Category Archives: Europe

Travels in Spain, Boat Trips

In 1977 I had a two week holiday in Benidorm on the east coast of Spain. I’d like to tell you that I had a really good time, but I can’t because I didn’t enjoy it that much.

About two miles out in the bay between Levante and Poniente beaches was the little island of Isla Benidorm, a triangular shaped wedge of inhospitable rock, a mountain top I guess,  with a regular bright red ferry boat called the Bahia de Benidorm running across the short stretch for just a few pesetas each way.

Forty years ago I failed to fully understand the opportunities of travel and with limited imagination at my disposal there was so little to do that we made the trip twice and really once would have been quite enough.

It was advertised as ‘Peacock Island’ but I don’t recall seeing any on either visit and all we found there were a few scraggy chickens trying to get by in a very hostile landscape without any vegetation or water.  Fortunately there was a bar on the island with really good views back towards the mainland so at least there was somewhere to sit and have a drink while we waited for the ferry to return.

Forty years on Isla Benidorm is an uninhabited bird sanctuary and diving centre for those interested in marine life and today we were going to visit another off-shore island which is a bird sanctuary and diving centre, the islet of Tabarca about six miles from the port town of Santa Pola which fortunately sounded a lot more promising than Isla Benidorm because it has a census population of about seventy whereas Isla Benidorm has none.

We just about made boat departure time, which was a good thing because the next one wasn’t for about two hours or so (in high season they run a lot more regularly) and after purchasing our tickets we made our way to the top deck and selected seats in the sun ready for the short thirty minute crossing and after being invited to view the marine life through the glass bottom in the boat (really not worth it) we arrived in the small port and disembarked.

Before 1700, the island was known as Illa de Sant Pau or ‘Saint Paul’s Island’  on the basis that this is where Saint Paul was washed up about two thousand years ago. He must have got around a bit because he seems to have been washed up in quite a lot of places in quite a short space of time which begins to make him look very unlucky and me sceptical about the whole thing.

Personally, if I was inclined to believe any of it then I would come down on the side of the story of St Paul’s Island in Malta. The Acts of the Apostles tell the story of how Paul was shipwrecked on an island (somewhere) while on his way to Rome to face charges. You can call me a coward if you like but I wouldn’t have been going back to Rome to face charges that might result in crucifixion or beheading and I would have been inclined to stay on the island wherever it was but to be fair you don’t get to become a Saint by hiding in a cave!

Drogarati Caves, Kefalonia in 2000…

Anyway, with or without Saint Paul, Tabarca turned out to be a whole lot interesting than Isla Benidorm.

In the eighteenth century it was used as a convenient base for Berber pirates from North Africa who regularly raided the mainland coast so in 1760, to put a stop to it, Charles III of Spain ordered the fortification and repopulation of the Spanish island.

A group of Genoese sailors who had been shipwrecked near the coast of Tunisia, mostly coming from the islet of Tabark, were rescued and considered convenient settlers and the islet was renamed Nova Tabarca. The Genoese were moved to the island together with a Spanish garrison.

The King ordered a fortified town and as a consequence of Royal Decree walls, bulwarks, warehouses and barracks were built. The garrison was removed in 1850 and the buildings began to deteriorate and collapse through lack of maintenance but the Genoese stayed put and now a hundred and fifty years later it is a tourist destination and a thriving fishing community.

We maybe could have done with another hour on the island but if we missed the next ferry back we would be there for another four  which was too long so we made our way back to the small fishing port of the island and boarded the boat back to Santa Pola where we had previously found a nice pavement restaurant with a vey reasonably price Menu Del Dia and we simply sat and let the afternoon slip through our fingers.

Later we sat on the terrace and drank wine and ate pizza and just wasted the rest of the evening away as well!

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More cave stories:

Blue Lagoon, Capri

Cueva El Guerro, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Altamira Caves Santillana del Mar

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Travels in Spain, Valencia to Alicante

There was just one short morning left in Valencia. After breakfast we went our separate ways. Kim went to the shopping centre (don’t ask me why) and I returned the streets of the old town to catch anything that I might have missed.

And I had missed quite a lot…

…. It is only a small old town area but I have learned from experience that there is always something new to discover. While Kim went to the modern shopping Mall I went to the old Market District.

Monday morning must be big market day in Valencia because the place was crazy with stalls and buzzing with activity – locals and visitors, stalls selling rubbish, pickpockets eyeing a wallet snatch opportunity, beggars rattling jars and tourists looking obvious and confused. I guess I was a tourist so I left the street stalls and made my way to the Market Hall and not really wanting to buy anything found a vacant stool at a tapas bar and ordered a beer.

Drinking alone you can get through a beer quite quickly so I left soon after and returned to the streets.

