48 Hours In: Barcelona

Whether you seek beaches, shops, cuisine or culture, follow in the footsteps of Columbus and explore Spain’s glorious second city, writes Simon Calder

 

Travel essentials
Why go now?
Culture, cuisine and conviviality: the Catalan capital is superlative in every dimension. Fares are falling in line with the temperature, though the warm autumn has lingered in Barcelona this week. And the latest addition to the city’s spectacular skyline, the W Hotel, opened 10 days ago.

Touch down
Barcelona airport is on the coast 12km south-west of the city. Most “full-service” airlines, including BA and Iberia from Heathrow, use the brand-new Terminal 1. The easiest way in to the city is on the A1 Aerobus, which leaves about every 10 minutes and costs €5 for the half-hour journey to Plaça Catalunya (1).

Budget airlines, including easyJet from Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Bristol and Liverpool, Jet2 from Leeds/Bradford, and Monarch and Bmibaby, use the older Terminal 2. The Aerobus A2 from here costs only €4.25. Alternatively, walk to the airport railway station for the half-hourly service to Passeig de Gràcia station (2); while the one-way fare is €2.80, if you invest €7.70 on a 10-trip pass, you can get into town for just 77c, and connect there for any other train, tram, bus or Metro service within 75 minutes. You can also have nine more journeys on public transport when you get there. Ryanair serves Barcelona via both Girona and Reus airports, with connections by bus to the terminal at Estació Nord (3).

The most civilised way to arrive in Barcelona is by the overnight train from Paris (with connections from London St Pancras), terminating at the Estació de França (4).

Get your bearings
Plaça Catalunya (1) is at the heart of Barcelona, a vast square where the Barri Gòtic (Old Town) meets the Eixample (Extension) and Metro, bus and suburban train services converge. The main tourist office is underground on the Corte Inglés side of the square (open 9am-8pm daily, 00 34 93 285 3834; barcelonaturisme.com); other kiosks are dotted around the city.
South from here, the Ramblas weaves towards the Mediterranean, punctuated by the statue of Columbus (5) – where the explorer reputedly landed after his first voyage to the New World.
Other key locations in the centre include the ornate, palm-filled Plaça Reial (6), and the bulky and disjointed Cathedral (7), which squats on the northern edge of the old Roman city of Barcino.

Check in
I paid €30 without breakfast at the cheap and central Hostal Galerías Maldà (8), a rambling old mansion tucked inside a shopping arcade at Carrer del Pi. The most stylish property in the centre is the Grand Hotel Central (9) at Vía Laietana 30 (00 34 93 295 7900; grandhotelcentral. com), created in a 1926 building and offering facilities from bike rental to an amazing infinity pool on the roof. Double rooms start at €140, excluding breakfast. The boutique and luxury hotel specialist Mr & Mrs Smith is offering Independent readers 25 per cent off suites; see independent.co.uk/ mrandmrssmith.
The latest addition to the accommodation register is the spectacular W Barcelona (10), (Plaça de la Rosa dels Vents 1; 00 34 93 295 2800; starwoodhotels.com/whotels), perched at the end of one arm of the port, jutting into the Mediterranean. A double room costs €270 excluding breakfast.

Day one
Take a view
You need not even climb the Monument to Columbus (5) to be bowled over by the dramatic architecture of Barcelona. The column at the southern end of the Ramblas is flanked with elaborate statuary and surrounded by handsome buildings. If you wish to take the lift to the top, it opens 10am-6pm daily and costs €3.

Take a hike
Start at the Columbus Monument (5) and strike inland along the Ramblas, the main tourist avenue, which has a mesmerising range of human statues, flower stalls and pavement cafés. Halfway up, divert through the Galería Bacardi to the palm-filled Plaça Reial (6), about as architecturally uniform as the older parts of Barcelona get. Dive back on to the Ramblas, and call in at Mercat de Sant Josep (11), also known as La Boquería (8am-8.30pm daily except Sunday). It resembles a Victorian railway terminus filled with a colourful feast of fruit, vegetables and cheeses.
Watch out for some spectacular façades, and just before the Plaça Catalunya, refresh yourself from the Font de Canaletes – a ritual supposed to guarantee a return to the city.
Catch your breath at the Plaça, then head east to plunge into the Roman city. Head south on Avinguda Portal de l’Angel, which quickly narrows to funnel you into the ancient heart of the city along its continuation, Carrer dels Arcs. Just before you pass the cathedral (7) to your left, you can see fragments of the Roman walls and a reconstructed section of aqueduct. The cloisters of the cathedral are worth visiting: a haven filled with orange trees and palms, the pool in the centre has its own flock of geese. The cathedral’s magnificent nave is also worth seeing (open 10am-2pm on Sundays; 9am-1pm and 5pm-8pm on other days).

