Friday, November 17, 2017

The Best Little Hotel in Córdoba

There are a few more memories of Granada I should mention before moving on - the tagine we ate in a little Moroccan restaurant hidden in the alleys of the Albaicín district, the famous Cassata wedge-of-ice-cream from the Los Italianos Heladería, walking up the hills at night and stumbling on wide plazas overlooking the Alhambra.  Honestly though, mostly I think about the tagine - it was maybe in my top five best foods I've ever had in my life.  And it was our final send-off meal before we took a mid-morning train the next day to Córdoba, our last stop in Andalusia.

Typically, Paul and I alternate years for our anniversaries.  Spain was "my year" so I had made a special effort in my planning to make sure our one night in Córdoba would be super romantic.  I decided to go all in and found us the nicest hotel close to the Mezquita - the Balcón de Córdoba - and because it was the nicest hotel close to the Mezquita, I reserved the very tiniest room.  For extra fancy to offset the tiny, I added a couple of their little "extras" (mostly because I'd never done that kind of thing before).  So I ordered some rose petals (romaaaaaantico) and a piece of cake (...pregnant...) to be there when we arrived.

Feeling a little silly about it all, I wrote a long note in the comments box trying to explain how it was our anniversary and the last one we were having before I was having a baby and I was really pregnant (so...cake) and it's okay if you don't have rose petals and we'll be there around 3pm and is there a chance this room possibly has a bathtub instead of just a shower and I'm only asking because in Denmark there are no bathtubs and we miss taking nice baths and rambling rambling self-conscious ramble.  I hit Send and didn't think much about it after that.

Fast forward to our train arriving in Córdoba.

We picked up our trusty orange backpacks and set off down the greenway for our thirty minute walk into the old city, reading through our Rick Steve's guide to Spain and the Córdoba city tour along the way.  With all the hype I'd put around Granada, I hadn't realized how interesting Córdoba was going to be!  It was where we first starting reading about the emperor Hadrian and how he had been born very nearby - it's no coincidence that our lovely and fascinating short time in Córdoba led to us later name our little traveling fetus Hadrian three months later.

The old city walls were such a surprise and particularly impressive - dating back to 200 B.C. - and were the second oldest structure we saw in all our Euro travels!  

Once we made it into the historic city, we could see so many layers of history and religion - wandering through Jewish, Arabic, Christian, and Roman streets and eras and buildings and art just like it was the most normal thing in the world.

But all of that detail is for another post.  The real story here is about the Balcón de Córdoba of course!

We found the entrance just around the corner from the Mezquita complex - a modern glass door that looked hewn out of a stone wall.  Three steps in and we were in an open courtyard with a beautiful orange tree shading a garden and fountain.  Three more steps in and we were practically run-over by the most kind and polite person I've ever encountered at any moment in my life for any service or transaction or anything. 

The first words out of his mouth, in perfect English, were "We've been waiting for youuuuuuu!"  And in seconds Paul and I, looking a little silly with our utilitarian neon-orange backpacks and regular-person clothes in such a fancy place, were simply wrapped up in ultra-hospitality.  Before I knew it, I was sitting in a cushy chair at his check-in desk, holding a goblet of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and our backpacks had been whisked away. 

He (I wish I remembered his name!  I'm going to call him Julio.)...Julio made all the usually boring parts of checking in fly by in a second and then stood up with a huge smile and said, "We've all been so excited for your surprise!"  (I hope it's expensive...surprise...I thought.)  As we walked up the stairs, Julio talked about the history of the building, the Roman artifacts just casually sitting in corners.  Since I always do my research, I knew the names of the little rooms, but we kept passing one and then another.  Julio, being Julio, could probably see that I was getting confused/nervous, and he gave us a huge grin and told us how the staff had read my note about me being pregnant and it being our anniversary and all, and they had decided to upgrade us to their nicest room as a congratulations present!

And guys, it was a really....reaaaally nice room.  It was basically the penthouse.  And they had even remembered the rose petals and cake.

They had given us the room that was THE Balcón of the Balcón de Córdoba - with even an outdoor bed overlooking the mosque and the old city below.  In the early morning, before dawn, I woke up from our indoor bed, wrapped a thin blanket around me, and went out to look up at the stars.  Before I knew it, I'd fallen asleep and woke up to the sound of a beautiful call to prayer as the sun was just beginning to rise.  

We ate our breakfast in the courtyard garden and then came back up to our suite for the rest of the morning, maxing out our pre-check-out time on our two balconies.

And, of course, taking a couple relaxing jacuzzi baths.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Ridiculously Long Post about the Alhambra with a Million Pictures

Let's talk about the Alhambra!