Nearby was the Llotja de la Seda  a late Valencian Gothic-style civil building, a previous silk exchange and now included in the UNESCO World heritage List as  “a site of outstanding universal value as it is a wholly exceptional example of a secular building in late Gothic style, which dramatically illustrates the power and wealth of one of the great Mediterranean mercantile cities.”

It is hardly surprising that with forty-seven listed sites Italy has the most UNESCO World Heritage sites but for those who think of Spain as nothing more than a country of over developed Costas with concrete condominiums, aluminium and fibreglass marinas and pampered golf courses it might be a shock to learn that Spain has forty-three sites and is second highest in the exclusive list of places to see and visit and I was delighted now to visit this one.

With time running out I dashed through the streets, gobbling up heritage as I went, the city hall, the post office, the nineteenth century market and The Llotja de la Seda.

I then made my way back to meet Kim after her shopping expedition and to check out of the hotel. Kim hadn’t bought a single thing but I had added to my overflowing cultural reservoir of knowledge.

There was still a couple of hours to wait until our train departure so we returned now to the city market hall, much busier today than previously and we wandered through the stalls selling meat and fish and delicacies and regretted that it wasn’t really sensible to buy anything except for two bottles of cheap wine but surprisingly good wine that we would now take to my sister’s place.

We had been in a rush but now time seemed to surprisingly slow down so we stopped for a last drink in Valencia before collecting our bags and making our way to the train station. We were reluctant to leave but we had made our plans and now we were travelling south to Alicante.

We had booked reasonably priced tickets with the Spanish State railway provider RENFE but as the engine and carriages pulled in we wondered if this was a wise decision. RENFE maintains that it has a focus on improving traveller comfort and increasing the efficiency of its fleet of trains but as we climbed aboard and found our worn out seats I wasn’t so sure.

As it happened it wasn’t so bad, it was slow, almost glacial at times, the landscape was flat and boring as the train took a looping inland route away from the coast and towards the brooding grey mountains of the interior. There were frequent length stops next to vast citrus groves as our transport made way to give way for faster trains and the buffet car was absurdly expensive but eventually we were only twenty minutes late when we arrived at Alicante Terminus and a good job too because I had given wrong instructions to my sister and she was waiting at the wrong station.

Eventually they collected us and we made our way south out of Benidorm and to their house in Quesada just south of Alicante.  I had enjoyed our time in Valencia but now we could slow down and relax .

Travels in Spain. Tiles of Valencia

If I was recommending a city in Spain for tile and ceramics I would suggest Talavera de la Reina.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Talavera achieved great recognition, thanks to its ceramics. Wonderful pieces of pottery and Talavera tiles are found in the main museums all over the world and in the most luxurious palaces all over Europe.  The city is internationally known for its products, which King Philip II used as tiled revetments in many of his works, such as the monastery of El Escorial.  The nickname of Talavera de la Reina is ‘The City of Pottery’ and Mexico’s famous Talavera pottery was named after the place.

But, having said that Valencia has some interesting wall tiles of its own…

Travels in Spain, Valencia City of Arts and Sciences and a Twelve Mile Walk

The next day we planned a walk, I calculated this to be about five to six miles, along the linear garden of the Turia, through the City of Arts and Sciences and on to the marina and the beach and then back again.

We started straight after breakfast and made our way to the city gate and out of the old town and to the Turia River.  When I say Turia River I mean the path of the river before it was diverted.

The river was once infamous for its floods. The one which occurred in October 1957, known as the Great Flood of Valencia, overwhelmed the city. To prevent this from happening ever again (hopefully), a diversion project was devised (Plan Sur de Valencia) and the river was divided in two at the western city limits. The river was diverted southwards along a new course that bypasses the city until it meets the Mediterranean.

The old course of the river has been turned into a central green-space, a cultural attraction known as the garden of the Turia.

This is a good web page if you want to know more about the flood – the-flood-that-changed-valencia-forever

Walking through the old town on the way to the gardens I especially liked this traditional old hardware shop rubbing shoulders with modern boutiques and souvenir shops…

Once in the gardens it was a pleasant walk among tree lined paths, running trails and cycle tracks and underneath bridges which once carried pedestrians and traffic over the river but now appear to be entirely decorative and simply cross the exotic gardens from one side to the other.  I especially liked a modern bridge which underneath was designed like a medieval cathedral…

There was a sports field and a children’s playground and then a temporary equestrian centre where horses were being prepared for some sort of event but this was nearly two hours away and we had walking to do so we declined to stay and watch and just carried on.

By the time we reached the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias we had already walked over four miles and it was clear that my estimate was hopelessly wrong.  This area of the modern city is a sort of futuristic arts and entertainment-based cultural and architectural complex, all steel and glass shamelessly showing off in a ‘look at me, look at me’ sort of way in the intense midday sunshine which made the glass sparkle and the steel shine, the water shimmer and the golden pavements glow.

