Travels in Spain, Valencia and The Costa Blanca

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

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

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

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

Alicante Castle

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

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

Benidorm Spain

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

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

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

paella

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

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

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

valencia-oranges

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

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

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

Tapas Alicante

Travels in Spain, Windmills

Spain WindmillConsuegra Windmills SpainDon Quixote Alcala de Henares

Camels and Lost Manuscripts

Essaouira Camels

“I distrust camels, and anyone else who can go a week without a drink” – American comedian (if there is such a thing) Joe E. Lewis

The beach at Essaouira in Western Morocco stretches for a couple of miles or so and about half way along there are camels, lots of camels.  Once they used to carry trade goods from the Sahara to the port but now their job is to provide rides for visitors and tourists.

I have always thought that some things should only be done once in life and for me a camel ride is quite high on this list.

I took a camel ride in Lanzarote in 1984

Camel Train Timanfaya Lanzarote

Having very quickly forgotten my lesson in the boat yard about being easily hustled I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself negotiating with a camel owner for a one hour ride along the beach and before I could say Lawrence of Arabia I was sitting on a shaggy carpet on the back of a dromedary and being hoisted into the air!  It is a long way up on a camel so once on board there is no realistic opportunity of changing your mind that won’t involve a sprained ankle or a broken leg!

To be fair I was happy with the price – 150 dirham (£12) for one hour and one mile which compares very favourably with £2.50 for a five minute and two hundred yard donkey ride at home on Cleethorpes Beach, near where I live.

Cleethorpes Donkeys

And so we set off at a leisurely pace along the beach with the camel man persistently trying to persuade me to spend more and extend the ride to two hours.  I refused, I was certain that an hour was long enough and I held out.  I was proud of myself for that.

Essaouira Camel Ride

In my pocket I had brought with me some pages from a note book so that I could make a record of the day and at one point I thought of something so brilliant, so Bill Bryson, so Hemingway, so Laurie Lee, that I felt I needed to write it down immediately in case I forgot this potential literary gem and I reached inside my pocket for pen and paper.

Unfortunately it was quite windy and as I clung on firmly to the wooden saddle with one hand I was surprised by a strong gust that separated me from the paper and it went back-flipping across the sand like an Olympic gymnast and it was lost.  Now I would have to rely on memory.

As it happens, this was rather like Lawrence of Arabia himself.  Lawrence kept extensive notes throughout the course of his involvement in the First-World-War and he began work in 1919 on the manuscript of his book ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’.  By December it was almost complete but he lost it when he misplaced his briefcase while changing trains at Reading railway station sometime in the following year.  It was never recovered and he had to start all over again.

At least Lawrence still had his notes but he did have to rewrite four years of memoirs, I only needed to recall four days!

T E Lawrence

Another famous loss is the story of Thomas Carlyle and his book ‘The French Revolution: A History’.  In 1835 he finished volume 1 and gave it to his friend John Stuart Mill to read for his comments.

book-burning

Unfortunately it was the only copy of the work and Mill’s servant allegedly mistook the book for household rubbish and used it as a convenient source of material to get the kitchen fire going one morning!

Unlike Lawrence, Carlyle apparently kept no notes at all and had to completely rewrite the first volume entirely from memory.

Little wonder he looked so glum…

Picture_of_Thomas_Carlyle

Anyway, the camel ride continued until it reached a block of stone in the sand – a ruined red brick fortress, battered by the years into submission and collapse by the unrelenting waves.  At some point in the late 1960s Jimi Hendix visited Essaouira and stayed a while in a nearby hippy village and they like to tell you around here that it was during this sojourn that he was inspired by the ruin to write his song ‘Castles in The Sea’ but sadly the dates don’t quite correspond and it turns out that he actually wrote the song two years before ever setting foot in Morocco.

And so the camel ride had reached its turning point and then returned me as promised to the start where I was mugged for a second time today when the owner told me that we had been out for an hour and a quarter and that I owed him 200 dirham.  Another lesson learned!

Castles in the Sand Jimi Hendrix

Elves, Elvis and Huldufólk of Iceland

Huldufólk Iceland

“This is a land where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulphur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet….Everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect”.

Terry Gunnell,  Folklore Professor at the University of Iceland

Elf Houses 1

Sightings of Elves are like sightings of Elvis – frequently reported but never confirmed!

elvis-elf

In a land of fire and ice, a wild and magical place, where the fog-shrouded lava fields offer a spooky landscape it is possible that anything out of the ordinary is possible and stories abound about the “hidden folk”.

