Have Bag, Will Travel
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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a great deal, except it had had a few coats of fresh paint and the local ladies selling genuine lace products had been replaced by tourist shops selling junk.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.
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!
“God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners” – William Wilberforce ( A great man of Hull)
After the short detour I considered another, to see the statue of the poet and novelist Philip Larkin, a former resident of Hull, but it was back the way that I had walked already so I ruled it out and continued to the Museum Quarter.
There is a Philip Larkin walking tour of the City but I skipped that as well and left it for another day and another blog post!
I had been to the Museum Quarter before, to the Street Life Museum and the History Museum so I bypassed these and went first to the small independent Fishing and Trawler Visitor Centre in an old ramshackle dockside warehouse. A wonderfully eclectic place, the sort of museum that rejects no exhibits, finds a place for everything and piles them up in random order all over the place, a sort of alternative to the minimalist National Gallery of London or the Uffizi Gallery of Florence.
It was an entertaining visit, run by volunteer ex-fishermen oozing with enthusiasm, one of those places where, if you show the slightest dull glimmer of interest, the volunteers will latch on and beat you into submission with stories of the fishing industry and life at sea.
I liked this place, I liked the bric-a-brac exhibits, the scrapbook newspaper cuttings and the detailed models of the old Hull fishing docks (now sadly a shopping mall).
I told them that I was a visitor from Grimsby which claims to have once been the biggest fishing port in the World and this immediately presented a challenge to their bragging rights. They were keen to point out that Grimsby may have been a big port but Hull had much bigger trawlers on account of the larger capacity of its docks. Not being a genuine Grimbarian I was careful not to take sides in this potentially dangerous debate.
The Visitor Centre is close to the banks of the River Hull and close by is the trawler Arctic Corsair one of the last side-winder fishing boats to operate out of Hull before the Cod Wars with Iceland and the ignominious collapse of the UK fishing industry.
It is a big ship, about twice the size of the Ross Tiger museum ship in Grimsby but I didn’t go on the guided tour today and thought that I might leave that for a future visit as well.
Instead I went to the William Wilberforce Museum which I had missed previously when I was with the grandchildren because I wasn’t certain that they would care that much for a museum about slavery or that it would hold their attention for very long.
William Wilberforce is probably the most famous son of Hull. He began his political career in 1780 and dedicated almost all of his life to the campaign to abolish the slave trade.
Most countries have something ‘not to be proud of’ (USA and the bullying of the Native Americans, most of Central Europe and the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis, Australia and the indigenous Aborigines and so on and so on) and in the case of Great Britain the African slave trade is right there at the top.
Thousands of Africans were transported to the colonies in the West Indies (Caribbean if you prefer) and to the emerging southern states of the USA. In a way it might be argued that Great Britain was responsible for the American Civil War.
For Wilberforce, abolition became his obsession and life’s work. In 1833 the British Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act and three days later the exhausted Wilberforce passed away.
It is a good museum housed in Wilberforce’s actual birthplace and other adjacent Georgian buildings which by pure chance survived the German bombing raids of World-War-Two whilst everything around them was destroyed.
I had a few minutes to spare now so I walked around the Mandela gardens where I came across an unlikely statue of Mahatma Ghandi dedicated to achieving solutions to difficult World problems through peace and then I spent a final thirty minutes in the Museum of Street Life.
I had missed quite a lot here on my first visit as my grandchildren charged about like a Barbarian Army entering Rome. My most noticeable ‘miss’ was a bust of the aviator Amy Johnson who in 1930 was the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia.
I knew that already but what I didn’t know is that she was born in Hull in 1903.
I should do more travelling in England and the UK and I am sure that I will when I grow tired of flying to Europe and visiting the Continent. I have visited the obvious places like Oxford and Cambridge, York, Stratford-upon-Avon (I even lived there for a while) and Chester, Edinburgh and Belfast but I have never been to Bristol or Bath and never previously to Hull but if anyone asks me for a recommendation right now I point out directions to the River Humber and the A63.
