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Spain Newbies: Cordoba, Granada, Seville, Toledo, Madrid

Spain Newbies: Cordoba, Granada, Seville, Toledo, Madrid

Old Oct 26th, 2015, 05:46 AM
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Spain Newbies: Cordoba, Granada, Seville, Toledo, Madrid

This was our first trip to Spain. We have traveled a lot in France and Italy, especially Rome and south including Sicily. Many of our friends kept telling us that we have to visit Spain, which was pretty much a blank spot for us, not knowing much at all about the country. We finally decided to make the trip. We spent 10 nights in Spain, focusing on Andalucia, with just a peek at Toledo and Madrid. We sadly had to choose between focusing on Barcelona-Catalonia-San Sebastian or Andalucia and finally decided to put Barcelona on the bucket list for next time. We were very happy with our choice and we’re already planning our next trip to Spain—it’s an addicting place.

These five great cities have been extensively described on TRs so I will do my best not to repeat information. I have used so many Fodor TRs it’s impossible to thank everyone but I’d like to say in particular how helpful were the TRs of: Tdudette, ekscrunchy (food especially), judy_rosa, progol, and maitaitom (encyclopedic, the Pun-meister). And of course, kimhe’s comments throughout the forum.

Avertencia / User Information

This report is heavy on food, drink, and history plus conversations we had with local folks like taxi drivers, hotel staff, and museum guards. I’ll post segments roughly city by city, organizing day by day just to give a sense of what we found doable without exhausting ourselves but I will not slog through every step of the way.

We are in our late 60s and early 70s (egad, how did that happen), both thankfully in good health, enjoy walking around, but we took taxis sometimes to save time. I started researching the trip in January and we went in mid-October. Weather was perfect, sometimes with very strong, hot sun (Cordoba) and then becoming pleasantly chilly in the evening toward the end of the trip (Toledo).

In addition to using Fodor Forums and Tripadvisor, I read materials on the web and used the Cadogan, Rough Guide, Michelin, and Rick Steves guides. Also read of lot of history in order to get a hold on this densely historic culture-rich country. Two visual sources are especially helpful for an anglo to find an opening into this culture: the Youtube video documentary about Moraito Chico--the beloved now deceased flamenco guitarist (thanks to kimhe for this reference), and Pedro Almodovar’s movies.

Language: we like to talk to people about their lives and their towns so in the last few months we worked hard to bring back to life our broken pieces of Spanish, mainly learned in Vermont (!) and Mexico. I used two somewhat unusual resources to boost my Spanish: Youtube and hotel/restaurant comments by Spanish users of Tripadvisor. On Youtube you can find a lot of Spanish material. Example: the director of the Alhambra narrates a half-hour video of the Nasrid Palace and other elements. You can play one minute of the video, pause it, go back, and play it over and over to learn the phrases.

For Tripadvisor, you can use the language filter (upper right hand corner) to show Spanish language comments first. I copied and pasted the comments into a Word document and inserted English translations of the words and phrases I did not know. This kind of material would be the most relevant to how we would be speaking; no need to waste time trying to memorize all the verb conjugations and things like that. Instead, I could just focus on phrases like “we stumbled on this restaurant, the wait staff was really good, the museum was straight ahead three blocks and then just around the corner, etc.”

It turned out that the Spanish spoken in Andalucia did not seem that different from Mexican Spanish, although they often dropped the “s” and “z” and did not seem to pronounce the “c” as if it were “th” which I was anticipating. Example of rapid Andalucian Spanish: when we were in Seville searching for the little street where Vineria San Telmo was located, I asked an old server in a café and she pointed to a big intersection and said something like “A la loo ee kerda” which of course means “a la luz, izquierda”. Who knew?

The people we encountered were extremely gracious, even busy wait staff and hotel staff, courteous, often going out of their way to show us directions and even walk with us to find a place.

Expenses: our hotels ranged from 95 euros/night/double (Toledo) to 240 euro/dbl (Madrid, a splurge, worth it). We always ate breakfast in the hotel, always really good; often we did not eat lunch but started grazing on tapas and GinTonic (thank you Maitaitom for informing us about this) or fino or manzanilla around 4 pm and then tapas or dinner later in the evening. Food costs per day: 40 – 70 euro/person. We used trains for the whole trip (but half of the Cordoba-Granada link is being rebuilt so RENFE moves you effortlessly onto a waiting bus at the midpoint, which is the town of Antequera).

Weeks before the trip, when the euro dropped down to US$1.11, we each bought US$500 worth of euros. This way we could go for days without trying to find an ATM. In fact, we did not need any more euros until the last couple of days, when we withdrew a few euros from an ATM in Madrid.

Pickpockets, hassles: nothing at all, nowhere, nada. We used money belts.

Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) scam-theft-ripoffs: that’s what it is, thieving bankers! We always said “euros solamente, no dolares” when handing over our credit card to pay for something. They exorbitant exchange rates used in DCC should be outlawed, the entire practice should be outlawed, IMHO.

Best of the Best for Hotels and Food

Hotels: We were really happy with the hotels in all five cities (details follow later in the report). Three were smallish and/or family-owned hotels in very old houses or palacios:
--Cordoba: Hotel Viento 10 (run by Gerardo, yayy)
--Granada: Shine Albaicin
--Toledo: Posada de Manolo (run by Manolo and Almudena, yayy)
Two were large hotels, also in old structures but totally renovated or rebuilt:
--Seville: Hotel Amadeus
--Madrid: NH Palacio de Tepa

Tapas winners:
--Cordoba: La Tinaja
--Granada: Puerta del Carmen (thank you ekscrunchy for this one)
--Seville: Azotea on Calle Mateos Gago (there are 2 Azotea tapas bars)
--Toledo: La Ludena (thank you Almudena for this one)
--Madrid: two winners during our all-too-brief stay:
>Mercado de San Miguel
>Golfo de Bizkaia

NEXT UP: first days in Cordoba
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Old Oct 26th, 2015, 10:47 AM
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"We are in our late 60s and early 70s (egad, how did that happen)...."