Continue south to the Plaça Sant Jaume (12), where the palaces of the municipal and regional authorities stare at each other, and turn left into the Born quarter – best sampled on Vía Argentería, which stretches down to the beautiful 14th-century church of Santa María del Mar (13). If it is open (hours are erratic) you can walk the length of it, and emerge at the far end on the broad Passeig del Born. Turn right down Carrer Rec, whose colonnades provide shade for a range of arty shops and a flavour of Cuba. The hike concludes at the breathtaking Estació de França (4).

Lunch on the run
If you have picked up a picnic, head a few metres along to the Parc Ciutadella (14). If not, wander a few blocks south to Carrer de Ginebra (15) in Barceloneta, and choose between the adjacent temptations of El Lobito at no 9 and Bar Jai-ca Tapas at no 13.

Window shopping
El Corte Inglés dominates the retail offering, with a huge department store on Plaça Catalunya (1) and another a block south of it on Avinguda Portal de l’Angel – where you will also find plenty of familiar upmarket brands. But for fascinating individual stores offering trinkets, chocolate and art, wander the length of Carrer de Petritxol (16), whose southern entrance is dominated by the retro ironmongers, Josep Roca.

An aperitif
At Taller de Tapas (17) at Argentería 51, a sharp, modern façade conceals old vaults that are ideal for conspiratorial sipping (cava is €11.85 a bottle), and nibbling of tapas: these snacks start at less than €3 a dish. If you are not inclined to fit in with the local habit of dining from around 10pm, you can easily feast here. And on fine evenings, you can sit out on the small square opposite, though you will pay a 10 per cent premium for the privilege.

Dining with the locals
At La Fonda (18) at Passatge Escudellers 1 (00 34 93 301 7515), you can dine splendidly on Catalan dishes (seafood an inevitable speciality) in faux-tropical surroundings for reasonable prices: a filling main course is typically under €20, with cheap but good house wine.

Day two
Sunday morning: go to church
Today is partly devoted to the great Catalan Modernist architect Antoni Gaudí. Start at the Sagrada Família (19) (00 34 93 207 3031; sagradafamilia.cat), an “expiatory temple” that has been under construction for over a century. Even as a work in progress, Gaudí’s startling nest of soaring steeples is Barcelona’s most recognisable symbol. Open 9am-6pm daily; admission €11.

Out to brunch
Close to the city’s cathedral, the Basque dishes at the Orio “Euskal Taberna” (20) at the corner of Carrer de Ferran and Passatge del Credit are on offer from 10am to midnight daily; you can choose from cockles, clams and cheeses, or simply €5 pastries (00 34 90 252 0522). If you prefer to lock in to a fixed-price repast, then the White Bar (21) on the corner of Carrer Princesa and Carrer Comerç (00 34 93 295 4652) offers a good solution 7.30-11am daily: an €8.50 buffet breakfast.

Take a ride
The dominant feature of the Barceloneta district is the gaunt skeleton of the Sant Sebastià tower (22), at the eastern end of the Teleférico – an astonishing early 20th-century piece of transport infrastructure that swoops across the harbour, providing the 18 or 19 passengers with superb views as it sweeps via the presently inactive Torre Jaume I (23) to the hillside at Montjuïc (24). The €9 one-way trip (€12.50 return) is very popular, and waiting times can be long.

A walk in the park
Montjuïc (24), the lungs of Barcelona, is worth exploring. Then take the funicular from the upper station down to Paral.lel on Line 3 of the Metro, and hop on the train to Lesseps, about 10 minutes’ walk from Parc Güell (25). Entering the park feels like walking into a fairy tale. The park also contains a house once inhabited by Gaudí, which is now a museum that can be visited for €5 (Casa Museu Gaudi, 00 34 93 219 3811), open 10am-8pm daily.

Cultural afternoon
When Gaudí wasn’t designing temples and gardens, he was busy creating wonderful apartment blocks on Passeig de Gràcia. Most spectacular is Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera (26), “the stone quarry”, on the corner of Provença (00 34 93 484 5995, 10am-8pm daily, €10). Just south, another melting Gaudí masterpiece that mocks the area’s geometric neatness is Casa Batlló (26), at number 43 (00 93 216 0306; casabatllo.com; 9am-8pm daily, €16.50).

The icing on the cake
Alternatively, look down at Casa Batlló while you sip a cocktail at the 10th-floor open-air bar of the Hotel Majestic (28) at Passeig de Gràcia 68 (00 34 93 487 3939; majestichotelgroup. com). The skyline is serrated by the spectacular structures of a city where the pace of life is matched by the pace of change.

Link to “The Independent” article: http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/48-hours-in/48-hours-in-barcelona-1800398.html

Five Perfect Days in Tuscany, Italy

by Hanya Yanagihara

There are some places you can’t help but fall in love with at first sight and return to year after year. We’ve chosen some of the world’s most beloved (and touristed) destinations and, with the help of the best travel specialists in the business, have ferreted out their secrets, their treasures, their unmissable experiences. The result is a series of step-by-step trips that will surprise and delight those who’ve never been to the destination before … or who have been a dozen times. Each of our highly detailed itineraries has been vetted and perfected by a Conde Nast Traveler editor, and each can be bought as is with just one phone call. Let the romance begin.