What a fabulous place but we had no time to stop today to look inside the museums or the Aquarium but as we passed through with several backward glances we immediately put it very close to the top of our ‘must return to’ list!

As we passed out of the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias  we chanced upon a modern shopping centre and  El Corte Inglés S.A,  the biggest department store group in Europe which ranks fourth worldwide and Kim could not resist a peek inside so she left me at a pavement bar for a beer and disappeared into the belly of the beast.

To my surprise she reappeared thirty minutes later as agreed just as I was certain that she would surely take much longer and I was contemplating ordering a second beer so I abandoned that, paid up and we continued on to the beach front area of the city.

As it turned out it was busy, much more frantic than I expected and the much busier in the restaurants where they were serving elaborate platters of food which we instinctively knew meant that they wouldn’t be absolutely delighted if we staked a table and proceeded to order just a couple of beers.  So we carried on along the beach until the restaurants ran out and then found a little bar in an adjacent street and stopped for our drink.

Now there was a decision to be made.  With my walking estimate cruelly exposed as completely and ludicrously wrong should we walk back or find a metro station?  Kim decided that we should walk so after consulting the map we identified the most direct route back to the old town and set off with steely resolve.

At a brisk pace it took us about forty-five minutes to walk back and we finished the return walk at the Royal Palace Gardens which were rather nice but there is no Royal Palace because it was destroyed in 1810 by the people of Valencia themselves to prevent it falling into the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte during the Peninsular War (War of Spanish Independence).

We sat for a beer in the Plaza, we had walked over twelve miles and we didn’t really want to do much more walking after that.

As it was Sunday evening the Cathedral was open for its intended purpose and on the way back to the hotel we slipped inside thus avoiding the staggeringly high entrance fee and I was glad that we did because I have to say that on this occasion I am forced to agree with Kim and report that it wasn’t especially thrilling inside.

Except for the Holy Grail!  One of the many supposed Holy Chalices in the World is kept under lock and key in one of the Cathedral’s chapels and is claimed to be the one and only true Holy Grail.  So now I can give up searching.  So sure are they that it has been the official papal chalice for many previous Popes and was used most recently by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

Upon weary legs we made our way slowly back to the hotel and in the evening I left restaurant selection duties to Kim (she is so much better at this than me) and my decision was completely vindicated when she came across a traditional looking Spanish Bodega which served conventional food with a modern twist.  It was wonderful.

We needed more time in Valencia but the next day we would be reluctantly moving on…

Travels in Spain, Doors of Valencia

Travels in Spain, Valencia and the Old Town

Mostly I want an airline flight to end quickly and I spend ten minutes or so willing the pilot to get the plane on the ground so that I can get off and get started but this was not the case when approaching the city of Valencia on the Levante coast of Spain.

The approach route involved a manoeuvre out over the Mediterranean and then a long languid approach around the south of the city.  The water was so blue it was as though the sky had fallen to earth and we crossed from sea to land over L’Albufera de València, the largest freshwater lagoon in Spain, a place for fishing and for growing paella rice. (Mar Menor in the neighbouring province of Murcia is the largest seawater lagoon by-the-way).

From the air I picked out the Old Town with its Gothic Cathedral and the City of Arts and Sciences and I was already looking forward to some of that paella rice later in the day.

After landing and passing through arrival security we took the metro into the city.  After being robbed on the Athens Metro I am always nervous of this mode of transportation but this seemed safe enough and within twenty minutes we were in the city still with all of our bags and possessions and then by some complete fluke I plotted a direct walking route to the hotel almost in the centre of the old city centre.

It was a nice hotel, boutique by description but not in reality and we settled in, approved the facilities and walked straight back out into the city.  Directly opposite was the Museum of Ceramics housed in the Palace of the Marquis of Dos Aguas, a Rococo nobility palace and a house considered as a supreme example of nobility and opulence.  The alabaster decoration came with warnings not to touch and reminded me somewhat of a Moscow Metro Station.

This is the Palace in 1870 and the building opposite,  previously the Duke of Cardona’s  baroque-style palace is now the SH Inglés Hotel.

Immediately I liked this place, the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona and just ahead of Bilbao and Malaga and after we had got our bearings we set off to explore the heart of the old city and started first at a tapas bar in the “Plaza de la Vergen” in a gloriously sunny spot overlooking the east door of the Cathedral.

It was wonderful, the sky was blue, the plaza was golden, busy and vibrant, the people were relaxed, the visitors were hurried, the waiters were languorous, purple shadows shifted across the pavements and disappeared into secret corners and we were back in Spain!