Indeed, our lament as well (well not quite 70's yet but it is shocking to say out loud....we're in our late 60's...)! Looking forward to full report, definitely on our bucket list and granddaughter is going with her Spanish high school class in March.
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Old Oct 26th, 2015, 12:51 PM
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So pleased to see you have started this, your TR's are great
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Old Oct 27th, 2015, 02:58 PM
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Thursday Day One: CORDOBA

Arrival at Madrid airport; easy yellow express bus to Atocha station, then fast AVE train to Cordoba, passing through the arid hills of La Mancha, olive trees stretching to the horizon.

For a first-timer to Spain, Cordoba is a good place to begin. It is a small, quiet, unpretentious place and once you get away from the Mezquita you can wander the historic center. The streets are winding, many very narrow, all whitewashed. Feels sort of like how I imagine little villages in Morocco (never been there) or Greece (never been there).

Hotel Viento 10 on Calle Ronquillo Briceno, our home for two nights, is on a narrow alley branching off the Paseo de la Ribera along the Guadalquivir river. Owned by Gerardo, a former lawyer who bought the house nine years ago from a lute-maker and artist. The three-story structure is about 400 years old.

The rooms are arranged around a courtyard lined with the original columns and arches. The interior spaces are furnished in a spare but luxurious-feeling modern way. There is a free spa with a hot sauna space and a Jacuzzi and bathrobes, you just reserve a time. Breakfasts are sumptuous, served by the very welcoming Carmen, and another welcoming Carmen manages the front desk when Gerardo is not present. We laughed with them about who should be named Carmen Numero Uno and Carmen Numero Dos. We never settled on that.

The hotel is in the eastern part of the centro, 15 minutes away from the Mezquita. The area is just now being slightly renovated, with a walking route suggested by the town, the Monument Route of La Ribera. There are several little churches, some closed down and decaying.

After checking into the hotel and resting an hour we walked around the giant Mezquita but waited til the next day in order to have plenty of time to explore it. Even in the late afternoon, with the tourist bus groups having moved on, the immediate blocks around the Mezquita were still crowded. In fact the main sights in Cordoba (especially the Mezquita and the synagogue in the Juderia) were always crowded during our stay. There seemed to be many European and North American student groups visiting the city.

Dinner was at La Tinaja, on Paseo de la Ribera along the river, a short walk from our hotel. This was a superb dinner, 10 out of 10: wine = Vina Solorca Crianza. Jamon iberico; toast with anchovies; little potatoes hollowed out and stuffed with goat cheese and fried and covered in a light tomato sauce, fried eggplant with honey, fried bacalao cubes, tiramisu, and manzanilla (small detail: some clean, neat, large city dumpsters are about 50 feet away from the terrace dining area, no problem, but there’s also inside seating). Lovely, professional, and extremely beautiful waitresses.

Friday Day Two

Walked from the hotel west toward the Mezquita, on Calle Agustin Moreno. There is a nunnery here, the Convento de Santa Cruz, founded in the XVth century, run by the Order of St. Clare. This is a very famous order of nuns, founded by St. Clare of Assisi, a follower of St. Francis of Assisi. It has a pretty cobbled courtyard with greenery and flowers. There was a a plump little nun chatting away with two visitors and the nunnery sells sweets.

Calle Agustin Moreno changes its name several times in the direction of the Mezquita--Calle Don Rodrigo, then Calle Lineros and then at Plaza del Potro it becomes Calle Lucano. This walk gives you the feeling of an old Spanish town, with whitewashed one- and two-story houses, workshops, and offices, people going about their business, little cafes and such.

The Plaza del Potro (the Colt), is a charming square, once a market for horses and mules. Cervantes mentions the plaza in Don Quixote and there is a big plaque on the plaza wall commemorating this. Lovely small fountain with statue of a colt. Going down toward the river the plaza turns into a wide, tree-lined street, Calle Enrique Romero Torres. Many cafes and restaurants here. We would eat at two of them today, afternoon tapas at Fusion and later dinner at La Siesta.

The Mezquita: No need to describe this stunning place, but I will say how striking the difference one feels, walking through this structure, between the Islamic and the Christian approaches to worship. In the mosque area there is, of course, no figurative work except for stylized leaves and flowers. One would kneel on the floor, face the mihrab toward Mecca, and connect to Allah in some way. In the cathedral, in the center of the mosque, the spiritual connection is strongly figurative and literal: here is a picture or a statue of the God the Father, here the Son, and here the Dove of the Spirit, and here the Mother of God. Amazing that these two faiths with such different approaches came from the same Judaic roots.

It is certainly jarring to go from the mosque section of the structure, with its hundreds of columns and double arches, and then stumble on the cathedral smack in the middle. But I have to say that, once inside the cathedral part of the building, putting aside the fact of the surgery inflicted on the mosque, the cathedral is actually very beautiful. This was the first time I had seen the Spanish design for a big coro (choir) which is surrounded on three sides by a high wall and a grill on the side facing the main altar. This acts as a roadblock on your view if you are at the nave entrance—the main altar cannot be seen. The choir stalls, grill work, main altar, and central dome and vaulting are striking.

We wandered through the Juderia, could not enter the synagogue because of the waiting crowds, walked around the Almodovar Gate, the sole surviving Moorish gate, and made our way to the Alcazar.

The Alcazar of Cordoba is bare inside and guidebooks often dismiss it in discussions of the city, but we found it fascinating to wander through. It’s not well signed nor is it well lighted in some of the narrow hallways. Watch your step!

Ferdinand and Isabella lived here in the Alcazar in 1486 and were visited by Columbus, seeking their support for his Atlantic voyage. It would take him another six years of persuasion before they agreed to support him, in a final meeting in Granada, just weeks after the Moorish surrender of that city in January, 1492.

There are other treasures tucked away here and there but you have to look for them and use a guidebook which describes them (Rough Guide worked well here). An exhibition hall, for example, contains the largest complete Roman mosaic in existence.

