Have Bag, Will Travel
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Category Archives: Spain
““Do you like that?” I’ll say in surprise since it doesn’t seem like her type of thing, and she’ll look at me as if I’m mad. That!?” She’ll say, “No, it’s hideous” “Then why on earth,” I always want to say, “did you walk all the way over there to touch it?” but of course…I have learned to say nothing when shopping because no matter what you say… it doesn’t pay, so I say nothing.” Bill Bryson – ‘Notes From a Small Island’
It was our final day at my sister’s place on the east coast of Spain and it looked very much as though the sun was going to make a reappearance so after breakfast we drove south into the Province of Murcia, the Costa Calida and the resort town of Lo Pagán.
On the way we drove past salt water lagoons, separated from the sea by a narrow strip of land and now a site of carefully managed and intensive salt extraction. It turns out that this is the biggest and most important site for sea salt production in all of Europe. I didn’t know that! The flamingos did and there were flocks of hem paddling about in the shallow water and expertly fishing for salt water shrimps!
It reminded me of what else Spain is famous for (other than flamenco, bullfighting and El Cid).
First of all olives because Spain is the world’s leading producer of olives and is by a long way the country with the highest number of olive trees (more than three hundred million) and nowadays the world’s leading olive and olive oil producer and exporter and the world’s leading producer of table olives, which explains why cafés and bars are always so generous with a plate of olives to accompany every drink.
Next – Serrano Ham because go to Extemadura in the west and you will drive through fields of grazing Black Iberian Pigs gorging themselves on acorns in preparation for being turned into the Spanish gastro specialty, Jamón ibérico. Iberian ham products are processed throughout Extremadura, making this region the country’s leading producer and in a sparsely populated region about a million hectares of open range are used by over one thousand-five hundred livestock breeders.
One of the fascinating things about the world’s great food it seems is the way they are a product of geography and Spain is a classic example, salt from the Mediterranean, Olives from the sun baked plains of Andalucia, Jamón ibérico from Extremadura and Rioja wine from the vinyards of the north.
I didn’t know what to expect of Lo Lo Pagán, would it be stylish like Alicante or utilitarian like Torrevieja? As it turned out it was somewhere between the two, leaning towards Alicante I would say. We stopped for a beer as the sun burned through the thinning cloud and then walked along a causeway which extended a mile or so into the lagoon. It was a lovely walk in the weak sunshine with statuesque flamingos on one side and see-sawing fishing boats on the other. At the end of the causeway there was a pumping windmill, idle today, but nothing else except an opportunity to look out to sea before turning around and walking all the way back.
The weather was good and I was almost tempted to suggest a swim in the sea but I could tell that no one else would be terribly enthusiastic about that so I said nothing and we returned to the car and drove to a shopping centre at La Zenia.
I am not a big fan of shopping as you know and fortunately neither is Mick so we left Kim and Lindsay to browse the shops and we went for a beer and a bocadillo!
In the late afternoon it started to rain, just a little drizzle, but we didn’t mind it was our last afternoon and evening and next morning we would be returning to English drizzle anyway.
It had been a good few days in Spain especially because I was able to confront some of my prejudices about the Levante region of Spain. I have to say that it is unlikely ever to become my favourite but I was able to scrape away at the surface of ex-pat life and appreciate some of the heritage and history of the region and I look forward to going back again!
“I think you are missing the fact that ex-pats in little England actually do enjoy their view and their way of life in Spain. What’s wrong with sunshine and cheap booze and cheap fags?” – fellow blogger, roughseasinthemed (Be sure to visit, you might like it)
I last visited the Levante east coast of Spain on a golfing holiday in May 2008. We didn’t play golf every day and we alternated playing days with sightseeing along the coast. One day we went to the seaside resort of Torrevieja and as we drove away I said that I would never go back.
I had to keep this ‘not on my bucket list’ thought to myself this morning when my sister Lindsay revealed that this was the plan for today.
In 2008 I still considered Spain to be massive holiday resort for the benefit of visitors from the north, it was only a year later when I began my travels into the interior and came to realise just how wrong I was.
Since then I have been fortunate to be able to visit almost all of Iberia, Spain and Portugal (except for Gibraltar, La Rioja and Navarre) and I am much better informed now and much less critical of the coastal Costas.
I didn’t like Torrevieja that day in 2008 because I wore blinkers and couldn’t see beyond the crowded beach and the long concrete strip overlooked by 1970’s high-rise hotels with towels hanging from the balconies like carnival bunting and littered with bars with cheap plastic orange furniture and tacky pictures of the food on the menu displayed on pavement boards.
To be honest, on that day I set out not wanting to like it and I successfully fulfilled my own petty ambition. So here was an opportunity to set the record straight.
One thing that I did like that previous visit however were the impressive sandcastle artists who had constructed the most amazing displays of castles, dragons, ogres and naked ladies and were diligently carrying out constant running repairs to prevent the things drying out and collapsing back into the sea.
I was glad to see that they were still there…
It was rather cold this morning, there was no sun so there was no question or debate about taking the swimming costumes and towels and I think everyone was relieved about that and appropriately dressed we drove the short distance to the coast where we parked the car and set off for a walk along the seafront promenade.
It was much as I remembered it, still concrete, still lined with high-rise. It isn’t an attractive place, it isn’t Alicante with its attractive patterned paving and palm fringed boulevards. It is much more utilitarian and functional. Sprawling and horizontal it invites a direct comparison with vertical Benidorm, fifty miles or so to the north. Benidorm is better (in my opinion).
In 2008 I wanted to snigger about Torrevieja but today I wanted to find the good in it. We strolled along the promenade, popped inside some tacky seafront shops because I wanted some postcards and then selected a café for a drink. There were no orange plastic chairs and no pavement picture boards and there was an impressive lunchtime tapas menu. We had a drink and as we left promised to come back later to eat – I wonder how many times the staff hear that?
So we continued the walk along the seafront and then Mick made the fatal mistake of taking us back through a shopping street and we were detained several times as Kim and Lindsay were distracted by shoes and sparkly things! How many pairs of shoes does one person need I always wonder?
We went back to the bar for lunch and where it had been quiet and abandoned earlier it was busy and vibrant now and we set about choosing our tapas. In this part of Spain a surprisingly high percentage of the population speak Valencian, a form of Catalan, and here the tapas were the northern Spain alternative – Pinchos.
A Pincho is a Tapas where the topping and a slice of bread is held together with a small wooden skewer (a Pincho). It is a good trick, you just keep choosing small dishes and lose all wallet control and when you have finished the waiter counts the sticks and makes a charge for each one at the same time as you pick yourself up from the floor and dust yourself down after the shock of the bill.
It is a system that relies completely upon a lot of trust! I can tell you that they were all delicious choices and I could easily have blown our entire daily food budget in that place if Kim hadn’t insisted on a bit of gastronomic restraint.
After lunch we made our way back to the car park and left Torrevieja. In 2008 I said that I would never go back but in 2016 I have moderated that and said that I wouldn’t rush back. That is a compliment!
As we left I snapped this picture of the clouds over the sea. Is it just me or can anyone else see an Angel smiling at my unexpected conversion?
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.