Category Archives: El Cid

Travels in Spain, Alcoy and the Festival of the Moors and the Christians

I do like Spanish carnivals and I have always been keen to see a Festival of Moors and Christians which take place regularly throughout the year mostly in the province of Valencia in the Levante region of Spain.

Earlier this year I was trawling the airline web sites and reconciling these to suitable events and came across the perfect combination; cheap flights to Alicante and one of the most famous of all these festivals in the nearby town of Alcoy near to Benidorm and with dates that matched perfectly,  I didn’t take a lot of persuading to book the flights.

Finding a hotel was a lot more difficult, Alcoy gets rather busy during the three day festival and the nearest that I could find at a price that suits my skinflint budget was twenty miles away in the village of Confrides near to Guadalest.

The Festival of Moors and Christians celebrates the seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 which has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and the Spanish have organised and interpreted their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become an established feature of the self-image of the Spanish people.  It has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade but it is a confusing story because Spain has largely embraced its Muslim occupation as a proud part of its history.

In popular culture the reconquest has been raised to the status of a crusade and the expulsion of the Moors as liberation from an occupying army but this is not strictly the case and it would be wrong to interpret it in this way.  At this time Córdoba became the largest, richest and most sophisticated city in Western Europe.  Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange flourished.  Muslims imported a rich intellectual tradition from the Middle East and North Africa and Muslim and Jewish scholars played an important part in reviving and expanding classical Greek learning in Western Europe.

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and in eastern Iberia the Moors created the landscape of the region. After irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.

As it is essentially a celebration the people of the town and the surrounding villages split themselves equally into Moors and Christians and then organise grand parades and mock battles to tell the story of the ‘Reconquista’.

After meeting Mick and Lindsay (my sister and her husband) we began by driving from the airport directly to our hotel and when I say directly I use this term in the loosest possible sense because the mountain drive from Alicante to Confrides is anything but direct with roads that sweep and climb and rise and fall around the contours of the pepper grey mountains decorated with sprawling orchards and fruit trees.

Just a few miles out of Alicante and we noticed something pretty dramatic – suddenly, almost within the turn of a corner, the landscape changed from brown and arid to green and mountainous; the high-rise concrete hotels gave way to pretty villages and we found myself in lush valleys of oranges, almonds and lemon groves.

We were delighted with the hotel, a simple place on a bend in the road that provided excellent views along the fertile valley.  There is nothing boutique about Pensión El Pirineo just a down-to-earth place with unpretentious rooms and a promising menu so we booked a table for later and made our way to Alcoy.

The town was busy and parking was difficult but eventually we squeezed into a spot along a dusty track and made our way on foot to the Plaza Major which was anticipating the procession of the Moors.  The Christians had arrived earlier this morning so we had missed that already.  The procession was timed for five o’clock and as the event got closer the square was filled to bursting with people taking up their positions ready for the parade.

It was mad, chaotic and disorganised.  In my last job once a year I helped organise a street parade in Spalding in Lincolnshire but by the time it stopped forever the police and the health and safety fanatics had squeezed the life out of it but this was not a problem in Alcoy I can tell you as people pushed and shoved and wandered around unrestricted on the parade route.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect but it was wonderful. The Moors arrived on horseback and in marching columns some in historically accurate uniforms but others with a very loose interpretation of Moorish costumes. – rather more carnival theatre than history.

The Festival lasts for three days and is all rather intense so we were happy with our one afternoon, this year we saw the parade, maybe next year we will return for the final day siege.  As it happened we had to battle our way out of the town as people filled the streets and the bars and the festivities continued on every street corner and we felt happy to have shared a happy slice of Spanish life and culture.

We shared another slice of Spanish life later that evening back at Pensión El Pirineo where local people came and went through the bar and the restaurant and we savoured an evening of local cuisine and Murcian wine – it was delightful!

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Travels in Spain, Then and Now – Fishing and Tourism

Guardamara Fishing Houses

“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’.

Visiting my sister on the Costa Blanca we visited the coastal community of Guardamar del Segura.  Carried away by the unexpected good weather I packed swimming trunks and challenged others to do the same.  There wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm I have to say, Kim hid her swimsuit at the bottom of her case and claimed to have forgotten to bring it but my sister Lindsay promised to join me if I felt like taking to the water any time during the day.

As it happened the weather wasn’t nearly so good as the previous day so when we arrived and parked the car we left the costumes and towels in the back seat and went for a walk instead.

