The Alhambra.

One day, about a decade ago, while shelving books at my library, I came across a book which intrigued me.

It was Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, and because at the time I was reading through a lot of classic fairy tales, I checked it out and brought it home. But I didn’t manage to read it. Who knows what got in the way: work, school, other reading material. I probably only read a chapter or two, and then returned it to the library before heading out of the country again. And that was the last I thought about the Alhambra for some time.

I wasn’t even particularly thinking about it when I booked my ticket to Spain. But somewhere along the line, the dots connected, and suddenly the Alhambra became one of my top travel goals during my visit. For someone all too used to winging her travel plans, it felt a bit odd to have such a specific destination. So, true to form, I procrastinated, delayed making specific plans or buying any tickets until one Wednesday I finally sat down and purchased a bus ticket and booked a hostel for the coming weekend. I was going to Granada.

I didn’t purchase my ticket to the Alhambra, however, for another two days. Every guidebook I read said that I should book tickets ahead of time, but I figured: it’s winter, I’m sure it’ll be fine. And then on Friday my anxiety overcame my procrastination, and I spent the last few hours before I had to catch my bus to Granada tracking down and purchasing a guided tour for the very next day. I was lucky: had it been summer, it’s likely the tickets would have been sold out weeks in advance.

My trip got off to a rough start. I’m quite used to using Google Maps to navigate cities, but it is not always the most convenient for using public transportation. The routes it gives are fine, but they often rely on your flawless ability to make a connection from one transport service to another, and if you happen to miss that connection, suddenly your “fastest route” changes to something completely different. It didn’t help that the bus station I needed was waaaaaaay out on the other side of town, and that the only transport system I really knew was the metro, and that for some reason this wasn’t on any of Google’s fastest routes. In any case, I gave myself 45 minutes to make a 28-minute trip, but partway through I caught a train in the wrong direction and so missed my bus. Happily, I was able to purchase a new ticket for a bus which departed only a half-hour after my original trip, and bus fare is cheap so I only lost about €18 in the whole fiasco.

That said, these sorts of near misses proved to be a rule for the trip. My tour of the Alhambra was set for 9am the next morning. As before, I left with what I thought would be plenty of time. And, as before, I made a wrong turn and nearly missed my tour. The way up to the Alhambra is easy to find, but once at the top it’s easy to head toward the entrance rather than to the visitor parking lot where the ticket booths are and where my tour was meant to begin. By the time I realized I was in the wrong place, it was 8:53 and I had a 10-minute trek to get to catch my 9:00 tour. I hustled, made it to the parking lot, frantically showed my tour reservation to 3 or 4 people who finally pointed me in the right direction. I managed to join my tour group just as our guide started to lead us up to the palace. Had I missed it, it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have been able to buy another ticket for the day, and I may not have been able to book a new tour for the next day. And either way, the tour cost far more than the bus fare, so I lucked out.

PRO TIP: if you want to see the Alhambra, especially if you’re traveling during the summer, book well in advance and give yourself plenty of time to find your tour group. During peak tourist season, the Alhambra gets 6,000 visitors a day. You don’t want to be navigating that mayhem while you’re late and frantically searching for your group.

That said, once we started the tour everything became instantly amazing. I’m not used to booking tours, and usually opt for an audioguide, which I then find more annoying than worthwhile often as not. On this tour, our guide passed out radio receivers that you wore around your neck and which came with an earpiece that covered one ear. The tour guide was then able to talk into a microphone so that we could all hear her, and none of us had to push to get close to understand what she was saying. I think this made all the difference, as it allowed me to explore and look around whatever area we were in without feeling like I had to stand directly next to the guide to catch every word.

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A view of Albaicín, the medieval Muslim quarter, as seen from the ramparts of the Alhambra.

Once the tour started, we had to pass through multiple checkpoints depending on which area of the complex we went to visit. The Alhambra wasn’t just a fortress: it was a walled city, meaning it extends over an impressive amount of territory. And because of it’s location on top of a hill, it commands an impressive view of the surrounding city. To one direction you can see the old Muslim quarter, and a view of Sacromonte where the gypsy caves are. In another direction rise the Sierra Nevada, the tallest mountains on the Iberian peninsula. I couldn’t see them well during my visit, because although the sky shone blue, the atmosphere was thick. You would not have called the day “cloudy” at first, but yet the horizon seemed closer than it ought to be. Nonetheless, the views were stunning.

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An example of the decorative plasterwork which adorns the walls. Note the Arabic calligraphy: much of it repeats the name of Allah, or forms the words to prayers or holy verses.

