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From the sublime to the ridiculous: inside my mini-flamencothon

Spain cordoba flamenco el cardenal c pura aventura2

I love flamenco. Good flamenco that is. For heartstopping drama and heartbreaking emotion, it is untouchable. Sorry to go big on the hyperbole so soon, but it really does have the power to move me in ways no other art form does. And that's without me having the foggiest idea what on earth all the noise and clattering is in aid of. It is one of the many, many things that I love about Andalucía and was one of the many, many things I was very much looking forward to on my upcoming trip to Andalucía, to scout out a new walking route with Pura co-founder Xabi Etxarri.

So when an email dropped into my inbox from Diego, another of Pura's co-founders, a few weeks ago asking if I'd awfully mind sitting through three flamenco shows in two nights during my time in Granada, I was more than happy to take it on the chin. When life gives you lemons, make castanets right?

When I reached out to Xabi - a proud Basque native - inviting him to join me, the response I got was... less than enthusiastic shall we say. Actually, it bordered on derogatory if I'm being honest, but I left it there. For now.

El Cardenal - life is a cabaret

Tablao El Cardenal flamenco show in Cordoba

Turns out, I went above and beyond, adding in a fourth on the first night of my trip in Córdoba. It might not quite be the hotbed of flamenco that Seville, Jerez and Granada are but still, hardly seems fair to right off all of the city's establishments because of this. So I asked around, did some reading and settled on El Cardenal as being the place most likely to challenge the heavier hitters I'd hopefully encounter in Granada.

When I went to buy my ticket I was taken out back to a small room with 40 or so chairs clustered around a fairly modest stage so that I could choose my vantage point. I jokingly reassured an English couple wary of sitting in the front row that audience participation is not a facet of the show normally associated with authentic flamenco, so they needn't worry too much. It was a comment which very nearly came back to haunt me in Granada. Stay tuned for that.

I returned two hours later for the show and picked up a leaflet on the way in, with "premios nacionales" (national awards) written on the front. Sounds promising. I collected my complimentary glass of wine and took my seat just along from the earlier couple, safely ensconced in the third row. Turns out, at second glance, it literally did just say premios nacionales on the leaflet. It didn't actually say that it had ever won any. Or even been nominated. Perhaps it has, perhaps not. Ah, but what's that? A 2016 Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence? Hmm...

How do I sum it up? Well it isn't exactly peak flamenco, but I didn't hate it. High praise indeed, right? The thing is, they throw everything at you. Whether you want it or not. Every style, ever colour of the rainbow. There are co-ordinated five-piece dances when all pretense that this is flamenco in its raw, impromptu form get thrown out of the window. There's a touch of the cabaret about it all.

Probably my main gripe is the ambience the venue creates. There is a slight tension here - you want the audience to be fully engaged with what's going on and enjoying the moment. But everyone wants their souvenir photos. I wanted a souvenir photo. There's a right way and a wrong way to approach this (as you'll see) and sadly El Cardenal gets it wrong. Not only are photos allowed throughout, the lights are cranked up nice and bright so that every detail comes out. Unfortunately, this takes its toll on the atmosphere.

Recommended for: Flamenco for beginners; anyone who wants all the clichés and pizzazz, without worrying too much about the actual art form.

La Alboreá - the flamenco virgin

Xabi showing his delight at being roped into attending his first flamenco show

On to Granada, where three shows awaited, somehow each more memorable than the next. Not always for good reason.

First was La Alboreá, but in truth it could have been anywhere because of who was sitting next to me in the audience. Not a flamenco superstar of international renown, but Xabi, a Basque who but a few weeks ago used words to the effect of "hate", "supposed art" and "stitch up" when I deigned to suggest he might like to accompany me, at Diego's encouragement. And yet, here he was ready to give flamenco a chance.

As flamenco shows go it was good, solid stuff. It was subsequently blown out of the water by the next one, and again it was a green light on the photos, but there was a more serious and focused edge. Less flower, more power. Dimmed lights, the classic four-piece line up and a lengthy guitar solo that damn near got Xabi off his feet. By the time they stomped their last stomp and strummend their last strum, his pantomime frown was replaced by a genuine smile. I felt positively proud. Even if he did suggest they put karaoke-style lyrics up behind.

Recommended for: The more discerning flamenco novices, particularly of Basque origin.

Casa del Arte - where the magic happens

The best flamenco in Granada is found at Casa del Arte Flamenco

Of course Xabi was slightly less impressed when I came back positively beaming from the third installment. Turns out, he'd chosen the wrong one.

I'm not a flamenco aficionado. Which is a polite way of saying that, despite what you've read here, I'm not a flamenco snob. It's easy to obsess over finding the hidden place where only the locals go, the one they don't print glossy leaflets for. But if you want to see world class flamenco up close and personal in an intimate, no thrills setting, this is the place. Yes, this is organised for tourists and no, it's not exactly spontaneous off the cuff stuff, but boy did it move me.