I finished my visit by strolling along the banks of the River Hull, a dirty muddy estuary the colour of milk chocolate with decaying dockside buildings and wharfs which was once a busy fishing port but which now is gradually breaking down into an open-air museum of crumbling brickwork, twisted metal and sagging piers with a thousand untold stories to tell.
I like Hull and look forward already to my next visit.
Want to know more about HULL, UK City of Culture 2017? Then visit…
“... Hull has its own sudden elegancies” – Philip Larkin
In a previous post I told you about my visit to the Museums of Hull and how I have recently become rather a fan of the 2017 United Kingdom City of Culture – such a fan in fact that I quickly made a return visit to see some of the things that I had missed.
I had missed quite a lot as it happens because on the first visit I was accompanied by my three young grandchildren and as this is rather like herding cats my full attention was not always on the City or its Museums.
I began the visit in the centre of the city in Queen Victoria Square, flanked on all sides by grand Civic buildings and in the centre a grand statue of the stoic figure of Queen Victoria rather like those that I had seen previously in Birmingham and Belfast.
This prompted me to find out how far the name Hull has spread throughout the World because this is one of my measures on just how important a place is. Well, there is a Hull in Quebec in Canada and ten in the USA, in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Texas, West Virginia and two in Wisconsin which must be rather confusing especially as they seem to share the same ZIP code. Interesting that only one of these is on the coast and could have something to do with fishing and the sea.
This is the Weeping Window of Poppies, part of the programme for the First World War Centenary Commemoration…
Hull as it happens turns out to be a city of statues but I hadn’t walked all this way to see Queen Victoria (I have seen her before) but to visit something below the ground because down a flight of well-worn stone steps beneath the statue is a cool underground world that evokes a more relaxed and elegant time. The public toilets, built in 1923 with tall arch-backed urinals and tiled old-fashioned cubicles it is a tourist attraction in its own right.
Back in Victorian and Edwardian days the British were always rather coy about natural bodily functions and had a preference for building public conveniences out of sight and underground so they didn’t cause offence. This was in stark contrast to the French of course who had the streets of Paris cluttered up with the totally indiscreet pissoirs!
I don’t make a habit of hanging around public toilets let me make it clear but I had to wait a few minutes for everyone to leave before I could get this picture and I have photo-shopped out the contraceptive machine as not being historically accurate.
Back at street level I visited the Maritime Museum. Formerly the Town Docks offices, the impressive building houses a fine collection of paintings, displays and models as well as whaling, fishing and trawling exhibits. It was Saturday morning and it was quite busy and I was a bit disappointed by the museum because model boats don’t especially thrill me so I didn’t stay long and returned to the City streets and made my way to the Old Town and the Museum Quarter. I will go back one day when it isn’t so busy.
On the way I took a minor detour to see the statue of Andrew Marvell, born near Hull in 1621, a seventeenth century English metaphysical poet, satirist and politician (all round clever-dick) who sat in the House of Commons at various times between 1659 and 1678 during both the Commonwealth and the Restoration and who was a friend and colleague of the more famous poet John Milton.
Incidentally Marvell gave his name to the Marvell Press, which published the more recent famous poet of Hull, Philip Larkin who has his own statue at the City Railway Station.
Close to the statue of Marvell is the Holy Trinity Church which along with a number of others claims to be the largest Parish Church in England. I have heard this before and lots of places can make this claim because they choose whichever criteria supports their case – tallest, longest, widest or whatever and this makes every competing claim a valid one and satisfies local bragging rights.
Hull Holy Trinity Church basis its claim on the fact that it is the largest parish church in England by floor area. In May 2017 it will be upgraded to the status of Minster.
I couldn’t get a good picture of the church so I settled for this mirror image in a glass fronted office block opposite…
Just a short walk from the soon to be Minster is the rather grand gilded equestrian statue of another English Monarch – King William III which wouldn’t look out of place in Westminster. During the reign of the King James, the merchants of Hull were victimised by the Catholic King as they refused to bow to his will to fiddle elections in favour of Catholics (History teaches us everything but no one learns – Trump, Erdogan, Putin etc.) and were so relieved when he was overthrown in 1688 that the erected a statue in honour of their Protestant Saviour, King Billy.