Inside the royal complex, the wall decorations are almost overwhelmingly complex. Between molded plaster, tile work, and carved wood, the intricacy of pattern and detail are almost too much to take in. This is where our tour guide proved particularly helpful. She drew our attention to a number of elements I would have overlooked or else not understood on my own, including different religious symbols hidden in the math of the geometric forms. In particular, the significance of the numbers 8, and 7: 8 is the number for God, because the Arabic numeral 8 represents infinity, while 7 is the number of heavens, with the seventh heaven being closest to 8, or in other words to God. The subtlety here struck me, because of how pervasive this symbolism was throughout the entire structure, each archway, courtyard, and carved panel meant to draw the mind abstractly to God in one form or another. Through mathematics, of all things.

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The Alhambra means “The red one” in Arabic, due to the red clay with which it was made.

The whole tour, from the fortress, through the palace, and then to the gardens, took about 3 hours. The gardens were our last stop, and as relaxing and beautiful as the rest. The fountains you see in the photo below, however, are a new addition: our tour guide grumbled about how noisy they were, and seemed to feel they ruined the tranquility of the space. The original gardens had a much smaller fountain, whereas these struck up quite the cacophony. I found myself agreeing with our guide, and wishing for a more peaceful sound.

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Part of the gardens known as the Generalife, derived from the Arabic Jannat al-Arif, which means “Architect’s Garden.” The “architect” in this case probably refers to God.

We had one small break during the tour during which I tracked down a coffee vending machine. Then I wandered around looking at the cats. There were several, each glorious and beautiful it a different way, serenely meandering through the visitors, almost demanding attention as their due. They did not shy away when I went to pet them, although I wouldn’t have called them affectionate. One was kind enough to pose for me, as you can see in the photo below.

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One of several very content cats which I noticed wandering around the Alhambra. This one was kind enough to strike a regal pose and let me pet her for a bit.

It feels cheesy to say, but the Alhambra felt like stepping into a fairy tale. The entire time through, my mind kept wandering to all kinds of tales and legends. I wouldn’t say I’m a romantic person, generally speaking, but it’s hard to stand in a place of such splendid beauty and not give in to it a little. As a place, the Alhambra was meant to be a small piece of heaven on earth—somewhere which could draw one into a peaceful and meditative mindset. Not a place of revelry, pageant, hedonism, or war, but of quiet self-reflection.

In reality, it was certainly a fortress, commanded by a mixed bag of rulers. From my brief exposure to their stories, some seemed genuinely noble, living their lives to some degree according to the piety displayed in every detail of their architecture, and extending religious toleration within their city to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Another ruthlessly beheaded an entire family (according to legend) because one scion managed to seduce one of the sultan’s wives.

Nonetheless, while walking through the Alhambra I felt strangely at peace and at home. In terms of architectural beauty, I have certainly never seen anything which could compare, and it may not have its equal in the world. Probably for that reason, I feel at a loss to describe it, drawn irrevocably toward clichés which undermine the true beauty of the place. In the week before my trip, I found Washington Irving’s account on Audible and tried listening to his stories. But I couldn’t quite connect to them as I’d hoped to. They felt too romantic, too starry-eyed, not quite real. Having now seen the Alhambra for myself, it’s true they don’t do it justice. Now I doubt anything ever could.

 

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The Alhambra, viewed from the Generalife gardens.

 

The better Toledo.

I hadn’t planned to visit Toledo when I arrived in Spain.

That’s mostly because I didn’t know where it was. Turns out, Toledo is super close to Madrid. As in: a half-hour ride by train. This came as awesome news to me! And it left me full of questions:

  • What’s in Toledo?
  • Is it a nice city?
  • Was it important?
  • What should I do when I’m there?
  • Is it worth going?

Basically, what all this should tell you is that I am profoundly ignorant of a lot of things in this amazing and beautiful country I’ve come to visit. My closest association with Toledo has been with it’s namesake in Ohio, a city about forty minutes south of my home town in Michigan, and the chief point of conflict during the Toledo War of 1835—proof that Michigan’s feud with Ohio has roots far deeper than football.

With a population of not quite 300,000, Toledo, Ohio is a reasonably sized midwestern town, good for its minor league baseball team and the occasional roaming Broadway performance. Somehow I expected its Spanish namesake to be much larger, but in reality, Spanish Toledo‘s historical consequence is far greater than it’s size might suggest. With a population wavering at the 84,000 mark, it feels almost diminutive. But oh boy, does it pack one heck of a historical wallop.

