Lifestyle

Andalucía, Spain, is A Great Place to Drink

Despite my above average hangover and some minor congestion, the sight of the Alhambra, Granada’s historic Moorish fortress and its most emblematic landmark, was no less majestic.
IMAGE Daniel Mabanta
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After checking in the previous afternoon, we started with beers. Our hotel was a modest but cozy one-star complete with erratic wifi (pronounced in Spain ‘wee-fee’), a creaky, carpeted stairwell, and pillows like sandbags. Still, it was centrally located, and after a brief wander we arrived at Calle Navas, a claustrophobic side street lined with tapas bars, many of them Granada institutions. It was only 6 p.m. and, oddly, everywhere was mostly empty. In Spain, it’s no secret that things begin late. A Saturday evening often means dinner at 10, cocktails at midnight, discoteca between 1 and 3 a.m., before finally stumbling home at 7 in the glaring morning sunlight. The capacity to stay up subversively late to engage in mundane activities like dinner is a nationally unifying trait, whether in Andalucía, Catalunya, or the Basque Country, regardless of politics and regional pride; with the siesta, another national pastime, acting undoubtedly as a catalyst.

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A rustic old door of an apartment building in downtown Granada


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View from our hotel

I was traveling with two Spanish friends. There was my old friend Gerard, a proud, always optimistic, always late, Catalan from Barcelona in his early thirties. Gerard who was bearded, liberal with cologne, and perpetually in a baseball cap lived with an admirable vigor, always up for anything. Juan was similarly good-natured and fun. He was from Santander in Calabria, the north coast of Spain, a few years younger and in considerably better shape than the both of us. We met a year earlier in Manila and bonded through a series of hazy nights out. Later, Juan’s entertaining childhood friend Alvaro, who recently moved to Granada to study graphic design, would join us. Alvaro brought his yappy, miniature rescue dog Chica. Several hours later, Chica would be temporarily discharged, her leash trailing behind, frantically sniffing inanimate objects while her inebriated master conversed with strangers at the table beside.

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I recall thinking that the decision to binge on beer so early in the trip was unwise, particularly since I was recovering from a chest cold and Andalucía was still on the tail end of a long winter. The hesitancy was further amplified by the fact that we were in Granada only for a weekend and the prospect of sightseeing fresh, without nausea and lethargy, seemed intriguing. But as Juan would say, in a line that decidedly encapsulated his personality, “you lose the day but win the night.” He expressed this sentiment just as we approached our fourth round of cañas (the Spanish word for glasses of draft beer) and the logic seemed sound.

But as Juan would say, in a line that decidedly encapsulated his personality, “you lose the day but win the night.”

Granada is one of the few remaining places in Spain where tapas are almost universally free. Every drink (whether beer or bottled water) in every bar comes with a free, often elegantly presented tapa. The complimentary tapas that evening were rustic and bountiful (oily peanuts and stale popcorn are not staples in Granadan bars): sliced blood sausage (morcilla) and chorizo with manchego and crusty bread; skewered chicken kebabs marinated in turmeric and freshly grilled; serrano ham, oregano and olive oil served with homemade, unevenly cut fries; potatoes sautéed with onions and green peppers topped with quail eggs; stewed salt cod (bacalao); mini-sandwiches of tortilla de patatas with spinach (pulguitas). And then at one bar, we were served a portion of commercial potato chips and canned olives with our beverages—which had inevitably progressed to spirits. Spoiled (and drunk) after an evening of magical, free-of-charge tapas, I could not help but scoff at the mediocre display.

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Boquerones


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Chicken Kebab Skewers

Granada was the Moors’ last stronghold in Western Europe some 800 years ago and the Alhambra was its crown jewel, a palace town and eventually the monarchy’s residence. It is one of Spain’s most famous tourist attractions, and like many places that draw crowds in immense numbers, slots are limited. So we were disappointed to learn (through our hotel receptionist an hour and a half prior) that tickets had been sold out for weeks. Alvaro, however, happily assumed the role of interim tour guide and led us to an elevated point where the Alhambra’s postcard grandiosity could be appreciated in full.


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Alhambra

The vantage point, situated amidst Albayzin, Granada’s most famous Moorish district, wasn’t quite exclusive. Dozens of ticket-less tourists, from Osaka to Oregon, armed with smartphones and expensive looking cameras snapped away in unison. A trio of buskers hypnotically performed the flamenco; disheveled hippies, with their acoustic guitars and black labs, asked for passers-by for cigarettes and change; Moroccan street vendors sold jewelry and incense. The epic palace-fortress, vast, looking indeed impenetrable, was bounded by green hillside and a cluster of ornate roofs from the Albayzin. The snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains provided a spectacular backdrop. The sky was an immaculate blue.


