I’ve only been in Spain for two weeks and already I have more stories and pictures than I know what to do with. From taking cooking classes; walking my feet to the point of having steel-thick calluses take residence on my poor, irredeemable soles; buying, storing and putting off dismemberment of a whole baby octopus; and realizing I possess some form of secret streetwalker magnetism that beckons every rent boy and prostitute within a mile’s radius to come speak to me, though I’d really, really prefer they didn’t. It’s been a busy two weeks with many stories to tell, but having just returned from a three day trip to Granada, I’ll begin there.
Before I left the states I’d been told that before I left Spain I absolutely had to visit Granada. Everyone said, It’s beautiful! You’ll love it! Go! And maybe it was the five hour bus ride from Madrid or the Stinky McCheese I was sitting next to, but when I arrived I felt exhausted and grossly underwhelmed. We pulled into the bus station after traveling through what looked to be Madrid 2.0, and I didn’t really see what was so special about this place.
Until I did.
I took another bus into the center city toward where my hotel was situated, and out of nowhere I was slapped across the face with a scene that immediately validated everyone’s praise. Overlooking the city were old houses clustered throughout the steep hillsides, and beyond them, in spite of it being nearly 90 degrees, was a sprawl of snow-capped mountains lightly faded in the distance. Bob Ross would shit himself if he could see this.
With the mountainous backdrop overlooking the city, Granada reminds me of someplace else; a place where the beer flows like wine. Where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano. I’m talking about a little place called…Aspen. But really, just Colorado in general. A much, much warmer Colorado.
The following morning I had plans for a Spanish olive tour and tasting in the countryside, and God must have been feeling gracious because the weather could not have been any better: temperate with the clearest, bluest skies I’ve every seen in my life. I took a bus from my hotel to the center of the city beneath a statue of Christopher Columbus outside Plaza Isabel de Catolica to meet the rest of the group. There was a young British couple, two girls in their twenties, a few septuagenarians and a small group of Singaporeans with cameras and equipment worth more than my life.
We were split up and the group went into two separate vans, except for me. I was sent off into my own car, a shiny Mercedes taxi with pristine leather and that intoxicating — albeit cancer-causing — new car smell flowing from the air vents. Not at all like the vomit-ridden, questionably stained Grand Marquis I’m used to in America.
On the way the driver and I made small talk about Florida and his friends in Miami. During his story he mentioned that his friend had alligators near him that ate tortes.
I was dubious. In my experience alligators usually preferred helpless animals and disobedient children to confectioneries, but what do I know? Knowing he was mispronouncing the word, he picked up his phone and spoke the Spanish word into the receiver and the phone articulated back in a slow, proper English voice, “tortoise.” The driver pointed to the phone and nodded, and it all became clear; to him, the word he was trying to say, and to me, that I needed that app immediately. I was seconds from karate chopping his neck and stealing his phone when we pulled up to another hotel and picked up two additional riders before driving out to the olive fields.
We arrived and were met with the tour guide who took us through fields of the silver-leafed Spanish olive trees congregated with stubby grape vines and fuzzy, green almond trees. She had us each try a freshly-plucked olive from the tree, which everyone knew would be unpleasant, and we spit them out in unison after one bite. Being extremely bitter and tough, fresh olives are nothing like the plump table olives we’re used to putting on our fingers while pretending we’re E.T. Before eating as a whole, they are cured or sit in a brine with varying flavors that pervade the fruit’s body and minimizes the bitterness of the olive water. I thought about the previous night’s dinner and the tough, bitter olives served with it, and figured that batch had been under-brined. Or I’d just been served some old ass olives.
The tour guide points out one tree’s thick base and tells us it’s a 300 year old tree, which isn’t an uncommon age for olive trees. It’s said that there are some trees up to around 4000 years old, but most scientifically proven to be at oldest 2500-3000 years old. There’s one tree in Athens that was situated around the time and place during which Plato’s Academy was held.