Hidden people are special In Iceland and it is said often appear in the dreams of Icelanders but if you ask me that could just be the result of too much home-brew.

They are usually described as wearing nineteenth century Icelandic clothing, and are often portrayed as traditionally wearing green.  One of Iceland’s most famous people, the singer Björk was asked one time in an interview on US TV if people in her country believed in Elves; she explained. “We do….It’s sort of a relationship with nature, like with the rocks. (The elves) all live in the rocks, so you have to. It’s all about respect, you know.”

yule-ladsiceland-elves-warning

We stopped now and then to photograph the real people houses and I reminded everyone to be careful where they walked in case they stepped on one of these tiny alternative inhabitants because Icelanders prefer big people to be careful and even frown upon the throwing of stones in case you inadvertently hit one of these small invisible folk.

These are the thousands of elves who make their homes in Iceland’s wilderness and coexist alongside the 320,000 or so Icelandic humans.  Iceland is not alone in this and Scandinavian folklore in general is full of elves, trolls and other mythological characters. Most people in Norway, Denmark and Sweden haven’t taken them seriously for several years now but elves are no joke to many in Iceland and in a survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 it found that sixty-two percent of the respondents thought it was at least possible that they exist.

icelanders believe in elves

Even previous President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson seemed taken in by this and explained the existence of Huldufólk tales by saying: “Icelanders are few in number, so in the old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies.”

Huldufólk are believed to live close to humans and are often blamed when things go missing rather like the plot of the 1952 book ‘The Borrowers’ by the English author Mary Norton.

“…Borrower’s don’t steal.”
“Except from human beings,” said the boy.
Arrietty burst out laughing; she laughed so much that she had to hide her face …. “Oh dear,” she gasped with tears in her eyes, “you are funny!” She stared upward at his puzzled face. “Human beans are for Borrowers – like bread’s for butter!” 

To illustrate how seriously Icelanders take the issue of elves in 1982 a delegation of Icelanders went to the NATO base in Keflavík to look for “elves who might be endangered by American Phantom jets” and in 2004, Alcoa (the World’s third largest producer of aluminium) had to have a government expert certify that their chosen building site was free of archaeological sites, including ones related to Huldufólk folklore, before they could build an aluminium smelter in Iceland.

Huldufólk House Iceland

More recently Elf protectors have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project because it might disturb them and their homes. The proposed highway would offer a direct route from the Alftanes peninsula where we had been earlier this morning to the capital Reykjavik but the project has been halted until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on the case.  The activists cite a cultural and environmental impact – including the plight of the elves – as a reason for regularly gathering hundreds of people to block workers from bulldozing the area.

elf-house

And it’s not the first time issues about the Huldufolk have affected planning decisions. They occur so often that the road and coastal administration has come up with a stock media response for elf inquiries, which states that “issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point while the elves living there have supposedly moved on.”  

Huldufólk Iceland

Apparently there have been quite a few noticeable instances of construction projects being postponed for fear of building on land occupied by hidden people and a medium is often called in to negotiate with the elves to ask their permission to build.

As we drove the final few kilometres I kept a careful eye out for any signs of the elves but of course this was pointless because you can’t see them unless they feel like showing themselves to you so all I could imagine was – where they watching us as we approached the spiritual heartland of Iceland at Þingvellir?

Iceland Reykjavik Huldufolk

Elf Houses

Malta, Washing Lines

Italy washing LineMalta Washing Lines 2Malta Washing Lines 1

 

Entrance Tickets – St John’s Cathedral, Valletta

malta-cathedral

“Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe. The city is one of the most beautiful, for its architecture and the splendour of its streets that I know: something between Venice and Cadiz.”  Benjamin Disraeli

Before I go any further, let me agree with Benjamin because Valletta is my favourite European Capital city.

On the second day we decided to take our chances on the buses again and visit the capital of the island, Valletta.  We waited in a long line at the bus stop but luckily most people were going to nearby Bujibba on a different route so when the bus we wanted pulled in to pick up there were still some spare seats.  This didn’t last long and after a few more stops it was packed tight like sardines in a can.  A very warm can!

It wasn’t very far but Malta has one of the highest ratios of car ownership to population so the roads were seriously congested and the nearer we got to the city the slower the journey became until the bus finally crawled into the bus terminus close to the old medieval walls.  The terminus is like a giant roundabout and was clogged with buses all belching fumes and impatiently trying to get in and out.