In short, it’s played host to a succession of rulers, from the Romans, to the Visigoths, the Moors, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. That makes the art and culture of the place a fascinating blend of Arabic and European, which—I am coming to realize—is somewhat characteristic of Spain more broadly.

This became readily apparent almost as soon as I stepped off the train. The moment I walked into the station, I (and half the other passengers) paused to gawk at the stunning distinctive arches and stunning tile work on display.

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Inside the Toledo train station.

Only, to be honest, it wasn’t actually on display. It was just there. Casually hanging out like it was no big deal. Honestly, Toledo: way to make a first impression.

Being, as usual, unprepared, I hadn’t made any particular plan for getting in to the city. Would I have to take a bus? Could I walk? I checked Google Maps, and the answer was yes: I could walk. I headed off in the appropriate direction, and a few hundred feet down the road the city came into view.

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Why yes, that is a city I would like to go explore, thanks.

This is one of the few moments where I’ve looked at a city and thought: Oh yeah, I see why this would be of such great strategic importance. Not that I’m an ancient military commander by any means, but the whole thing is built on a big rock with a river making a natural moat around a decent chunk of it. Add in those walls you see and some fortified gates and bridges, and I’d definitely want this to be my medieval stronghold.

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The Puente de Alcántara, the Roman bridge leading into the city.

I should also add that the moment I looked at the map on my phone, I knew this would be the place for me. Just check out those streets:

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A map of the old part of the city, looking like the cross-section of a brain.

Hardly a straight line among them! You could get so lost in there! And all built on a giant freaking rock promising all the ups and downs and twists and turns? YES PLEASE.

Again, actually being in the city did not disappoint:

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A narrow street in the more tourist-friendly part of town, a spire of the cathedral rising ahead.
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Well lost at this point, my strategy basically being: Ooh! This street looks promising!

I had a few things I definitely wanted to see, but as I’d arrived late I knew I probably wouldn’t make it to all of them. I decided to head first to the Cathedral, as I understood it was not only an incredible piece of architecture but also housed a small-but-impressive museum with some more El Greco, and a Goya, and super famous and also gigantic monstrance.

I spent way longer inside than I’d intended, and because I’d rushed straight there I was feeling nearly faint from hunger. And then, by the time I’d finished eating, most of the other places I’d wanted to visit were closed. Most importantly, the Alcázar.

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The Alcázar, the fortress which made Toledo such a strategic key.

Apparently, this has been a major fortress for years, and unlike some of the other castles I’ve visited, was actually used as such. It played a significant military role as recently as the Spanish Civil War, and I hear there are places where you can still find bullet holes in the walls from that conflict. Today, it houses a museum, crypt, and documentary room.

By this point I was also too late to visit the El Greco house, so instead I wandered around the city looking at the tourist shops. Most of the time, this isn’t of particular interest to me, but it turns out that souvenirs in Toledo are actually incredible, and may even be worth more than sentiment.

Toledo is famous for its steelwork, which wouldn’t sound like glamorous souvenir material until you see what they make of it:

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Toledo is famous for its gold and steel. These decorative plates are made by hand, with the drawings inlaid in gold and the steel blackened afterward.
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More examples of Toledo’s signature souvenir.

The black and gold form a truly stunning combination, as does the mixture of European and Arabic influence in the design. And these don’t come cheap: unlike what you find elsewhere, these are the kind of souvenirs that you might want to actually use.

Most of the rest of my time I spent wandering the city, taking pictures and admiring the views. One thing I appreciated about my sojourn from Madrid was getting a chance to see a bit of the Spanish countryside. I’d seen pictures, but part of me always feels pictures are portraying the most stereotypical features, and that the reality will be quite different.

In this instance, although pictures I’d seen showed the country to be fairly sparse and rugged, I’d yet expected there to be more trees and foliage. Instead, I was surprised by how much scrubs and bushes dominated the landscape.

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The Río Tajo, which encircles a good two thirds of the city. This is about as lush as the land ever looks.
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Looking out over the rugged, sparse countryside.
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More rock, crowned by the Academia de Infantería, which I don’t think is actually meant for tourists.

In short, Toledo delighted me at every turn. And since I missed some of the key sights, I’ll have to make a return trip some other day.

I’m already looking forward to it.

The octopus dinner.

I made Octopus for dinner last Wednesday.

What’s more, I invited friends over and served it to them!