The Challenge
Trying to describe all the pleasures and prides of Tuscany—that fecund, almost ridiculously picturesque region of central Italy—would take more pages than a single issue of this magazine, and even then, we’d just scratch the surface. So visiting the area, whose capital is Florence and which contains a dazzling number of the world’s iconic masterworks, as well as some of its most luscious wines and scrumptious foods, presents two unconquerable problems. The first is a surfeit of affection. Everyone loves Tuscany, so you will never be alone. But take heart: Do you think Goethe, Twain, and Stendhal (enthusiasts all) had those narrow streets to themselves? Going to Italy means joining a centuries-long roster of tourists. The second difficulty is one of time and endurance there is no way to see all of the region s sights, no way to linger over every masterpiece, no way to stroll every beautifully preserved hilltop town. Attempting to do so would take several lifetimes, and most of us have only a week or so.

The Solution
There are many ways to discover Tuscany, of course, but the most efficient, intimate, and unexpected is to use a travel specialist such as Maria Teresa Berdondini of Tuscany by Tuscans. She was skilled at negotiating the realities of visiting Italy and at arranging special experiences that are the stuff of every tourist s fantasy. Together, we worked out an itinerary that shows off an essential Tuscany, one that reveals the best of the region’s tastes, smells, and sights and will appeal to both the first- and fifteenth-time visitor. And while the latter may cry foul over what’s not in the trip (no extended tour of the Duomo? No visit to the area’s Etruscan ruins?), they’ll also make discoveries about an area that, even after a thousand years and countless visitors, still has its secrets.

Sadly, Maria Teresa Berdondini died shortly after I finished writing this piece. She was a wonderful resource and generous travel guide, and I know that the many people she helped to see the best of her beloved Italy felt the same sorrow I did upon learning of her death. I hope that Berdondini would feel some comfort in knowing that another of our top travel specialists, Maria Gabriella Landers of Concierge in Umbria, is carrying on her legacy and will handle all bookings that result from this trip—one Maria’s gift to the world, fulfilled by another Maria. For the Italians, who find poetry in the everyday, it seems an appropriate tribute.

Rest of the Story: http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/502973

Kayaking around Crete

Crete
Paddlers arrive at their final kayak destination, the small harbor of Loutro. (Nature Maniacs)

Paddling around Greece’s largest island rewards aching arms and torso with bath-water warm seas, pristine beaches and a lesson in the region’s ancient roots.

By Heidi Fuller-Love Special to the Los Angeles Times

July 4, 2010

Reporting from Palaiochora, Crete ——

I’m standing on a slice of paradise in Crete. The sun is burning down out of a blue sky, the sandy beach beneath my feet is stretching to crystal-clear sea, but terror is numbing my senses. Kayak instructor Russ is explaining that we’re going to capsize our lightweight Rainbow Lasers, then unsnap the spray skirt holding us in, and eject from the submerged cockpit in a forward rolling somersault.

“I didn’t join this trip to become James Bond,” says Jim, who’s busy squeezing what he calls his “good-living gut” into a canary yellow lifejacket.

“Doing this is the major fear of most novices,” Russ says. “Get it over with and you can settle down and enjoy the trip.”

He’s right. Popping out of the bath-warm sea beside my turned-turtle kayak a few minutes later, I wonder what all the fuss was about. The sky is blue again, the sea looks gorgeous, and I’m raring to spend the next seven days kayaking along the rocky southwest coastline of the Mediterranean’s’ fifth-largest island.

Dominated by its Venetian fortress starkly outlined above a glitter of tomato-producing greenhouses, our starting point, the popular resort of Palaiochora, recedes in an early mist the following morning as we paddle out in single file behind Russ. All four of us are neophyte kayakers, but as the slowest paddler I’m soon promoted to leader of the pack.

“That way, no one gets left behind, and since no one can get ahead, it gets rid of any competitive behavior,” Russ says.

Although I hit the gym twice a week, I’m no Jean-Claude van Damme. Luckily, sea kayaking is a sport where a lithe torso counts more than muscles-from-Brussels. Even so, strokes are awkward at first, and I’m soaked to the skin, baked in the burning spring sun, then soaked again. By the time we beach that evening at Kedrodasos, a deserted cove, I ache all over and I’m wondering whether I’ll make it to the end of the week.

The light from a fiery grid of stars helps us pitch our tents on a shell-strewn beach and cook our first castaways’ dinner: canned tuna mixed with pasta boiled in water from one of the kayak’s 10-liter emergency bladders. Tongues loosened by raki, the local firewater made with grape skins left over from winemaking, we learn that Laure has split with her partner and seeks a new challenge, Jim wants an antidote to city life and Chris is an adrenalin junkie getting his fix. Russ, our fiftysomething instructor from Colorado, confides that he started teaching kayak to escape the ski slopes.

“After years of teaching skiing my feet were a mess — I don’t have that problem with kayaking,” he says in jest.