The gardens of the Cordoba Alcazar are beautiful and extensive. It’s relaxing to slowly wander the gardens and rest under the trees on a hot sunny afternoon, which was the weather we had in Cordoba in mid-October.

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting this site; its beauty was not so overwhelming as to numb the mind (…which the Alhambra and the cathedrals of Seville and Toledo did in fact do to me).

Now on to important things like afternoon tapas and then later our attempt to be Just Like Real Genuine Spanish People, i.e., eating dinner at 10 pm and walking around til midnight.

Afternoon tapas at Fusion, Calle Enrique Romero Torres: slices of parmesan cheese, salmorejo (cold pureed vegetable soup topped with chopped egg and ham), smoked sardines with sepia sauce and tomato salsa; to drink: oloroso (a light sherry), Cruz Campo beer, and Pedro Ximenez.

After a full day of exploring Cordoba, we took advantage of the hotel’s spa, had a long Jacuzzi soak, then hit the streets for dinner.

Evening dinner at La Siesta, also on Calle Enrique Romero Torres: a bottle of Ramon Bilbao Crianza 2012 Rioja, cod done two ways: bacalao confitado = cod cooked in olive oil at low temperature, covered in a creamy sauce, and bacalao mozarabe = cod in a Pedro Ximenez reduction. Note to self: in reading up on Spanish wines, I kept bumping into Pedro Ximenez and, without paying much attention to what I was reading, I assumed it was a brand name. But it’s actually a grape used to make different kinds of sherry and sweet after dinner wines.

The fish was fresh and the flavors mild and delicious. But the memorable part of the dinner was talking with our waiter. When he first started explaining things to us I thought that he was the most hectic, nervous, fast-talking Spaniard I had encountered so far. Turns out he was Cuban, from Havana, and that explained it. From living in Key West, a town with a large Cuban population, some today’s refugees, many fifth-generation Cuban Americans, we are familiar with the rapid pace of Cuban Spanish (we’re familiar with it but cannot understand it!) He agreed with us, saying that Habaneros speak an especially rapid kind of Spanish and that Spanish visitors often can’t understand a thing they say. He was in his twenties, had fled Cuba on a plane whose flight departure information listed Serbia as the destination but the plane actually landed in Rome, where he obtained political refugee status from the Italian authorities. From there he moved to Spain, obtained residency and work papers, and there he was in Cordoba. What a story.

We finished dinner around 11:15 pm, proud of ourselves to still be awake. We wanted to take a look at the Plaza de la Corredera, built in the 1600s. From the web photos it looked like a big, sober, grand plaza. We imagined it to be elegant and empty in the late evening. Walking through the narrow streets toward the plaza, we began to hear a low buzz, then a rumble, then a roar of human voices. Turning a corner and entering the plaza, we saw hundreds of people sitting at café tables covering the big plaza, laughing, shouting, eating, drinking, kids running around, teenagers hanging around doing their thing. Hey folks, its almost midnight! Why aren’t you all asleep? We walked around the plaza a few minutes then went back to the hotel, had a sound sleep, woke up late the next morning deciding that we would abandon our effort to eat dinner on Spanish time.

Next up: our RENFE near-catastrophe on our way to Seville
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Old Oct 27th, 2015, 03:09 PM
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"We finished dinner around 11:15 pm, proud of ourselves to still be awake."

Congrats...you are to be commended. In our three weeks we never quite made the late, late dinner. I'm afraid one of us would have ended face down in a plate of paella. Great report. Look forward to more. Spain rocks!

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Old Oct 27th, 2015, 03:15 PM
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Sounds like a lovely day.
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Old Oct 28th, 2015, 03:12 AM
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Saturday Day Three: GRANADA

(note: that previous sentence should read: “on our way to Granada” – you can see how stressful the whole thing was for me)

We slept late, recovering from Our Night As Real Spaniards. Enjoyed another of Carmen’s excellent breakfasts. Actually, most of our hotels served great breakfasts like this—breads, croissants, two or three kinds of jam, café con leche, jamon, chorizo, juices, oh my.

We slowly got organized, packed, left our suitcases at the front desk and took a walk around the neighborhood. A quiet Saturday morning. Of course it would be since these folks had not gone to bed til 4 a.m. A little boy kicking a soccer ball with his dad in front of the family tienda. Ah, we were so wise to book a 1:30 p.m. train out of Cordoba for Granada. This left us the entire morning to relax, enjoy our part of the centro, then take a leisurely taxi to the Cordoba train station.

Approaching the station, our taxi driver explained that the station (modern, beautiful, spacious) was built for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. When construction crews were excavating for the foundations they uncovered extensive Roman ruins, the good part of which are now in museums.

It was now 12:45 p.m. Plenty of time to check in for our 1:30 p.m. train. Walking into the station I pulled out my RENFE tickets which I had printed at home weeks before. I looked at the departure time.

Insert here: musical score from the shower scene in Psycho.

The tickets read:

“CORDOBA SALIDA 10:39 h”

Uh oh. This was not good. Many weeks before, I had originally written the earlier departure on the small notes with all the train times, hotel addresses and such that I keep in my pocket. And then I must have decided to take a later train and forgotten to change the notes. Very much not good. The trip to Granada takes almost four hours. Many weeks before we had bought tickets for the 8:00 p.m. night tour of the Alhambra. Even if we could obtain two seats on a fast train later in the afternoon (highly doubtful, these AVE and AVIA trains often are full at this point), the tickets would cost us a fortune. And we’d probably not be able to be at the front door of the Nasrid Palace in time for the night tour.

I went to the customer service office and was greeted by a stunningly beautiful RENFE person. Side note just to relieve the tension: the Spanish, at least in Andalucia, are a handsome/beautiful bunch, those folks under 40, and after that point they morph into very distinctive types. Just my opinion, but it must be the influence of a few thousand years of Iberian-Phoenician-Greek-Roman-Visigothic-Moorish-Christian living.

