I have always enjoyed going on vacation in Spain. Whether it’s to taste local food, walk through the lively neighbourhood of the cities or to soak up some sun, I travel there with pleasure. Andalusia is still today influenced by the diverse people that have populated it, such as the Arab-Muslims.
One of the most emblematic monuments of the civilisation of Al-Andalus, the Muslim-ruled state in Spain, is the Alhambra of Granada. The city is also worth visiting for its gastronomy and the lifestyle of its inhabitants.
South of Granada, the Alpujarras and Sierra Nevada Mountain regions offer beautiful landscapes. Traveling these regions by bike is an ideal way to discover them due to the good quality roads and the omnipresent sun.
Practical guide for a bike ride
- Departure and arrival: Granada.
- Distances: 292 km, 5.2 km of ascending elevation, 4.8 km of descending elevation.
- Which bike? A trekking bike is suitable but a gravel bike is even better because you have to climb on mountains and ride on small dirt roads.
- Where to rent a bike? Bicicletas La Estacion in Granada offers several types of bikes and accessories.
- What not to forget in the luggage? A yellow safety vest to be seen, sunglasses, sun cream, lip stick as the highly dry air rapidly contributes to chapped lips, and a waterproof coat (depending on the time of the year).
- When to go? The best times are spring, September and October. It’s too hot in July and August.
- Where to sleep? Where to eat?
Near Cadiar, the Alqueria de Moraymal is a block of several small houses. Its restaurant serves local culinary specialities.
In Bubión, the hotel Villa Turística de Bubión offers very comfortable rooms in houses of typical style. The restaurant of the hotel serves rich dishes, often fried in oil, such as black pudding.
Local fruits, such as clementines and oranges, are delicious. One can find food supplies in the mini-market in the villages.
Granada: History of Al-Andalus and good living
According to me, like many other cities, the best way to discover Granada is walking. The first reason is that the most interesting places to visit are located in a relatively small area. I also find it very pleasant to aimlessly wander through the streets and lively squares, to spontaneously enter a tapas bar, and to get surprised by an unexpected church or park.
This complex gathering fortifications, a fortress, palaces and gardens is unmissable. It’s the best-preserved evidence of the greatness and refinement of the Arab-Muslim civilisation in Andalusia. It has been registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1984.
Let’s go through History
In the year 711, the Muslim general Tariq landed in the South of Spain coming from North Africa through the Gibraltar Strait. He gave his name to the rock: Gibraltar comes from Arabic Jabal-Târiq (Tariq’s mountain). Muslims quickly conquered the territories that were possessed by the Wisigoths, a Barbarian people from Northern Europe, and they settled in almost the whole Iberian peninsula.
The society of Al Andalus was formed by several groups of different ethnicities and religions in a relatively tolerant environment. There were a small number of Arabs but they often belonged to the aristocracy. The second most important group in the social ranking is the Berbers coming from North Africa. Christians, called Mozarabs, who were the majority of the population, and Jews, who were living in Spain before the Muslim period, were tolerated and allowed to practice their faith in a high degree of freedom, which was unique for its time. Jews, who were persecuted by Christians before the Arabs’ arrival, had supported the Muslim conquerers. Some Jews and Christians converted to Islam, often for a simple reason: non-Muslims had to pay much more taxes than Muslims! These converts were called Muwallad. The society was a kind of ‘melting-pot’ where different groups got assimilated into a common culture. Education and knowledge were fostered, which made Al-Andalus one of the most advanced civilizations of its time in mathematics, medicine, or even astronomy.
The Christian recapture, la Reconquista, finished with the taking of Granada in 1492, which marked the end of the Muslim rule.
The Alhambra served as the place of residence for the sovereigns of the Nasrid dynasty, last of the Muslim dynasties in Spain, who ruled the Sultanate of Granada between the 13th century and 1492.
I decided to visit the Alhambra in two steps within one day by purchasing the ‘Alhambra General’ ticket which provides access to the whole site, and that allows you to enter and leave as often as you want. It’s compulsory to book a time slot to visit the Nasrid palaces, the jewel of the site. This way, I made a break at lunch time, and I therefore was more focused.
I penetrate this vast site on a Friday morning at 8:30 am while almost no tourists are there. I have the feeling to have the Alhambra all to myself! I start by visiting the Alcazaba fortress, a 13th century-citadel which makes it the oldest part of the Alhambra. On top of the tower Torre de la Vela, the view on the snowy summits of the Sierra Nevada on one side and below on Granada on the other side is magnificent. Every year on January 2nd, the tower’s bells ring to celebrate the taking of the Alhambra by the Catholic kings.
I then visit the Partal gardens, whose current version dates from the 20th century. Its well-cut shrubs, palm trees, reflecting water basin, and citron trees remind of an Eden garden. A relaxing walk through the gardens while birds are singing is very calming.
The visit continues with the Generalife palace and gardens. It was the sovereigns’ private residence, and it constitutes the most recent part of the Alhambra. In the gardens, the mottos are symmetry and harmony. The noise of the water jets in the basins is soothing. To exit, I go through a long stairway next to which a gully lets water drain downstairs, which is very pleasant to hear.