That night I drowse uneasily, fazed by the lack of orange street lights and rattled by strips of eucalyptus bark dragging ghostly toenails along the beach. The next morning I’m awakened by someone throwing sand at the tent. Staggering out to pick a fight, I come face to face with my adversary: the wind.

Casting an expert glance at the waves capped with white, Russ tells us to pull on our waterproof anoraks.

“Sounds ominous,” Laure says nervously.

A few strokes out from the island’s lee, we’re battling huge swells and wind gusts, called microbursts, that stop us dead in our tracks or threaten to capsize us.

“Keep together; don’t use your paddle like a coffee spoon; keep your body centered and bend from the waist; think of your kayak like a mermaid’s tail. Let it become an extension of your body,” Russ cajoles over the whack of the water.

Barely more than 3 feet high, these waves seem huge from the cockpit of my fragile craft. I find myself empathizing with the Minoans, whose civilization, which flourished along this coastline from 2800 BC onward, was all but wiped out in 1450 BC by a giant wave produced by the eruption of Santorini’s volcanic archipelago to the north.

My father, a keen sailor, says the Med is one of the world’s most changeable seas. As if to prove it, a couple of hours later the wind has changed, and we’re racing along in a pleasant rocking-horse swell. We’re on our own now, cut off from the world by the snow-capped Lefka Ori mountains. No roads descend to this strip of coastline, where rebels have taken refuge during successive Cretan uprisings and the glittering coves and sandy beaches are deserted. “Very few strangers visit this area; this is still one of the quietest and most remote areas of Crete,” Russ tells us.

Cowed by these commanding crags, we paddle in silence, serenaded by the slap of water and the wild cry of gulls, to Lissos.

At its peak this ancient Dorian city had 30,000 inhabitants and minted its own coins stamped with the image of Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister. Sacked by savage Saracen Arabs sometime in the 9th century, this isolated site, which can be reached only by foot or sea, was abandoned until 1957 when it was discovered by a shepherd seeking water for his flock.

As a cool spring wind herds cloud-sheep over the brooding mountains, we wander among sundered arches and drunken columns, admiring delicate mosaics and gathering fragrant fistfuls of wild thyme for the evening’s barbecue.

By Day 4, my palms are covered with tiny, weeping blisters, but I’m getting used to metering my day with paddle strokes. Despite bruised arms, aching thighs and sore buttocks, I’ve become attuned to the metronomic rhythm of early launch, scenic paddle, midmorning pause for a pick-me-up of bitter black coffee, culminating with stops to visit booming sea caves and atmospheric ancient sites.

To give our wounds a chance to heal, on Day 5 we squeeze into a minivan and climb 4,100 feet to Omalos, a hamlet guarding the Samaria gorge.

Russ tells us that in summer the crowds are so dense in this canyon, said to be one of Europe’s longest, that hikers are forced to follow in one another’s footsteps. Now, on a chilly morning in early May, tourists are thin on the ground, and we have time to gawk at the Griffon vultures blotting out the sun with their huge wings as they circle over our heads, or admire the wild spring flowers coloring the rugged landscape beneath our feet.

About halfway through the walk, we come to the village of Samaria, abandoned in 1962 when the gorge was classified as a national park. After picnicking in the shade of this ghost town’s Byzantine church, we skitter down, through rock falls and swollen streams, to the black-sand beach of Agia Roumeli, where we laze till evening, bathing our bruised and aching bodies in the balmy sea.

Loutro is the final destination of our weeklong trip. Paddling toward this fishing hamlet, a net’s throw from Hora Sfakion, where celebrated Cretan revolutionary Daskalogiannis (Giannis the teacher) was born, we procrastinate. Spinning out the moment before our kayak odyssey will come to an end, we stop at Marmara beach, a popular nudist spot at the end of the Aradena Gorge, and linger over thimbles of raki and plates loaded with dakos rusks soaked in olive oil and sprinkled with crushed tomato, in the resort’s only tavern.

An hour later we make our final sprint, racing one another to be first to enter Loutro’s pristine port, framed by brilliant white houses buried in braids of scarlet bougainvillea.

Handing back my paddle, I feel as though I’m losing a vital body part. Changing gears in my rental car seems bizarre compared to the fluid movements required to propel a kayak. Sweet as an epiphany, a Hans Christian Andersen tale pops into my head. I think I’m beginning to understand what the Little Mermaid felt when she shed her tail.
travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

Visit Bordeaux to see where the wines come from

By ERIC RISBERG
Associated Press Writer Eric Risberg, Associated Press WriterTue Jun 22, 12:54 pm ET


BARSAC, France – There’s something noble about Bordeaux wines, and it’s not just the proud heritage of their 100-year-old vines, their prominent place in viticulture history, or their world-renowned quality.


It’s also the “noble rot” responsible for creating some of the region’s sweeter wines, which are being paired more frequently with main courses alongside their better-known Bordeaux counterparts.