Back to the story, greatly condensed:

Me, broken Spanish, trying to look aged and befuddled (not a stretch at the moment): “I misread our tickets, I thought it said 1:30, whine whine whine. Can we get seats on the 1:30 train? Will we have to pay a lot more money?”
She: “So you misread the time? You did not just come late for the train?”
Me: “Yes, I misread the time, there are so many numbers, it is so complicated to reserve on the internet, I misread the time, whine whine whine.”

The agent sprang into action, in the no-fuss way that so many Spanish we encountered handle things, in contast to, say, Naples. Rapid typing on the computer terminal, phone calls, questions asked of her colleague next to her, more computering, more calling. The answer: we were booked on the 1:30. There would be no penalty fee. Booked on the train. No penalty fee. This droppeth like a gentle rain from heaven.

Insert here: Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

She walked us over to another office, talked to the jefe, papers inspected, passed back and forth between them, more talk, more talk, jefe signs a paper, paper is stapled to my ticket, handed to me.

She, rapid Spanish (it is now 1:17 p.m.): “You need to go to Via 3 … blah blah … position 6 …. But not coach 6 …. Coach 8 …. At position 6 …. 8 …. 6 …. 8”
Me: total incomprehension.
She: asks her English-speaking colleague to walk me to the track, which is track 3, but we need to stand at the place marked 6 on the landing even though our tickets are for coach 8 because when the incoming train from Madrid pulls into the station it will stop such that coach 8 will be in front of position 6. Clear as day. Got it?
Me: Got it! MUCHAS GRACIAS!

What a heart-warming encounter with RENFE officialdom, viva RENFE!

The rest of the trip to Granada was a breeze, with a smooth transfer midway at Antequera to a RENFE bus to Granada because of new rail construction in that area.

We taxied to our Granada hotel, Shine Albayzin, Carrera del Darro 25. This street borders the Darro river, which forms a valley between the edge of the Alhambra hill east of the river and the hilly Albayzin quarter to the west. I see that I spelled it with a “c” earlier, which you see often, but the hotel name uses a “z”. This is the old Moorish quarter, more on that later.

The hotel is in a 16th century palace and the rooms are on four floors, arranged around a beautiful courtyard. Many of the buildings on the Carrera del Darro were built in the 1500s, as the Christians slowly pushed the Moors out of this quarter, pulling down the mosques and baths and taking over their houses. There’s a novel by Tariqu Ali that I must read, all about a Moorish family in 1492 in the days and weeks following the surrender of Granada to the Christians and the massive changes in their lives which start happening, week by week, month by month.

Philip III finally expelled all Moors from Spain in 1609, regardless of whether they had converted to Christianity decades before. It was truly an ethnic cleansing: if your great-great-grandfather had been a Moor in 1492 but then the family had converted to Christianity, didn’t matter, you had to leave in 1609.

We had reserved the top floor suite with a wide wall of tall windows looking out at the Alhambra fortress (Alcazaba). Walking into the room, we were…to use a wonderful English expression…gobsmacked. I had looked at a lot of hotel sites in this area, trying to decipher what the various rooms would be like based on the web site photos. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. This definitely did.

A great way to forget the late unpleasantness of my RENFE botch-up and to slide into the Alhambra Experience that evening.

Next up: the Alhambra
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Old Oct 28th, 2015, 10:55 AM
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Saturday Day Three (and some of Four): The ALHAMBRA

We walked from our hotel down to the Plaza Nueva to Calle de los Reyes Catolicos #40, the Libreria Alhambra, in order to retrieve our tickets from the machine. We had bought tickets for three visits: night tour at 8:00 p.m., then the day ticket for the 8:30 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. slot, and also the 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. slot. Our strategy was to give ourselves plenty of time for the day experience so that we could relax over an unhurried lunch and let our brains rest before continuing on to the Generalife gardens. This worked very well; I recommend it for people who like “slow travel,” and the afternoon ticket doesn’t cost that much in the grand scheme of things.

After I inserted the credit card which I had used back home to buy our tickets on the web, the machine spit out the first pair, for the evening tour. Insert the card again, out comes the second pair for the next morning’s visit. Insert card again, out comes one card for the afternoon visit and … no second card, nothing. Look at the machine. Be calm. Be Spanish. Do not wave arms, sweat, curse. Walk over to the live human at the booth next to the machine. In cool unstressed Spanish, say: I bought two afternoon tickets but the machine only printed one. The cool unstressed Spanish staff person walks over to the ticket machine, sticks her hand way up inside the beast, and pulls out my crumpled, folded ticket, smooths it flat, and gives it to me. No problem.

Methinks this is not the first time this has happened. Hence, I shall begin to list occasional Helpful Hints, an idea created by Tdudette in her excellent Madrid TR of March 22, 2014:

Hint 1. The ticket machine at Libreria Alhambra on Calle Reyes Catolicos sometimes sticks. Don’t panic. Ask the clerk to extract your wrinkled ticket.

Hint 2. Related to #1—print out your acknowledgement email from Alhambra/Ticketmaster after you have purchased your ticket online; it can serve as a backup if the machine says it does not have a record of your purchase. I saw an Indian couple in great distress at the morning entrance gate, with papers given to them by the Libreria apparently because of some printing glitch.

Hint 3. For the evening tours of the Alhambra, you can ONLY enter through the Puerta de Justicia/Justice Gate. I just happened to ask the clerk at the Libreria if we could use that gate instead of the eastern, main entrance since the Justice Gate was closer to our hotel. It was then that she volunteered that, indeed, we could and we definitely should use that gate.

Tickets in hand, we went back toward the hotel and stopped for late afternoon tapas at La Fontana, Carrera del Darro 19. This is a comfortable little café with several eating spaces and a very busy and capable bar. Me: a fino, love this stuff. Partner: a cana. Some salmorejo and anchovies. Just what we needed to get us through the night visit and then on to more food and drink.