For me, there are a couple of ways to appraise a flamenco show. The first is how it makes you feel, whether it moves you and takes you to places you rarely get to. You don't need intimate knowledge to be able to judge this, though it does help if you've been to one or two for comparison. This is very much the domain of the performers. When I told owner Antonio Outeda that I wanted to give a standing ovation at every applause break, he smiled and said "me too, we only invite the best dancers here, so it's a privilege to watch them every night." Indeed, the guitarist had just won a national contest, the female dancer came second. The winner must have come up with something special.

To Antonio, it's all about the quality of the performers. But he's being modest, I ventured to suggest. The second part of the equation comes back to the atmosphere the venue creates. Here, photos are only allowed in the closing moments, there are no free drinks (nor a bar even) and Antonio himself introduced the various elements of the performance and the various palos or 'pillars' of flamenco that each bit touches before it began.

"You can go up to the caves and have a very different experience with everything that comes with it, but here it is all about flamenco, flamenco, flamenco."

Recommended for: Anyone who wants to experience "flamenco, flamenco, flamenco" of the highest order.

Zambra Maria La Canastera - Carry on flamenco

The bizarre Zambra Maria La Canastera flamenco show in the caves of Granada

On my final night in Andalucía, I was to have one of those "different" experiences that Antonio had described 24 hours earlier. This is where things get really interesting.

And a bit weird.

Alarm bells were already ringing long before I ducked into the cave, soaked through to my bones having crossed from the Albaicín up to Sacromonte in a furious downpour. This was never going to be flamenco, flamenco, flamenco. Instead the full experience offers a city tour, dinner, minibus transfers, the obligatory free drink, a jumble of kitchen pans, an assault on your eardrums and a bit of flamenco breaking out somewhere in the middle.

I'm still not quite sure what my highlight from the evening was. An early contender was when the man taking the money on the door suddenly appeared in the show, thundering his way through a lively number. This was followed by a performance from the eldest dancer and clearly the one in charge of it all. I say performance, it reminded me of those hopeless celebrities on Strictly Come Dancing who waft around the stage not doing anything approximating a dance whilst the professional does their best to distract you from the fact. I saw more flamenco shaping in Ann Widdecombe's pasodoble.

Then there was the free drink. I think the idea was to give everyone in attendance a glass of sangria, which in itself nearly broke my cliché-ometer. They failed on two parts; firstly because what we were actually given was basically a cup of red sugar with perhaps a droplet of wine in it, and secondly because half the audience were not actually of legal drinking age.

Come to think of it, perhaps my favourite moment was when said (non) dancer took a glass of 'sangria' in her hand and invited the audience to toast something. Someone shouted back 'dinero' (money), to which she took the opportunity to promote ticket sales for El Gordo - the Christmas lottery - a poster for which took prime position opposite me in amongst the framed photos and cooking paraphernalia. At least I know what Zinedine Zidane was doing during his hiatus from Real Madrid last year, judging by the photo of him and his beaming smile next to the lottery poster.

The audience are lined up in a U-shape around a narrow dancefloor, with the guitarist, singer and dancers up by the door closing the rectangle. Which basically means that the dancers perform right there in front of you, almost in your lap. I spent most of the evening tucking my feet under my chair for fear of having my toes painfully crushed under the heels of the dance troop.

That's not an exaggeration.

My walking boots took me up close and personal with a flamenco dancer in Granada.

The rest of my energy was largely spent avoiding eye contact for fear of being pulled out of my seat and thrust on to stage. Crowd participation is rarely the hallmark of an authentic flamenco show. But here, anything goes...

You laugh, but then this happened...

Crowd participation is rarely the hallmark of an authentic flamenco show

It was at this point I did a scan towards the nearest exit and calculated whether I could make a break for it without getting caught in a web being weaved by six flamenco dancers and an increasing number of bemused and embarrassed audience members. I held firm and looked at my feet. Fortunately it befell an octogenarian next to me to take the bullet, so to speak. I did have a good chuckle to myself when the bloke opposite who had filmed the whole thing on his phone, my rather unimpressed face in the background, was plucked out to strut his stuff. Fair play to him, he didn't hold back.

Ok, I'm going to try and be kind for a moment. It seems their sole intention was to ensure that everyone left the cave on this dreary evening with a smile on their face and a spring in their step. And you know what? I think they did just that. As I walked back I couldn't help but smile and shake my head. Maybe it was rain running down my cheek, perhaps tears of laughter. Sure it's not one for the purists, or anyone with even a passing interest in good flamenco, but I can't deny it was an experience that will stay with me for some time.

Recommended for: Stag parties. And those who like brass kitchen pans, excruciating amounts of noise and flamenco dancers so close you don't even have to reach out to touch them.

Thanks for reading. If you want to create your own flamenco memories, our self-drive Andalucía Uncovered gives you plenty of opportunities in Seville and Granada.

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The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

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