Some people use the term Bordeaux generically, the way others might ask for a Cabernet, but Bordeaux wines actually come in several distinct varieties, such as sweet white wines and dry white wines, in addition to several different types of red wine. The Bordeaux region has multiple microclimates, fueled by rivers that wrap around the area in the southwest of France. And from these microclimates and variations in terroir (the vineyard soil and other growing conditions), winemakers are coaxing wines that are smooth and lush, rich and complex, with one eye on past traditions and one on the future.


The diversity of Bordeaux wines can be explored in person, in places like Saint-Emilion, about an hour’s drive from the city of Bordeaux. One of the main red wine areas of Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion’s wineries employ similar growing, harvesting and winemaking techniques, though its silky red wines are a stark contrast to those of its nearby neighbors.

Getting to Bordeaux is an easy one-hour flight from Paris, or a little over three hours on a high-speed (TGV) train. Arriving at the Bordeaux airport, travelers immediately will recognize the importance of wine to the region: Giant faux wine bottles sit atop the baggage claim carousels, and a vineyard grows right outside the terminal doors.

Unlike visits to wine regions in the U.S., though, most visits to vineyards and wineries should be arranged in advance, and appointments generally are required, as most wineries do not have public visiting hours for “drop-ins” or tasting. To get to the heart of the wine-growing region, it’s best to rent a car, but since many wineries are hard to find on the rural, windy roads, be sure to have a set of good directions (a GPS in the car also is advised).


It’s possible to make the city of Bordeaux a base for a visit, as it has several larger hotels. From there, many of the top wine destinations will be an hour or 90 minutes by car. Most of the smaller, picturesque towns have a handful of small hotels and B&Bs. Book lodging ahead of time, especially during the peak summer months. Late spring, summer and fall are the best months to visit; winters can be cold. Long summer days also offer more daylight during which to take in the picturesque vineyards and towns.


The town of Saint-Emilion, named for an eighth-century Benedictine monk, is nestled high on a hill, with nearly 200 acres of catacombs beneath the surface. They are still accessible in some parts of town, including at the winery Chateau Canon, where centuries-old candlemarks from workers excavating the limestone are still visible on the walls and low ceilings.


In spite of their cellar-like appearance, however, the catacombs are not generally used for storing wine because of high humidity. At Chateau Canon, some “old-school” winemaking practices are employed, such as the use of wood fermentation tanks, but they are coupled with modern technology and methods.


The Chateau Coutet vineyard
, one of the oldest Sauternes producers in the Sauternes-Barsac region, is best known for its eponymous Premier Cru (first growth wine), as well as its prestigious Cuvee Madame. The winery’s location between the Garonne and Ciron rivers provides the perfect blend of moist and dry climate conditions that produce a grape fungus called botrytis, which causes the “noble rot” necessary to produce the sweet wines.


Lately, Chateau Coutet (which Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the best of Barsac Sauternes back in the late 1700s) and other lush, amber wines are re-emerging not just for an aperitif or after-dinner drink, but also as wine that can be paired with main courses such as spicy curries, lobster and duck. However, this newfound popularity doesn’t mean that the old-school way of doing things has been abandoned in southern Bordeaux: Many wineries painstakingly harvest grapes by hand, hectare by hectare, keeping each plot separate not only through the picking, but through maceration, fermentation and barreling. In fact, when wines are blended, it usually is the first “meeting” of the various plots within a vineyard.

In the Margaux region of Bordeaux, the Chateau du Tertre vineyard has taken a decidedly modern turn. Its minimalist decor inside gives it a clean, 21st-century feel, and its fermentation area is punctuated by an intriguing, egg-shaped concrete vat. Its 35-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc vines, along with some Petit Verdot, produce wines are deep yet sharp.

The average age of the vines at Chateau Haut-Bailly in the Pessac-Leognan region is also 35 years, but its vineyard includes four hectares of vines that are more than 100 years old. Old meets new outside of the vineyards, too, where fossilized rock marks the outside of the winery and modern sculptures grace the winery entrance.


Similar modern sculptures also can be seen at nearby Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, where a giant hare watches over Cabernet Franc vines. But whether one is seeking art or nature, modern or traditional, sweet wine or deep reds, the region of Bordeaux offers diverse and widespread appeal.


“Bordeaux is … a beautiful region, and city with a full and rich history. Everywhere you look, you have a reminder that wine is deeply ingrained in the local culture,” said Aline Baly, third generation owner of Chateau Coutet. “In the city, one discovers numerous cavistes, wine bars and restaurants with fabulous Bordeaux wine lists. But adventuring down the cobblestones streets, through the architecture, museums and its beautiful parks, reminds us that wine is only one thread in Bordeaux’s rich tapestry.”

___
If You Go…
BORDEAUX: http://www.bordeaux-tourisme.com offers information on accommodations, tours and restaurants. From Paris, Bordeaux is a one-hour flight from Paris, or three hours on the high-speed train (TGV). Visits to vineyards and wineries should be arranged in advance. For information on Bordeaux’s World Heritage sites and historic monuments, visit http://bit.ly/bJvlfG.

