Toward the end of winter break, my daughter Jane and I took a one-week trip to Sevilla, Spain, with a detour to another Andalusian all-star, Granada. In the olden days, I would have written a piece called Ten Reasons to Go To Sevilla or Thirty-Six Hours in Sevilla or What’s New in Sevilla for a newspaper or magazine travel section; unfortunately, here in 2020 both my freelance career and print-media travel sections have fallen on hard times. But you know me, I gotta write it down. And now it turns out, Jane’s gotta take pictures of it. And so the spunky little Ten Reasons story lives on, with about twice as many words as I would have had in the days of ink and paper.
1. The weather. If you’re not thinking tropical paradise, where can you go in January that you won’t be freezing your butt off? I posed this question to knowledgeable travelers and ended up in temperate southern Spain. Most of the time, we didn’t need coats; I’d bought a black polyester blazer with pockets the week before we left, and it became my uniform. (It worked so well that it is still my uniform back in Baltimore. How did I live so long without this versatile, indestructible and somehow deeply comforting clothing item?) In Sevilla, we ate outdoors at nearly every meal – toasty-warm outdoor heaters abound. Nothing like a café table in the plaza to make you feel you are on vacation.
2. Really Affordable Hotels. Our hotel in Sevilla was the Alminar, half a block off the main square on a cobblestoned pedestrian street. It was $130 a night, which seemed great for a classy little room with a nice view and really comfortable beds. I picked it after assiduous Internet study; if you think $130 is a lot, cheaper places are easily found. With only eleven rooms and a helpful and sweet front desk staff, it was a perfect home base. We were able to walk everywhere we went – even with my knees. (Coming this summer: double knee replacement! Stay tuned.)
3. Tapas Hoppin’. Andalusia is famous for its mystical magical ham and some of our advisors couldn’t remember eating anything else while they were there. In fact, there was some doubt about vegetarian options. Doubt no more. Meet salmorejo– a creamy orange version of gazpacho which we ordered literally every time we sat down to eat. It’s just that good. (Apparently, they only have regular gazpacho in the summertime.) It is served with bread and a little packet of rock-hard crackers usually branded with the name of the restaurant. If you don’t eat them, put them in your bag for later. There are delicious goat and sheep cheeses, and we had the best butter-glazed artichokes I’ve ever had in my life at La Tabernilla del Darro in Granada. The big fat grilled asparagus at Modesto, behind the Alcazar gardens, were also memorable. Moving into pescatarian territory –fried anchovies at Blanco Paloma. These are like candy. Salty candy. I had heard so much about how great grilled octopus is that I bravely ordered it one night. As you can see below it is very beautiful, but I liked the way it looked better than the way it tasted.
Our advisors had suggested we “tapas hop” – i.e. hit multiple restaurants and have a few small plates at each one. But since dinner doesn’t start til 8:30 we were often too hungry by the time we got to the first place to save room. By the end of the trip, we had it down. The teeny little Bar Alfalfa was so nice we did it twice. An outdoor café called El Colmo right on the cathedral square that I thought would surely be a tourist rip-off was anything but. In Sevilla, the food is good and money goes a long way. Which brings us to…
4. Amazingly Cheap Wine. Oh my God! In restaurants, a glass is 3 or 4 euros. (A euro is $1.12.) If you think that’s a deal, in the grocery store, a decent bottle of rioja or tempranillo can be less than 2 euros. Which makes the late afternoon a perfect time to retire to your hotel room with one of these fine bottles and a game of Egyptian Ratscrew, gin rummy or travel Scrabble, as Jane and I usually did. There was a certain wholesome family quality to our day drinking.
5. Amazingly Cheap Facial Moisturizer. Indeed, traveling with Jane was great. We seemed to have the same amount of energy and be attracted to the same things and want to spend the same amount of time doing them. Even though our sleep schedules are wildly different at home, and I was worried she would sleep all day, this didn’t happen at all. A few little naps, no big deal. And the only fight we had on the trip was when it turned out she had left behind her coconut oil, which she uses as a facial moisturizer. Within a day she announced that she was drying up like a lizard and we had to buy something immediately. As I am 42 years older than she is and have yet to adopt a moisturizing regime, I had trouble taking this problem seriously. However, by day three, she was seemingly in agony. I was testy, figuring facial moisturizer was going to cost a fortune and then we would have to throw it away because it would be too big to take on the plane. Though there were plenty of products In the store that fit that description, there was also a little teeny blue pot of cream for less than three euros. And apparently we had come across it the first day when we were in the store buying wine, but I hadn’t looked carefully enough and decried it as too expensive. What a jerk. Anyway, there was nothing to fight about and we hardly did. In fact, we learned to express agreement and reassurance the Sevillian way, with the popular expressions vale and venga, both pronounced as if they started with a “b.” They both mean something like okay, but are more fun to say. Vale? Venga. Vale. And so forth.