Guardamar del Segura turned out to be a fascinating place and once away from the modern concrete tourist beach front we found ourselves in an area of old fishermen’s houses, built almost a hundred years ago directly beside the caramel beach and now under daily attack from storms and water erosion as they crumble away into the Mediterranean. Some had already given up and surrendered to the inevitability of the assault of the sea.  A visual story of changing fortunes and times.

Fishing Boat Guardarma Alicante Spain

In preparation for visiting the Costa Blanca I read the book ‘Voices of the Old Sea’ by the travel writer Norman Lewis who (allegedly) spent three summers in the fishing village he called Farol and where he watched, recorded and lamented as modern tourism replaced traditional rural industries and he mourned the changes that take place.

The book is an account of catastrophic social change punctuated with recollections of conversations  and stories of strange customs – such as the local tradition of drowning of a mouse in the first barrel of newly pressed grapes, walking over red-hot coals and jumping over new-born babies.   Slowly over the three sections of the book he explains how he integrated himself into a community that had barely changed for hundreds of years, where people adhered to tradition, superstitions ruled, and the ageless rhythms of the year continued as they had for centuries.

He asks a local man to explain about life and he replies: “How can anyone put it? One thing is certain – here we have always been and here, whatever happens, we shall remain, listening to the voices of the old sea.”

Torrevieja Spain

But Lewis was observing life on the verge of headlong and irreversible change, the cork forests that were the life blood of their neighbours were suffering blight, the fish were not as plentiful as they once were and worst of all, the first waves of tourism were beginning to lap at the golden shores of the Costa Blanca and a way of life was heading for extinction.

By the third season there was no turning back – the fishermen’s wives were working as chambermaids at the hotel, and even his friend Sebastian had to abandoned his ambitious travelling plans and succumbed to the inevitable and become a waiter.

beach-walkway

We walked along the seashore and then into a pine forest, planted some time ago to protect the coast from erosion and now a site of special scientific interest.  It has done its job well because the sand dunes are piled high at the back of the beach and have stopped the encroachment into the land.

This reminded me of seaside holidays when I was a boy and we used to go to a cottage at Seaview Crescent at Walcott on Sea in Norfolk.  It was a crescent sure enough and every year that we went there were a few cottages missing as they had fallen over the cliff into the sea during the winter storms.  Luckily ours, which was owned by a man called Mr Bean (he was an old man and dad used to call him Mr has-been – well, he thought it was funny) was furthest away from the cliff edge so each year before we left mum and dad could always book a week there the following year with some degree of confidence.

Walcott on Sea Holiday Cottage

We walked right along the path though the pine woods and stopped for a while at the marina for a drink where the weather improved, the sun poked through the grey cloud and Lindsay began to panic about having to join me later for a swim in the sea.  As we left and started to walk back I think she was probably relieved to see the clouds coming back in and blotting out the sun and if I am honest so was I.

I liked Guardamar del Segura, it was good, it is a tourist/ex pat sort of place now but I could still get a sense of its history and fishing heritage.  It is a place that I would happily go back to.

Spain Tuna Fishing

I used to think that it might be nice to sell up and go and live abroad but as I have got older I have abandoned the idea.   I am English not Spanish or French and my character, behaviour and whole way of life has been shaped from an English heritage that, even if I wanted to, I could not lay aside and become something that I am not.

But, now I have another idea.  It always annoys me when I see a poster advertising something that happened last week, before I arrived, or will take place next week, after I have gone home, so I think I could be happy to live for a while, say twelve months, in a foreign country so that I could enjoy everything that takes place over the course of a year in a Spanish town or city and I would be very happy to place Quesada on my short list of potential places.

Spain Old Fishermen 1

Travels in Spain, Images of Alicante

Door Detail AlicanteShip and Storm AlicanteAlicante Sea ScultpturePrisoner Engraving AlicanteAlicante CathedralAlicante Castle SoldierAlicante Postcard

Travels in Spain, Alicante

alicante-esplanada-de-espana

It was mid-November and the weather was just perfect.  Shirt-sleeve weather in fact with sunshine and big sky so after breakfast we were away to the nearby city of Alicante which I was sort of surprised to discover is the eighth largest in Spain.