Link to Article: http://old.news.yahoo.com/s/ap_travel/20100622/ap_tr_ge/eu_travel_trip_bordeaux

Granada, Spain: Going underground beneath the Alhambra – Telegraph

Annie Bennett explores a secret world of tunnels and dungeons beneath the Spanish city’s Alhambra palace.

Grenada, Spain: Going underground beneath the Alhambra

The Alhambra at dusk Photo: CORBIS
Grenada, Spain: Going underground beneath the Alhambra

Image 1 of 2
There is a long tunnel under the Alhambra, which comes out at the bottom of the hill, and a secret door in the Ambassador’s Hall
 

By Annie Bennett
10:52AM BST 29 Mar 2010
Granada at dusk, when the Alhambra is bathed in hues of pink and gold, is one of the most breathtaking sights in the world. With a small group of other visitors, I walked up the steep hill towards the great Moorish palace. We were on a walking tour, but not one that points out the usual sights. Leading our group was Lia Guerrero, who was no ordinary guide either. An artist and writer, she is part of Pura Vida, an association of creative types who teach and take classes at the Casa de Porras cultural centre in Granada’s Albaicín, the old Moorish quarter on the hill opposite the Alhambra.
Pura Vida was founded by the journalist and writer, César Requesens, who is passionate about the hidden history of his city. “Granada is a city of secrets,” he says. “The Granadiños like to keep things close to their chests, but everyone knows that there are secret passages linking some of the most famous buildings.”
Lia suddenly stopped and pointed at the trees covering the hillside below the Alhambra. “There is a big private house in there. It is a carmen, the typical Granada style, with an inner garden, which belongs to an elderly aristocratic lady from Seville. And there’s a long tunnel under the Alhambra, which comes out at the bottom of the hill. There’s a secret door in the Ambassador’s Hall. Remember that the Alhambra was a fortress as well as a palace. The tunnels meant they could get food in when it was under siege, and people could get in and out without being seen by their enemies.”
We asked Lia if she had ever been down there. “No, very few people have, though there are rumours that it might be opened up to the public soon.”

I remembered a story I had read in a magazine years ago, about how Walter Chrysler had wanted to build a secret replica of the Chrysler Building, back in the Twenties, before embarking on the real thing. The article said he had a lover from Granada, who was very well connected and had arranged for the structure to be built in a huge cave under the Alhambra. Sounds preposterous? Maybe, but Granada casts a hypnotic spell, and sometimes even the most outlandish ideas seem perfectly reasonable as you wander around the city.

We veered away from the Alhambra and onto the neighbouring hill, the Colina del Mauror, where the cellars of some of the highest houses apparently conceal a few surprises. Lia showed us a large house, mostly hidden behind a high wall. Although now dilapidated, it was clearly once very grand. “That is the Carmen de los Catalanes, which is now part of the Alhambra estate and is being restored. There are tunnels underneath it, and pits in the gardens that were used to store grain, and may also have been used to keep prisoners in,” Lia says.

“There are tunnels and dungeons everywhere underfoot here,” César says. “They were dug out by the Moors or by Christian prisoners, no one is really sure. After the Moors left in 1492, they were used by the new Christian residents, and that went on for centuries, maybe until relatively recently, as the passages linked the various residences and enabled the great and the good to lead secret lives.”

We were heading for the Fundación Rodríguez-Acosta, a stylish white carmen built into the side of the hill by the artist José Maria Rodríguez-Acosta at the beginning of the 20th century. Now it is a cultural centre and exhibition venue, but we were not there to admire the paintings; the building contains a remarkable secret, and we were about to discover it.
We walked through an inner patio with a tinkling marble fountain, then out into the gardens, arranged on different levels on the hillside. The city sprawled below us in the fading light, while swallows flew in undulating formations. We went down to an elegant courtyard with a rectangular pool presided over by a figure of Venus. A smiling man appeared with a large key, opened an iron gate, and beckoned us into the shadowy space beyond. We entered a passage framed by columns and horseshoe arches. By torchlight, we gingerly made our way down a rough flight of steps into an eerie underground world.

We must have descended 60 or 70 feet before coming to a circular, grotto-like room, incongruously decorated with urns and sculptures. “The artist found the tunnels when the house was being built and set about restoring them to make them more accessible,” Lia says. “He built the steps, and arches and columns to support the walls and ceilings, and put in friezes and all these other decorative bits and pieces.”

Narrow passageways led off the tunnel, some blocked up, some with a narrow slit at the end, giving a tantalising glimpse of the gardens or the Granada sky. The temperature was perfect, neither hot nor cold.

“It is likely that originally there were ramps, as given the height of the tunnels, people probably went down on horses, mules or donkeys. If they had been walking, the ceilings would be lower,” Lia says. “The tunnels link with the houses nearby and lead down into the Realejo neighbourhood on the hill below. This was the Jewish area, and we think they used the tunnels for rituals and meetings,” César added. It all sounded very mysterious. “The thing is, there is hardly any documentation about all these underground passages; they don’t even figure on most official records, and aren’t mentioned in most history books,” he says.
Some time later, we climbed back up the uneven steps and emerged in the garden, where the cypresses had turned from dark green to velvety black and the magical city of Granada glittered below us in the light of a full moon.

