“By the end…it was clear that Spain’s spiritual and cultural isolation was at an end, overwhelmed by the great alien invasion from the North of money and freedoms. Spain became the most visited tourist country in the World, and slowly, as the foreigners poured in, its identity was submerged, its life-style altered more in a single decade than in the previous century.” Norman Lewis, ‘Voices of the Old Sea’.
The “Twelve Treasures of the Kingdom of Spain” was a contest/poll that was conducted by the Spanish Television Company Antena 3 and the radio broadcaster Cope. The final results were announced on 31st December 2007. I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the eight out of the twelve that I have visited and having completed that I thought I might come up with a personal alternative twelve. The original twelve included San Sebastián in the Basque Country but my alternative holiday beach city of Benidorm and I include it here at number six.
In the first few years of the 1960s my grandparents visited Benidorm in Spain several times. For people from London who had lived through the Luftwaffe blitz of the 1940s and the killer smog of the 1950s they applied for passports (which was practically unheard of for ordinary people) and set out with pale complexions on an overseas adventure and returned home with healthy Mediterranean suntans and duty free alcohol and cigarettes. They brought back exotic stories of exciting overseas adventures and suitcases full of unusual souvenirs, castanets, replica flamenco dancing girls, handsome matador dolls with flaming scarlet capes and velour covered bulls that decorated their living room and collected dust for the next twenty years or so.
In 1950 a Russian émigré called Vladimir Raitz founded a travel company in London called Horizon Holidays and started flying people to Southern Europe and the package tour was born. In 1957 British European Airways introduced a new route to Valencia and the designation ‘Costa Blanca’ was allegedly conceived as a promotional name when it first launched its new service on Vanguard Vickers airoplanes with four propeller driven engines at the start of the package holiday boom.
The flight took several hours and arrival at Valencia airport some way to the west of the city was not the end of the journey because there was now a one hundred and fifty kilometre, four-hour bus ride south to Benidorm in a vehicle without air conditioning or air suspension seats and in the days before motorways on a long tortuous journey along the old coast road.
Benidorm developed as a tourist location because it enjoys a unique geographical position on the east coast of Spain. The city faces due south and has two stunningly beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean Sea that stretch for about four kilometres either side of the old town, on the east the Levante, or sunrise, and to the west the Poniente, the sunset, and it enjoys glorious sunshine all day long and for most of the year as well.
Sixty years ago Benidorm, although not a fishing village as such, was still a modest beach side community, a place of sailors, fishermen and farmers who patiently tended almond, olive, carob and citrus trees – the sort of place that Norman Lewis would have recognised. Small fishing boats, the tarrafes, each with four large lanterns to attract fish at night bobbed in the water or lay drawn up resting on the sand. In 1950, Benidorm didn’t attract many visitors and life was difficult, it had no water supply or sewage disposal system and waste was tipped in the sea or simply buried in the earth.
The watershed year was 1954 when the Franco loyalist, Pedro Zaragoza Orts was nominated as town Alcalde and threw himself into his work and set himself an objective of improving the quality of life in the small town. In terms of economic potential there wasn’t a lot to work with so he decided to concentrate on tourism and he imagined a dream of creating a bourgeois pan-European holiday utopia. Benidorm had sun, it had beaches, it had sea but what it didn’t have was visitors.
Zaragoza recognised the potential of increased numbers of visitors and quickly created the Plan General de Ordenación, or city building plan, that would exploit that potential. The plan ensured that every building would have an area of leisure land, guaranteeing a future free of the excesses of cramped construction seen in other areas of Spain and it is the only city in the country that still adheres to this rigid rule. This vision for the future took six years to come to reality, while he waited he piped in domestic water from Polop, fifteen kilometres to the north in the mountains on the road to Guadalest and he ignited the building boom that followed and the flying start that Benidorm achieved in the package tour boom of the 1960s and 70s.
