Falling in Love with Spain one Tapa At A Time – Granada Edition
I’m sitting on a high bar stool with my elbow leaning on a narrow table jutting from the wall, an arm’s length from a group of people crowded around a well-worn bar. Behind that bar is a smiling woman, swift on her feet, loud over the din of barroom chatter who appears to be taking care of every customer in the place, serving up small plates bursting with tapas alongside dry local wines and cava. This place is Taverna La Tana.
Located down one of those winding, cobblestone streets I always picture when I think of anywhere in Europe, this iconic bar doesn’t appear to be open at first glance. Barely any windows and closed doors on such a beautiful summer day could easily turn away a wary tourist, but the locals smoking outside assure us it’s open, and as soon as we pull back the heavy doors, it’s clear that the pre-dinner tapas hour is in full swing.
I’m here in Granada, in the Adalusian region of Southern Spain to visit the Alhambra palace, but any visit to a new city would be a wasted opportunity without a chance to check out the local food scene. To me, a place like Taverna La Tana is perfect because it embodies one of the things I love so much about Spain – the small, ancient bars that have been in existence for hundreds of years – sometimes within the same families – filled with locals socializing, drinking, and eating – always eating. I’ll admit, I also love this place because it’s the kind of place Anthony Bourdain adored - it’s dark, crowded with friends and families - no one seems to drink or eat alone in Spain – and a genuine desire to feed you. In the case of Taverna La Tana, Anthony Bourdain actually did eat here on a trip to Granada while filming Part’s Unknown, and this is no mistake, I’ve done my research. As far as I’m concerned, anywhere that Bourdain loved to eat is somewhere I want to be, so I’ve chosen this place for my late lunch stop on a day trip to Granada. By the time I’ve arrived, my feet are tired from walking the uneven grounds of the Alhambra palace trying to keep up with my quick-footed guide and I’m in need of a pick-me-up. I’ve made friends with an American couple who are also Bourdain fans and decide to join me, so we break off from the tour group. More people means more food, so I welcome the company!
TIP: If your day trip includes a restaurant stop, I recommend ditching it and doing your own research about where to eat. Restaurants included on day trips are usually not that great, as they have to accommodate large groups and are likely only chosen because of a relationship with the tour company, and not because of any culinary acumen.
First, we are served the complimentary tapas that comes with your drink order. TIP: If a restaurant in Spain doesn’t offer tapas with your drink, I’ve been told they are not authentic, and probably catering to tourists. All you actually have to do to eat in Granada is keep ordering drinks, and they will keep bringing food – brilliant concept! I had read that tapas in Granada are particularly generous and they are not kidding around. This is the tapas that came with our drink order, and just look at the size of those juicy tomato slices!
We ordered three tapas dishes:
An assortment of sausages: Spain is known for their cured meats, so unless you don’t touch the stuff, it’s a must try. The darker coloured one spotted with pockets of yellowy fat is a type of blood sausage that you shouldn’t shy away from, it’s incredibly rich and flavorful.
Asparagus: These are probably pickled and plucked from a jar, as many wonderful things are around here. In Spain the products that come from tins and jars are some of the most highly prized items, which can be a strange concept for a North American to wrap her head around. See the flaky salt on there? Salt brings out the natural flavors in produce and enhances them, and flaky salt is a beautiful way to perk up any vegetable.
Artichoke hearts with sundried tomatoes: Also both likely plucked from a jar filled with Spanish olive oil, and served as the perfect pairing to our wine.
These dishes are all so simple, proving that food does not need to be complicated to be beautiful. Just high quality ingredients, brought to life with salt and good olive oil.
If you only have time for one food stop on your trip, like I did, make it count and come to a place like this. Eat, drink and strike up a conversation with the friendly locals sitting next to you. You don’t need to speak the same language to enjoy good food together.
The Alhambra is why most people visit Granada, and it is undoubtedly worth the trip. Here are a few fun facts about the it and some tips if you’re planning a visit.
About the Alhambra
The Alhambra, or “the red'“, as its name means in Arabic, is an imposing palace and fortress complex, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, overlooking the city of Granada. It is the most visited site in Spain, receiving thousands of visitors every day. Construction of the fortress began on the site around AD 889 and what was left was later re-built in the 13th century by the Nasrid emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar, during the last Moorish Muslim dynasty in the Iberian Peninsula, then later it was turned into a royal palace. It eventually became the Royal Court of Ferdinand and Isabella after the Christian Reconquista in 1492. Fun fact, the Alhambra is where that directionally challenged colonialist we know as Christopher Columbus received royal endorsement for his expedition to the New World– perhaps not the palace’s most shining moment in history. After several mentions of Columbus during the tour, I gathered that he seems to be revered here with, if not admiration, perhaps the fascination only reserved for a celebrity viewed through the lens of centuries, similar to how the French are sometimes obsessed with Napolean. Un petit mystery, n’est pas?
Back to the Alhambra. The grounds include a seemingly endless array of inter-connected gardens, and stunning buildings with intricate details to be found in every corner. What I love about this place, and others like it in this part of the world, is how the Roman, Moorish and Christian architecture exists alongside one another, one simply building on the next without necessarily destroying what came before. It’s a beautiful embodiment of the region’s complex history.
Alhambra Travel Tips
I booked a day trip through Julia Travel, a well-known tour company in Spain, Portugal and Morocco, and my experiences were generally positive. I was picked up in Malaga, which was thankfully the last stop on the way to Granada, but you’ll want to be aware that if you’re staying in Marbella or further South West along the coast, you might be picked up as early as two hours before the bus even arrives in Malaga, with another hour or more to go before arriving in Granada. That’s a very early morning with only one bathroom break, resulting in some grumpy travelers. I experienced it on another tour and the company doesn’t always make this clear in advance. Tip: No matter how early it is, eat something before you go, bring water with you and anti-nausea medication if you’re prone to motion sickness. This part of Spain consists of windy, mountainous roads, which can definitely be nausea inducing – you’re welcome!
I was incredibly impressed by the multi-lingual tour guides – kudos to them! They pack a large greyhound bus full of tourists and the guide is expected to communicate in Spanish, English, French, Italian and German. My guide on this tour repeated each sentence in every language, answered questions, and joked around with families. It was clear he was actually fluent in all of those languages – impressive considering us North Americans can barely master speaking English properly. We were then divided into smaller groups by language once we arrived at the Alhambra and provided with earbuds so we could hear our guide as we walked around the grounds. Mine was the English and German group, so our guide repeated facts in both languages. As much as I appreciate his efforts, I would recommend that you get yourself there, either by renting a car or taking a bus to Granada and then a taxi up to the Alhambra, picking up an audio guide (which you should purchase online in advance), and walking through on your own time, giving yourself about three-four hours. We had two and a half hours and I felt rushed. It was also a little jarring to hear my guide talking loudly in my ear while taking in breathtaking views, and then hurrying us into the next area, so I would sometimes turn it off to give myself the chance to breathe and take it all in. Unless you can find a tour that allows you more time, or are willing to spend more on a private tour, I would go on your own. I booked a group tour, which was not advertised as “skip the line”, but there was no line and no waiting once we arrived, so either it wasn’t a busy day or you automatically skip the line with a larger group. If you are going on your own, I do recommend purchasing a “skip the line” ticket, as I’ve heard the wait can be significant.
TIP: When visiting any historical site like this in Spain, always remember to look up. The ceilings contain some of the most remarkable works of art and architectural wonder.
Stay tuned for more Adalusian food talk and tips from my recent trip to Spain.