Saturday, April 08, 2006

Granada: Facing the food


I think that you can never look down the road at the prospect of 22 hours of traveling with equanimity.

Every trip these days is not just a combination of planes, trains and automobiles, but also checkpoints, lines and lugging. Oh, and lousy food. But off we go, blithely by, lured by the promise of adventure and some good rates on airfare.

Now, I wouldn’t want this story to become a chronicle of the airports I have seen, but honestly, I just couldn’t help comparing some of the experiences I’ve had in the last 24 hours with each other.

I’m taking JetBlue to New York to meet up with my Dad.Together we’ll continue on to Madrid then Granada.

At Oakland, I’m braced for the worst – the last time I did this, I waited in a security checkpoint line for literally 1.5 hours. The line snaked around the baggage carousel before gently meandering up a ramp and through a food court. This time however, to my great surprise, I speed through the check-in kiosk, thanks to pre-printed bar codes, and walk straight through without stopping to the security gate.

I’ve become really quick at the Security Striptease: coat, shoes, phone, laptop…in the bin, carry-on on the belt, timestep through the security gate … carry-on off the belt, shoes, coat, phone, laptop back in place. Yank out the handle to my rolling luggage and I’m off again. I could make a ballet out of it.

Once on the plane, I narrowly miss having to sit next to an “I promise to shriek for at least two hours” infant-in-arms, and settle in for the flight and the lengthy contemplation of the snack.

What does “Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread, Havarti-type Flavor” really mean? If I dare to let this pass my lips, will I not be permitted near any real cheese for the rest of my trip?

NEW YORK: Landing in JFK, there’s the runaround from one terminal to the next on the Airtrain. I have to say, it’s very nice and clean, but just the word “monorail” makes me think of the Simpsons episode when the town of Springfield bankrupts itself to build a shiny new monorail that ultimately goes haywire and comes crashing down around their ears.

I make it to the dingy Delta terminal. Now, I know Delta is basically a financial basket case, but this dingy terminal is practically a caricature. Giant chunks of paint are peeling from the walls, the security area is cordoned off with plywood panels, and there is utter chaos at the check-in desks. I take a picture of the walls and a guard hustles over to me to say that “cameras are not allowed in the building.”

“I’m not allowed to have a camera in the building?” I say incredulously, thinking, You have all these people going off to vacation and you think you can ban cameras? I decide that it’s not a terrorist thing, it’s just that Delta is so horribly embarrassed by its utter state of decrepitude.

I meet up with my Dad at the gate and together we go in search of something to eat, and settle for a Sam Adams at the sports bar, since nothing else at the airport looks worthwhile.

The flight to Madrid is pretty full, but as we get to our seats we discover that (Score!) the ones assigned to us flank the business class section and basically amount to a little private niche with TONS of room. The seats are the kind that recline, with a leg rest and there’s a curtain you can pull across the whole shebang. Boy, have we lucked out – this is practically unheard of luxury for a transatlantic flight.

But, lest we get cocky, the plane food is right up to par with the airport selections. I call this “Pasteurized Process Food-type Matter.”

The flight passes quickly, though, as I can actually sleep in these seats (15A and 15B in a Delta 767 if you’re interested) and we land in Madrid with only a minimum of turbulence, and a maximum of sneezing/runny nose. That’s a thing with me on planes…

MADRID: The Madrid terminal for Delta is dingy again and confusing. We don’t know where to make our connection, we’re wandering through passport control, my Dad’s feet hurt and I’m running out of Kleenex. We get some assistance though, from a somewhat peremptory woman, who puts us on a bus for T4, which apparently means Terminal 4.

Now this isn’t at all like the monorail experience. The bus loads up at the terminal and then gets on the highway. Uh-oh, we think, are we, like, going the right way?

Then over the hill, an enormous undulating building comes into view, the bus pulls in under its hyperbolic paraboloid canopy and spews us all out where we stand gawking on the curb at the most amazing airport terminal I’ve ever seen.

You have to hand it to the Spaniards. When it comes to architecture, they go for the gusto. The Iberia terminal is modern, airy, and yet welcoming and organic, and it is unbelievably huge. It’s a good thing our layover is a long-ish one, because we need time just to wander around and gape at the place, and smell the new wood slats.