The vision for Benidorm was simultaneously brilliant and exciting and it gave the modern city its modern unique landscape because Zaragoza encouraged vertical construction of dozens of sky scrapers in a deliberate plan to make efficient use of land and to keep the city at ground level spacious and airy with green parks and open spaces and all of the accommodation relatively close to the beaches. He explained his plan like this; ‘If you build low, you occupy all the space and have a long walk to the beach. If you build high, you can face the sea, and leave room for gardens, pools and tennis courts’. This was in contrast to nearby Torrevieja and on the Costa Del Sol in the south, Marbella where excessive horizontal development led to great sprawling ugly urbanisations that have practically destroyed the coast by burying it under concrete and tarmac. Zaragoza called this urban concentration instead of urban sprawl.
The first developments started at the centre at the rocky outcrop in the twisting narrow streets hemmed in by claustrophobic whitewashed houses, the San Jaime church with its distinctive blue tiled hat roofs, the old town promontory with the Balcon Del Mediterraneo, and pretty Mal Pas beach below and quickly spread east and west along the splendid beaches. Today Benidorm has some of the tallest buildings not only in Spain but all of Europe but the first were fairly modest by comparison, the tallest reaching only a modest ten floors or so.
If Pedro Zaragoza Orts is remembered for the Beni-York skyscraper he is even more famous for the so called ‘War of the Bikini’. In the later years of the 1950s the icon of holiday liberty was the saucy two piece swimsuit but in staunchly religious Spain, still held in the firm two-handed grip of church and state, this scanty garment was seen as a threat to the very basis of Catholic society.
And it certainly had this effect in Spain and although occasionally allowable on the sandy beaches, it had to be covered up in all other areas; on the promenades and in the plazas and in the shops and the bars and cafés for fear of causing any offence. In one famous incident, a British tourist, sitting in a bar opposite a beach wearing only a bikini, was told by a Guardia Civil officer that she wasn’t allowed to wear it there. After an argument she hit him, and her strike for social justice cost her a hefty fine of forty thousand pesetas.
Zaragoza needed tourists and tourists wanted the bikini and with more northern European tourists arriving each year in search of an all over suntan the Mayor knew that the banning of the two piece swimsuit simply couldn’t be sustained or allowed to threaten his ambitious plans.
Zaragoza took a gamble and signed a municipal order which permitted the wearing of the bikini in public areas and in this single act he effectively jump-started the Spanish tourist industry. Zaragoza said: “People had to feel free to be able to wear what they wanted, within reason, if it helped them to enjoy themselves as they would come back and tell their friends about the place.” In deeply religious Catholic Spain not everyone was so understanding or welcoming of the bikini however and in retaliation the Archbishop of Valencia began the excommunication process against him.
Excommunication was a serious matter in 1959 and his political supporters began to abandon him so one day he got up early and drove for nine hours on a little Vespa scooter to Madrid to lobby Franco himself. The Generalissimo was suitably impressed with his determination and gave him his support, Zaragoza returned to Benidorm and the Church backed down and the approval of the bikini became a defining moment in the history of modern Spain ultimately changing the course of Spanish tourism and causing a social revolution in an austere country groaning under the yoke of the National Catholic regime. Zaragoza went on to become Franco’s Director of Tourism and a Parliamentary Deputy.
For people who had never been abroad before Benidorm must have been an exciting place in the early 1960s. Palm fringed boulevards, Sangria by the jug full and, unrestrained by optics, generous measures of whiskey and gin, rum and vodka. Eating outside at a pavement café and ordering drinks and not paying for them until leaving and scattering unfamiliar coins on the table as a tip for the waiter. There was permanent sunshine, a delightful warm sea and unfamiliar food, although actually I seem to doubt that they would be introduced to traditional Spanish food on these holidays because to be fair anything remotely ethnic may have come as shock because like most English people they weren’t really ready for tortilla and gazpacho, tapas or paella.
Benidorm is a fascinating place, often unfairly maligned or sneered at but my grandparents liked it and I have been there myself in 1977 for a fortnight’s holiday and then again on a day trip in 2008 just out of curiosity. It has grown into a mature and unique high rise resort with blue flag beaches and an ambition to achieve UNESCO World Heritage Status and I hope it achieves it.
Other posts about Benidorm:
Thanks to http://www.realbenidorm.net/ for the use of the postcard images