The short drive north took us through a wild landscape of lagoons and wetlands and for me this was another surprise.  I would have to say that it is hardly the Camargue in the South of France but away from the urbanizations and the towns it wasn’t what I was expecting and it turns out that this is a region for bird spotters and wild life photographers and I could see why as flocks of vermillion flamingos strutted through the shallow waters like statuesque flamenco dancers.

flamingo-flamenco

We arrived in Alicante and found plenty of room in an underground car park – plenty of room because Spanish drivers object to paying for car parking in the same way they boycott toll roads and would rather drive around in ever decreasing circles wasting time and fuel until they disappear up their own exhaust pipe looking for a free spot than spend a couple of euro to leave the car in a secure place.

As we emerged blinking into the sunlight, even though I have never been to Alicante before I had a strong feeling of Déjà vu.  We were on the Esplanade de España where the coloured floor tiles undulate like a rolling sea in a storm and I knew that I had seen them before.  It took me a moment or two to drag up the memory but then I remembered – I have a picture of my granddad in this very avenue, perhaps even this very spot taken nearly sixty years ago.

Alicante Old Picture 1960Alicante promenade 1959

In the photograph below my grandparents whose names were Ernie and Olive were probably about fifty years old or so and they were clearly having a very good time sitting at a bar enjoying generous measures of alcohol, the same sort of good time that I like to enjoy when I go travelling.

I’m guessing of course but Granddad, who looks unusually bronzed, seems to have a rum and coke and Nan who looks younger than I can ever remember her appears to have some sort of beer with a slice of lime and that’s about forty years before a bottle of Sol with a bit of citrus became anything like fashionable.  With him is his brother George (no socks, very impressive for 1960) and his wife Lillian. Nan and Granddad look very relaxed and with huge smiles that I can barely remember.

Benidorm Bar 1960?

We walked first around the marina and stopped briefly for a drink and then on to the beach, abandoned today because although the sun was shining it was perhaps a little too cool for a dip in the Mediterranean so we bypassed the opportunity of getting into our bathing costumes and made our way instead to the castle which sits on a rocky outcrop and looms large over the area.

Finding a castle to visit is not difficult in Spain because, according to the Spanish Tourist Board, there are over two thousand five hundred of them, for comparison there are eight hundred in the United Kingdom but France claims almost five-thousand but it includes a lot of questionable  small Chateaux in that number.

It looked like a strenuous climb to the top but fortunately there was an express lift so we took the easy option and in a few seconds were standing at the very top of the city.  Alicante castle turned out to be as good as any in Spain, there is a lot of reconstruction and renovation of course but I find nothing wrong with that and we enjoyed an hour or so walking around the battlements, looking at the exhibits and enjoying the elevated views.

Alicante Castle

We had return tickets for the lift option but walked down instead and at the bottom at around early afternoon we searched for the old town and somewhere nice to eat.  We were looking for a tapas bar and found one that we liked in a pleasant square in the last of the Autumn sunshine where we ordered a beer and selected our favourite food.

According to legend, the tapas tradition began when the King of Castile, Alfonso the Wise (if I was King I think I would like to be called ‘the Wise’, so much better than ‘Andrew the Fat’ or ‘Bad King Andrew’) visited a tavern in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the province of Cádiz, and ordered a glass of sherry.  There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting dirty.  The King liked it, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa or ‘cover’ just like the first.

Wine and Tapas

This developed into the practice of using slices of bread or meat as a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the drink. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, which are both very salty and activate thirst and because of this, bartenders and restaurant owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry, thus increasing their alcohol sales.

As we finished lunch the sun slipped behind the tall buildings and cast long shadows across the square so as the temperature quickly dipped we paid up and left and strolled for a second time around the marina before returning later to the town of Quesada where we were staying and spending an hour or so in the garden before preparing to go out for an entertaining evening meal.

Alicante Tapas

Travels in Spain, Valencia and The Costa Blanca

003

I am fairly certain that I have mentioned here before that I have a travel ambition to visit all of the seventeen Autonomous Communities of Spain.  So far I have managed fifteen but still need to add La Rioja and Navarre to my  list.  I could have chosen to go there this time but instead I went to the east coast where I have been previously.

I have been to Valencia and Murcia before and I have always said that it isn’t my favourite part of Spain but now my sister lives there so this provided an opportunity to visit and possibly make a reassessment.  I resolved that if possible that this should be a voyage of discovery.

This part of the east coast of Spain is called the Costa Blanca now but it is still quite often referred to by its once regional name of Levante from a time when the Moors had colonial ownership of the Iberian peninsular and had a heavy presence all along this Mediterranean coastline.

