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Blissful Airbnbs,Risky Segways,Vegan Tapas: Prague-Hvar-Andalucía-Madrid

Blissful Airbnbs,Risky Segways,Vegan Tapas: Prague-Hvar-Andalucía-Madrid

Old Apr 10th, 2015, 08:46 PM
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GRANADA AND OUR BRUSH WITH THE ANNOYING RICK STEVES
Thanks, everyone, for your patience. I intended to finish this before tagging along on Mr. C’s work trip to four Asian cities, but it didn’t happen. I’m a bit jet lagged and still in the dumpling mode (rather than tapas), but happy to relive our days in Andalucia and Madrid.

AN UNEVENTFUL DRIVE FROM RONDA TO GRANADA
So uneventful that I cannot remember much of anything about it, except that we stopped for coffee somewhere we expected to be picturesque and it wasn’t.

AH, GRANADA
Added to our list of favorite small cities. Could live there (as well as in Sevilla or Cordova – take me back!). Ancient, scenic, exotic, easily negotiable, breathtaking architecture. And the Alhambra is a must-see for any traveler, rivals the Taj Mahal.

GPS NERVOUS BREAKDOWN REDUX
Most of Granada’s charming boutique hotels are in a restricted zone and require you to leave your car downtown and take a taxi. But we were fortunate to secure a reservation at the charming Casa Morisca, on the outskirts of the Albaycin, but offers street parking and a permit. (I procured this res the old fashioned way – by calling the hotel.) They provided a downloadable map with explicit directions, but we got distracted and ended up navigating the alleys with only an inch or two on either side of the car, while our GPS had another psychotic episode. Because I’m the NY native, I took the wheel and Mr. C kept getting out of the car to wave me through. Mildly stressful, but fun.

CASA MORISCA – BEST VIEW YET?
We normally don't like changing hotel rooms during a stay, but it was worth it to be in Casa Morisca's Mirador for one night. A Moorish treehouse of sorts – compact, quaint with a high carved wooden ceiling and full-on Alhambra views, including from the bathtub. The following night we downgraded to a deluxe room with a Juliet balcony and a street view and that was fantastic as well. This hotel has few amenities other than a breakfast room cave (with the least appealing breakfast of the trip), but the atmosphere is beyond awesome – like staying in the guest house of the Alhambra. Great location, walking distance to everything and parking right outside (you won't be using your car while in town). We later saw the other hotels we considered, and Morisca won hands down.

SCORING ALHAMBRA TIX
Not the challenging procedure we expected. Had lots of choices for mid-September about 2-3 weeks in advance. Reserved an early morning palace visit through Ticketmaster and picked up the tix the night before at the Libreria de la Alhambra in town. (Our hotel also offered to get us tickets.) Then, to enter, we took a taxi to the Puerta de La Justicia, a few steps from the palace. (This will be a 20,000+ step day, so this shortcut is the move.)

UNMISSABLE SUNSET, GREAT MEALS, AND SURPRISINGLY, NO DANGER
The guidebooks make it seem as if you’re entering a seedy zone with hookah-smoking thieves looming around every bend. Yes, the Albaycin has an exotic Moroccan hippie vibe. Yes, you’ll find the ubiquitous Gypsy King types performing in the streets and Aladdinesque lamps for sale, but it’s not the edgy scene we expected. The Mirador de San Nicolas, the go-to place for sunset viewing is touristy, but worth the uphill trek. We then checked out Paprika, a vegan dinner spot for Mr. C, and it turned out one of the most atmospheric restaurants of the trip. Built into a cave, patio dining on a rock outside, yummy food…friends had given us a restaurant list but our vegan-friendly choices in Granada were exceptional.

The second night we each had a tangine at Tangine Elvira, a tiny place purported to serve the best in Moroccan food in Spain, and probably the best couscous we’ve had anywhere. A one-woman show, like dining in someone’s home.