In planning the Alhambra part of the trip, I wasn’t sure the night tour would be worth the effort, as opposed to spending the entire night in some other worthwhile activity, i.e., drinking fino and eating lots of different tapas. But indeed it was. We knew that the route up the Alhambra hill would involve some steep walking so we set out around 7:00 p.m., took the Cuesta Gomerez from Plaza Nueva, through the big stone Gate of the Pomegranates (“Granada” = pomegranate in Spanish = origin of English word “grenade”).

Once past the gate, we took the walking path at the left (there are three paths facing you: gravel to the left, asphalt access road in the middle, and another path going who knows where to the right). The walking path on the left takes you easily up to the Charles V fountain; turn left and voila—there’s the Justice Gate. But be forewarned, the walking path is steep, about a 40 degree angle. A good cardio workout. Give yourself about 20-30 minutes for a slow, unsweaty ascent from Plaza Nueva.

Hint #4. The path from Cuesta de Gomerez is really steep. Give yourself plenty of time to walk up comfortably.

There was no ticket check at the Justice Gate. I think it must be open most of the day and evening because it is the access point to get to Hotel America and the Parador along the Calle Real, inside the walls of the Alhambra complex. (I wonder if you can also enter freely in the evening from the main entrance at the eastern end?)

We arrived at the ticket checkpoint for the Nasrid Palace/Palacio Nazaries about 7:30 p.m. and there was just one person ahead of us. So when the guard let us in at 8:00 p.m., we walked quickly through the first couple of rooms. I had read about the rooms of the palace in a great little guide book, “The Alhambra and Generalife in Focus,” and I knew roughly about the splendors to come. This meant that we could move quickly to get to the truly splendiferous rooms ahead of the crowd, take photos, and enjoy them just by ourselves, with only that one other person wandering around sometimes.

The lighting effects on the evening tour make this astonishing building incredibly beautiful. This prepares you for the daytime visit the next day. Also, you do not have access on the evening tour of some parts of the palace near the Partal Gardens but you do go through these spaces on the daytime visit (can’t remember the names of these, but they include some overlooks and colonnaded covered bridge type sections with great views of the city below). I had no sense the next day that I had “already done the palace” – the rooms are so complex, the perspectives so masterfully designed as you move from one room to another to a courtyard to a hallway, etc., that the daylight visit is a quite different experience. Besides, for someone who has seen “North by Northwest” eight times, how could I be bored only on my second visit to the Nasrid Palace?

Here, just a word about the ornamentation (not quite the right word) of the palace walls, ceilings, domes, and arches. There is no representation of humans, of course. In addition to abstract, geometrical designs on the wall tiles and the arches and domes, there is Arabic script all over the place. I took a number of photos of this. It’s bewitching, the script sometimes is angular, sometimes curved, entwined in and out of the stylized leaves and flowers and abstractions. I knew it must be quotations from the Koran but I could not grasp the full impact of the integration of the writing, whatever it said, with the decoration.

Then, toward the end of the daytime palace visit, I found a book in the gift shop called “Reading the Alhambra,” by Jose Miguel Puerta Vilchez. It describes every inscription in the palace, with photos of every wall or ceiling surface containing writing. This is a history geek’s delight. Vilchez says: “It is not enough merely to see the Alhambra to obtain a complete idea of the intentions of its builders and the deep roots of its magnificence; to do that you have to read it, read what the builders inscribed on its walls and its arches in majestic epigraphic panels….”

There are actually two Arabic scripts used for the inscriptions: an ancient Kufic script, very angular, and the later cursive script. The first lends itself to complex, angular designs and the second works well with flowers and leaves and such. Throughout the palace are inscriptions for “blessing” (baraka), “good fortune” (yumn), and “there is no victor for God” (this was the official motto of the Nasrid dynasty. There are many quotations from the Koran and poems.

Different rooms had inscriptions related to their functions. In the Courtyard of the Lions, for example, a long poem is inscribed around the rim of the fountain, composed in honor of the sultan, Mohammed V: “Can’t you see how the water runs through the bowl, but the bowl itself stops its flow, just as the lover whose tears are on the brink keeps them in for fear they might betray him…Oh you who behold the lions before you, only their respect for you restrains them from attack…may God’s peace be with you, may you live forever…”

I will pass on describing individual blockbuster rooms and spaces like the Mexuar, Comares, and court of the lions; they are well covered all over the web and in various TRs. However, I have to talk a little about the Comares Tower and one of the magnificent rooms there, the Hall of the Ambassadors, sometimes called the Throne Room. The domed ceiling is beyond description, composed of 8,000 separate pieces of wood, colored and fitted together in a mind-boggling jigsaw pattern. The design symbolizes Mohammed’s ascent through six heavens, reaching the seventh heaven, a small brilliant white piece in the center of the dome, representing divine power.

Here’s the spooky part: Yusuf I built this throne room and the rest of the tower sometime between 1333 and 1354. Dante had just completed the Paradiso section of the Divine Comedy about 1320. In the last lines of the Paradiso, Dante enters the realm of God, apprehending an infinitely small, infinitely brilliant point of divine light.

Whew. Danger of brain overload. I finally exited the Nasrid Palace, wandered the Partal Gardens, and went to the Charles I Palace to meet my partner who had slept late, recovering from a bad back experience on the plane ride over.

We went into the Palace of Charles I (his Spanish title) / V (his Holy Roman Emperor number). If you could extract this palace and plop it down in an empty field, it would be an imposing thing: a circle enclosed by a square, a design developed by an architect who was a student of Michelangelo. Bumping up against the south side of the Nasrid Palace, however, it feels like a desecration.

The Alhambra Museum inside the Charles V Palace has superb displays not only of large objects such as original Alhambra doors but also small household objects from the Nasrid dynasty: children’s ceramic toys, washing bowls, thimbles and needles, jewelry made from gold filigree barely the thickness of a human hair. It has the Fountain of Lindaraja, an enormous Alhambra fountain bowl, 6 feet 10 inches in diameter, carved from a solid block of marble. All around the rim is a poem: “My beauty is of the highest degree…My immense capacity has never been seen in the East or the West, neither could any King, either Arab or not, achieve it, I am in truth the very firmament of water….”