6.#TheRealAlcazar. How can I have gotten this far into the article without mentioning Rick Steves, the Advisor of Advisors, who practically seemed to be on the trip with us? His perfect little paperback guide to Sevilla and Granada could not be more useful. We used his detailed tours of all the major attractions, his maps, his restaurant recs, his suggestions about how to plan our days. We hung on his every word as we toured the almost absurdly beautiful Royal Alcazar palace and its gardens, where we sketched for a while, the big cathedral and the little cathedral, the view from La Giralda bell tower, the kitschy Plaza de Espana. He filled us in on some of the terrible history under our feet, involving centuries of persecution of Muslims and Jews. in 2020, women in hijabs and Jewish matrons from New Jersey are herding their kids around the place with water bottles and guidebooks. If only this meant things have changed.
7. Flamenco. Though a taxi driver informed us that Sevilla’s sister city is Kansas City, Sevilla put me more in mind of the French Quarter– not so far-fetched since the Spanish ran New Orleans for a while back in the day. The wrought iron balconies with plants growing through the bars, the glimpses of tiled interior courtyards, the happy tourists milling about. I wondered if perhaps flamenco is to Sevilla what jazz is to New Orleans, the spirit of the place manifest in sound, and in this case, movement. Anyway, Jane and I went crazy for it. We ended up seeing two shows, one at the Casa de Flamenco and one at the Museo del Baile Flamenco, front row seats both nights, absolutely rapt. The first show was romantic and emotional and furious, a gorgeous couple flinging themselves around, heels pounding like artillery fire to the accompaniment of three musicians, one playing exquisite guitar, two singing, wailing (Rick S. hears echoes of the Muslim call to prayer), clapping and tapping, all seemingly having the time of their lives.
Though the tickets were about 25 bucks, we were so enchanted we went to another show the next night. It was very different, more of an exhibition than a drama. The dancers were older, but still amazingly energetic, and we got to see all the classic props in play, the castanets, the shawls, the long ruffled train.
8. The Alhambra. The train from Sevilla to Granada, home of the Alhambra, was actually one train and two buses, a total of four hours, pleasant and cheap. As for the Alhambra, it’s the second biggest thing to see in Europe after the Vatican – the last and best stronghold of Moorish culture, and the site of its last stand. The throne room of the Muslim royalty became the very room where Columbus pitched his travel story to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.
The Alhambra is a compound with a fortress, several palaces, giant gardens and amphitheater up on a hill overlooking Granada. On the advice of an advisor, we blew it out and stayed right there on the grounds, in a 15th-century monastery built on top of a Moorish palace. The Parador de Granada was super fancy, with bathrobes and slippers and heated towel racks and the same view the sultans had down the way. $250/night. The breakfast buffet is 20 euros, but its abundance is breathtaking and includes eggs to order. We rolled up a bunch of stuff for later in a napkin and they didn’t seem to mind.
9. Arabic Bath Houses. One of our advisors said the best thing they did on their trip to Spain was the baths in Sevilla. Another one said almost the same thing, but it was the baths in Granada. As self-indulgent as it may seem, I thought it was our mission to try both and compare. Short answer: they are both great. The one in Granada has faux-Alhambra décor, with tiles and arches; the one in Sevilla has a salt pool and a hot/cold plunge. Both are candlelit and magical and offer massages starting at fifteen minutes, but if you’re sticking to a budget, just do the soak.
10. The Piano Bar at Las Casas de la Juderia
Early in the trip, we passed a cocktail kiosk with a drink called Agua de Sevilla. The recipe called for whiskey, cognac, cava, pineapple juice and whipped cream, but the guy was out of cava. So the whole rest of the time I was trying to get some Agua de Sevilla and some bartenders had never even heard of it. I thought we might have missed out altogether.
Our very last night in Spain we went back to Sevilla from Granada because we had an early flight the next day. We decided to stay in the Hotel Las Casas de la Juderia, recommended by two different advisors. This place is quite a trip, comprising a whole chunk of the old Jewish quarter, 27 buildings plus the alleyways, patios and courtyards between them. The circuitous trip from the front desk to our room involved elevators up, down, tunnels, corridors… fortunately, there was a second reception desk and an exit to the street near our room because finding our way back to the entry would have been a challenge. During an attempt to look around the place, we stumbled on the piano bar, which was five interconnected rooms stuffed with a wild variety of fading antique furniture, light fixtures and wall treatments, presided over by a mustachioed bartender straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. Here was the Agua de Sevilla we’d been dreaming of. We were going to split one, but you know how that goes.