Category Archives: Food

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 off Tunisian 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 wasted the rest of the afternoon away.

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, 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, Benidorm and How Things Change

This is a picture of me taken on the Balcón del Mediterráneo in 1977.  It is a picture that when investigated has stories to tell.

First of all the terracing itself and the balcony columns, dirty and neglected, crumbling and falling apart but now restored and pristine with a regular fresh coat of paint.

These are the same balustrade columns thirty years later in 2007 but this time overlooking the Levante rather than the Poniente Beach…

Next is that cannon, it isn’t there any more, except that it is but instead of being carelessly left on the edge of the balcony it is now part of a sculpture that has been created nearby…

And what about the surfacing?  In 1977 it was sand and gravel but now it is dazzling blue and white tiling and the scruffy Mediterranean shrubs and cactus has been cleared away to leave a more open but sterile view of the beaches…

Look at the background, the hotel developments stop way short of the headland – not any more and there is nowhere for Benidorm to go now except around the corner towards Villajoyosa (post coming up about Villajoyosa).

Amongst those high rise buildings is Intempo, at six hundred and thirty feet high Europe’s tallest residential skyscraper.  My forty year old picture shows nothing like that and neither does this old postcard…

I have to confess that I am getting old and nostalgic and just like Norman  Lewis  I long for the past and some times lament progress …

Travels in Spain, Old Postcards From Benidorm

Travels in Spain, Guadalest and Benidorm (A Blast from the Past)

After simple breakfast at Pensión El Pirineo I persuaded the others now to join me on a voyage of personal nostalgia and rediscovery.  I visited this part of Spain forty years ago when I went on a two week holiday to Benidorm and I thought it might be fun to revisit the places that I had seen in 1977.

First we went to Guadalest (picture above, 1977) a small mountain village with a castle which is a short bus trip drive out of Benidorm and a day trip that I took all those years ago.  It hadn’t really changed a great deal, except it had had a few coats of fresh paint and the local ladies selling genuine lace products had been replaced by tourist shops selling junk.

We stopped for lunch and a walk around the narrow streets but it was much smaller than I remembered and it didn’t take long to refresh my memories and soon we were on the road into Benidorm.

Mick wasn’t looking forward to this at all, I think it is quite low down on his list of places to visit in Spain but I was really happy to be revisiting the place that I had hated in 1977 and Mick hates in 2017.

Back then we could have gone practically anywhere we liked, so long as it was within our restricted budget of course, but we choose to go to Benidorm on the Costa Blanca for two whole weeks and we selected the Don Juan hotel on Calle Gerona, just behind the Levante beach because my girlfriend, Linda (later my wife) had been there some time before with her parents and had liked it.

Iglesia de San Jaime y Santa Ana near the Balcón del Mediterráneo in 1977..

And again in 2017…

Benidorm is one of the most popular tourist locations in Europe, today six million people go there each year on holiday but in 1977 it was even more popular and that year attracted the most holidaymakers ever and over twelve million people poured into the city.  That peak in numbers has never been matched since and it is unlikely that it ever will be.

Arriving in Benidorm we left the motorway and found an underground car park with surprising ease (underground car parks are always empty in Spain because the Spanish refuse to pay parking fees) and with the anticipation of severe culture shock rising to near boiling point we made straight for the old town.

Almost immediately it was a huge let down.  We had been expecting tat shops and British pubs, the distinctive smell of Hawaiian tropic, fat bellied lager louts with tattoos and peroxide Essex blondes with fake designer sunglasses and massive boob-jobs but there was none of that sort of thing at all.  No rampaging bands of tourist hooligans just a pensioner choir singing on the beach.

It was a very a very civilised affair with predominantly elderly Spanish people sedately enjoying the sun and a few British left-over’s from the winter Saga tours where the length of stay could be measured directly in degrees of orange tan.  Not even any ‘looky-looky’ men to pester us!

I have to say that Benidorm in 2017 was nothing like what I was anticipating at all but was really rather pleasant and the beaches were immense and spectacular with beautiful clean sand and blue flags flapping proudly in the breeze.  It is an interesting fact that Spain has more blue flag beaches than any other participating country with five hundred and eleven in five thousand kilometres of coastline, the United Kingdom by comparison, has only one hundred and twenty-five in nearly eighteen thousand kilometres.

Balcón del Mediterráneo in 1977…

And again in 2017, now with a tiled pavement and terrace…

In the old town itself there were more Spanish tapas bars than British pubs and there was a notable absence of those awful places with tacky pictures of the food on the menu.   There was not a bit of it and after wandering around the old town searching unsuccessfully for cheap souvenir shops we had to finally admit defeat and sit in a bar on the seafront and have the first beer of the day.

If Benidorm was a surprisingly nice place then the old town was an especially nice place with a blue domed church, reminiscent of those in the Greek islands, and a pedestrianised area that was positively delightful.  I remembered this from my visit forty years ago but not much else I have to say and with refreshment time over we walked a short way along the Levante in search of what we were sure was the real Benidorm from the television series but without success we called a halt to the expedition and retraced our steps back to the car.

Although we were disappointed not to see what we had come for it was a pleasant surprise and we left with the confirmation that despite the tourists that flock in every summer that Benidorm is a very real Spanish town, with Spanish culture and a Spanish history of tuna fishermen and merchant sailors that was actually quite plain to see.

