a few of the guys living there, who may even let us see the caves from inside if we are lucky.”
We did turn out to be lucky, and got to meet the ‘pseudo gypsies’ now camping out in the illegal caves. They were mostly ‘hippies’ and immigrants from places like Senegal, who were nice enough to let us explore their cave homes – which included run-down furniture, outhouse-like bathrooms, solar panels, a fridge stocked with food and drinks, and a view to die for. One cave even had a moth-eaten armchair placed at the edge of the cliff, to soak in the sprawling vista of the white-washed houses of the Albayzin neighbourhood below and the Alhambra fortress perched on the opposite hill, lighted up golden in the setting sun.
“I know I’m not being objective, since I haven’t been inside the palace, but I think that this is a much better way to experience the Alhambra,” I said, unable to tear my eyes away from the view.
“Yeah, and Granada in general,” agreed Pooja.
“It’s such a humbling experience,” said Angel, the guy from Mexico. “These people don’t have everything, but they find happiness in whatever they have.”
We spent the evening chatting, eating, and exchanging travel stories with everyone, and before I knew it, it was time to head back. It was pitch dark, the light from our head torches the only thing helping us find our way back down the hill.
“I can’t decide whether the view of Granada was more stunning during sunset, or now with the fortress and the city lit up like stars,” I sighed.
“Tell me about it. This is the second time I’m doing this trek and I still can’t get enough,” said the Dutch guy, whose name I sadly couldn’t pronounce. We were now walking along the Camino de Sacromonte, which was the legal part – a paved road with picturesque lamp posts and lively restaurants with flamenco shows along the way.
“You’ve been inside the Alhambra and Nasrid Palace right? Is it as good as everyone says, or is there any chance that it’s overrated?” I asked him with a hopeful look.
“Ha-ha no. You have to see it at least once in your life.”
We all decided to have dinner together, and I tried Salmorejo con Jamón Ibérico, a dish made of tomatoes and the famous Iberian ham.
“This is magical. We have to come back here again,” I said to Pooja, as I scrolled through the panorama pictures I’d clicked, having tried in vain to capture the postcard perfect vista the caves in the hillside and the Alhambra against a purplish-orange sky during sunset.
“Yeah, we’re definitely coming back.”
“And this time,” I added with a grin, “with tickets to the Alhambra booked way in advance.”