Then on to a really delicious, long lunch at Hotel America.

Afterwards, we walked around the open sections of the Parador, which includes the walls of the original Alhambra mosque, now just an open courtyard, Then past the checkpoint for the Generalife (it is now 2:05 p.m. and we are using our third ticket, the afternoon ticket to visit only the Generalife). This checkpoint is very near the Parador and the Partal Gardens, so we are still in the western half of the Alhambra complex. We had a pleasant walk eastward into the Generalife gardens and the pavillon with its reflecting pool.

Exiting the entire Alhambra about 3:30 p.m., I calculated that, all told, I had spent about seven hours, evening and daytime, in the complex.

Next up: more tapas in GRANADA
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Old Oct 28th, 2015, 11:40 AM
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Great report, thanks!
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Old Oct 28th, 2015, 02:31 PM
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Great idea to spread your daytime visit over the 2 sessions with lunch in between.
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Old Oct 29th, 2015, 03:23 AM
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Saturday and Sunday Days Three & Four GRANADA

OK, so it’s a little confusing: I lumped together all my impressions of the Alhambra just for some coherence. We did the Alhambra night tour Saturday and then spent a lot of Sunday there, as described above. Here are comments, first, about one more sight and then the important stuff, food in Granada.

The Capilla Real: this has been covered a lot in TRs, so just a few impressions. This is a very serious place for Spanish people, sort of like the Lincoln Memorial only more so. No photos, guards, a quiet atmosphere. It really drove home to us the close alliance, almost union, of Monarchy and Church centuries ago and the momentous events of 1492--within the first four months of that year, Ferdinand and Isabella had #1 completed the Reconquista by capturing Granada, #2 decreed the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and #3 funded Columbus’ voyage.

The building and the main altar, flanked by life-sized statues of the two monarchs done just a short while after their deaths, are splendid. We focused on a number of things in the chapel and the treasury area: the cape covering Isabella as her body was carried from Valladolid to Granada; her mirror, missal, Bible, crown; Ferdinand’s sword.

Leaving the chapel, we walked around the cathedral. The name of the founder of the fascist Falange party in the 1930s, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, is engraved on the western wall of the cathedral. It is splattered with red paint. A Mass is said every year for the soul of Generalissimo Franco. Just sayin’.

On to food….

Los Diamantes, Saturday eve: after the night tour we exited through the Justice Gate and walked back down to the Plaza Nueva (insight: it’s easier walking down a 40 degree incline than walking up). The city was really hopping, a very easy-going fun ambiance, sort of like Mardi Gras without the drunkenness. Following ekscrunchy’s notes, we went to Los Diamantes on Plaza Nueva. Packed with people munching on various fried seafood creatures and drinking canas (how do I do a tilde on my keyboard?) I believe eks’ adjective for the bar itself was “heaving” and this was accurate. But no hostile shoving, just a gentle insinuation, bellying up to a four-inch opening at the bar and then gradually widening that.

Forewarned, I had my Spanish phrase all prepared to shout at the waiter: CHIPIRONES DOS CANAS. Boy, these guys are good. They’re data sponges, they move fast but don’t seem rushed, everything’s under control and they are pumping out chipirones, boquerones, mejillones, every little swimming creature imaginable. Oh my, when we got our plate it was the best of the best, our little squid full of fried crunchy goodness.

However, inhibited as we are, we could not take an hour of this manic pace, so on to another spot after finishing up our beers. Where next? Consulting the Fodorite notes archive, we headed for another of ekscrunchy’s faves, La Puerta del Carmen on the Plaza del Carmen. (Carmen = originally, a term for a Moorish house such as those which once covered the Albaizin. Don’t know if it has another meaning. Sort of an odd name for a Plaza.)

Before going into the restaurant, we paused to admire the Plaza del Carmen. It’s now about 10:00 p.m. Even though we had not intended to do so, it looked like we were going to do another Real Spanish Dinner Night. No matter. The plaza was beautiful at night, with the Ayuntamiento city hall building all lit up with the flags and such.

Off to Puerta del Carmen restaurant on the other side of the plaza. This is a marvelous space, a kind of art-deco-ish restaurant inside a solid granite-looking building, lots of old-fashioned glass windows looking out on trees and the illuminated plaza. We waited in the foyer for the maître d’ and he signaled that we could have a table in 10 minutes or so. I spied a couple of empty tables but we resolved to be Good Respectful Tourists: we knew the waiter was not simply refusing to seat us, rather, those tables were probably reserved, or they were probably held back because some regulars who have been coming to this place for 23 years and whose cousins are married to the chef, or something like that….these regulars always come here at 10:15 on a Saturday night, etc.

While standing in the foyer, we surveyed the bar scene. Half a dozen youngish folks sitting, drinking, chatting, noshing on tapas. Just in front of us, behind the bar, was the master jamon slicer. There must be a Spanish word for this person. In the best places, I have read that only the master slicer cuts the prized, best quality jamon. One place actually told customers that it could not serve jamon that night because the Master Slicer was sick. Anyway, this master slicer was slowly cutting super thin, almost transparent pieces of jamon from a leg of ham, slicing them symmetrically into elongated triangles, each one with a delicate edge of white nutritious fat, then placing them very carefully on a large plate in a sunburst pattern. Finally, after many minutes, the plate was completed. He carried it over to a young couple at the bar. Lo and behold, the lovely young woman took the plate and handed it to us, saying “take some!” Is Spain a GREAT COUNTRY or what???

Patience rewarded. The maître d’ comes over and seats us next to the front window. We start with a bottle of Marques de Murrieta Rioja 2009 Reserva. Sipping the wine, looking out the window, enjoying the plaza view, we see … a young lady wearing a long tunic shirt and apparently no …. pants? Right in front of the restaurant? Talking at length with a young gentleman? Hmmm. Well, I’ve read that prostitution is legal in Spain and everyone else inside and outside the restaurant took no notice, so we carried on with our dinner.