I wished that I had grasped that in 1977 because if I had then I am sure that I would have enjoyed it more then.

Danger in Naples – Camorra, Vesuvius and Pollution

Naples Italy

“”See Naples and die.” Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently””, Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

On Saturday it was time for another trip and after breakfast we joined the coach that was taking us to Naples.  Naples is the third largest city in Italy after Rome and Milan but in the Golden Age of the eighteenth century it was the third largest in Europe after London and Paris.  Until its annexation to the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was the wealthiest and most industrialised of the Italian states.

There is a famous phrase that says ‘See Naples and die!’ which originated under the Bourbon regime and means that before you die you must experience the beauty and magnificence of Naples.  Some, less charitable, now say that the city is so mad, dangerous and polluted that death might possibly be a consequence of a visit there.

To be fair not everyone is so pessimistic and gloomy about Naples and in 1913 George Bradshaw wrote in his guide ‘Great Continental Railway Journeys”…

“Naples is a bit of heaven that has tumbled to earth.”

Centro Storico Naples

I liked it immediately.  At the Centro Storico the warren of alleys with peeling sepia walls were vibrant, chaotic and gloriously dilapidated, the architecture was glorious, the locals loud and boisterous, the balconies bannered with laundry and the driving was appalling.   This was a glorious place, the beating heart of the city, raw, passionate, crumbling, secret, welcoming and corrupt

Naples, we learned, was dangerous for a number of reasons.  Most obvious of all is its perilously close proximity to Vesuvius that looms large over the city. Naples is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world and is regarded as potentially one of the most dangerous volcanoes on earth because there is a population of three million people living so close to it.  Vesuvius has a tendency towards unexpected explosive eruptions and as the last one was in 1946 the next one is most probably overdue.

52 Naples

The second reason is lawlessness because Naples has enormous problems with Mafia style organised crime.  The Naples equivalent of the Mafia is the Camorra, which is a loose confederation of criminal networks in control of organised crime, prostitution, arms dealing and drug-trafficking, and the gang wars result in a high number of deaths.

The network of clans has been described as Italy’s most murderous crime syndicate, preying on the communities around it by means of extortion and protection rackets. Rival factions wage feuds as they battle to control the drugs trade.

Although we were extremely unlikely to come across the Camorra on our short visit to the city the tour guide did give strong advice on taking care of wallets and valuables and a recommendation not to buy anything from illegal street vendors.  She told us that cheap cigarettes would most likely be made from sawdust substituted for tobacco, leather handbags would be plastic and whiskey would be cold tea instead of a single malt and wherever we went we pestered by children trying to tempt us into a purchase.

“I remember the back streets of Naples
Two children begging in rags
Both touched with a burning ambition
To shake off their lowly brown tags”

Peter Sarstedt – ‘Where do you go to my lovely’

The Godfather

The third reason is the high levels of pollution which means that Naples is a very unhealthy city.  It was the most bombed Italian city of World-War-Two and today as we drove through it looked as though they were still tidying up.  The streets were full of litter and there was graffiti on almost every wall.  The historical tourist centre, which twenty years after our visit was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was better but we didn’t have to stray far away to find the unpleasant parts and the guide discouraged us from breaking away from the group.

There was a lot of air pollution as well and although the sun was shining above it we were trapped in a layer of smog and haze.  We drove to a viewing platform high up in the city overlooked by the bulk of Vesuvius and with a jaw-dropping view over the bay looking back towards the Sorrentine Peninsula where we could just about make out the ghostly apparition of Capri and although the sea looked inviting we knew that this was one of the most polluted parts of the whole of the Mediterranean Sea.

Vesuvius Naples Italy

The main reason for a trip to Naples was to visit the National Archaeological Museum which is considered one of the most important in the World for artifacts from the Roman Empire.  It was all very interesting and the best exhibits were the treasures unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum which filled many of the rooms.

I remember it as a curious museum without logical sequence or order and many of the valuable items on display seemed dangerously vulnerable.  In one room was a wooden bed that had been recovered from Pompeii and which one visitor decided to sit on to test it out.  This provoked a rebuke from an attendant but I have to say that it was their own fault for not giving it adequate protection.  I expect things might be different now.

But maybe not and I like this news report from August 2013:

“A tourist snapped the finger off a priceless fourteenth century statue in Florence. The incident took place in the Italian city’s world famous Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, with the six hundred year-old exhibit believed to be the work of eminent medieval sculptor Giovanni d’Ambrogio.

The tourist apologised for damaging the priceless artwork but the museum condemned the tourist’s behaviour, saying: “In a globalized world like ours, the fundamental rules for visiting a museum have been forgotten, that is, ‘Do not touch the works’”.

But there is  a twist to the tale – The museum  subsequently confessed that the broken finger was not original to the piece, and had been added at a later date.

In the late afternoon we left Naples and drove through the untidy outskirts of the city through whole neighbourhoods that were desperately in need of some attention.  After the War the Italian Government spent huge amounts of cash on rebuilding Naples and the south of the country but in some of these places it looked as if they were yet to make a start.  As we moved out of the haze of the city the sun came through and we drove back down the main road that returned us to Sant’ Agnello.

Naples Italy from viewing platform