Boringly described, it's a palace and fortress complex on the top of a hill/small-mountain in the middle of Granada, Spain.

More interestingly, the famous palace is nearly 700 years old, was the royal court of the Sultans of Andalucia, then, after the reconquista, became the royal court for the queens and kings of Spain.  Columbus got his official "okay, we'll give you money to go 'find India'" from this palace.  Queen Catharine (later the divorced wife of Henry VIII) grew up there.  It gradually got forgotten over centuries and in Napoleon's time was just a place for squatters, but then word started to get around that there was an amazing palace hidden on the hill in Granada.  Washington Irving actually went and lived in it for a while, writing Tales of the Alhambra.  It basically became the hipster-cool place to go in the 19th century and now it's the most visited place in Spain. 

Here's the thing about the Alhambra - when you're there, your eyes are so overwhelmed by all the detail that your brain can't actually handle it.  You see it, but after about 4.2 seconds, you stop being able to look at everything.  The plaster work is ridiculously gorgeous and detailed.  It's only in looking at these pictures later that I can start to see it again.  

Plus, imagine that quite a lot of this plaster work was also painted in blues, yellows, and reds so it would have been even more overwhelming.

But even with so much overwhelming detail, the most impressive thing is that nothing felt out of balance - that even with every inch covered in designs, it still managed to look clean and orderly.

The generally-agreed-upon climax of the Alhambra is the Court of the Lions.  It's a place where it's impossible to notice everything beautiful - but we at least tried to take pictures!  Even though we had such a specific window of time we were allowed to be there, we took every minute to soak it in.  It was, after all, one of my life bucket-list places-to-see.

Seriously, how did they design and do this??

I mean, COME ON!

There are other parts of the Alhambra complex we could talk about - like the Palace of Charles V (yawn), the Citadel (cool in a castley-forty kind of way?), the Generalife Gardens (I always love me some gardens!)...but the point of it all was always the Alhambra.  This Nazarid jewel, as the experts say, uniquely untouched by the popular Byzantine styles of its era - simply the greatest example of beauty that came out of the height of Moorish culture.  It was, to me, the highlight of the trip and in my Top 5 Places from our European travels - which is saying quite a lot.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Field Notes: Doing our Part for the Monarchs

On my first birthday after arriving back in the states, I gifted myself the beginnings of a Butterfly Garden.  After spending weeks researching host plants, we rented a roto-tiller, raided a local plant nursery, hacked up the grass in the sunniest corner of the yard, and got it going.

(I could write a lot about the gardening ups and downs of this project, mostly along the lines of, "Oh right!  Everywhere in the world isn't western Oregon, where the dirt grows everything awesomely with no effort and the weather doesn't try to literally steam-cook your plants.")

Of course, the star of the host-plant show was supposed to be Aesclepias tuberosa, or butterfly weed aka a-particularly-great-type-of-milkweed.  And as everyone (who...knows much about butterflies) knows, milkweed is the required plant for Monarch eggs and caterpillars.  No other substitute.

We couldn't find it anywhere our first growing season here, but diligent pestering of multiple nurseries got us a shipment for 2017.  We planted it in March and it did great!  We started noticing a monarch egg here and there.  Until...

The APHID and WHITE FLY APOCALYPSE!  Basically, I had never dealt with them before and didn't realize that a couple cute little yellow bugs were actually Aphis nerii, or invasive Oleander aphids, and they went from five to five hundred thousand (seemed) in a matter of weeks, sucking our four milkweeds dry and attracting parasitic wasps which took evil pleasure in picking off tiny, newly hatched monarch caterpillars as snacks after leisurely laying their eggs inside aphid larvae (which then would hatch, eat that larvae from the inside, and then leave "aphid mummies" behind after they emerged from their victims).  They are a horror movie incarnate.

As you can see, we tried to control this all with an army of ladybugs -- get rid of the aphids, get rid of the whiteflies, get rid of the parasitic wasps -- but there were just too many to handle.  We finally got them under control with a daily spraying of a water-dishsoap-rubbing alcohol mix and leaves began to slowly regenerate...

But, we thought the great wasp massacre of monarch caterpillars had taken any chance we had of helping any Monarch butterflies reach adulthood this year.  By mid-summer, we stopped checking the milkweeds except an occasional spot-spray to stop another aphid explosion, maybe once a week.

Then one day..

!!!  Without realizing it, a monarch caterpillar had made it to the fifth instar stage without us even knowing!  It's hard to miss them when they're in their final stage before pupating - they're huge and bright and stripey and horned, after all.  And we were so excited!