ANOTHER SIESTA PLUG
Don’t hesitate to go in early September. As mentioned before, if you rest or just hang out indoors between 2 and 5, the downtime will calm you down and the weather will seem delightful. Then at sixish you can emerge for beer and free tapas along the river.
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Old Apr 10th, 2015, 08:49 PM
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RICK STEVES’ ALHAMBRA FOR DUMMIES
It wasn’t until we entered the Justicia gate that we realized we had missed our opportunity to purchase an audio guide. This was Rick Steves’ chance to prove himself – I had always avoided him because his OCD checklists and the bad pronunciation on his show made travel seem boring and mundane. But now on his Kindle we counted on RS to orient us to one of the world’s wonders. He did deliver some fun facts, but in a dumbed-down way, interjecting “Wow,” and “Sí Señor.” History was interspersed with lame jokes about Columbus wearing a money belt. RS is a notorious nerd and pothead - both fine by me, but he’s missing the cool factor one now expects of nerds and potheads. Plus, he’s bossy (“See this, don’t bother with that”), inaccurate (“You can’t backtrack into Alhambra grounds after leaving the gardens” – hmm, that’s exactly what we did) and I’m still scratching my head about his choice of adjectives (‘frisky’ minibuses…really??).

SPRIGS BEGONE
We blindly followed some of RS’s advice, while rejecting other tips like naughty children. We avoided the iconic Alcazaba, which he dissed, calling it an “empty old fort.” But we had fantastic lunch in the courtyard of the fabulous Hotel America (which RS called “overpriced,” even though our salads were about 5 E each). Ultimately, we were blown away by the Alhambra and gardens but in deep shock that Rick is a successful travel guru. But most of all, we couldn't believe the focus of his overall description of Granada:

THE OBVIOUS: “Don’t be blind in Granada – open your senses”
THE RIDCULOUS: “Dogs wag their tails to the rhythm of modern hippies and street musicians.”
THE PARANOIC: “Down-and-out women will accost you with sprigs of rosemary.”
AND THEN, A FEW PAGES LATER:
“You’ll invariably meet obnoxious and persistent women pushing their green sprigs on innocents in order to exhort money. Be strong.”
And FINALLY, A WHOLE SECTION, BULLET POINTED:
"•Rosemary Scam: In the city center, and especially near the cathedral, you may encounter women thrusting sprigs of rosemary into the hands of passersby. The twig is free, then they grab your hand and tell your fortune for a tip…While they can be very aggressive, you don’t need to take their demands seriously."

Yes, here in one of the most spectacular settings in Europe, RS was so obsessed with this egregious sprig scam that he mentioned it at least three times. One wonders what exactly happened between him and these persistent, obnoxious women. We hoped to catch a glimpse (from afar) of the offenders, but Granada was virtually sprigfree during our stay. Finally, on the evening before our departure we spotted a woman on a path holding some rosemary. But she just nodded to us as I snapped a photo. Could she tell that we had been duly warned by great Rick Steves?

NEXT: MADRID – OUR WEEKLONG SEMESTER ABROAD
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Old Apr 11th, 2015, 02:37 AM
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CC- Fabulous! Great report and info. This is so very helpful for my own planning; especially the info about the audio guide - is it not available at the Justicia gate? That does make me rethink our approach, as I was planning on renting the guide as it's been highly recommended, yet avoid the main entrance crowds by entering the Justicia Gate.

Rick Steves, what can you say? I'm by no means anti-Rick Steves, but it really is a case of buyer beware. I truly am awed at how he turned his travels into a major commercial success, now decades-long, but what you see is what you get, if you know what I mean. He's a nerdy, anti-intellectual who has made the concept of independent travel accessible. And I do find it helpful to see what his recommendations are. But I take all of them with a HUGE grain of salt! And, as you've found out, his tours aren't exactly filled with a depth of understanding of what he is looking at. Still, I find the venom thrown at him by some equally amusing. Hey, I wouldn't mind having had his success, either!

