Years ago, after turning away or into the world while wandering through Europe by myself for a third of a year, I met a stranger on a train in between countries I don't remember. It was early in the trip, and the stranger asked "Where are you going?" then stopped me in the middle of the list of cities I rattled off and told me that I had to visit Granada, specifically Alhambra. "You have to reserve a ticket well in advance," he advised. As someone predisposed to taking travel advice from strangers in dark train cars, I did. And some combination of months and weeks later I ended up at the Oasis Hostel in Granada, from which one morning I set out and had one of the most memorable breakfasts I'll ever remember: pan con tomate.
The graffiti in those winding walkways the hillside is known for was beautiful — large, stark, barely understandable words that somehow lilted on the walls in the morning light like hummed lyrics. Inspired by the early morning in a way you only ever feel while not having to wake up to it but doing so anyway, I stumbled across an outdoor café I don't remember the name of and ordered coffee and pan con tomate. A tall coffee in a slender glass, and two slices of baguette covered with tomato and salt. The crunch of the bread, the fresh, sweet zing of the tomato, the crisp of the salt, the bitterness of a little oil — delicious sustenance for walking in the sun. Breakfast and buzz enough to brace you for the day and open crinkled eyes a little wider.
After breakfast, I walked up to the top of the hill where there was a church or some old building with a water faucet where some gypsies were hanging out and cleaning up, and a beautiful girl was by the fountain washing a shirt. I waited for her to finish to refill my water bottle, and felt a slight twinge of danger for being somewhere I shouldn’t have, but there was a great view of Alhambra, and the relentless warnings by strangers about thieves and faded away under the relentless sun.
I walked down the hill's footpaths the wrong way, where, in trying to avoid the cave dwellings, I stumbled into an open-air toilet where there was a gypsy doing his business with his pants around his ankles. I somehow extricated myself and found my way down to a street in the valley and I finally made my way down to the proper entrance to Alhambra, high on the hill and more intricate and beautiful inside than you can imagine if you haven’t been. I don’t remember how long I wandered inside, or where I went immediately next. What I do remember is how thankful I was that the stranger had told me to do this, and how much I felt that at that point, while I didn't really want to return, that I needed to get back home to figure out how much my life had changed since I left it behind, and yet, belly full of pan con tomate, how certain I was of the path ahead.
Years later, having put back on the weight I kept off walking 10 miles a day through European back alleys and along quiet roads, a simple recipe for pan con tomate at home recreates those flavors. The flashes of memory fire off — adventures traveling through 13 European countries and countless cities from London to Copenhagen during which I found myself in places I never anticipated: tending bar for a drunk bartender in Plzen, hiking the Footpaths of the Gods along the Amalfi Coast with a very pregnant Swede and her husband at 6 a.m., eating kebab with Danes at dawn in their capital after trying to fulfill the royal aspirations of my name by pulling a sword from a stone in Christiana, being offered an Italian girlfriend in Salerno, alone in the Schwarzwald with just a chocolate-covered pretzel, sharing arancini with a Sicilian named Emilio with dreadlocks and a harpoon gun in Palermo, and wandering into that open-air gypsy toilet across from Alhambra "occupied" by a man with his shorts around his ankles in Granada — not me.
Ah, Granada… city full of dogs and fountains, drunks, squats, and poetry, you were my way home.