By Vivé Griffith
During Semana Santa, the streets of Granada become coated with wax. Night after night women in lace mantillas process behind lines of horn players and bass drum beaters and men in conical hats and float bearers lifting high their flower-covered pasos. The women hold tall candles that drip, slowly and insistently, over the hours they walk. The layers of wax accumulate, transforming by week’s end into a patina.
In the light of day, it’s a reminder of holiness.
For me, Granada had been a hazy idea. I’d visited 22 years earlier expecting to like it, but didn’t. I remember that first time in Southern Spain as lonely, a darkness floating above me, telling me I had drifted too far from home. I’d been six months into a year-long solo trip, and rather than boldly exploring the region, I’d holed up in my cheap hotel with a stack of books. I took daily walks to the American Express office to see if any letters had arrived.
That was Granada for me, and I thought it would remain Granada for me.
Then I saw Anthony Bourdain eating a plate of clams on a plaza in an episode of Parts Unknown, and a new Granada emerged. It had endless servings of free tapas and women dancing flamenco in caves. And it had the elaborate processions of Semana Santa—sacred, glowing, and overblown. I started the episode again as soon as I finished it, calling my husband to sit down and watch it. By the time we were done, we knew we needed to go there.
It was like this with Bourdain. People were ever following him to Myanmar and Copenhagen and to the Jersey Shore for a cheese steak on a hard roll. But for us—and for this time—it was Easter in Granada.
We arrived on Palm Sunday. Where do we go to see the processions, we asked ourselves and the internet, Googling times and routes from our rented apartment. Later we’d laugh. There was no missing the processions. They were everywhere. Drums would rumble through the streets, and soon behind the whole parade—grand, scraggly, beset with minor tones—would follow.
We trailed Bourdain through the city. At Taberna La Tana we were served wine and tapas by the same brother-sister team he’d introduced us to on the show. The brother taught me to order my glass fuerte if I want a deep, fruity red. At Los Diamontes we ate fried anchovies and the exact plate of clams we’d imagined.
What we wanted, of course, was to be able to drift behind Bourdain himself, to follow where he went, and to finally sidle up beside him at a tapas bar and hang out. We wouldn’t, but we’d come closer than we thought we could.
There is a 10-mile trek on a shepherd’s trail from the small town of Beas de Granada across the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and back into the city through the gates of the Alhambra. We’d planned it for midweek, but the warnings kept coming: The path wasn’t well marked. There were no villages along the way. There wasn’t any water. We could get lost.
We were equal parts determined and wary.
I reached out to a friend who had lived in the city. She answered my email from New York. “My friend Zach would know the route,” she said. He had walked it.
Zach was Zach Zamboni, Bourdain’s longtime cameraman who was featured heavily in the Granada episode. Bourdain ate lunch with Zamboni’s future Spanish in-laws, joking that they were gaining not just a son, but an Uncle Tony as well. It was Zamboni who brought Bourdain to many of the tapas bars and who was on the receiving end of a blitzed Bourdain who claimed America could never create a tapas culture. If Zamboni wanted that, fine.
“I want a golden unicorn that shits money,” he said.
When I was e-introduced to Zamboni, I played it cool. I said none of the things I might have said—how much Bourdain meant to me as a traveler, how the very episode he shot in his adopted home town had brought us there. He suggested I download a GPS app he used and sent me the track of his earlier hike to drop into the app. Now we had a digital path to follow. I said thank you.
As we walked alongside snow-capped mountains and the occasional cluster of poppies, moving aside when a weathered man led a small herd of sheep past, we had fun with our imagined friendship with Zamboni. “Zach says to take the trail to the left,” I’d say when we reached a crossroads. And, “Zach says there’s a big curve ahead.”
We never got lost. We finished the day dusty and exhilarated and a bit more in love with Spain.
For so many years, travel was how I defined myself. I had married young, begun a corporate career, and then set myself about leaving. First my marriage. Then my job. Then the rest of it, meaning my home itself. I strapped on a backpack and wandered alone, picking mushrooms in a Bohemian forest and eating Nutella crepes from sidewalk carts. Travel made me believe things about myself I hadn’t dared—I could be a writer, could live an interesting life, could inhabit a world beyond the narrow one I had made for myself.
Watching Bourdain evoked all of that for me. He was the traveler I wanted to be. Bold, but respectful. Endlessly curious. Willing to wander out of his element believing he would find magic there. Then sharing that magic with us.
If I too often opted for a bit more comfort, a bit more security, I could turn to Bourdain and get reminded of the other self I still hoped to be.
I was up first the morning the news of his death broke. When my husband emerged from the bedroom a little later, I was waiting. “There’s bad news,” I told him, though I had to couch it, given the tenuous days we live in. “Not political, and not in our family.”
Then I told him. “What?” he said, in the hushed way he might have if we were losing someone we knew. He sort of fell against the door frame.
It seemed impossible. It still does.
We left Granada on the Monday after Easter. That morning I set off for a walk alone. Down our street, crews in neon jumpsuits were out with power washers, blasting the wax off the road. Around the corner, more men held long scrapers, lifting the remains of Semana Santa from the cobblestone. I stood and watched them awhile. It was like my journey itself was being scraped away, the glow of the candles, the mournful songs that echoed in my head when I woke in the morning. The Granada I had returned to after two decades to see anew.
I couldn’t decide if I was glad or not that I’d witnessed the prosaic aftermath of Semana Santa. I’d loved being part of that holiness. I wasn’t ready for it to end.
Vivé Griffith's essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in River Teeth, the Sun, Oxford American, and Hippocampus. She lives in Austin, Texas, a city she moved to when it was still funky and adorable (affordable, but adorable too). On her street now are seven Airbnbs and a house that sometimes shelters a mule. More about the author at vivegriffith.com.