Which was: jamon iberico to start, then steak and pork shoulder (codillo), with an after dinner shot of a new digestivo find, Rua Vieja, really good, sort of like an Italian amaro.

After a good walk along Reyes Catolicos, through Mardi Gras on the Plaza Nueva and the Carrera del Darro, we finally got to bed about 11:30 p.m. Great day and great night!

Next up: SEVILLE
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Old Oct 29th, 2015, 04:14 AM
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Addendum to GRANADA

Forgot to mention our dusk walk through the Albaizin to the San Nicolas Mirador for the view across the Darro river valley to the Alhambra.

We must have been visiting an alternate reality Albaicin. In contrast to much that I had read, the narrow hilly streets, which we explored a little at dusk and early evening, were clean, not covered in dog-droppings, not that difficult to maneuver, with no sulking thieves waiting to pounce. At one point, when Calle Zafra zigzagged in a way not shown on our map, we asked for help (“disculpe disculpe senor donde esta, etc.”) from a cluster of half a dozen neighbors drinking in the lane and they jovially pointed us in the right direction. (Note for future walkers: if you are on the Carrera del Darro and take Calle Zafra up the hill, it is going to jog to your right and then 200 feet ahead it will turn to the left and cross the Calle San Juan de Los Reyes and pass the little Plaza de Toqueros. At this point I think we passed the apartments which Maitaitom used on his recent trip, looked like a great spot.)

The same good news held for the San Nicolas Mirador: this was not a massively over-visited site when we arrived, simply dozens of people gathered in the square, all of them absorbing the evening panorama of the illuminated Alhambra beyond us and half-moon above, the city lights spread out below, a gorgeous sight—no smell of pot, no hawkers or guitar players, just a very mellow bunch. We loved slowly walking along the twisting lanes; the street lanterns shining on the cobblestones and white walls made for some good photos.

Once again, next up: SEVILLA
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Old Oct 29th, 2015, 11:07 AM
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"and then the important stuff, food in Granada"
Yep. Your report is making me so hungry! April can't come soon enough.
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Old Oct 30th, 2015, 07:25 AM
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What a absolutely fabulous trip report! So well written with wonderful detail. I am enjoying it enormously!
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Old Oct 30th, 2015, 08:51 AM
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Thanks! More is coming...
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Old Oct 30th, 2015, 11:05 AM
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Enjoying your report. Loving all the little details and historical asides.

I think we were within a few days of each other, illuminated Alhambra beyond us and half-moon above, that's how it was for us too. We are also glad we split our Alhambra visit over several entries.

Spain was indeed fantastic and the Spanish people were wonderful. We came seriously close to extending our trip when we had just two days left, but finally decided there were too many moving parts.

Maybe I'll cobble together a brief synopsis of our trip, but a real TR will wait some weeks for a photo album.

In any case now that maitaitom's TR has sadly come to an end, looking forward to more of yours to relive our trip!
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Old Oct 30th, 2015, 02:39 PM
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just found this, EYWandBTV, and loving it.

we too saw the Alhambra by night before our day-time trip and never felt that it was overkill.

what with coping with cuban spanish, embracing late dinners and ignoring knickerless ladies, you seem to have absorbed the local culture pretty fast.

Bravo!
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Old Oct 30th, 2015, 03:39 PM
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So you are continuing your fascinating report about Spain? We explored Madrid-Andalucia-Lisbon a year ago with Grand Circle Travel. At 84 I was dragging behind but didn't fall or even stumble. After dealing with congestive heart failure this summer (though improved) I doubt we will venture overseas again...last trip Elbe R. cruise last Spring. Both reports are on Fodors. But we will continue Road Scholar programs as we are able (two in Florida next Feb. when snowing in Boston?)

Anyway I appreciated your Madrid, Cordoba, Granada descriptions. Mezquita of course is just splendid and thanks for the thoughts on worship (as a retired pastor). Yes, Columbus did get support from Isabella and Ferdinand for his exploration but did you know they threw him in jail when he returned? You would enjoy Michael Meyer's book "Isabella the Warrior Queen." No doubt like me you read alot about Spain. We did see the small synagogue. Relaxed at a cafe on Ave. de la Libertad.

Your description of Granada is beyond what we could appreciate in our briefer visit and also it rained hard. I liked you pointing to ornamentation and you did mention the fountains but not so much the lovely gardens, all so important to Moorish culture. With my walking disability this day was a bit of a challenge. After lunch we moved on to Torremolinos so you enjoyed more in Granada than did we.
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Old Oct 30th, 2015, 04:39 PM
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Thanks all for the comments.

Ozarksbill: yes, re gardens, magnificent, but Spain, just the region of Andalucia alone, is such a treasure chest that I am leaving out a lot of detail in this TR...and we only stayed 10 nights!

I touched lightly on the difference between the mosque area and the cathedral area of the Mezquita. The issue is so inflamed, with current events. But the difference was quite striking to me.

I read your Spain TR before our departure, very helpful background--please excuse my not acknowledging your report earlier.

Annhig: re Cuban Spanish, midnight strolls, and knickers or lack thereof: Spain is so full of life, in all its variety...but in a very different way from southern Italy. No theatrics, no hand waving or horn-beeping, no opera buffa in day to day life, but rather a dignified, friendly, no-nonsense approach to the day's questions. I love both places.
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Old Oct 30th, 2015, 05:36 PM
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Monday Day 5 - SEVILLA

We took the bus from the Granada train station (because of the reconstruction of the rail lines) to Antequera, then transferred easily to the train bound for Sevilla.

We checked into Hotel Amadeus on Calle Farnesio in Barrio Santa Cruz. Again, a very comfortable hotel, well located, just a half block away from the eastern end of Calle Mateos Gago (about three blocks away from this hotel is a great stretch of tapas bars and cafes on Mateos Gago, very near the Giralda plaza). We sprang for a suite and appreciated the extra space in the room. Closing the windows in the evening and then closing the wooden inside covers made the room totally dark and quiet. The evenings were cool so we did not need open windows.