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Albayzin

The Albayzin is a real labyrinth of winding, seemingly endless, cobblestoned alleys, tall, white-walled homes, and the occasional Baroque church. As we ascended deeper into the maze and further into isolation, the Japanese tour groups, British accents and dreadlocked hippies gradually dwindled. I could hear a man in the distance singing flamenco, dissonant and entrancing. It somehow reminded me of the adhan, the hauntingly beautiful call to prayer ubiquitous in the Muslim world. I had just been to Madrid and Barcelona, to innumerable pinchos bars in San Sebastian and Bilbao, but for me it was there, in the middle of the medieval Albayzin, well-preserved in every sense, where the soul of Spain was most visceral. It was also there, as the sun began to set and the horizon turned purple, where my hangover began to fade.

We walked back to downtown Granada, towards the hotel, subsequently returning to the 21st century. Passably cosmopolitan and at times gritty, central Granada is much like any modern European town: efficient buses, trendy bars, a high street with at least two H&M’s, fashionable young people, old men in tweed and flat caps loitering on public benches. Midway, we stopped for a snack of lightly floured, fried boquerones and gambas at a busy fish shop where the latter were specialties. The group discussed the evening itinerary. “I’ll make dinner reservations at 10, drinks after, then we party at that club you were talking about Alvaro,” said Gerard in Spanish, squeezing a lemon wedge over our shared plate of seafood. The suggestion was well received. I nodded, remaining quietly non-committal. Although now headache-free, I was still sluggish and secretly longing for bed.

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Plaza de Toros, a bull fighting ring lined with bars

After attempting to siesta, we reconvened for dinner at Cueva Los Dos Juanes, a bright, wooden tavern, packed with groups of middle aged regulars, many of whom curiously stared at me, the strange-looking foreigner, as we walked in. Legs of mature jamon Iberico, which are as decorative as they are delicious, dangled artfully atop the bar. In a corner, a flat screen television, maybe the establishment’s most modern amenity, broadcasted an exhibition football match. Gerard eagerly led the ordering process, his selections garnering unanimous support. The food was simple, homey European cooking. In short, we ate well: grilled slabs of fresh pork tenderloin marinated only in olive oil, salt, and bits of parsley; more fried potatoes with a smooth, zesty aioli; large slices of ripe tomato slathered in olive oil and garlic; baskets of crusty sourdough.

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Pork tenderloin to warm up

Satisfied and warmly buzzed courtesy of the accompanying sangrias, our night had begun. After dinner, we moved to a bar a few blocks away. Then after that, another bar, then another. Despite feeling somewhat revived by the alcohol, I had devised an exit strategy and was determined to see it through. Knowing that abruptly leaving would encounter staunch, maybe even unrelenting, resistance, anticipating the right moment was critical. When my friends were lost in a fog of intoxication and blaring reggaetón, I would slip out undetected and later create a vague anecdote explaining my disappearance. Amateur stuff.

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“It’s 1 a.m., shouldn’t we head to the club already?” I asked, genuinely concerned.

My inquiry was met with some amusement and gentle mockery. “It’s sooo early tio, we will go later,” said someone, or perhaps all of them. I pensively took a sip of my gin tonic.


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Moroccan shops at the bottom of the Albayzin

At 3 a.m., we finally arrived at Mae West (apparently Andalusia’s biggest nightclub) where a daunting queue awaited us. At the time, it seemed like a minor miracle that we made it past the bouncers in just fifteen minutes. There was another queue before entering the actual club though—a cloakroom, where my friends proceeded to check in their respective winter coats. I kept mine on, since my planned duration there didn’t warrant the hassle. The nightclub had an American wild west, saloon-type theme, except it was gigantic and jammed with attractive women and euphoric teens on Ecstasy. I recall thinking that without boisterous pop remixes and strobe lighting, the place was rather nice.

Granada was the Moors’ last stronghold in Western Europe some 800 years ago and the Alhambra was its crown jewel, a palace town and eventually the monarchy’s residence. It is one of Spain’s most famous tourist attractions.

An hour and two overpriced gin tonics later, my attempt to leave ‘early’ was thwarted. “You aren’t going anywhere!” Juan laughed, catching me slyly drift towards the exit. Defeated but in good spirits, I turned around and rejoined the fray. Approaching intoxication myself, getting me to stay didn’t require much convincing. Besides, I convinced myself, the place was still heaving and I was on vacation. Artificially confident, I tried chatting up girls in rudimentary Spanish and was largely unsuccessful. I blamed it on the loud music. It also got hot, in the literal sense unfortunately; I was still wearing my jacket, apparel designed to weather European winters. I glared enviously at everyone as they pranced around comfortably in their single layer of clothing; my torso was so sweltering at times, it practically emitted a visible steam.

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We left just after seven in the morning, reeking of booze and cigarettes, unwelcome daylight upon us. I recall staggering back to the hotel, well-oiled but not obliterated. In a few hours, I would again wake with a crippling migraine, dehydration, perhaps some nausea. Somehow it didn’t matter, I was in Granada and feeling alive.  

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Daniel Mabanta
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