Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Andalucía: World's Most Spectacular Road (or Train) Trip

View from St. Nicholas Square of the Alhambra in Granada
Come see Spain’s most beautiful landscapes combined with its most exquisite historical treasures all while meeting the world’s friendliest people. Besides Sevilla (other blog), Granada, Cordoba, and Ronda serve as the most important cities in Andalucía – if not Europe! Granada has it all from a bustling nightlife (yay! students) to Spain’s most beautiful historical treasure, the Alhambra (and beer namesake). Cordoba subtracts the bustling town – but still includes another critical must-see site, the Mezquita/Cathedral/Mosque – and its touristy enough to find plenty of friends. Finally Ronda provides a majestic spot for a day-trip – with incredible cliffs, caves and (thus) staggering vistas. You can also stay in touristy Malaga or nearby Torremolinos, Andalucía's gay capital (links go to my earlier blogs).

Not only is Andalucía very modern, beautiful and (basically post-modern) gay - but it bears weighty historical influence for all "Americans" – as well as Europeans, North Africans & Muslims! In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean (blue) after finally convincing King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to fund his trip - he accepted the cash in Cordoba. This nearly didn't occur because the Catholics had just concluded the lengthy Reconquista, finally capturing Granada from the Moors early that same year; what little cash left in their coffers luckily went to Columbus. Thus, we now use this commemorative celebration to help unify the hispanic world, spread Catholic influence and serve as a rallying day for native peoples who suffered then and since Columbus' "discovery."


Giese's take on the Alhambra!
It's no wonder the Moors held out so long for this beautiful mountain-side town, which boasts access to the Sierra Nevada slopes as well as the beach (still an hour drive away). Yet I visited neither because the city has plenty to offer – and seeing the postcard-perfect, snow-topped mountains above the city was sufficient. Remember to reserve your Alhambra tickets months before you set out – it’s Spain’s most beautiful man-made wonder (and should be a “world-wonder”).

It's best to begin Alhambra in the mid or late afternoon - three or four hours will be sufficient time to go at a relaxed Spanish pace and see all of the many parts within and beside the fortress. Afterwards, you can walk back down into town along the trail/road in the valley between the Generalife Gardens and Alhambra (opposite Le Mimbre Restaurant & behind Alhambra's bus stop at the main entrance). If you walk down in time - you can catch a bus back up to St. Nicholas square for Clinton's favorite sunset - and probably one of the best in the world, overlooking the entire Alhambra with snow-caps in the distance! The meals up top are pricey but worth the view (if you're hungry). Then wander back down through the Albaicín, eat Moroccan couscous, buy some souvenirs in the souks or enjoy Spanish tapas.
Crowds linger after sunset at St Nicholas Square

You also must see Granada's main Cathedral - and right beside, the Royal Chapel where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's remains remain (or just watch this creepy video). Next door visit the beautifully preserved Madraza (I'm always about the students) and get a discount to also see the Foundation Rodriguez-Acosta, providing beautiful collected sculpture and art - and views of Granada. As with anywhere - there are many more sights than you'll have time for in even 3 or 4 days.

Interesting male nude at the
Foundation Rodriguez-Acosta
If you need a room or two to rent – hit up my friend Pepe and his partner on Airbnb who have a great spot not too far from town – and they will be more than happy to show you the scene! Having gay friends is always useful – especially if they take you to the (gayish) natural hot springs not to far from town for a relaxing spa-like skinny-dip (and if you're ballsy like me, suggest a massage from the cutest of your new-found friends). With a few universities nearby – and plenty of hostels for young travelers - the weekend and later weekdays can be lots of fun. Six Colours is one major bar with some general dancing space otherwise there are a number of venues you can test out all just east of Gran Via. If you'd prefer to make your friends online – Grindr will also be sufficient in this student-packed city.


Contrast the Cathedral with Moorish arches
The Mezquita remains an incredible place with the best place to see contrasting Catholic and Muslim architecture combined – it's a Catholic Church literally built inside what used to be a mosque. Sadly, the Catholics continue to profit and refuse to truly honor the Muslim worship areas. The contrast is enormous – and the bias in tourist materials on-site is unforgiveable; preview the best images from this website. Also check out the castle - but try to go earlier than we did – a friend and I got trapped on top (just snapping a few too many pictures) and had to yell down to people to let us out! Unless you're bringing the kids, you can skip the "free" water/laser light show in the evening.

Currently Glam remains the only gay bar in town – but don't search online, every gay venue listed is shut down. Luckily I stopped by Yoko – which used to be a gay bar – and ran into young gays headed to Glam (otherwise I would never have found it!). Small, with a bar downstairs and a bar with dance-floor upstairs, the music wasn’t top notch. But the company was - I made friends with a local and his friend visiting from Sevilla - who graciously gave me a late night tour…

Views from the Castle - when we got trapped up top!
On social media – yep Grindr – everyone’s a little bit desperate. This is not your more relaxed scene with immediate mentions of “que buscas” and titles like “Sexo ahora!” But this doesn’t detract from the cute nature of this ancient town. With a beautiful old town, renewed riverbank – and even better variety of food (which means they have Moroccan), it’s as touristy as it gets, but you can’t beat a stay at the lovely San Miquel and a night out with nuevos amigos!


Whether you take the train, bus - or use BlaBlaCar, a great, convenient service where you can help a local pay his way around Spain (or Europe!) - plus learn some Spanish on the way - there is no quick way to this gem of a town. It's basically 2-3 hours from everywhere - but the trip is worth it. The beautiful old city center provides gorgeous views – and, while it is touristy, you can find really tasty, cheap eats at El Lechugita or pay for your view at Don Miquel!

Puente Nuevo from below
For the best views - walk along the cliff from Plaza De Toros (where Madonna shot Take a Bow) around to Puente Nuevo. Then cross and go into the old town - bear right to reach to trail back down under the bridge. You MUST walk down into the valley to enjoy the full splendor - but bring decent walking shoes (not flip-flops) for the trek. It can be a touch scary – but just watch your step and you'll be fine. Views back up the cliffs and out into the valley beyond are spectacular and you can see the caves built into the mountain across the way at La Casa del Rey Moro. Just watch that weather report and don't get stuck below when it starts to pour like we did!

If you can time your departure with sunset and drive down the mountains on Carretera de Ronda (A-397) directly to the coast, you'll enjoy breathtaking views of the mountains and coastline - even Gibraltar and Africa on a clear day! Not minding the time, I luckily caught the last bus (at 8pm) to Fuengirola (another local beach town) – in late April – which worked perfectly for seeing the sunset over the entire south of Spain!

View from the bus  on A-397 - complete with Spanish fan...

And more!

Other stops on the Costa Del Sol include (basically) German-run beach-resort-town of Marbella (1/3 of residents are foreign) and the English country of Gibraltar (prior blog) further west on the coast. In the east beyond student-coast-city Malaga is also Nerja which has both rocky beaches and caves if you need some sights sin sol. Back inland (north of Malaga) you can see beautiful rock formations at Antequera –  and over on the Atlantic coast is Cadiz, the best place to be for Carnival. It's no wonder that foreigners are quickly buying up property here – these are the most fun, interesting and pristine parts of Europe. My advice is to rent a car if you're on a schedule, but you can easily Blabla, train or bus around if you have more time but less cash.
GAYographer in Nerja (with a Statue of King Alfonso II!)

Andalucía comprises some of the most beautiful sights, gorgeous mountain views and of course – truly the most genuinely friendly people in Europe. Whether its a solo trip, family vaca or honeymoon – Spain's south will never disappoint! Buen Viaje!