In the afternoon, I visit the Nasrid palaces, the sovereigns’ official residence. The interior of the three palaces is marked by the attention to detail of the decorations. The walls are adorned with honeycomb reliefs, azulejos, a traditional Arab-Muslim wall tiling, inscriptions in Arabic to the glory of God, and engraving in geometrical shapes. Some rooms are separated by inner courtyards, such as the famous lions courtyard (patio de los leones) that has a fountain in the middle decorated with statues of lions. Visiting the palaces gives an idea of what it was like to live there in Nasrid times.
Albaicín and Sacromonte
Albaicín is, according to me, the most beautiful neighborhood in Granada. As proof, it is registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Located on a hill facing the Alhambra, it was mainly populated by Arabs, before and after the Reconquista. The neighborhood is characterized by its white houses and “carmens”, flowery inner gardens which are not clearly visible from the outside. The mirador de San Nicolas offers one of the most beautiful views on the Alhambra and on the snowy Sierra Nevada summits
Albaicín reminds me of a village because there are few shops and the streets are tight. Walking through the deserted streets in the morning, or very early during the weekend, allows one to appreciate it in a relaxing way.
Sacromonte is famous for its caves which have been inhabited mainly by Gypsies during several centuries until the middle of the 20th century. In the street leading to the caves, several gypsy women stationed in front of their bar or restaurant shout at the tourists to offer them a drink or a meal.
The layout of the caves has been rebuilt to show how it looked when they were inhabited. The informative visit tells the story of the place where Gypsies and Muslims lived after the Christian recapture. One also learns about the gypsy culture and the Andalusian dance which they influenced, the Flamenco.
The cathedral and El Realejo
The 16th-century cathedral of Granada is a monumental and massive building. It displays very detailed crafted reliefs on its external facades. Like other places and monuments in Granada, it gives me the impression that its aspect is not emphasized enough. I find the square located in front of the cathedral very ordinary and due to its small size, it’s difficult to contemplate the main facade from far enough to really enjoy it.
Between the cathedral and El Realejo neighborhood, a monument with statues of the Queen Isabel the Catholic and Christopher Columbus commemorates his departure for America.
El Realejo is ideal to get away from the bustle of the city center. Passersby who meet speak with each other easily, which gives the neighborhood the appearance of a little village where everybody knows each other.
The atmosphere of the city
The life rhythm of the people from Granada makes it a lively, greedy and noisy city. Walking through the streets allows you to grasp the Latin atmosphere of the city.
The inhabitants spend a good part of the day outside, as can be seen from the strong frequentation of the bars, restaurants and parks. If you sit down at a table, at any hour of the day, the place will probably be crowded, especially between 2 pm and 4 pm, or after 9 pm. Many people from Granada prefer to eat outside rather than cooking at home because it’s very cheap. It’s thus possible to discover local specialities without emptying your wallet.
Local people are warm and communicative at first sight. For instance, my host in the hotel spent at least 15 minutes suggesting me activities and visits in Granada, even if I didn’t ask him anything!
Typical Granadan food
The local cuisine offers a varied choice of food, and it felt to me like in every street, there are several bars and restaurants to explore it.
The gastronomic heritage
Granada claims to have the best tapas in Spain, and at first sight I wondered if that’s humorous. Isn’t San Sebastian the tapas capital?
The reason is that, in Granada, you get one or two tapas for free if you order a drink, such as a beer or a glass of wine. The quality of the free tapas is pretty unreliable and so I recommend ordering paid tapas to get a better quality.
As Spain is the first olive oil producing country in the World, many dishes are cooked in olive oil. The typical cuisine from Granada includes many different kinds of dishes that can form a full meal: cold tomatoes and eggs soup (salmorejo), fried eggplants with honey (berenjenas fritas con miel), beans with ham (habas con jamón), pigs feet (manitas de cerdo), oxtail (rabo de toro), chicken with semolina (pollo mozárabe), fish and seafood from Motril, and desserts.
My favorite local dishes are fish and seafood, followed by pigs feet.
Where to eat?
The bar-restaurant El Molino in El Realejo is the perfect place to discover the typical cuisine from Granada. It is little known to tourists and is located in a quiet street, away from the bustle of the city center.
The restaurant Sancho Original, next to the beautiful Plaza de la Trinidad, has a modern look. Its well-studied decoration and background music are tasteful. The green asparagus tartar with eggs and ham is delicious.
The cathedral area offers many tapas bars. At La Mancha, in a noisy but very convivial atmosphere, the waiters take the orders, bring the dishes at a furious pace, and clients eat on the counter. The bar La Riviera has a surprising medieval decoration. A knight’s armor stands next to the counter.