The staff of the hotel was outstanding. They helped us buy tickets for two flamenco shows at the Casa del Flamenco and the Casa de la Memoria and printed our tickets.

Time for a tapas lunch:

Azotea on Calle Mateos Gago, just across the plaza from the Giralda, score: 10 out of 10. This is a highly rated but simple, unpretentious tapas bar, friendly too. Our lunch (at 3:00 p.m.): this place has invented perhaps the world’s greatest tapas—“saquitos”—little bags. Pastry triangles stuffed with chicken and goat cheese, fried, served with a kind of creamy tomato sauce. Oh, pure fried goodness. Also: lomito = small slices of cured pork loin; ensaladilla = potato, smoked fish, capers and mayonnaise mixture shaped in a little mound; pulpo a feira con parmentier = cold, cooked octopus pieces in a little vinegar on slices of potato. Truly truly outstanding. With GinTonics.

We walked around the huge Cathedral and the Giralda bell tower (former minaret of the mosque) and the Plaza del Triunfo. Everyone was in a happy mood. The carriage drivers politely asked if you wanted a ride as you walked past. I am soaking in the relaxing atmosphere of this elegant city.

For dinner:

Vineria San Telmo: good and fun but not surpassingly great like Azotea; salmon tataki with onions and leeks; warm red cabbage with mascarpone, gorgonzola, and pine nuts; bismilla (Morroccan type pastry filled with chopped chicken, raisins and pine nuts, dusted with cinnamon and sugar), GinTonics, canas, and vino de naranja (“orange wine”—no idea how they make this but it’s a nice slightly sweet after-dinner wine).

Tuesday Day 6: more SEVILLA

This morning we tackled the cathedral. I had read the foreboding statistics. It used to be considered the third largest Christian church in the world but new calculations apparently show that it is in fact the largest, number one. The Guinness Book of Records has given them a certificate. (Does this matter? my evil twin asks…)

The cathedral is a massive thing and I am not quite able to absorb it all when I enter. I had the same reaction visiting St. Peter’s in Rome. The scale is one step beyond the glorious stage and my brain is numb. The main altar is 65 feet high, covered in gold. The spotlights on the altar make the gold almost blinding, it’s hard to distinguish the details of the many sculpted figures.

The cathedral has many treasures: the coronation cloak of Charles V, Felipe III’s banner which was hoisted over the Grand Mosque after the conquest of Sevilla in 1248 (history geek note: the Moorish kingdom of Granada was allied with Ferdinand III and helped him conquer the Moorish kingdom of Sevilla; these cross-religious alliances were not unusual—Machiavellianism was the rule; Christian Byzantium, for example, was allied for a time with the Moorish kingdom of Cordoba and the Byzantine emperor sent some of the precious mosaic materials and workmen to help build the mihrab in the Cordoba Grand Mosque.)

Lunch: back to Azotea. More saquitos, gazpacho (a creamy, orangey, tomatoey version, delicious), carillada (pork cheek) al vino with purple radish sprouts as a garnish (why not?). I want to live in Azotea.

After lunch:

Archivo de Indias: this was for us surprisingly interesting—a beautiful building; the historical archives of the explorers and merchant traders of the Americas are kept under lock and key, but copies are exhibited. Documents signed by Columbus, Ponce de Leon, Magellan, early maps of Florida, parts of the Gulf Coast of what is now the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, many Latin American countries.

The museum has a cannon from a Spanish treasure ship which sank off the Florida Keys in 1622, Nuestra Senora de Atocha. The American diver who discovered the wreck of the Atocha in the 1970s donated the cannon to the museum.

The museum has two fine Goya portraits of Queen Luisa of Parma and Charles IV. This is a hint of the Goya glories we are about to see in a few days in the Prado.

Back to the hotel to energize and then get ready for our first flamenco experience. I was ambivalent about attending a flamenco show. I had looked at a couple of videos on Youtube and could not relate to the dancers. The singing seemed raucous and unpleasant. I actually suggested to partner that we forego flamenco this trip and instead just relax and eat tapas and … drink. However, we opted for a cultural experience and off we went.

7:30 p.m. Flamenco at the Casa del Flamenco in the Hotel Alcantara. This place gets high marks by various posters here and elsewhere. The place is very simply arranged ( = a good thing), just a stage, a few rows of seats around three sides of the stage, no drinks, no food. This night the dancers are Lola Jaramillo and Jesus Herrera. I forgot the names of the singer and the guitarist. From the little I have read, the singer is actually considered more important than the dancers, which is not the general impression of foreign visitors, I don’t believe.

For the first dance the man and woman danced together. Little by little their bodies twined around each other, almost touching but not quite. The dance became sensual, erotic. My goodness…gasp, do they really let children under 16 see this performance?

The second song was danced by the woman alone. She had a striking appearance, a chiseled face, beautiful, strong features. Her hair was jet black and pulled tightly to the back of her head. She began her dance slowly, clicking castanets. I can’t quite find the right words but she moved in a very graceful but also very muscular way. From time to time she broke into rapid, very rapid tap dancing, and toward the end of her dance her expression became intense, almost tortured.

For the third song, the man danced alone. His dance was frenzied, with mesmerizing, rapid-fire tap dancing and leg movements. At times he seemed almost to be in a trance. He shirt was drenched with sweat at the end.

The audience was really into the performance, lots of clapping, and I think we all were exhausted when the show ended. I’m glad we chose Casa del Flamenco for our first exposure to flamenco.

We headed back toward Mateos Gago for dinner:

Cerveceria Giralda: This was in the same block as Azotea. We had one tapas plate to begin: grilled octopus, pulpo, with sauce on a bed of potatoes. Pulpo and jamon have become my favorite things. Then the waiter suggested the large mixed plate of fried seafood. This was a great choice. It was a huge plate of many different kinds of seafood: squid, whitefish, anchovies, mussels, clams, other little friend chunks of sea critters that I could not identify, resting on a bed of friend vegetables. White wine and canas for drinks. Total satisfaction, 10 out of 10.

Time to rest up in order to prepare for more Sevilla.
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