Close inspection found nearly twenty other caterpillar eggs and twenty hatched caterpillars in various stages of development.

It was amazing! But also, we quickly realized, way too many for our four weakened milkweeds to handle!  One caterpillar eats about 20 large milkweed leaves...there was no way we would be able to get them all enough.

We kept an eye on things and saw our relatively bushy milkweeds get down to twigs within two days.  Some of the later-stage caterpillars had gotten enough in time, but the younger ones were left trying to desperately eat through stems.

Hadrian and I had to do something!  So we medivac'd ten one morning to the local Botanical Garden in a tupperware lined with soft lambsear.  We found each of them their own large and healthy milkweed plant and wished them well.

But what about the older caterpillars that had been able to eat enough in our own garden?  We went searching for some chrysalides and found one nestled between our fence slats.  It was that gorgeous green and gold Monarchs are known for:

We kept daily watch on it for over a week and then on Saturday morning, were lucky enough to witness the chrysalis in it's brief final stage when it turns transparent and black:

Look at the wings!

Within a few hours, it had emerged and dried it wings on our fence before flying off.

WE HAD DONE IT!  Full life-cycle!

And the process is continuing.  The milkweeds are sprouting a new round of leaves after being completely eaten down and we already have ten more eggs waiting to hatch.  Here we go!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Infamous "Going to the Alhambra" Story

Taking a break on the hike up, appreciating some pomegranate sculpture, the symbol of Granada

Something you should know about visiting the Alhambra - it's very particular about tourists.  I've seen now in quite a few travel books that the Alhambra is the most visited site in Spain.  I also know from our complementary copy of The Economist's Pocket World in Figures 2017 Edition that Spain has the third highest number of yearly tourist arrivals in the world (behind France and the United States).  So, put those two things together and...well...they're just very particular.

There is a very specific quota for tourists each day and you can only enter during your very very specific allotted fifteen minute window.

But beyond the quota and the timing, you have to reserve your time in a very very very particular way - via phone (now you can do it online, so hooray progress) and only with a very very very very particular suite of credit card options.  Then, they are extremely clear that if you want to pick up your ticket that you just bought over the phone, you have to bring the exact credit card you used to buy it in the first place.

Now, they didn't take our Danish Visa/Dankort card, they didn't take our American debit cards, they didn't take our German Deutsche Bank cards or our German Visa card...they almost didn't take any of our cards except our last, final holdout - an American Visa that we had filed away in our paperwork that we never used but never closed (mostly to preserve our high credit score).

Yes, I'm setting all this up for something.

Before we even left Odense for Spain, this credit card became a running joke.  When we were packing: "Did you get THE CREDIT CARD?  What high-security pocket in our backpack should we keep it in?"  When we were walking out the door: "CREDIT CARD CHECK!  Where is this MOST IMPORTANT PLASTIC RECTANGLE?"  Literally, the only reason we were bringing this random, never-used credit card was to swipe it in one random little kiosk in Granada so they would give us our Alhambra tickets that we'd reserved for our super-particular fifteen-minute entrance time and all my dreams could finally come true.

Fast forward to Granada (and many, many "Checking in on the status and location of THE credit card" jokes later), we woke up one morning, got dressed, and very excitedly began our hike to the Alhambra.  Before we left, there was one last, "Hey Paul, you got the credit card?" throw-away joke, which, oddly, Paul answered in an uncharacteristically straight way.*

Please remember that I was seven months pregnant and it was definitely a very vertically-inclined hike from the city below the bluff all the way up to the entrance at the top.  The most interesting part though was immediately noticing how different the hill was: where the city down below was clearly dry and scrubby, that very "Mediterranean/southern California/central Utah" feel, the hill to the Alhambra was green, lush, and cool.  We kept talking about how it felt like there was some kind of natural air conditioner or something (turns out that there literally was - we learned at the top that the founders of Granada had literally rerouted a river and engineered a series of lifts and pumps to get it to flow up to the top of the bluff and then wind its way back and forth back down. Then they planted out hundreds of trees and flowers over the entire hill to create this amazing oasis)

But I'm getting off the main thread here.

We finally made it to the top after about half and hour, after many breaks/"photo-ops" and we had a good 45 minutes to spare before our entrance time to the palace inside the larger Alhambra complex.  We were right on time - figured we'd get our general entrance ticket along with our specific palace entrance ticket and spend a while getting our bearings and reading up on things.