But as the trees grow older they can produce less desirable fruit, kind of like women. Sure, you might be able to have a baby at 75, but you’ve more than doubled the likelihood that it’ll come out with a functional vagina on its face and fingers where fingers shouldn’t be. That’s an accurate scientific fact that I made up. It’s somewhat the same with olive trees, but with much less nightmare-inducing results.
During the tour of the 15th century olive mill, we were shown various tools and told of the archaic laborious efforts to produce olive oils. This method originally consisted of men and mules repeatedly turning an unimaginably heavy millstone to grind whole olives into a pulp. This method was so arduous that it was performed in what’s referred to as “the room of blood” due to the men and donkeys suffering exhaustion and also because it’s where the donkeys would lure and kill innocent orphans. At least I think so, that last bit is kind of fuzzy. The crushing-to-a-pulp method was since replaced with automated machinery to spare the donkeys and ultimately the orphans. Don’t quote me on that.
After grinding, the pulp would be then transferred to woven mats and pressed, which would release the oils and water into a large vat, where they would sit until the oil separated from the water and was then skimmed. This was the first instance of “cold-pressed” olive-oil, and the remaining pulp would be added to hot water for a second pressing for sub-par oil which was usually used for oil lamps and probably a lot of late night, sensual body massages.
The leftover olive water is acidic with a highly bitter taste, so throwing it out and risking it moving into flourishing crops or the city’s water system would have been devastating, but the crafty Spanish had a plan. They mixed the acidic olive water with lime from limestone to form an alkaline solution and used it in watering and cultivating their fields. The pits were then dried and used as fuel, which is a practice still used today as an efficient use of waste and has no observed toxic effects to the environment. They came up with these uses of waste without the Internet! How, I’ll never know.
The tour completed with an olive oil tasting, where we sampled and evaluated the oil from the varying green, brown and black Spanish olives to include arbequina, cornicabra, manzanilla, hojiblanca, and pigual, which is the most popular Spanish olive consisting of 50% of Spain’s olive production and 20% of the world’s production.
That evening I walked up to the iconic Alhambra with my lame and sore feet leading the way, making a valiant effort to climb the steep steps up to the Moorish palace and fortress. The truth is that I was less interested in seeing Alhambra than I was in eating near Alhambra. Situated at the top of Granada, Alhambra overlooks the entire city, as do the restaurants situated around it. I’d read about Bar KiKi online, a restaurant with rave reviews, and set off to find it. After walking in circles for twenty minutes I instead found myself at El Huerto de Juan Ranas by accident. I walked out to the busy yet roomy terrace whose ivory-brown stone guardrail juts out some umpteen hundred feet above the ground below, leaving even the bravest weak in the knees.
I looked around and all I could think about was how much I felt like Jody Foster in Contact when she was attempting to describe what she was viewing in space. I understand now. They should have sent a poet.
This beauty was to my left:
And this to my right:
I ordered braised oxtail with fried potatoes and white wine while overlooking Alhambra and Granada proper. The oxtail was tender and well seasoned, though swaddled by long leafs of untrimmed fat, and the fried potatoes were essentially garden variety bowling alley herbed steak fries.
Overall the food was decent and definitely overpriced, but for once that didn’t even matter. The view nullified the restaurant of its culinary shortcomings, and I was sure nobody on the terrace was thinking about their food once the sun began to set. Slowing descending behind a lineup of jagged, brown mountains, scattered beams of reds, oranges and pinks worked their way across the busy blinking city below and up toward Alhambra and the reflective snow-capped mountains. Even the waiters who’d undoubtedly seen the same spectacle a dozen times a week had joined in as part of the audience.
I attempted (in vain) to create a panoramic view of the initial stage of the sunset but forgot to change my settings to manual mode to keep the colors consistent. But still, pretty, huh?
Granada: It’s beautiful. You’ll love it. Go.