By Geoff Dennis
Many travelers put Granada at the top of their European bucket list, and for good reason. It’s home to the Alhambra, a fascinating relic of Moorish rule that has lain mostly undisturbed by the ravages of history. Visitors to the complex are treated to an unparalleled feast of the senses: flawlessly manicured gardens with gurgling fountains and brilliant flowers, mind-blowingly intricate Islamic carvings, and terrific views of the surrounding city from the thousand-year-old citadel walls. Boisterous German and Japanese tour groups round out the experience.
Although the admittedly tremendous Alhambra draws a glut of travel book-wielding history buffs, Granada has a lot to offer any traveler searching for authentic, cultural experiences; these just take a bit of searching out. Step one is to find some decent tapas joints.
For me, food has always been the gateway cultural experience (enjoying a four-course meal at some abuela’s house can lead inexplicably to running with the bulls, I presume), so understanding Granada’s cuisine scene was an essential step in my appreciation of the city as a whole. Fellow backpackers told me that I would love Granada for its stubborn traditionalism: as in days of yore, most tapas bars in Granada would serve a free tapa with every drink you purchase (a one-to-one ratio of snacks to drinks is just perfect, if you ask me). I was intrigued.
Tapas, of course, is the Spanish pre-dinner tradition of drinking a few beers, tasting miniature plates of assorted goodies (from Iberian ham and fig skewers to baby eels on toast), and letting off some steam after a hard day’s work. On my first morning in Granada, I enjoyed basking in the warm Andalusia sun, splayed out like a Galapagos iguana, on the steps in front of the grand cathedral. Just a block away, I pinpointed a promising spot for a tapas feast later in the evening. Rule number one: if there are only a couple major tourist hotspots in a town, don’t look for an authentic meal within a hundred yards of those places.
After some extensive city rambling, I headed back for a tapas meal at the aforementioned eatery, which now has a sign outside advertising “¡Las Mejores Tapas del Mundo!” Rule number two: never trust a chalkboard superlative. I pulled up a chair outside and immediately noticed that something was amiss—everyone around me was speaking English. “Now Geoff,” you’re surely saying. “You speak English too, you knucklehead!” But, dear reader, you’ll remember that I’m looking for a so-called cultural experience, won’t you? Anyways, I attempted to engage my server in Broken Spanish (my third language, after Occasionally Grammatical French), but she would have none of it. We did a bumbling bilingual tango through my order, both stubbornly sticking to our non-native guns. I summoned a caña (small beer) and some patatas bravas, an impossible-to-screw-up classic of fried potatoes, tomato sauce, and garlic aioli. Some bread was dropped onto my table and I mindlessly chewed on a heel until my food arrived. My server brought out the patatas, presenting them with a flourish. I looked, cocking my head like a robin after a worm, and realized there must be some sort of mistake. Where’s my delicious mayonnaise? A soulless pile of marinara sauce sits there alone on top of the miserable potatoes, like the congealing blood of a fallen martyr. A discussion (I gave in to the temptation of English) with my server faux-apologetically revealed that the aioli isn’t included in my dish. Weeping, I ate them anyways, but the taste was bitter. (Note to astute readers: no, patatas bravas aren’t always served with aioli, but this tomato sauce was in dire need of some.) My check comes, and I’ve been charged for both beer and gut-wrenching tapa. And my bread heel, too.
I wander aimlessly through the streets, utterly distraught. The patatas have only aggravated my hunger, taunting it with unfulfilled promises. My feet drag down the cobblestones, protesting that I’ve undoubtedly been duped by the conspiratorial hostellers who have led me down this path of false expectations. “Who serves free food?” asks the left. “Impossible,” says the right.
But then, on a little side street in a seemingly neglected neighborhood, I see a light. Could this be my salvation?
The light belongs to a little hole-in-the-wall bar, full of Spaniards joking and watching a France-Spain soccer game. They’re drinking beer and munching little plates of joy, presented with love by the surly bartender.
Eden has revealed itself to me.
The tears begin to flow again, but they taste sweet this time. I ask for a caña and some sort of mysterious garbanzo tapa, which comes in a heaping portion and tastes like it’s been seasoned by the hands of angels. After that, another beer and some bacallao—a wonderful dish of salt cod and greens that I’ve come to love. A couple more rounds of this and I was sated, filled with ambient chatter and good food. Alas, the night was bittersweet for those denizens of the bar: Spain had given up a last-minute goal, and their long fight was lost. I get my check, and am stunned to see that only the beers are listed on it! Dreams really do come true.
I sneak out before I can accidentally utter a “merci.” Back at my hostel, I settle in for a sound sleep, looking forward for my appointment with the Alhambra in the morning, as visions of chickpeas dance in my head.
Got the travel bug? Utrip can help you plan your tapas adventure to Granada!