Being the travelers that we are, being the person most obsessed with seeing the Alhambra as I was, I knew exactly where to go.  I bee-lined for the bright yellow kiosks hidden behind the public restrooms (weird) and breezed through the steps.

1. Last Name - no problem
2. Reserved time - have it memorized
3. Confirmation number - bam, got it on this post-it note in my bag here
4. Credit card - "Okay, Paul.  I need the credit card now."

Casually glancing around to me, Paul pulled out his wallet and handed me our Dankort Visa.

"Haaaa ha.  Very funny, Paul.  Good one.  Now I need the real CREDIT CARD," as I put one hand on my hip and reached out the other to him, smiling.

Then I watched as his face changed rapidly from smiling to confusion to horror.

"Paul?  I need the credit card.  You know?  THE CREDIT CARD?  The American credit card?!?!  The one we've been talking about for MONTHS now all leading up to this one single moment so I can see this one single place I've been dreaming of seeing for twenty years and I only have a tiny window where I can use the ticket we reserved and the only thing I need to be able to do that is THE CREDIT CARD THAT YOU TOLD ME YOU HAD IN YOUR WALLET?????"

Now, you may think that maybe I just thought all those things and said something else.  No, I said all of those things.  With increasing panic.  And eventually tears of pure despair welling up in my eyes.

Also, have I already mentioned?  I was seven months pregnant and we were a thirty-minute hike up a mountain away from our hotel and our entrance window was in forty five minutes?  And, as you probably can guess....Paul did not have the credit card.

Well, here's the happy ending:  Paul literally sprinted down that hill, leaving me to anxiously pace around and around the public restrooms at the entrance of the Alhambra, looking at the clock every two minutes.  He managed to run to our hotel in ten minutes, grab the credit card from his bag, triple check that it was THE CREDIT CARD, run out to the main square, hail a taxi, and get that taxi back up to the entrance in thirty five minutes.

I saw him coming from the parking lot, running for his literal life, and I started up the yellow kiosk again.  He passed the credit card baton to me with ten minutes to spare before we were due at the palace inside.  The kiosk cheerfully verified our reservation, printed the ticket, and we breathlessly limped/waddled as fast as we could through the gate.

*Obvious foreshadowing

Sunday, September 24, 2017


Granada was the entire reason we went to Spain.  I'd wanted to see it since I'd first heard about its history when I was 14 years old. For some reason the whole Nazrid era and Al-Andalus, Moorish art and architecture, knowing that the renaissance began with the education and libraries of these early Muslim kingdoms -- pomegranates, oranges, the Court of the Lions, scalloped arches, geometric designs in stone -- it all seemed to center in Granada.  And the Alhambra.

We arrived after a long road-tripping day from Seville through the white hill towns of the Sierra Nevada.  After dropping our little car at the little central train station and walking thirty minutes down the Calle Gran Via de Colon, we reached the base of the hill where the Alhambra complex perched above us behind the cliffs.  We checked into our room at the very excellent and excellently located* Hotel Casa de Capitel Nazari, where we were extremely excited about the large Jacuzzi bathtub (remember, baths were scarce in Denmark, so we were always overjoyed when we traveled and lucked out with a tub).  We even took a picture, we were so stoked:

The Hotel Casa de Capitel Nazari also was just simply beautiful.  It was a connected hodgepodge of Spanish renaissance palaces - each with their own ubiquitous central open atria and the rooms' windows facing inward with their very Andalusian solid wood shutters.  Our room actually felt more like a suite - strangely shaped with step ups and downs into different, small mini-rooms: a little entryway, a bed platform, a reading nook, a dressing area with an antique wardrobe.  

But we're never ones to lounge around in our hotel - however historic and bathtubby it may be.  Our first night was spent doing our usual Rick Steves' audio city tour to give us more history and our bearings.

We started out at the 10th century stable/market where all the camel caravans congregated, through the Nazrin-era bazaar (now upscale jewelry/gold markets), visited the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella at the Cathedral, took a break to get a *real* churro with chocolate at the Plaza Bib-Rambla, and ended up wandering through the narrow streets of the Al-Andalusian Albaizin district, which felt like we had somehow made it back to Istanbul or, more correctly, that a bit of Morocco had made it up into this most southern part of Spain.

We didn't take many pictures of that first night in Granada - only three off-the-cuff snapshots done more out of habit - probably because we were so enthralled with the constant intersections we kept meeting between high Christian, deeply Islamic, and historic Jewish residents all living together, depending on the era, with remarkable cooperation or considerable hatred.  

But really, if the reason we came to Spain was to get to Granada, the reason we came to Granada was to see the Alhambra.  And we weren't going to get there until the next day.

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