To taste food of excellent quality, it is recommended to visit the covered market San Augustin. Several fish and seafood merchants, such as ‘Grupo Serie Oro’, offer clients to cook the products in order to eat on the spot. After finding a free table in the market, I order from a friendly fishmonger at her stand and 20 minutes later she brings me the cooked dishes. On the menu: fried mullets (salmonetes), soles (lenguados), white shrimps from Motril (camarones), and cuttlefish with ink (sepietas a la plancha). Once full, a good idea is to take a coffee and a pionono, a local dessert, in a cafeteria just outside the market.
In Albaicín, I recommend the pastry and café Andalusi Nujaila which serves Eastern desserts to take away.
The fish and seafood restaurant Los Diamantes is well-known by tourists. There is a lively and pleasant atmosphere. The clams with garlic and olive oil (almejas) are delicious, but overall, according to me, the dishes are not the best in terms of quality in Granada.
Discovering the Alpujarras and the Sierra Nevada by bike
My 4-days route starts in the center of Granada. After leaving the agglomeration, there is really little traffic. The road N-323a leads to the Alpujarras Mountains and therefore becomes more and more winding and rising.
I arrive in the small town Órgiva, capital of the region, at midday under heavy rain. On the main square, a map of the Alpujarras made of magnificent tiling gives a good overview of the region and its villages. After having lunch in Órgiva, I ride under the sun on a road surrounded by a brown and dark-yellow vegetation with pines, small bushes, almond trees but mostly olive trees that are planted in rows of hundreds of them, like small dots perfectly spaced from each other. During the climb in this beautiful environment, I deeply breath and shift to the lowest gear of my bike, which lets me enjoy the mountain view. The downhill at full speed gives me a feeling of freedom, but I enjoy the landscape less because I’m focused on my braking. I arrive in Cadiar while the sun goes down.
After breakfast in a café of the village, drive to the Sierra Nevada. The downhills on a perfect asphalt under an intense sun make the beginning of the day pleasant. Then, I have to get off my bike in a winding steep climb that leads me to Laroles. I bump into a few cordial people in the streets of the village and then start the difficult climb: 868 meters of positive ascent without any downhill until the viewpoint Mirador sobre el Palancón at an altitude of 1890 meters. Deeply inhaling and blowing out with the belly make the effort more bearable. I regularly take a break and sometimes get off my bike and walk when it’s too hard to climb. As I slow down, I enjoy the ride because I take the time to observe the view of the surroundings. The environment gets harsher as snow and cold appear. Two descending Spanish cyclists encourage me and advise me to be careful because of the rarity of air: my goal is not far off anymore. What a satisfaction when I reach the viewpoint! As I admire the view on the snowy mountains and on the fir trees forests, it seems like I’m in Siberia, not in the South of Spain!
The effortless downhill back to Laroles allows me to recover, and after having a coffee, I climb the downhill road from the morning in the direction of Cadiar. The conditions are ideal to ride bikes: a lot of sun, blue sky, few cars, a road of perfect quality and magnificent landscapes to contemplate.
The day after, the itinerary starts with the climb of a hill on a winding rocky and dusty path. In these conditions, a mountain bike would be more appropriate. The desert scenery reminds me of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, which were shot not far away from there, in the Almería region. After reaching the top, I get back onto the tarred track that goes down until Juviles and then leads to Trevelez, two villages both famous for their hams.
Before entering the village, I make a break on the roadside to admire the houses that spread over the length of the mountain. I cross the tight streets on steep slopes, pushing with all my strength my bike on foot. And then, right after leaving the village: breakdown! While reinflating my back tire, it fully deflates and the valve weirdly breaks away. My bike repairing knowledge being insufficient, I’m on my way to walk for 4-hours until the next village where I can find help. After 30 minutes, I miraculously come across an experienced Spanish cyclist. He does a 30-day bike tour around Andalusia called the Transandalus. He removes my tire, inspects the tube and says that it’s not punctured but unusable because of the faulty valve. He sets my spare tube, inflates it and then puts the tire back. What a relief, I can ride my bike again! On his Youtube channel, he describes his bike adventure everyday. Thank you Baby Guanche!
The road then becomes a hiking trail crossed by streams. I cycle very slowly to not damage my trekking bike. I reach a tarred road that leads me to Bubión, a typical village of the Alpujarras.
Like its neighbors Capileira and Pampaneira, Bubión was inhabited by Romans, then Wisigoths, and Arab-Muslims. During the Christian reconquest, Muslims on the run retreated in the villages where they started an insurrection, but they were finally beaten by Christians.
The small whitewashed houses in sloping alleys are typical of Andalusia. From a small square where there is a church, which used to be a mosque during the Muslim era, one can admire the view on the mountains covered with crops of stepped design, a system imported by the Arabs, and far away, towards the South, one can distinguish the Mediterranean Sea! The presence of hotels and restaurants signal that the village is a tourist attraction but during my visit, in March, there were very few tourists.
I return to Órgiva and then have a picnic with a view on Lanjarón castle, a small fortress from the Middle Age built by the Muslims. The climbs are followed by cooling downhills under an intense sun. The traffic increases as I get closer to Granada. I arrive in front of the cathedral in the late afternoon, the perfect time for a beer and tapas!