Beneath the statue is a historic part of Victorian Hull that cannot presently be visited because the underground toilets have been closed since the 1990s because of structural damage to the walls and safety concerns because of their location in the middle of a busy road. Despite the closure, thanks to their ornate tile work and a number of glass-panelled cisterns, the toilets are protected under planning law and officially recognised for their historic importance as a listed building.
Rather a shame I thought, I would have liked to have seen those.
Want to know more about HULL, UK City of Culture 2017? Then visit…
“I am not a great one for ruins. Generally it requires an enormous outlay of imagination and patience for scant reward but the site at Ephesus is so rich that I can walk on 2000 year old flagstones with recognisable buildings on either side…” – Michael Palin – ‘Pole to Pole’
Historically inspired by the visit to the Temple of Apollo at Didyma we were looking forward now to our bus trip to Ephesus and to Heirapolis (Pamukkale) to visit more ancient Hellenistic and Roman sites.
The bus was to collect us at eight o’clock so we woke early and after a modest breakfast made our way down to the appointed rendezvous point outside the apartment and then being the first to be collected began the tedious job of picking up our fellow travellers.
The problem with bus trips is that you cannot choose your travelling companions – it is a game of chance! I imagined that we would be accompanied on this trip by middle aged historians in crumpled linen suits and battered panama hats, ladies in pencil-pleat skirts, archaeologists carrying trowels and leather bound notebooks and the entire cast of a Merchant Ivory film but at the first pick up we were joined by a Geordie and a noisy Lithuanian family and then horror of horrors by a misbehaving bunch of women who looked as though they should really be going to a market rather than one of the World’s finest archaeological sites.
You can call me a snob if you like but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why they were going on this trip.
It got worse. It turned out that they were a darts team from Dagenham. We were on a bus with an octet of middle aged women with inappropriate tattoos and piercings who were loud and embarrassing and behaved like escapees from a medical research centre. I was horrified – we were going to spend two days with these people and as the journey started I looked out of the window and tried to block it from my mind. I would rather have been travelling with a bus load of people suffering from an incurable tropical disease!
It took around about an hour to reach Ephesus and we passed through interesting countryside of agriculture, forests, villages, medieval castles and ancient temples but mostly through acres and acres of cotton fields which started at the side of the road and disappeared towards the horizon on all sides. There was an awful lot of cotton out there and it turns out that Turkey is actually one of top world producers even though the product is of inferior quality to that of Egypt for example.
Eventually we arrived at Ephesus and ran the wallet robbing gauntlet of the hawkers and the unofficial guide book sellers and after a short break made our way inside the excavation site. It was busy of course but I expected that because this is one of the most visited tourist attraction sites in all of Turkey and we competed with bus tours and cruise ship day trippers from Kusadasi as we elbowed our way through the entrance and into the beginning of the tour.
We started at the top of the excavations and over the next two hours made our way down the ancient streets to the lowest point of the city which in previous times was the harbour which was difficult to imagine today because Ephesus is now a considerable distance from the shore of the Mediterranean.
We passed through hundreds of years of history, Greek theatres, Roman baths, ancient houses and even the public latrines and made slow progress towards the finest building on the whole site, the library of Celsus, which archaeologists have discovered doubled up bizarrely as a brothel!
Ephesus was once one of the most important cities in Asia Minor, a natural trading crossroads between east and west and for a while enjoyed a status second only to Rome. There is a lot of reconstruction of course but I am not averse to a bit of sympathetic reconstruction because without it it is difficult to imagine what it might have looked like.
After considering the issue I think I agree with Henry Miller who (writing about Knossos on the island of Crete) wrote in the ‘Colossus of Rhodes: “There has been much controversy about the aesthetics of Sir Arthur Evans’s work of restoration. I find myself unable to come to any conclusion about it; I accepted it as a fact. However Knossos may have looked in the past, however it may look in the future, this one which Evans has created is the only one I shall ever know. I am grateful to him for what he did…”
The guided tour through Ephesus was concluded by a visit to the Greek Theatre, which was later used as a Roman gladiator fighting venue and then we were out of the southern gate and heading back to the bus. I could have spent longer at the site but our itinerary was determined by the restrictions of the tour bus timetable and it whisked us off now for an instantly forgettable lunch, which would have been alright in an emergency but not out of choice, at a tourist dining treadmill.
