The story goes that Boabdil, last of the Moorish kings of Granada, wept when he lost his city and infamously beautiful palace to the conquering Castilian armies. Five hundred years later and our invasion is a quieter affair; we slip into the city at night, arriving at our palace, the Hospes Palacio de los Patos, as darkness cloaks the city from view. Our bellboy ushers us into our junior suite. I glance around the vast period beauty of a room, at its original plasterwork Doric columns and corniced ceiling, wide bay window with sheer silver voile drapes and huge expanse of pale-grey marble floor. An enormous bed dominates the space, flanked by mirrored bedside tables and modern silver lamps; it’s gloriously romantic and a wonderful place to begin our foray into the wonders of Granada.
It’s late and we’ve booked a table at the hotel’s Los Patos restaurant, so we execute a quick change and head down the grand marble staircase, through a maze of elegant salons with white-leather furniture and industrial steel lighting, and out to the garden. Suddenly we’re faced by the new wing, an uncompromising and impressive building whose façade, made up of squares of grey marble, reminds me of the mashrabiya or pierced harem screens of an Arabic palace. We cross the terrace, intersected by long low pools with playing fountains, and find the restaurant, a symphony of minimalism with bright lighting, stark white tablecloths, exotic floating flowers and a low soundtrack of modern jazz. A few other couples glance over appraisingly as we enter and I’m glad we’ve dressed up for the occasion.
We shake off the travel fatigue with a cool glass of house rosé for me and a frothy tumbler of Alhambra beer for Mr Smith. An amuse-bouche of tiny bread morsels on skewers, wafer-thin cheese crisps and ham mousse arrives, and Mr Smith – a lover of simple food in large quantities – voices his concern about the portion sizes. Luckily his starter of scallops with caviar, followed by a main course of crispy golden pork served on a bed of puréed potatoes do enough to satiate his hunger. I opt for seared tuna and then melt-in-the-mouth duck and oriental rice. We share a despicably rich chocolate tart for dessert before heading out for a moonlit stroll through a nearby square. A small crowd of students are sitting under an orange tree, singing and playing guitar in front of a pretty church. Granada, it seems, has already begun to weave its magic on us.
In the morning we have a late breakfast on the terrace – more tiny morsels of Spanish omelette and the smallest rolls I’ve ever seen. Mr Smith eats about eight. In the light of day, we discover the hotel is tucked on the corner of a central shopping street, a pale lemon-yellow 19th-century mansion in sharp contrast to the modern buildings that surround it. Palacio de los Patos literally means ‘the palace of the ducks’ but there don’t appear to be any mallards in sight, unless you count the quirky swan sculptures in the fountain by the entrance.
Arming ourselves with a map of the city from reception, we spend the morning wandering the streets and squares around the cathedral, overshadowed by the towers and ramparts of Boabdil’s Alhambra palace. Walking back toward the centre, we pass through the Albayzín, the ancient Moorish quarter that still feels more North Africa than Southern Europe, and stop for tapas of fresh bread, broad beans, and ham and cheese close to the tiny Plaza Larga. Later, dusty and dishevelled, we while away two twilight hours in a candlelit hammam just underneath the Alhambra hill, wallowing in steaming water and being pummelled by a masseur.
Intent on finding some low-key and typically Granadan fare for dinner, we head to a small rustic bodega on Calle Elvira, were we fill up on tabla ibérica, lots of small tasting dishes of local cheese, ham, shrimps and venison, and a plate of hot, hearty stew. We’ve eaten our way though tapas, Moroccan-style pastries and enough jamón to feed a small army today and dessert is definitely off the menu. We finish up with a nightcap in a little bar a few doors down, and then amble back arm in arm through the orange-scented city to our gloriously romantic modern-baroque palace of the ducks.
Our last day in the city and I have begged and borrowed to get Alhambra tickets. It’s no easy task with timed entry and queues that snake around the block from the early hours of the morning at the ticket office. My advice? Book weeks in advance or, even better, the hotel will arrange it for you. Thankfully we wangle our way in and it’s more beautiful than I could have imagined: a dream of a palace, perched high above the city, the peaceful courtyards filled with fountains and pools. Incredible decorative plasterwork arcs up to the carved wooden ceilings: thousands of prayers to Allah are repeated in mesmerising calligraphy interwoven though flower motifs.
We walk into the rose gardens and peer through the wooden screens and heat haze to the terracotta-roofed city below. Suddenly Boabdil’s grief makes sense; if this were yours you’d never want to leave. We stay until the very last moment and then make our run for the airport. The hotel has arranged everything, so we breeze in, pick up our luggage and are ushered into a waiting taxi with zero effort. This gorgeous hotel, such a style-clash of old and new, with touches of Arabian palace, 19th-century grandeur and stark modernity, is a huge reflection of the city itself. Our stay here has been magical and, as we bid the staff goodbye, I offer up a silent insh’Allah that, unlike unfortunate Boabdil, we will come back soon.