Thanks for following up with this -- it's very helpful and I'm looking forward to reading about Madrid. As well as the Asian side of things, but that's for the other forum.
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Old Apr 11th, 2015, 08:52 AM
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<<CC- Fabulous! Great report and info. This is so very helpful for my own planning; especially the info about the audio guide - is it not available at the Justicia gate?>>

Thanks progol - I'm glad everyone encouraged me to complete this report.

You can't rent audio guides at the Justicia gate, but we found out later that they're available at the Palacio Nazaries gift shop. (That was a tip I read on TA, so don't trust me - confirm.) You can also check to see if you can rent them where you pick up your tickets at the bookstore in town, because I think the super crowded entrance gates are to be avoided at all costs. (We assumed we could get the guides at palacio entrance, like in a museum, but that wasn't the case.)

With or without the audio guide, I think it's preferable to go at the earliest time. It was not hot (in fact I needed a sweater) and didn't feel crowded at all until the second group came in.

latebloomer, Rick Steves' tour rec is probably okay, but I'm not sure you need a large tour group for the Alhambra. We liked the serenity of wandering around on our own.
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Old Apr 11th, 2015, 08:59 AM
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Actually, the best time to see the palace is in the evening. It is much quieter, and very atmospheric. I did the evening tour first, and then the daylight tour the next day along with the gardens, and the difference was definitely night and day.
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Old Apr 11th, 2015, 11:55 AM
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Thanks, CC, I'll do a little research into availability of the audio guides. We have tickets for 9:30 am, so not the first group entering, but still early. And then we have tickets for the palace at night. Really getting excited now!
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Old Apr 11th, 2015, 12:03 PM
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thursday, By evening, do you mean late afternoon or after dark? If after dark, how was the lighting for photography? That was my concern - didn't have a great camera with us on this trip.
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Old Apr 11th, 2015, 12:50 PM
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crosscheck - as best I remember (it was ten years ago) it was dusk. Depends on the time of year, I guess, I was there in mid-June. I didn't take my camera with me in the evening, I just enjoyed being there, but I think there were people with cameras. As I said, I went in the daylight as well - with my camera.
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Old Apr 12th, 2015, 03:51 AM
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CC,
Audio guides are also available at the Palacio de Carlos V, which is near the Justice gate entrance. That's good news -- we can avoid the main entrance and larger crowds.

Thanks again for the heads up!
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Old Apr 12th, 2015, 06:37 AM
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Thanks for this great report! Quite a fun, enjoyable and informative read, including other Fodorite's comments. I am taking notes. Looking forward to the Madrid section as we are planning a visit this fall.

I confess I just ordered the Rick Steves Madrid / Toledo guide, but went with DK Eyewitness for Andalucia. We felt like Rick steered us OK in Paris and northern Italy, even if on one occasion it was into a restaurant where everyone at all neighboring the tables were consulting their RS guides! (Will also have a look at a Fodors guide.)

Thanks again.
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Old Apr 22nd, 2015, 02:26 PM
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crosscheck,
what about Madrid?
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Old Apr 22nd, 2015, 03:50 PM
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Glad you're still following along. Can't leave out Madrid! Realistically will post on Friday.
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Old Apr 22nd, 2015, 04:34 PM
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Will also cover our day in Córdoba.
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Old Apr 23rd, 2015, 12:43 AM
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Oh good, CC, we leave in just over a week! Looking forward to reading about the rest!