Valletta Malta postcard

Cathedral of St John, Valletta…

After walking around the city and the Grand Harbour it was time to visit a church and although Kim wasn’t too keen, on account of the fact that the exterior was dull and uninteresting, we bought tickets to visit the Cathedral of St John and even Kim was pleased that we did because inside was a complete contrast with an opulent Baroque interior and a floor of headstones each commemorating one of the Knights of St John.

St John the Baptist…

There was some wonderful things in the Cathedral, art, sculptures, tapestries and finally a room with two magnificent paintings by the artist Caravaggio including the famous beheading of St John the Baptist.

Very good I thought even if it is a bit gruesome…

Caravaggio The Beheading of St John The Baptist

In a Museum there was an explanation that the Cathedral once possessed  the Saint’s right hand, which is of course a very important relic, one of the most important in the Christain World, because this was the hand with which he baptised Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.

Unfortunately and rather carelessly at some point over the last five hundred years it went missing.  No one can be really sure of course but today it is claimed to be in the Serbian Orthodox  monastery in Cetinje* in Montenegro, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and also in a remote monastery somewhere in Romania.

The Baptism of Christ

Several different locations also claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist. Among them are Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, San Silvestro in Capite in Rome and the Residenz Museum in Munich. Other John the Baptist heads were once said to be held by the Knights Templar at Amiens  in France, at Antioch in Turkey and, most unlikely of all, the parish church at Tenterden in Kent in England where it remained until it was disposed of during the English Reformation as being superfluously Catholic.

I digress here to tell you that we have just had a decluttering exercise at home and have cleared out the attic space and in our frenzy of disposal I can’t help retrospectively wondering if we threw out anything valuable.

The town of Halifax in West Yorkshire (UK) also claims that the head was once buried there in the Church dedicated to St John and the authorities there cling on to this claim by incorporating an image of the head within the town crest.

halifax2

Anyway, there are thousands of Churches and Mosques dedicated to St John the Baptist.  I used to go to this one every Sunday in the village of Hillmorton, near Rugby where I grew up…

No flash photography rules…

Despite all of the splendour the most memorable thing about our visit came at the very end when we came across an altercation between a German visitor and some Cathedral staff.

He was upset about the no photography rule and wasn’t prepared to listen to reason.  I feigned a sudden interest in the last of the exhibits so that I could enjoy the exchange.

Try and do in a German accent because that is how it works best – “I vant to know who vrote ziz policy”, “I vant to speek to ze man who vrote ze policy”, “Just who has made deeze stoopid rooles”.  I was tempted to join in and suggest that it might be the Big Man himself upstairs.  Eventually the staff tired of repeating their reasonable explanation and he followed them to the offices demanding to have access now to the complantze policy.

I like Valletta, it is a vibrant city, an eclectic mix of Naples, Palermo, Porto and Marseilles and only spoilt by the fact that it has become a cruise ship destination which means more jewellers, boutiques and pricey restaurants.

I really do not like those awful cruise ships!

Malta Valletta St Johns Cathedral

* I have driven through Cetinje  in Montenegro and have to say that it seems a distinctly unlikely place to find the hand of John The Baptist.

Malta, The Boats Have Eyes

luzzo-eyes-2

Maltese fishing boats are called Luzzus and are are brightly painted in shades of yellow, red, green and blue and the bow is normally pointed with a pair of eyes.

The most popularly accepted legend is that the eyes date back to Phoenician times, from around two thousand two hundred years ago, when those great seafarers and traders from the Eastern Mediterranean established a trading-post on Malta.

The eye is believed to protect the fishermen from any harm when they’re at sea. On either side of the prow will be the carved and painted eye of Osiris, the Phoenician god of protection against evil – an example of ancient myth in modern times.

In his book, ‘Voices of the Old Sea’, Norman Lewis recounts how the Guardia Civil in Spain took a dim view of the eye of Osiris…

He (the policeman) called over another fisherman. ‘What purpose do you imagine those eyes on the boat serve?’.

‘We regard them as a sign against evil’

‘The evil eye, as you call it, doesn’t exist’ the captain said, ‘Paint them out'”

An alternative version is that the eyes of the boat which generally look down will guide the men to the best fishing waters.

Eyes like this were once common on fishing boats in Greece but the practice has all but died out there.  Eighty years ago fishing boats in Mediterranean Spain and the Algarve in Portugal also used the symbol of the eye but, apart from Malta, the only place to be sure of finding them now are on traditional boats called Jabega in the port of Malaga, which was also once a Phoenician trading city.

Malta Luzzo Eyes