The decision to move on was a difficult one, I think I could happily have stayed all day but Valencia had a lot more to offer than a pavement bar and the bottom of a beer glass so we paid up, bagged up and move on.

We were planning to walk to the central market but went in completely the wrong direction and found ourselves at the very edge of the old town and on the border of the dried out bed of the River Turia so leaving that until another day we turned back and looked once more for our intended destination.

We walked through a combination of Baroque and modern, old and new, through a twisting labyrinth of alleyways and narrow streets all drizzled like olive oil in the history of the city, a combination of pristine plazas and graffiti spoilt corners, effervescent fountains and beggars pitches, forever being drawn into the historic heart of the city.  And what a city, towering mansions, brooding palaces and around every corner a tree lined plaza decorated with restaurant tables serving wine and tapas.

Eventually we came to the Market District, an area bubbling like a geyser with gay excitement.  Outside the tapas bars welcomed us in but we ignored them with a casual ‘maybe later’ and carried on to the market hall itself.  What a place. Bursting with fresh local produce, if I lived in Valencia I would spend all of my money in the central market.  Fruit, vegetables, tapas, wine, meat and fish, even though I am not a shopper I would gladly spend an hour or so there every day.

The tapas restaurants were so exciting that we thought we might return later but when we did they were all closed.  If I ever return  I will remember that.  So we wandered into the back streets of the city and settled on a restaurant which wasn’t the best but offered traditional food at a good price so foot-weary and tired we took a table and ordered food.

I wanted 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.

There was no liver, just traditional Valencian paella and I was glad about that and after we had eaten and after a very long day we made our way back through streets brimming with joy to the hotel.  I liked this place.  I liked this place a lot!

Travels in Spain, Guadamar After The Storm

I visited Guardamar del Seguera in November last year and was delighted to find traditional fishermen’s houses built close to the sea with tiled balconies and coloured shutters, ‘listed‘ buildings and a historical community with a close and obvious affinity with the sea.

What a good job that I saw this proud ex-fishing community when I did because when I went back this time, just four months later it was almost unrecognisable, nearly gone, the victim of changing coastal dynamics, the battering ram of the sea and a wild Mediterranean Storm on 12th December 2016 when twenty foot high waves crashed into the decaying properties and did massive amounts of damage, washing away walls, tearing down terraces, breaking beams, trashing tiles and crushing concrete.

The Casas de Babilonia are a string of houses built in the 1930’s perilously close to the beach and the sea and over the years the advancing Mediterranean has nibbled away at the fragile infrastructure and undermined the inadequate foundations.

The owners seek State aid in dealing with the storm damage and providing protection for the future but the houses are now retrospectively declared to be illegal builds that contravene the Spanish Coastal Law (ley de costas 1988) that defines a public domain area along the coast and a further zone beyond that where special restrictions apply to private ownership.

The aim of the law is to make the whole length of the coastline accessible to the public and to defend the coast against erosion and excessive urbanisation and the Casas de Babilonia are in the front line of the debate because the front of these properties presents a barrier to public access.

Guardamar Fisherman's House Door 1

Not that we noticed because there was a promenade all along the front and in front of that a wide caramel coloured sandy beach without any restrictions to the public.  Call me cynical but it seems like an official ploy to deny responsibility or funding because putting things right here is going to cost a fortune and may well be completely unaffordable.

Anyway, as it happens, this may all well be academic because the December storms and the wrecking ball of the sea began a demolition process that may now be impossible to reverse and even though the owners have vowed to raise the money required for new defences it seems to me that this is hopelessly optimistic and within only a short time these ‘listed‘ buildings will surely give way to the inevitability of the awesome power of the sea.

Today, these special properties represent a breakwater against the Mediterranean, without them, the water will penetrate further inland and take away even more of the land.

These are some pictures of the storm damage…

In a way 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.

As King Canute demonstrated fighting the tides and the power of the sea is ultimately completely pointless…

The storm did more damage than demolish the historic houses and a walk a along the beach showed just how much sand had been gnawed away, cruelly stripped by the rip-tides and abducted out somewhere into the Mediterranean.  A three foot high shelf is evidence of how far the beach has dropped and how much void there is for the sea to fill.

In just four months I could see that there is much less breakwater between the water and the sand dunes and now the sand is decorated with debris from the storm.

And Guardamar has other natural problems to deal with as well.  At the back of the beach is a linear park of palms and cactus and succulents and these are withering away and dying back as they struggle to fight some sort of pest or disease which one by one is killing the trees and plants that (I am told) once provided a stunning green park for visitors to wander amongst.  Such a shame.  A warning of just how ‘temporary’ life can be on Planet Earth!

Not anymore however because these are all now fenced off with warning signs of Paseo Prohibito!