Paule
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Old May 3rd, 2015, 12:06 PM
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Hola Nelson, Revulgo and progol (and anyone else who has had the stamina to stick with me - this TR has dragged on for so long that the original font has became outdated). I will post the Madrid section imminently, but first I feel obliged to devote a brief chapter to Córdoba, a trip highlight although we didn't stay overnight.

progol, if you've already hit the road, I promise I'll get you our Madrid recs in time for you to make reservations.
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Old May 3rd, 2015, 12:22 PM
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CÓRDOBA - DAY TRIP OF OUR DREAMS
On Day 3 in Granada, a sunny Sunday, we left early for Córdoba. An easy, somewhat scenic drive, ending at the train station where we returned our beloved Volvo. This was one instance when it helped to be fluent in Spanish - signage for both the rental car return and luggage storage was not obvious. But by asking, we found an offsite “Consigna” (locker facility) with a friendly attendant. Then jumped into a cab, and we were off to spend several hours in the Andalusian jewel of Córdoba.

THE GREAT STRIPED MOSQUE-CHURCH
Don’t even think of going to Andalucía without seeing La Mesquita, even if you can’t stay overnight. Once again, we were a bit put off by Rick Steve’s simplistic commentary. But it didn’t matter, because the place is so glorious that you don’t want to stand around reading – arguably the best architectural photo op of the trip.

FLORAL PATIOS AND CLASSIC TAPAS
Around lunchtime, we discovered that the patio tour we intended to take was sadly on hiatus for siesta. So we embarked on our own haphazard, self-guided tour of the magnificent courtyards in and around the Jewish quarter. Would consider returning to Cordoba just to see the yearly patio competition – we live in a Spanish-style house and sought inspiration for our courtyard (collected lots of ideas, none executed yet). We eventually stumbled upon Casa Rubio, which gets my highest endorsement for tapas, more courtyard ideas and lack of hawkers. Yes, it's on Rick's list, so he somewhat redeemed himself.

Intended to stop in some of the shops, which looked upscale and enticing, but ran out of time. In mid-afternoon, we picked up our luggage and jumped on the bullet train, sad to leave Cordoba but grateful for our half day, vowing to return.

ECONOMIC CRISIS COMES TO LIFE
On the train (speedy and scenic – what a sky!) to Madrid, we met a biomedical engineer who had just moved back to Spain after a teaching gig at Columbia University. His wife, who is in the forefront of AIDS research, had been transferred to Madrid, but he couldn’t find work and would probably have to leave the country. Although he was not a whiner, we got a reality check about the brain drain and the Spanish psyche. Ugh.

MADRID
Mr. C goes for work and I had spent a month there as a backpacker in another century. Now it was our time to discover the city anew: we had five full days and nights to just wander around spontaneously, with a 21st birthday dinner for our son as the only imperative activity.

Moved into our quasi-airbnb (booked through a local apartment listing site), which allowed us to continue our Best Views of Europe theme - looked out onto the church and rooftops of the super charming Plaza Comendadores. How we still miss this place!

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/76617

The Conde Duque section of Malasaña, where our son and his friends were also living, is super quaint and super cool: Low rise, cobblestone, small plazas, design museum, stylish shops. Walking distance to several metro stops and major attractions. Neighborhoody by day with vibrant cafe and club culture at night, reminiscent of the Marais in Paris.

MADRID OR BARCELONA
Pointless comparing them. Luckily we have both.

NEXT: WRAP UP, THE FULL SCOOP ON EL BOTIN, AND THE BEST TRANSCONTINENTAL CHEAPO FLIGHT EVER
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Old May 3rd, 2015, 12:27 PM
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Terrific, CC, the brief Cordoba review is quite timely. I will look out for Casa Rubio for tapas - and we will be there for the Patio Festival, which I'm looking forward to. I suspect that siesta time will be very necessary as the temps are forecast to be in the high 90s the 3 days that we're there!
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Old May 3rd, 2015, 12:42 PM
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Wow, three whole days - you're lucky. And I'm so envious that you'll be there for the Patio Festival. I think it was in the 90s in the afternoons the whole time we were in the area. But mornings and afternoons were idyllic...and the mandatory siesta adds to the magic. Enjoy!
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Old May 3rd, 2015, 04:07 PM
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crosscheck, I've been waiting for you to continue, thanks much. I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed Cordoba so much, as we'll be there for several days in October. I'm starting to become a Fodors Spain forum junkie even though our trip is 6 months out. This report has been really appreciated.
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Old May 27th, 2015, 10:28 AM
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Nelson - Thanks for your continued interest. I fear I have lost my audience - as I well deserve after all this time!

progol - Can't wait to hear about your adventures.

