Back to Spain for my next sequence of posts. The Costa Blanca and a few days in Andalusia.
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Back to Spain for my next sequence of posts. The Costa Blanca and a few days in Andalusia.
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 Linda had been there some time before with her parents and had liked it.
Once in Benidorm we went through the tedious process of dropping people off at their hotels and as the Don Juan was at the far end of the eastern Levante beach we had to wait quite a while to arrive there. Forty years or so later the Don Juan isn’t there anymore and I might be mistaken here but it might now be the refurbished Diplomatic Hotel. It has a bigger swimming pool area and is dwarfed now by giant skyscrapers but it certainly looks similar and it is just about the right location.
The Don Juan was a typical 1970s Spanish seaside resort hotel with a cavernous reception and public area, a dining room that was little more than a school canteen and an entertainment room for evening activity. The hotel was a six storey concrete and chrome building and we had a room on the front about half way to the top with a good view out to sea. In the 1970s rooms could only be described as functional because these were the days before mini-bars, TVs, internet wifi access and complimentary cosmetics in the bathroom but it was nice enough and it was going to be our home for two weeks.
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 .
I visited Guardamar del Seguera in November last year and was delighted to find traditional fishermen’s houses built close to the sea with tiled balconies and coloured shutters, ‘listed‘ buildings and a historical community with a close and obvious affinity with the sea.
What a good job that I saw this proud ex-fishing community when I did because when I went back this time, just four months later it was almost unrecognisable, nearly gone, the victim of changing coastal dynamics, the battering ram of the sea and a wild Mediterranean Storm on 12th December 2016 when twenty foot high waves crashed into the decaying properties and did massive amounts of damage, washing away walls, tearing down terraces, breaking beams, trashing tiles and crushing concrete.
The Casas de Babilonia are a string of houses built in the 1930’s perilously close to the beach and the sea and over the years the advancing Mediterranean has nibbled away at the fragile infrastructure and undermined the inadequate foundations.
The owners seek State aid in dealing with the storm damage and providing protection for the future but the houses are now retrospectively declared to be illegal builds that contravene the Spanish Coastal Law (ley de costas 1988) that defines a public domain area along the coast and a further zone beyond that where special restrictions apply to private ownership.
The aim of the law is to make the whole length of the coastline accessible to the public and to defend the coast against erosion and excessive urbanisation and the Casas de Babilonia are in the front line of the debate because the front of these properties presents a barrier to public access.
Not that we noticed because there was a promenade all along the front and in front of that a wide caramel coloured sandy beach without any restrictions to the public. Call me cynical but it seems like an official ploy to deny responsibility or funding because putting things right here is going to cost a fortune and may well be completely unaffordable.
Anyway, as it happens, this may all well be academic because the December storms and the wrecking ball of the sea began a demolition process that may now be impossible to reverse and even though the owners have vowed to raise the money required for new defences it seems to me that this is hopelessly optimistic and within only a short time these ‘listed‘ buildings will surely give way to the inevitability of the awesome power of the sea.
Today, these special properties represent a breakwater against the Mediterranean, without them, the water will penetrate further inland and take away even more of the land.
These are some pictures of the storm damage…
In a way this reminded me of seaside holidays when I was a boy and we used to go to a cottage at Seaview Crescent at Walcott on Sea in Norfolk.
It was a crescent sure enough and every year that we went there were a few cottages missing as they had fallen over the cliff into the sea during the winter storms. Luckily ours, which was owned by a man called Mr Bean (he was an old man and dad used to call him Mr has-been – well, he thought it was funny) was furthest away from the cliff edge so each year before we left mum and dad could always book a week there the following year with some degree of confidence.
As King Canute demonstrated fighting the tides and the power of the sea is ultimately completely pointless…
The storm did more damage than demolish the historic houses and a walk a along the beach showed just how much sand had been gnawed away, cruelly stripped by the rip-tides and abducted out somewhere into the Mediterranean. A three foot high shelf is evidence of how far the beach has dropped and how much void there is for the sea to fill.
In just four months I could see that there is much less breakwater between the water and the sand dunes and now the sand is decorated with debris from the storm.
And Guardamar has other natural problems to deal with as well. At the back of the beach is a linear park of palms and cactus and succulents and these are withering away and dying back as they struggle to fight some sort of pest or disease which one by one is killing the trees and plants that (I am told) once provided a stunning green park for visitors to wander amongst. Such a shame. A warning of just how ‘temporary’ life can be on Planet Earth!
Not anymore however because these are all now fenced off with warning signs of Paseo Prohibito!
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!