This turned out to be, altogether, a far more unnerving task that I originally envisioned. To recap, during one of my first grocery store trips in Spain, I came across octopus in the meat section and decided I had to cook something with it.

Here’s what it looked like when I bought it in the store:

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A culinary dare, if ever I saw one.

Looking all neat and shrink-wrapped like that, I really didn’t think this would be such a challenge. After all, from subsequent reading I have since learned that sometimes the octopus comes whole, with the beak still intact, and you have to remove it yourself along with the head. So I figured starting with what looked like already cleaned octopus would be mostly a mental effort. I googled a few recipes, and eventually settled on one that Food & Wine specifically billed as “a smart, delicious, Spanish-inflected way to cook octopus.

Sounded great to me. At this point, I noticed the recipe called for about twice the weight in octopus as I had. I considered doing a half-portion, but then while picking up the rest of the ingredients I needed, I noticed my more local grocery store also carried octopus. So I bought more. Because obviously.

Again, at this point I felt pretty certain that all I had to do was get over the idea of cooking octopus, and the actual preparation part would not be so bad. Unfortunately, the moment I cut open the package I discovered otherwise. The octopus had a distinct smell—a more pungent, oceanic smell than I expected—and was covered in a gelatinous slime, as if the brain fluid had leaked out and solidified after packaging, or the tentacles had secreted their own embalming fluid. I wasn’t sure what to do: was this stuff normal? Natural? A preservation byproduct?

What’s more, although the beak had been removed, half of the head was still attached. Because, as it turns out, what I had purchased were actually two halves of octopus. I wasn’t sure whether I should try cooking the head, and after a few moments reflection I decided that it didn’t look all that tasty and maybe the tentacles would be as much as any of us dare stomach anyway. So I rinsed everything off, hacked the tentacles from the head, and when I was done it looked almost like what I had expected to work with from the start.

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Eight rinsed octopus tentacles, ready to cook.

For the record, the hardest part of rinsing the octopus off was that one point I think I nearly stuck my finger into its brain and dropped the whole thing in the sink.

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The octopus heads, which I threw away. Pretty sure you can see the brains there.

The first part of the recipe called for boiling a pot of water with a copped onion and three bay leaves, dipping the octopus tentacles into the water 3 times each, and then simmering them for about an hour. For the record, almost every recipe I looked at began in this way, with variations on the stock ingredients and with the same tip of dipping the tentacles to help them keep their shape. The stock smelled nice, and by the time they were done I felt pretty sure (again) that the hard part was over.

Here’s what they looked like, drained.

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The drained octopus, after an hour simmering in onion and bay leaves. As you can see, the purplish skin was practically falling off.

The next step involved removing the octopus skin without losing the suckers. Again, most recipes called for this step, and said you could pretty much just wipe the skin off. By the time I took the octopus out of the water, the skin was, indeed, practically falling off. What I didn’t expect was how gooey it would feel. My octopus anatomy is pretty bad, but it felt like I was not only rubbing away the thin purplish skin, but a layer of fat underneath. All while trying to keep the suckers intact.

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Rubbing the octopus skin off with a fork. Apparently you can do this with a paper towel, too.

When I had finished, the round and chewy inner portion of the tentacle remained. I chopped it up into pits, and finished off the recipe. This cubing and boiling potatoes, chopping up some chorizo, cooking the chorizo for a bit in a pan, and then throwing the octopus and the potatoes in to brown them up and turn them golden.

Here are the results:

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The complete recipe. Couldn’t tell from the directions if the chorizo was meant to be chopped in this fashion, but it turned out well.

I felt a bit nervous serving the above to my friends, which is perhaps why I kept the chorizo generously sprinkled on top. My guests, however, seemed far less apprehensive than I. Indeed, every one of them ate their full portion and told me it was fantastic. So I guess that’s a win for me?

For my part, after cooking the whole meal I found I wasn’t hungry enough to eat most of it. It did really taste good, though. The octopus had a somewhat chewy texture, but then so has most octopus I’ve eaten. It tasted salty, and fishy, and (of course) a little bit like chicken.

Would I try cooking octopus again? Actually yes. But next time, I want to be able to grill it, as I think the crispy outer texture is what makes it taste so good.

The biggest thing I learned from this experience is that I really want to try some more Spanish recipes. Particularly seafood. I’ve never gotten up the nerve to try cooking things like mussels or prawns, but it seems like it could be a rewarding skill to have. And I do truly love paella, which often calls for both.

When will I try this? Who knows. Hopefully soon.

In the meantime, the remains of my octopus dinner await me in the fridge.