It is said that the name Costa Blanca was originally conceived as a promotional name by British European Airways when it first launched its air service between London and Valencia in 1957 at the start of the package holiday boom.  I think this may explain why I have always been a bit snooty about it because I have always associated it with concrete holiday resorts and as we flew in over Benidorm, gleaming like a shiny pin-cushion I was fairly certain that nothing short of dynamite was going to change my opinion.

Alicante Castle

This opinion exposes my prejudice and ignorance because the problem that I have is that I find it difficult to get an understanding of Valencia because you need to dig deep to find the true heritage of the place.  Nothing shouts out to me like the Flamenco of Andalucía, Don Quixote of Castilla-La Mancha or the Conquistadors of Extremadura, of Gaudi in Catalonia, the Camino Way of Galicia or tales of Saint James and the Reconquista in Castilla y Leon.

The only flimsy thing that I have ever had to go on was the story of El Cid and the battle with the Moors over the city of Valencia

Benidorm Spain

Allow me to go on; it has always concerned me that there are a great many British living in this part of Spain, in Torrevieja alone there are about twelve thousand which accounts for about thirteen per cent of the entire population.  In fact the Spanish themselves are in the minority at only forty-eight per cent and soon it is estimated that in total there will be one million Brits living on the Costa Blanca.

It is not only British but also the Scandinavians and the Germans and the Dutch and even the Spanish themselves because as more immigrants arrive then more people from other regions of Spain head east for the jobs that are created. Valencia has some difficulty retaining and protecting its own identity and many local people lament the loss of heritage and language and tradition.

So I got a bigger spade and started to dig a bit deeper to try to learn something about Valencia other than the story of El Cid.

paella

I suppose I have to start with paella because although it has come to be regarded as the national dish of Spain it originated right here in Valencia.  When the Moors reached Alicante in 718 they discovered a pleasant climate perfect for growing crops that wouldn’t grow in Africa and set about turning this part of the peninsula into a centre of horticulture.

They developed a system of irrigation and exploited the wetlands that were created to grow rice.  Not just any rice however, not your supermarket economy rice, not Uncle Ben’s ‘boil in a bag’, but arroz bomba introduced from the east which has the perfect constituency to produce the dish.

These days people will add almost any ingredient to a paella but the true Valencian meal is always made of chicken, rabbit and white beans.  Most things work but I have a friend who adds liver and that doesn’t but then again I have strong culinary views on liver – avoid it at all costs – it takes offal.

valencia-oranges

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and normally I would look for palaces and castles as a reminder of this time but in the Levante you have to look at the countryside because the Moors created the landscape of the region. After the irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.  There are no olives or vines in Valencia just acres and acres of fruit that stretch as far as the eye can see.

In holiday brochures this might be the Costa Blanca but it has a less well-known alternative name – the Orange Blossom Coast which owes its name to the sharp, sweet smell of citrus that hangs in the Spring air.  Spain is Europe’s largest producer of oranges and two-thirds of these little balls of sunshine come from the region around Valencia.  The millions of orange trees are shiny green the year round, clothed in delicate white blossoms in spring and bright orange baubles in the autumn when each tree groans under the burden of some five hundred fruits.

We landed in Alicante in bright sunshine around about lunch time and after a short drive to the urbanisation of Quesada we immediately settled in to local life by finding a bar with some local tapas.  It was good to be in Spain once more.

Tapas Alicante

Travels in Spain – UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Don Quixote and Sancho PanzaAlcalá de Henares

My visit to and post about Alcalá de Henares and the forty-four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Spain (Second highest to Italy at forty-nine) made me stop and think about the comparison with the list that I reviewed recently of the “Twelve Treasures of the Kingdom of Spain” which was a contest/poll that was conducted by the Spanish Television Company Antena 3 and the radio broadcaster Cope.

Spain World Heritage Sites…

I have set out the full list of World Heritage Sites below including links to the twenty-two that I have visited.  The sites are spread across the entire Iberian Peninsula but of the Autonomous Communities, Catalonia, at a crossroads of European culture, and Castilla y Leon, the largest by area, have the most with six sites each.  Aragon, Asturias, Basque Country, La Rioja and Murcia have only one each but of all seventeen regions Navarre in the north of the country is the only one that doesn’t have any at all.