The whole place looks like it was built to serve millions, which I’m sure it does – and I can’t help but compare it to the horrendous Delta Terminals.

But we’re not in Spain for the airports, no matter how cool they are. We’re en route to Granada, and after a puddle jump to the Granada Airport, we make our way with some relief to the Alhambra Palace hotel.

Examining pictures of the hotel, my Dad and I determined that we had stayed here the last time we came to Granada. It’s a very fancy, but wonderfully situated hotel that is literally down the road from the Alhambra’s entrance and up the road from the Plaza Nueva heart of Granada.

Our room, which faces out to the city is lovely, and you feel like you can have just a sip of what the Moorish kings of Granada must have lived with every day.

Here's the view from our window... It's good to be the Sultan.

Now, I had imagined that we’d rest a moment when we got in, but to my surprise, my Dad wants to drop off the bags and bound out the door immediately. I feel very old, and slightly broken. Maybe it’s just that sort of jet-lagged impression that my brain is partially lodged on my kneecap.

But we’re off!

We head up the hill, to investigate where the Alhambra entrance is:

And down the hill to get to the city center:

I have to say, as much as I was dragging, I couldn’t help but just appreciate how beautiful this place is. Driving from the airport to the city, the dry, dusty terrain looks not too dissimilar from Arizona, right down to the prickly pear cacti on the side of the road. But up here, there are green forests, and lovely lilacs hanging from eaves. People have quiet gardens and shady orange trees.

We take a long route, as it turns out, around the university, past the plaza where Queen Isabella is forever handing Christopher Columbus his charter, and up to the Plaza Nueva, hippie hangout and people watching spot extraordinaire.

It’s basically siesta time, so nothing much is open in the way of shops, but we settle into a table at a café and order some drinks and snacks to get into the spirit of the Spanish tempo. Everything is so easygoing – even the clouds have moved off and the only one doing any running is the fountain.

We wander around the area a little, braving herb wielding gypsies to pass the Royal Chapel where Isabella and Ferdinand are laid to rest. And then make our way back through the Plaza Nueva, up the small side street to the Puerta de las Granadas – an ancient entrance to the fortress -- to head up the hill to the Alhambra.

Long live the Spanish Siesta! Zzzzzzzzzz…..

Around 9 or so we got up and headed back out, since, you know, now, people are out for dinner…

Wandering down the road that took us into the plaza, we passed hopelessly atmospheric places like the lone guitar-maker’s shop, from whence issued the sounds of Spanish guitar playing

Down in the plaza, people are coming out of the woodwork. And in one fancy looking bodega, there’s a swath of locals downing sherry underneath a wall of prize ham hocks with the distinctive pata negra or black hoof.

All fine and dandy, but what, you ask, about DINNER?

Well, in an attempt to keep ourselves on Spanish time, we wandered back to the Restaurante Sevilla, recommended in so many guidebooks that there are now only English speakers in the dining room, though there are Spaniards bellying up to plates of dark Jamon Iberico in the bar. Still, the food smells great, and we’re hungry and looking for something yummy.

My Dad demurs at the Sacromonte tortilla -- a house specialty omelette that Garcia Lorca reputedly favored when he patronized this selfsame establishment, and which apparently features lamb brains and “criadillos.” The latter I have a vague memory of meaning, “bull testicles.”


We ordered a plate of Serrano ham (I’m saving the jamon de Jabugo – bellota reserva for when I’m more likely to remember it…) some Rioja and a paella sevillana for two. You know what? We were fine with no criadillos.

Stuffed after dinner, we wandered back up the hill at midnight when we heard a mad tolling from the bell in the tower of the Alcazaba. Midnight service? Warning bell? Tsunami?” I thought, as we moved closer. Suddenly I could hear the sounds of a band, drums and brass, playing a dolorous, slow dirge at full blast and the smell of incense drifted past us.

Topping the hill, we found that just beyond our hotel, there was a procession coming along the paths that lead to the fortress. At the front, high on a palanque and encircled with chunky candles was a Madonna statue. A crowd was following the Mater Dolorosa along with the band and as we watched they rounded the corner to head up the hill, like a surreal panoply, barely visible through the trees. Holy Week has begun.

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