Retro Trip: Granada: Alhambra and Golazos (February 2018)

It’s another one from the archives as I take a trip back to the Winter of 2018 and a city where I was determined to make up for past mistakes

It’s the wonderful Andalucían city of Granada.

A Historic Location

The city of Granada rose to prominence in the Middle Ages as the last bastion of Muslim Al-Andalus.

In the mid-eighth century basically the entire Iberian peninsula was ruled by the Muslim Umayyads from their capital at Córdoba, which at its peak was arguably the most sophisticated city in Medieval Europe. But the fortunes of the Muslim rulers began to decline and by the 11th century, their kingdom had fragmented into numerous smaller states called taifas, one of which was centred on Granada. These states fought amongst each other and as a result, many fell prey to the growing power of the Christian kingdoms of the north.

By 1250, the Emirate of Granada (roughly comprising the modern provinces of Granada, Málaga and Almería, as well Gibraltar and parts of Cádiz) was the last man standing. Under the Nasrid dynasty, a small fort on a hill above the city became the Alhambra, a palace city from which the Emirate was governed. Despite the luxurious surroundings, the rulers of Granada were in effect vassals of the powerful Christian kingdoms and over the following centuries, they found their territory being chipped away, until in 1492 the last Muslim ruler surrendered the city to Fernando of Aragon and Isabel of Castilla.

Columbus meets Isabel II (Statue in Plaza Isabel II, Granada)

It was while they were in Granada that Christopher Columbus came to them to present his plan for finding a western sea route to the East Indies, which of course resulted in his discovery of the Americas. The events which took place in Granada in 1492 marked the end of one period of Spanish history and paved the way for a new one, where it would rise to become the most powerful nation in Europe.

Granada CF haven’t quite enjoyed an illustrious history befitting of the city, but they were the third team from Andalucía to take part in La Liga (after Sevilla and Betis) after winning the Segunda Division in 1941. They mostly bounced between the first and second tiers until dropping into Segunda B in the 1980’s and even spent a number of years in the Tercera at the start of the 21st century.

They’ve been a regular feature of La Liga in the current decade since gaining promotion in 2011 (except the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons) although most of that time has been spent battling relegation. They are something of a rarity in Spanish football however, having been bought by two sets of foreign owners, first the Italian Pozzo family (who also own Udinese and Watford) and since 2016, Chinese businessman Jiang Lizhang.

Take I

I first visited Granada in February 2017, everything was planned perfectly. I had a ticket for the Alhambra (albeit an evening visit rather than my preferred Saturday morning timeslot) and Granada were at home to Las Palmas on the Saturday evening. Not the most glamorous fixture, but it was a relegation six-pointer and as such had plenty riding on it.

Then La Liga intervened.

Kick off times, and the slow rate at which they are released, is a major problem in and makes planning trips in advance extremely problematic. It often means people have to take a punt on booking transport and accommodation and simply cross their fingers that their game of choice lines up with their arrangements. I’ve been stung before, a 2015 Easter weekend trip to Barcelona ended up football-less when the Espanyol game I’d been planning on going to was scheduled for the Monday night slot, kicking off just as I was boarding the last cheap flight out of the city. But this time, the fixtures were already released and I felt secure in the knowledge I would see a game in Granada.

But then came the dreaded modificación, a word sure to strike terror into the heart of any follower of Spanish football.

Due to the Copa del Rey semi-finals, the fixture list received a significant reshuffle. Alavés had been due to play on Monday night, but their midweek cup game made that impossible, so they were brought forward to Saturday. Needing something to fill the gap on Monday, Granada v Las Palmas was bumped back to do so.

A rare non-rainy photo from February 2018

With everything already paid for, there was no real point in backing out so I went anyway. The city itself was amazing, the Alhambra stunning, but about midway through Saturday afternoon, it started raining and didn’t stop for the rest of my stay.

Take 2 – Unfinished Business

So almost exactly a year later, I planned another trip, determined to not repeat the mistakes of my first one.

I got in early to secure Saturday morning tickets for the Alhambra, I booked a hostel on a main street to save me getting lost again and most importantly, with Granada now in the Segunda, I could buy a match ticket safe in the knowledge that a Monday night game was off the menu!

A Friday Spent Exploring

Considering my first trip had taken place under almost constant cloud cover, I was extremely pleased to see the sun when I got off the bus in Granada.

After dropping off my bag at my hostel and getting some lunch, I wandered through the winding, uphill streets of the Albaicín, trying my best not to get lost as I made my way to my destination, the Mirador de San Nicolás. This is the best place in the city to get a view of the Alhambra at sunset and as expected, it was very busy. I had been here when the heavens opened the year before and I was robbed of what everyone had told me was one of the most spectacular views in Spain. No such problems this time!