In 2005 I went to Barcelona in Catalonia and saw the works of Antoni Gaudi, Palau de la Música Catalana and the Hospital de Sant Pau. Then in 2008 I saw the Historic Centre of Cordoba, the Caves of Altamira in Cantabria, the Old Town and Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella  and the Alcázar and Archivo de Indias in Seville.  In 2009 in the motoring holiday around Castilian cities it was the Old Town of Segovia and its Roman Aqueduct, the Walled Town of Cuenca, the Historic City of  Toledo and the Old Town of Ávila.  This trip in 2011 added CáceresMérida and Aranjuez.

In 2011 on a driving holiday in Catilla y Leon I added Salamanca and Burgos and earlier this year the Alhambra Palace in Granada.

   

Even before I knew anything about World Heritage Sites it turns out that I have visited two more in the days of my beach type holidays.  Although, to be absolutely fair, when I went to these places neither of them were yet on the list.

In 1988 I holidayed on the island of Ibiza which was accepted onto the list in 1999 in recognition of its biodiversity and culture and the following year I went to Tenerife and took a cable car ride to the top of Mount Tiede, a national park that was accepted to the list in 2007.

Even though they weren’t World Heritage Sites at the time I visited them I am still going to count them but the final one might be a bit dubious – but anyway here goes.  In 2008 while visiting Santiago de Compostella I managed to drive over parts of the Pilgrim Route, which exists on the list separately from the old city itself.

As well as the indignity of having no World Heritage sites poor old Navarre doesn’t have a coastline, no international airport or a direct link to the Spanish high speed rail infrastructure.  Maybe the city of Pamplona needs to start working on a bid to UNESCO for the next round of qualifying.

Pamplona Bull Run Angry Bull Charging

The full list of World Heritage Sites in Spain is…
Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín, Granada (1984)
Aranjuez Cultural Landscape (2001)
Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida (1993)
Archaeological Ensemble of Tárraco (2000)
Archaeological Site of Atapuerca (2000)
Burgos Cathedral (1984)
Cantabrian Cave of Altamira
Catalan Romanesque Churches of the Vall de Boí (2000)
Cathedral, Alcázar and Archivo de Indias, Seville (1987)
Cultural Landscape of the Serra de Tramuntana (2011)
Doñana National Park (1994)
El Escorial Monastery and Site of the Escurial, (1984)
Garajonay National Park (1986)
Heritage of Mercury. Almadén and Idrija (2012)
Historic Centre of Cordoba (1984)
Historic City of Toledo (1986)
Historic Walled Town of Cuenca (1996)
Ibiza, Biodiversity and Culture (1999)
La Lonja de la Seda de Valencia (1996)
Las Médulas (1997)
Monuments of Oviedo and Kingdom of the Asturias (1985)
Mudejar Architecture of Aragon (1986)
Old City of Salamanca (1988)
Old Town of Ávila with its Extra-Muros Churches (1985)
Old Town of Cáceres (1986)
Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct (1985)
Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau, Barcelona (1997)
Palmeral of Elche (2000)
Poblet Monastery (1991)
Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega Verde (1998)
Pyrénées – Mont Perdu (1997)
Renaissance Monumental Ensembles of Úbeda and Baeza (2003)
Rock Art of the Mediterranean Basin on the Iberian Peninsula (1998)
Roman Walls of Lugo (2000)
Route of Santiago de Compostela (1993)
Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe (1993)
San Cristóbal de La Laguna (1999)
San Millán Yuso and Suso Monasteries (1997)
Santiago de Compostela (Old Town) (1985)
Teide National Park (2007)
Tower of Hercules (2009)
University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares (1998)
Vizcaya Bridge (2006)
Works of Antoni Gaudí (1984)
Like UNESCO, the “Twelve Treasures of the Kingdom of Spain“…

didn’t include any entries from Navarre but had the most (three) from Andalusia.  Interestingly it only included four World Heritage Sites in its list, Cordoba, Seville, Altamira Caves and Santiago de Compostela.

In response to the official list of winners I produced my own alternative list, six of which shared a place on the UNESCO list, Salamanca, Avila, Cuenca, Aranjuez, El Escorial and the works of Antoni Gaudi but also like UNESCO and the Spanish TV viewers I didn’t include anywhere in Navarre.

Can I interest anyone else in compiling a list?

spain-world-heritage-cities-map

Travels in Spain – Statues

Francesco Pizzaro Trujillo Extremadura SpainBurgos Weary PilgrimDon Quixote Alcala de HenaresEl Cid Burgos SpainAntequera King FedinandPhilip IV and the Palacio Real