Lunch over we now drove to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, although you would have to have a very good imagination to be able to understand how wonderful it was but could do no better than rely on the description by Antipater of Sidon, a Greek poet of the 2nd century BC:
“I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alpheus, I have seen the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Helios, the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus”
So it must have looked quite magnificent I imagine but except for one solitary column there is nothing there today and it turns out that if you want to see more, guess where you have to go, yes, the British Museum. This was a staggering disappointment, it really needed some Arthur Miller approved reconstruction and interpretation and I for one was glad when it was all over and we were back on the bus and we could continue the drive to Pamukkale about three hours away to the east.
The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were by no means a comprehensive agreed-upon list of the most impressive structures of the day. Today a list like this would be determined by a TV phone-in. The masterpieces included in the original list are the traditionally accepted Wonders as first set down by Philo of Byzantium although when he drew up the list he had no way of knowing about the Great Wall of China, the Treasury at Petra or Stonehenge.
The Pyramids of Egypt
A group of three pyramids, Khufu, Khafra, and Menkaura located at Giza, Egypt, outside modern Cairo, is often called the first wonder of the world. The largest pyramid, built by Cheops, a king of the fourth dynasty, had an original estimated height of 482 feet and the base has sides 755 feet long. It contains 2,300,000 blocks and the average weight of each block is 2.5 tons. The Pyramids are the only one of the Seven Wonders that still exist today.
Often considered to be the second wonder, these gardens, which were located south of Baghdad, Iraq, were supposedly built by Nebuchadnezzar around 600 B.C. Archeologists think that the gardens were laid out atop a vaulted building, with provisions for raising water. The terraces were said to rise from 75 to 300 feet. No one really knows because of all the Wonders there is no archaeological evidence at all.
Statue of Zeus (Jupiter) at Olympia
Phidias (fifth century B.C.) built this 40-foot high statue in gold and ivory. All trace of it is lost, except for reproductions on coins.
Temple of Artemis (Diana) at Ephesus
The temple was a beautiful marble structure, begun about 350 B.C., in honour of the goddess Artemis. The temple, with Ionic columns 60 feet high, was destroyed by invading Goths in A.D. 262.
This monument was erected in Bodium, Turkey, by Queen Artemisia in memory of her husband, King Mausolus of Caria in Asia Minor, who died in 353 B.C. Some remains of the structure are in the British Museum. This shrine is the source of the modern word “mausoleum,” which is a large above-ground tomb.
All that remains now are a few toppled columns and splintered stones and a hole in the ground where the burial chamber once was because all of the usable stones had been previously carted away by the Knights of St John who needed a convenient supply of stone to build their castle. The Knights of St John have quite a lot of lost architectural heritage to answer for it would seem and if the World Heritage Organization had existed in the fifteenth century I think they may have had a great deal of explaining to do to the Director-General of UNESCO!
This bronze statue of Helios (Apollo) was the work of the sculptor Chares, it represented the sun god Helios and stood at the harbour entrance but a strong earthquake about 226 BC, badly damaged the city and toppled the Colossus. Legend has it that Helios himself was displeased by the statue and forbade the Rhodians from making any attempt to rebuild it so for the next eight centuries, give or take a few years, it lay in ruins until it was sold to a Jewish merchant who was reputed to require nine hundred camels to haul it all away.
A fully laden camel can carry four hundred and fifty kilograms so that would be roughly about four hundred tonnes of bronze, by comparison the Statue of Liberty weighs two hundred and twenty-five tonnes and is forty-six metres high so using this dubious logic the Colossus of Rhodes would have been ninety metres high and huge.
Pharos of Alexandria
The seventh wonder was the Pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria. Sostratus of Cnidus built in the Pharos during the third century B.C. on the island of Pharos off the coast of Egypt. It was destroyed by an earthquake in the thirteenth century.