Essentials
Staying there
Room Mate Leo (0034 958 535579; www.room-matehotels.com), a restored town house in the centre of Granada with contemporary design; doubles from £63 (€70).

Further information
The Granada Underground Passages and Dungeons route is one of several tours run by the Pura Vida Association (201939;www.granadaunderground2.blogspot.com) and costs £27 (€30). Information also available at the Pura Vida booth in Plaza Trinidad in Granada, or from the Granada Tourist Board (536973; granadatur.com)

Our Readers’ 15 Favorite Places in Ireland

Smarter Travel
by
Kate Hamman, SmarterTravel Staff – March 17, 2010

Ireland - Doolin: Doonagore Castle
(Photo: iStockphoto/Kelvin Jay Wakefield)
We gathered comments from Facebook, twitter, and our own Ireland picks to create a new photo gallery showcasing your favorite places on the Emerald Isle. From Doolin to Dublin, and many surprising destinations in between, here are your top picks.

Doolin

Overlooking the Atlantic Coast in County Clare, Doolin is a small seaside village known for its lively music and close proximity to the Cliffs of Moher. The town may seem a bit sleepy during the day, but the nights are filled with traditional Irish songs.

Reader Marcia Smith Preusser says Doolin “has the best bars, and is the traditional Irish music center in country, they say. It is great and just two miles from Cliffs of Mohr.”

Ireland-Aran Islands: Farmhouse
(Photo: iStockphoto/mikeuk)

Aran Islands

Nestled at the mouth of Galway Bay, the Aran Islands offer a glimpse into the past by preserving many of Ireland’s cultural and heritage traditions. Visitors may even overhear Gaelic being spoken, as the native-born islanders still speak it. The islands are well known for their monuments, including Dun Aonghasa Fort, a World Heritage site located on the island of Inis Mor.
Among Ireland’s many historic sites, reader Otarre felt “it was the Aran Isles that captured my heart. I love the peacefulness I found there, the music, the Gaelic spoken in the church services, the craftsmanship, and the hospitality of the people.”

Ireland - Killarney: Cottage with Horse
(Photo: iStockphoto/Joan Champ)

Killarney

Considered the starting point for the Ring of Kerry scenic drive, Killarney makes an excellent home base, yet is also an attraction all its own. Surrounded by natural beauty—including the Killarney National Park and the enchanted lakes—the town offers many different ways to explore the area, including by pony ride, boat tour, or a jaunting car (horse-drawn carriage) trip.
Reader allaboard loved Killarney’s location, saying it’s “very centralized in the southwest part of Ireland, and convenient to so many wonderful sites. We stayed at the Loch Lien Country House, which is like a little piece of heaven with its awesome tranquil views, and beautiful, clean, and friendly accommodations.”

Ireland: Doneagl National Park
(Photo: iStockphoto/RafalStachura)

County Donegal

Located on the northwest coast, County Donegal provides a varied landscape sure to please any taste, including a national park, sandy beaches, towering mountains, landscaped golf courses, castles, and historic ruins. The area is an explorer’s dream, and offers visitors plenty of ways to enjoy the journey, and not just the destination.
Reader hildynyc loves County Donegal’s “beautiful coast, mountains, and countryside. And the best musicians in Ireland! It’s free of the hordes of tourists and tour buses. You’ll find wonderfully welcoming and friendly people in County Donegal.”

Ireland - Galway Bay: Dunguair Castle at Sunset
(Photo: iStockphoto/Hon Lau)

Galway Bay

Nestled between County Galway and the Burren in County Clare, Galway Bay encompasses about 31 miles of land, offering views of the Aran Islands. The Bay is known for its sailing—especially its traditional sailing craft known as the Hooker—cruises, deep-sea fishing, and swimming. Reader ginnyg44 found the area particularly delightful, noting that “it was simple and beautiful. The people were lovely.”
Even though reader PatrickH. “loved all of the parts of Ireland I was able to visit,” he was particularly impressed by Galway Bay, saying, “to be able to watch the sun go down on Galway Bay was a great treat. Loved the Connemara area. More than 40 shades of green and I loved them all.”

Ireland - Dublin: Ha'Penny Bridge at Night
(Photo: iStockphoto/thierry Maffeis)

Dublin

Dublin—with its historic castles, plethora of museums, a world-famous brewery, and a lively bar scene—has something for everyone. The city is a friendly and welcoming host, inviting visitors to learn about its history, listen to its music, and experience its culture.
Reader lawthomas believes Dublin is worth visiting, saying, “there is so much to do and see, including easy day trips by car. The city is fun and the prices at the luxury hotels are a bargain. Many restaurants have reduced prices.”

