Saturday, 28 August 2010

Getting sweaty in Granada

The Alhambra, Granada
On my first visit to Granada, it snowed. This made the trip to the Alhambra picturesque, full of rare photo opportunities and... freezing. Arriving five years later in the July midday heat, the city was almost unrecognisable, largely due to the copious quantities of sweat spilling down my forehead and streaking my sunglasses. Granada in summertime is hot, there are no two ways about it. And not in a pleasant 'I'll be going home with a tan' way, either. Sensible residents flee the city during the summer months, and the rest presumably take refuge in their air-conditioned homes, leaving the streets to the tourists.

Falling into the latter category, my family and I sallied forth into the deserted streets of the Albayzin, Granada's rambling hillside Moorish quarter, catching not one glimpse of the dangerous muggers mentioned in our guidebook. They were clearly all at home enjoying their air con. Wandering through the quiet streets fringed with huge white carmenes (villas particular to this area of Granada), we hoped to stumble across a tiled taverna to retreat into for an extended Spanish-style lunch. No such luck: the heat got the better of us before we had chance to seriously search, and we retreated to the central Plaza Nueva and lunched at vegetarian-friendly cafe Green and Berries (after liberally splashing our faces with water from the nearby drinking fountain). Suitably panini-filled, we gave in and did as the locals do: headed home for a siesta.

At 7pm we dared to venture out again from our hotel, the central, cheap and friendly Hostal Lima, heading for the nearby Plaza Bib Rambla, a pedestrianised square with a fountain at its centre and cafes all around its circumference. After a leisurely drink, we were keen to get to grips with Granada's famed tapas scene. The southern city is one of the few in Spain to retain the custom of serving customers a free tapa to accompany each drink ordered. Apparently they usually improve in quality and extravagance the longer you stay: you might get olives or ensaladilla rusa (a mayonnaise-saturated egg, potato and miscellaneous vegetable salad) with your first tinto de verano, but as the night wears on you'll move through the ranks of Spanish omelette, pincho moruno and so on. Our first choice of bar presented us with a healthy dollop of ensaladilla, which sadly wasn't tempting enough to encourage us to linger. It being Sunday evening, pickings were unfortunately on the slim side as many Spanish restaurants close then - highly-recommended seafood bar Los Diamantes, which we'd been hoping to try out, was sadly one of them.

A little tired of trekking Granada's scenic streets in search of free food, we took a seat in Plaza El Cristo and opted to pay for the pleasure, choosing a mixed plate of tapas for €8. Refuelled and re-energised by sitting at an actual chair rather than perching on a bar stool (as required for the freebies), we headed to the city centre, finding plenty of lively bars to quench our remaining hunger pangs on Calle Elvira, with the tortilla de patatas sandwich dished up at friendly El Espejo proving particularly filling. The riverside Paseo de los Tristes, with its view uphill to the hulking Alhambra fortress (our destination for the following morning), provided the perfect post-tapa walk.

Palacios Nazaries, Alhambra
Fortified by a substantial breakfast at traditional churreria Cafe Bib-Rambla, we made the steep ascent to the Alhambra palace, Spain's most-visited monument and prime example of the country's Moorish heritage. Begun in the 11th century, the Alhambra was added to during numerous dynasties of Moorish rulers until they were finally driven out by those bloodthirsty Catholic monarchs, Fernando and Isabel, in 1492. The later Christian additions may not blend well with the rest of the complex, but prove beautiful in their own right, particularly the Palacio de Carlos V, which we wandered into prior to our timed entry to the main attraction, the Palacios Nazaries.

Busy year-round, the Alhambra gets especially crowded during the summer months, so we opted for a 9.30am slot (the earliest is 8.30) with the aim of beating the crowds and the heat. This was perhaps a bit optimistic, but our wander round the palace was quite enough to be able to contemplate the views of the city and the valleys beyond; the intricacy of the multicoloured mosaic work on the wallks and the Arabic slogan of 'There is no conqueror but Allah' inscribed throughout. Spain is notorious for its relative lack of explanatory plaques at attractions, but at the Alhambra this absence works to the visitors' advantage: courtyards and chambers are uncluttered but for fellow tourists, allowing imaginations to roam and conjure up visions of tea-sipping Nasrids reclining on colourful cushions. The immaculately-preserved splendour of the Palacios Nazaries is all the more impressive given the cheap materials used in its constuction: brick, wood and adobe, all skilflly manipulated to create a truly beautiful monument.