MADRID FOR WEARY TRAVELERS
The next 5 days and nights were pure magic. We had both been to Madrid previously - I had spent a month there as a backpacker and Mr. C goes often for work (forgive me if I mentioned this before. This has dragged on for so long that I have no idea what I wrote at the beginning). This time both of us saw the city in a different light and placed it up there with our European faves.

What was so enchanting? Might have been that Madrid has the old school grandeur but suddenly more style, all with a sense of humor and a laid back attitude. Might have been the weather – saturated blue skies, big fluffy clouds, glorious warm evenings (Someone here on Fodors had warned it would be too hot in early September – Not so.) Might have our son’s transformation - suddenly he was so…Spanish. In just a week's time, thanks to a stellar orientation by his program – he had become walking encyclopedia of history, art, and culture. He was quite the tour guide – full of fun facts about kings, queens, architecture and tapas.

MADRID'S GREATEST HITS, PLUS LOTS OF LAZINESS
We settled in and did the The Prado, Reina Sofia, el Rastro, Parque Retiro and Corte Ingles – but just one a day. Spent lots of time wandering around the artsy Conde Duque and the hipster Malasaña, sitting in cafés. Learned the metro. We abandoned our plan to go to Segovia because our son had been there the previous weekend. Our only commitment was his 21st birthday celebration with his friends at El Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world. And our only stress was whether that would be too touristy.

A few tips:
- The Prado is free starting at 6pm. But that’s not a secret and there’s a ridiculously long line. We opted to pay, went in at about 5:00 and had the place to ourselves.
- Couldn’t resist another Segway tour. We used the aptly named Madrid Segway Tours went on a 60-minute excursion to Casa del Campo, off the beaten path, good vistas. This time it was I who hit a curb and toppled over, with great embarrassment, but luckily without injury. And our guide had been so impressed with our Prague training...
- The San Miguel market is a must (went there twice, don’t miss the grilled padrón peppers…okay, maybe they’re fried). Then, for comparison, you also must check out the more upscale Mercado San Anton in Chueco. Trust me.
- The Reina Sofia is closed on Tuesdays – who knew? We didn’t, found out when we got there. ☹
- Had drinks with our son’s landlord, another unemployed engineer, in the super charming plaza adjacent to the Conde Duque cultural complex, where much is happening at night, including design shows and big screen sing-alongs.
- El Botín was epic and not too touristy at 10pm – the surrounding tables were full of locals who participated in our son’s celebration.
- Had perfect paella in the very classy La Barraca in Cueca
- Intended to go to 10 con 10 for a splurge meal, but it wasn’t vegan friendly enough for us. Our foodie son was lucky to go a couple of time with his friends’ parents and gave it his highest endorsement.

MORE CONDE DUQUE REC (Some from Spanish friends)
- Best bread in the city – Panic
- Best sandwiches - Crumb
- Fave breakfast and afternoon coffee/tea spot - Café Federal on Plaza Comendadore (still craving the avocado and toast)
- Blanca Berlín Galería – Excellent photography gallery
- For your croqueta addiction: Tabernillo del Gato Amadeus
- Decent shopping (Madrid is no Paris, but these local shops will do): Maggie Shop, Polar, Ana Guil

HASTA PRONTO
The night before we had to go home, I felt immensely melancholy about leaving. Was it the empty nest thing – leaving one of my chicks in España? Only partially. Mainly I was envious: It’s not fair that he gets to live in Madrid for four months…why can’t we?

NEXT: ANOTHER CHEAP FLIGHT/EUROPE’S BEST-KEPT AIRLINE SECRET ?
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