Ireland - Kinsale
(Photo: iStockphoto/Marc C. Johnson)

Kinsale

With cultural influences including French, Spanish, and English, Kinsale was a port of consequence for more than 300 years, and still maintains a great deal of its Victorian and Georgian architecture. The city was also the site of a great battle in 1601, which many consider a major turning point in Irish history. Today, Kinsale welcomes visitors with great food, historic sites, and traditional pubs.
Reader lesleya1 spent 10 days in Ireland with her husband, and claims “the residents of Kinsale are warm and friendly, and the food an amazing offering of fresh seafood and local delicacies. It’s location within an easy drive to many other tourist locations makes Kinsale the ideal spot to spend several nights as you travel the Irish countryside.”
Ireland - Wicklow: Celtic Cross
(Photo: iStockphoto/Ciaran Carty)

Wicklow National Park

The Wicklow Mountains National Park is unique, with remnants of the past scattered everywhere. Visitors may stumble upon tombs, cairns, rock art, standing stones, and bullaun stones surrounded by a lush natural setting. One of the most important monastic sites in Ireland, Glendalough, can also be found within the park.
Reader Avivitohio was particularly enchanted by the area, saying the “view felt like walking into Ireland’s fairie wilds, prehistoric times, and ancient Celtic and Viking history. The views on the drive there from Dublin were equally enchanting; hills and cliffs, deep beer colored Loch Tay, peat cutting sites, vines and gorse bushes and isolated farms.”

Ireland: Errigal Mountain
(Photo: iStockphoto/Alasdair Thomson)

Mount Errigal

County Donegal is known for its dramatic peaks, and Mount Errigal stands tallest—a towering 2,466 feet—among them. Made from metamorphic rock, the mountain is an outdoor enthusiast’s playground, and many visitors come to hike, picnic, or explore the area.
“Whether you hike to the top or look at it from a distance, [Mount] Errigal evokes ancient Ireland, and is a living part of today’s landscape as well,” said reader kathleen2.

Ireland: Newgrange Tomb
(Photo: iStockphoto/Philippa Banks)

Newgrange

Built around 3200 B.C., Newgrange’s Megalithic Passage Tomb covers an area of more than one acre and is estimated to have taken a crew of 300 people 20 years to complete. The tomb was once thought to be the home of Oenghus, the god of love, in Irish mythology, and was rediscovered in 1699. As a designated World Heritage Site, the tomb is quite popular among tourists, especially during the Winter Solstice, when the chamber is illuminated with the rising sun.
During a visit to Newgrange, reader winkpc20 was “reminded … of the Mayan ruins in Central America.”

Reader ben657681 thinks the tomb is a “must-see,” and that “the passage tomb is truly awe inspiring when you consider that it was built before the pyramids.”

Belfast: City Hall
(Photo: iStockphoto/Robert Mayne)

Belfast

Long a bustling seaport and safe haven for weary travelers, Belfast has nevertheless seen its fair share of troubles. The city, however, is still a place where a tired tourist will always be welcome. These days, Belfast combines the historic with the hip and offers a dynamic art scene and nightlife.
Reader gondaluer ranks Belfast as a favorite, and swears that “the mural/black cab tour will change your perspective on the ‘struggles,’ and maybe even change your perspective on life.”

Ireland - Sligo
(Photo: iStockphoto/Michael Walsh)

Sligo

Once a major port, Sligo, meaning “Shelley River” in Gaelic, is now the second largest city in the west of Ireland, and continues to grow. Surrounded by rugged mountains and serene ocean views, the area’s natural beauty was immortalized in poetry and stories by William Butler Yeats, who spent school holidays here with his grandmother.

Reader imzaidi is a fan of Sligo and its literary roots, saying “I’ll never forget bicycling through the area and going to ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ made famous by his poem, and seeing where he is buried—a truly amazing trip that still nourishes my heart and soul.”

Ireland - Dingle: Dunquin
(Photo: iStockphoto/Scott Atherton)

Dingle Peninsula

With a dramatic mountainside plunging into a rugged and richly green coastline, as well as tiny, winding roads passing breathtaking ocean views, stone ruins, and colorful wildflowers, the Dingle Peninsula has won the hearts of many, including reader teddi who continues to return for the “the beauty and the people.”

Reader radmoo visited the peninsula last summer, and “loved waking in the morning, looking out our window and seeing cows to the left and sheep to the right,” and said the people were “the friendliest we have ever encountered in our travels.”

Ireland - Ring of Kerry: Sheep
(Photo: iStockphoto/Christian Campbell)

Ring of Kerry

With historic sites, monuments, ancient monasteries, waterfalls, and beaches, the Ring of Kerry is far more than just a 110-mile drive along the Iveragh Peninsula. And, outdoor enthusiasts will rejoice in the many activities available, including hiking, cycling, golfing, fishing, and horseback riding.
Reader Bon explored the area with family, and was captivated: “To say it was breathtaking is an understatement. Majestic, diverse, magnificent, twisty, windy, scary, and exhilarating just starts to sum it up.”

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