The View

And all those people weren’t wrong. It was magnificent.

There was a great atmosphere there as well, with a number of buskers playing, people chatting away happily while getting drinks from one of the nearby bars. I felt really relaxed as I watched the sun go down, bathing the rooftops in orange light. This was going to be a good trip.

Saturday Morning at the Alhambra

It was an early start for me the following day, I had my Alhambra ticket booked for 10am, but there was a lot to do before then.

If you’ve never been to the Alhambra before, it’s important to know that you can basically stay there all day if you want. There’s so much to see and do there that even that might not be enough time. But you should structure your day around one thing in particular – The Nasrid Palace.

This is the centrepiece of the whole complex and the number of visitors is strictly controlled, so you will need to book ahead and choose a time slot for this.

The main problem with this is that the entrance for the complex is a bit far away from the palaces, so you will need to go up there and collect your audioguide before making your way down through the gardens and ruins of the Medina and past the chapel and Palace of Carlos V.

The palace is a work of art, with the walls covered in beautifully designed tiles and inscriptions and its unique architecture, it can be something of a sensory overload. In a good way of course.

Watching the morning light illuminate the walls of the palace was wonderful, so much better than my artificially lit evening tour the previous year.

But the part I was most looking forward to seeing was the Patio de los Leones, the courtyard with its iconic fountain guarded by lion sculptures had been covered in scaffolding the previous year as part of a restoration project, but this time I got to see it in all its glory.

I finished off the visit by going around the Alcazaba (the military fortress of the complex) and then going back up the hill and through the gardens to the Generalife palace, the place the emirs of Granada headed to when the summer heat made it impossible to stay in the Alhambra itself.

Estadio Nuevo Los Cármenes

On Saturday evening I prepared for the journey out of the city centre towards the stadium, roughly a mile and a half from where I was staying near Plaza Isabel La Catolica. Thankfully there was a city bus service which would take me most of the way there – Bus 8, with stops on Gran Vía de Colón and Fuente de las Batallas in the city centre. It made slow progress, with more stops than I would have liked, but it got me there in plenty of time for kick off.

From the outside, it’s a fairly modest, unassuming ground, befitting of a club of Granada’s stature. It was opened in 1995, replacing the original Los Carmenés ground which was located near the Plaza de Toros in the city centre. Oddly Granada didn’t get the honour of opening their own stadium, with the first game there being, rather randomly, a friendly between Real Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen.

I knew from watching games here on TV that on a clear, sunny day the ground has great views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range which looms large above the city. But in the depths of winter, I would have needed an early afternoon start to see that. It was pitch black by the time I got there.

Inside the ground it was immediately clear that this fixture wasn’t going to be played out in front of a packed house. Granada’s mid-table position, cold weather and a late kick off were never going to attract a full house in all honesty.

Those who stayed at home didn’t know what they’d be missing…

Goooooooooooooollllllllaaaaaaazzzzzzzzzzzoooooooooooooo!

The first half of the game saw two of the most ridiculous goals I’ve ever seen in the flesh. Just watch the highlights if you don’t believe me…

The first, a brilliant curling shot from Darwin Machís was spectacular enough, but that second goal… Sitting in the far corner of the stadium I could barely believe how it had gone in. The trajectory of the ball after Peña hit it seemed to defy the laws of physics.
Even though it was bitterly cold those two strikes filled me with enough enthusiasm to keep me going.

Not a huge amount else happened to be honest, Granada seemed in total control with former Swansea cult-hero Chico Flores mopping everything up at the back, but Tenerife were handed a surprise lifeline when Peña was given a second yellow card for leaving the pitch too slowly as he was substituted.

With five minutes left, the visitors pulled a goal back to set up a frantic finish and they almost pulled level – hitting the post before a relieved Granada defender scrambled it clear.

Reflections From 2020

Things have improved significantly for Granada since I was there.

Although they ended the 2017/18 season in tenth position, the following season saw a massive improvement under new coach Diego Martínez as they finished second and won automatic promotion back to La Liga.

They impressed early on in the 2019/20 season, famously winning 2-0 at home to Barcelona in September and briefly topping the table. They were ninth when football was halted in March and had just missed out on a first Copa Del Rey final appearance since 1959. They were nine minutes from progression when Yuri’s away goal sent Athletic Club through to an all-Basque final (whenever it may be played).

With a competitive football team, free tapas aplenty and of course, the wonderful Alhambra, there are plenty of reasons to consider going to Granada once things return to normal.

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