As spectacular as the palace is, having already toured it once, it was the gardens of the Generalife that really caught my eye. A well-tended yet still pleasantly rambling series of patios, shaded walkways and fountains, the former pleasure gardens of the Moorish rulers make an ideal spot to rest after a trek around the Alhambra. Filled with a vast variety of species of flowers, shrubs and trees, the new generation of gardeners have aimed to recreate the style of their forebears, and the result is a charming (and somewhat less crowded) space for visitors to enjoy. The views from the Generalife are particularly photogenic, with the Alhambra in the foreground, framed against a mountain backdrop.

As the mercury in the thermometer started to creep towards the unbearable, we decided it was time to flee the pretty little city of Granada and return to our air-conditioned seaside apartment. Compact enough to explore in a weekend, interesting enough to linger, Granada is certainly a tempting destination - just don't go in summer if you want to get the most out of it!

Calligraphy close-up

Thursday, 5 August 2010

My Madrid: The story of pizza at La Perla di Napoli

My 'hasta luego, Madrid' dinner took place, perhaps inappropriately, at an Italian restaurant. Following a recommendation from a friend of A, who claimed that it served the best pizza in Madrid, my lovely flatmates and I made our way to La Perla di Napoli to see if this claim proved true.

First impressions were far from overwhelming: while it's not exactly cutre, the restaurant certainly doesn't fall into the chic category either. Downstairs is a bar area, which filled with a very random selection of punters as the night wore on, while the main L-shaped dining area is upstairs. One wall is dominated by a night-time scene of Naples, under which sits a large fish tank devoid of aquatic life. You get the idea: it's a pretty strange place. Our growing suspicions were compounded by the very short menu (a few starters, pastas, pizzas and some meat and fish options) and lack of wine list: what kind of restaurant was this?

Upon ordering a bottle of lambrusco (there was no ordinary rosé to be had, believe me we asked), the lone waiter came to the assistance of the lone waitress, who found herself unable to open the bottle. The evening began its descent into farce when the waiter regaled us with an account the origins of the wine; an informative tale which included the memorable line 'Did you know that Italy is the shape of a boot?' Our starter of melanzane parmigiana (oven baked aubergines with parmesan) improved our opinions of La Perla: it was robust, just the right side of greasy and heaped with cheese. Our stone-baked pizzas followed suit: two proscuitto e funghi for the brothers and a vegetale for me. We eyed them with suspicion: they looked smaller than expected for €13 a pop, and the crust was thicker than anticipated.

One bite and our cynicism melted away: the base was delicious and much thinner than the puffy crust, and the cheese and tomato topping was beautifully rich. There were just enough vegetables scattered across my pizza; a selection of aubergines, artichokes, peppers and courgette. But the best part was the accompanying explanation, which began in a manner similar to children's bedtime stories: Os cuento la historia de la pizza? Suppressing wine-fuelled giggles, we listened and learned that the margherita pizza was created in Naples in honour of Queen Margherita's visit to the city: the mozzarella, tomato and basil were chosen to represent the colours of the Italian flag.

Too stuffed for dessert, we were offered a 'shot' of limoncello. Thinking of my friend C, a lover of this lemon liqueur who is currently exiled in Singapore, I readily accepted, only to be presented with an entire glass of the stuff. Naturally, the alcohol inspired further hilarity, leading A to ask for the story of the drink. In case you wondered, it's from Sorrento.

La Perla di Napoli isn't the cheapest restaurant in Madrid: €70 for one starter, 3 mains and a bottle of wine. But for the best pizza in the city (that I've tasted anyway) and guaranteed hilarity, it's a fair price to pay.

  • La Perla di Napoli is at Calle de Santa Engracia 51 (metro Iglesia).
Photo by wEnDalLcious/Flickr.

2014 update: La Perla di Napoli is no longer open. You'll have to go elsewhere to learn about the shape of Italy, sadly.
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