Anonymous review for Mr & Mrs Smith – Aug 2013.
In the Eighties my father printed my mother a T-shirt that read ‘I don’t want to go to Granada!’ It became a running joke I never understood, assuming it to be ugly – or worse – an inland Fuengirola. It turns out she was simply worried about debilitating heat. Now about to embark on a roadtrip into the heart of mountainous Andalusia in August, Mr Smith and I panic we’re driving into the lion’s mouth.
Spoiler alert: Granada has a dry heat that doesn’t incapacitate. Over the next few days our heroes are to horse ride barefoot in the Alpujarra, meet a toeless expeditioner, soak in Europe’s first Arabic Baths, sample spit-roasted swallows and get lost in the Sierra Nevada – while still finding time to enjoy each other in the lush Spanish countryside.
We get to El Cortijo del Marqués later than planned. I blame the city’s thermometer. On arrival in Granada, it boasts a photogenic 43 degrees. We celebrate with gin. And more gin. We love bohemian cave bars! We love gin! We don’t love the resultant hangover. Finally on our way from our previous hotel, a brief stop-off at the architecturally stunning Alhambra turns into a lengthier attraction. For five hours we play out an Arabian Nights fantasy in the ancient Arabic and Moorish kingdom of passion and palaces – pausing only for the occasional ‘moreish’ gag. I blame Spain’s oversized goldfish bowl measures of juniper juice.
(Awesome tip: audio guides. My favourite Alhambra excerpt: “Could this be the room where the Albencerraj family were cruelly murdered? Probably not.”)
“Perform a U-turn when possible.” Mr Smith’s overreliance on satnav means that we’re circling the roundabout at the hotel turnoff nine times. That’s because El Cortijo is 4km up a Gooolemap-dodging dirt track through green olive groves and seductive amber hills where bunnies float and butterflies bounce.
Originally a convent, El Cortijo was converted into a manor house by a wealthy marquess in the 18th century and after serving as a civil war barracks ended up being abandonded. The original rural features of the rooms remain – stable troughs, pigeonholes, and even a sunken mosaic bath worthy of an orgy for the naughtiest of marqueses. As the smiley Heather leads us through the cobblestoned courtyard of whitewashed and terracotta walls to the classily concealed pool and dining areas, we pass water features to rival the Alhambra. The only other sound is from a flight of swallows as they move in unison from one courtyard tree to the next. (I learn the collective noun later when I Google it – this was to be a techno-free holiday.)
With vintage bedside tables, a 1900s writing desk and retro rotary light switches, our room, El Mirador, is old-school romantic. We open every one of its 10 windows to provide a 360-degree lookout over the unreal landscape (and a peepshow for the birds). Padding to the rustic bathroom in matching gowns, we agree there’s enough space to swing a stallion, although you’d hit its head on the wooden beams. No laptop necessary here, the view from this freestanding bath has got something better – those hills.
As Mr Smith’s dumped espadrilles start to give the bathroom an Alhambra hum, we head to El Cortijo’s large dining room, which was converted from an old horse stable. The chef has prepared a traditional Andalusian menu of salmorejo, a local soup similar to gazpacho, and a hearty stew – exactly what Mr Smith and I fancy after being hungover for 10 hours. Now pass the wine list.
By breakfast it’s time to saddle up and see the scenery, and a fine example of Spanish masculinity appears (not Mr Smith). The horse-wrangling gaucho introduces my white hornless unicorn as Rocket, then instructs, ‘Don’t relax! This is not a chair.’ With a belly full of jamon, queso and nerves, mounting a mare for the very first time proves the perfect way to embrace the surrounding olive groves. Mr Smith and I are starring in our own romantic non-fiction – until his steed empties his bladder in a distinctly unchair-like way.
Watersports over, it’s not long before we’re snoozing by El Cortijo’s unpretentious pool in prep for a chilled tapas-crawl in the neighbouring whitewashed villages. Substitute ‘chilled’ for ‘I’m chucking this satnav out the window’ and ‘neighbouring’ for ‘How the hell did we accidentally drive up a mountain?’ We’re lost at an ear-popping 1,400m altitude in the beautiful Sierra Nevada, having passed dizzy precipices, winding cliffs and typical Andalusian villages built like eagles’ nests in the cliffs. Mr Smith and I are so high, we’ve reached a ski station. The limping owner, José Luis Conde, informs us he lost his big toe when it froze on one of his expeditions. If we don’t want to go back on ourselves, we can trek to our intended destination of Capilieira on foot. But it will take 12 days. And I like my toes. Plus, we’re on a tapas-tip.
In Andalusia there is such a thing as a free lunch. You buy a drink, they give you a tapa. In Granada’s whitewashed Jewish Quarter, El Realejo, drinking on an empty stomach is not an option. Now, I love traditional places, but the more the oldies stare, the more experimental I get with the local cuisine. These feeders keep the tapas coming. Even when that razor clam, squid and snail give me goosebumps, I swallow. And that is exactly how, in the buzzing Bar Los Altramuces, we end up being served pajarillos fritos– deep-fried swallows – beaks, feet ’n’ all.
I draw the line at swallowing swallow. Retinas scarred, we crank up the indulgence with a midnight soak and sensual massage in the old hammam Arabic baths. Ignoring the solitary old man with moobs in Speedos, we float together in Alhambra-like opulence under the star-shaped lights. Lit only by muted constellations, we’re not sure where the bathing ends and the silent journey back to tranquil El Cortijo begins. We’re blooming Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.
‘I don’t want to go to Granada!’ Pah. Unless you’re a swallow.