Sunday, March 14, 2010

In Bed with Washington Irving

In 1829, Washington Irving arrived in Granada. So enraptured by the Alhambra, the city’s fabled and near deserted fairytale fortress, he moved in and wrote a book about the experience, the much admired Tales of the Alhambra. In 2010, an average of 6,000 daily visitors make their way through the legendary palaces and gardens. So how much of the romance is left? Can you get out of the scrum and recreate some of Irving’s experience ? It sounds impossible but you can. Here’s how

Start by avoiding July through September and Easter Week. Stay at the Parador de Granada San Francisco smack dab in the center of the Alhambra, and book your room at least 6 months ahead. Once a convent and resting place of Queen Isabella, this is now a swish, small hotel that absolutely makes your Alhambra experience. From the moment you drive up the closed off road, past the scores of tourists on foot wondering about the lucky folks in the car, you feel special. Outside is intensive tourism but inside the parador is your own private sanctuary. At night, when the tour groups are long gone, you can wander the battlement and bastions treading haunted ground, and surrounded by romantic associations.” Like Irving you can believe that you "inhabit the enchanted palace of an Arabian tale", and "look down from its balconies upon chivalric Granada".

Another important thing to do prior to your visit, is to order your tickets to the Alhambra over the internet or by phone (902 441 221). Even if you are staying at the Parador de Granada, it is still a good idea to do this. Here’s why.

The fortress complex has some open areas, some areas only accessible by ticket and one area, the Palacio Nazares for which you need a time slot. If you order your tickets well in advance (you can order up to a year before your visit), you have a much better chance of getting a desirable time slot which for No Crowds travelers is either early in the morning or at night. The Parador will offer you a 2 ½ hour guided tour at EUR 49 per person, but we were perfectly happy with our EUR 13 tickets and EUR 4 audio guide which included the words of Tales of the Alhambra woven into the commentary.

At some stage during your stay you will want to leave your Arabian aerie and venture down into the city of Granada. To stay away from the crowds, we followed the excellent advice to be found in a 2008 article in the Guardian newspaper entitled “Granada’s top 10 Moorish secrets”. We especially appreciated the recommendation to visit the Carmen de la Victoria in the Moorish District, the Albaicin, which is now the guest residence for Granada University. The Islamic garden, with stunning views of the Alhambra, has been planted with flowers and bushes that would have existed in Nasrid times and we were quite alone during our marvelous visit. We also enjoyed a lively tapas evening on the Campo del Principe following the recommendation of Gayle Mackie, co-author of 100 Best Tapas Bars in Granada. Her favourite tapas bar, the atmospheric La Esquinta, also became ours.

After two magical nights, it was time to leave the Alhambra and the footsteps of Washington Irving with his love of the place still in our hearts and his haunting words still in our heads:

“Such is the Alhambra; a Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land; an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West; an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished and passed away.”

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Paris Feedback - In Shorthand

We have always dreamed that No Crowds would develop into a place for like minded travelers to share discoveries. Today, we moved closer to that goal with the addition of a report on a visit to Paris by Trish, a savvy traveler if ever there was one. We've been telling her for a long time that she doesn't need to write a lot (she's busy - just like you), just pass on a list of highlights and she's done exactly that. So enjoy these wonderful suggestions (we can't wait to try the Laiterie St Clotilde) and be sure to send us your own discoveries.

I had a great time in Paris. - thank you for all your tips and here's some feedback in shorthand.


· Cocottes (Cafe Constant new outpost, a few doors up) – fab – very groovy, packed, casual sitting on bar stools at the bar or at high tables. Most of the food comes served in the signature cocotte – a small cast iron pot. Most plates are around 10-20 euros – I had 2 courses and 2 glasses of wine for 45 euros

· Le Petit Lutetia (Lutetia is the old word for Paris according to the waiter) – old fashioned, good food, sat with older formal Parisian couples who live in the chic 7th Ar. I was actually staying about 200 yards directly up the street in Rue Vaneau! Again around 45-50 euros per person with 2 courses and wine.

· Restaurant Laiterie Sainte Clotilde The best new find!! I always discover the good places by walking past, seeing a full and buzzing place and just trying it. Again up the road from me at 64 rue de Bellechasse in the 7th, I found Restaurant Laiterie Sainte Clotilde. So named for the magnificent catholic church a block away where I went to moving Ash Wednesday High Mass. Restaurant has been open year and a half. The young female chef is half English and was looking over cookbooks at the bar after dinner discussing recipe ideas with the owner for a menu that changes every few days. Again about 40 euros for 2 courses and a few glasses of wine – this was by far the best food I had in Paris. Not traditional – imagine a French River Cafe – the chocolate cake was a recipe from the owner’s great aunt!

· Terminus Nord. My Parisien friend took me to dinner one night to a restaurant right opposite Gare Du Nord called Terminus Nord. Full of locals – it is the typical large brasserie with traditional food, the ubiquitous seafood platters etc. Food not that amazing but a great convenient fix before or after your train journey and not too expensive.

. Lunch at Maillol Museum was a treat in a quirky basement restaurant. From a very contemporary menu I had an excellent lentil salad served in a glass jar.

The Museum in the 7th is a real gem – housing the fabulous Maillol collection in the mansion that belonged to his mistress and muse Dina Vierny who died only recently. Plus fab temporary shows – I saw an amazing exhibit called “C’est la Vie:Caravaggio to Hirst”

· The Museum pass was a great tip – if you haven’t got it in advance of arriving in Paris – go to a quiet, less popular museum from the list. I had gone to the Rodin Museum to buy the pass and faced a queue at 10am. Later I was going for a run along the Seine when I spotted the obscure Musee de l’Assistance Publique on quai de la Tournelle where there are no queues! Sadly I wasn’t interested in seeing the history of Parisian hospitals, but the helpful staff, pleased to see a visitor, sold me a museum pass! I then sailed past the queues at the bigger attractions – v. long queue at the new Orangerie. (isn’t that an amazing re-furb!)

· A must see - Monumenta - every year in the ‘off season’ at the Grand Palais, a leading international contemporary artist is invited by the Ministry of Culture and Communication to create an exceptional new work for the 13,500 m² Nave of the Grand Palais. This year it was the French artist Christian Boltanski. I waited 40 mins to record my heartbeat for his project that will see 50,000 human heart beats recorded and placed in a digital library in Japan for a little piece of history. I have a DVD copy which I am going to upload on my kids I-pods for when they are missing me!

· The best Van Gogh painting NOT in the Royal Academy show is actually in the Rodin Museum – I was admiring the portrait of Le Pere Tanguy there and noticed in the fabulous show at the Royal Academy a week later, that it is referred to in the Japanese room with an only a postcard image.

· I walked past a lovely hotel also near me and picked up a rate card – may be worth recommending – The Hotel de Varenne on rue de Bourgogne.

Room with bath 177 euros, breakfast in lovely courtyard, 10 euros

That’s all the news that’s fit to print!