Have Bag, Will Travel
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Tag Archives: Alicante
“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?
“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.” – Norman Lewis
“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.
A visit to any castle is not complete without a descent into the dungeons. Alicante is no different and the visitor route includes a visit to a dark chamber where as many as fifty prisoners were held during the Spanish Civil War. The information boards are not specific but they most likely were Nationalists because Alicante was a Republican stronghold and the last city to fall to Franco’s forces in March 1939.
One by one it is said that these prisoners scratched their names into the stone using a single nail which they passed around (must have been a strong nail) – graffiti which can now be found set into the floor of one of the castle’s highest terraces.
As a student of the past it is always an experience to come across something like this – genuine history left behind by the people that made it.
It was mid-November and the weather was just perfect. Shirt-sleeve weather in fact with sunshine and big sky so after breakfast we were away to the nearby city of Alicante which I was sort of surprised to discover is the eighth largest in Spain.
The short drive north took us through a wild landscape of lagoons and wetlands and for me this was another surprise. I would have to say that it is hardly the Camargue in the South of France but away from the urbanizations and the towns it wasn’t what I was expecting and it turns out that this is a region for bird spotters and wild life photographers and I could see why as flocks of vermillion flamingos strutted through the shallow waters like statuesque flamenco dancers.
We arrived in Alicante and found plenty of room in an underground car park – plenty of room because Spanish drivers object to paying for car parking in the same way they boycott toll roads and would rather drive around in ever decreasing circles wasting time and fuel until they disappear up their own exhaust pipe looking for a free spot than spend a couple of euro to leave the car in a secure place.
As we emerged blinking into the sunlight, even though I have never been to Alicante before I had a strong feeling of Déjà vu. We were on the Esplanade de España where the coloured floor tiles undulate like a rolling sea in a storm and I knew that I had seen them before. It took me a moment or two to drag up the memory but then I remembered – I have a picture of my granddad in this very avenue, perhaps even this very spot taken nearly sixty years ago.
In the photograph below my grandparents whose names were Ernie and Olive were probably about fifty years old or so and they were clearly having a very good time sitting at a bar enjoying generous measures of alcohol, the same sort of good time that I like to enjoy when I go travelling.
I’m guessing of course but Granddad, who looks unusually bronzed, seems to have a rum and coke and Nan who looks younger than I can ever remember her appears to have some sort of beer with a slice of lime and that’s about forty years before a bottle of Sol with a bit of citrus became anything like fashionable. With him is his brother George (no socks, very impressive for 1960) and his wife Lillian. Nan and Granddad look very relaxed and with huge smiles that I can barely remember.
We walked first around the marina and stopped briefly for a drink and then on to the beach, abandoned today because although the sun was shining it was perhaps a little too cool for a dip in the Mediterranean so we bypassed the opportunity of getting into our bathing costumes and made our way instead to the castle which sits on a rocky outcrop and looms large over the area.
Finding a castle to visit is not difficult in Spain because, according to the Spanish Tourist Board, there are over two thousand five hundred of them, for comparison there are eight hundred in the United Kingdom but France claims almost five-thousand but it includes a lot of questionable small Chateaux in that number.
It looked like a strenuous climb to the top but fortunately there was an express lift so we took the easy option and in a few seconds were standing at the very top of the city. Alicante castle turned out to be as good as any in Spain, there is a lot of reconstruction and renovation of course but I find nothing wrong with that and we enjoyed an hour or so walking around the battlements, looking at the exhibits and enjoying the elevated views.
We had return tickets for the lift option but walked down instead and at the bottom at around early afternoon we searched for the old town and somewhere nice to eat. We were looking for a tapas bar and found one that we liked in a pleasant square in the last of the Autumn sunshine where we ordered a beer and selected our favourite food.
According to legend, the tapas tradition began when the King of Castile, Alfonso the Wise (if I was King I think I would like to be called ‘the Wise’, so much better than ‘Andrew the Fat’ or ‘Bad King Andrew’) visited a tavern in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the province of Cádiz, and ordered a glass of sherry. There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting dirty. The King liked it, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa or ‘cover’ just like the first.
This developed into the practice of using slices of bread or meat as a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the drink. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, which are both very salty and activate thirst and because of this, bartenders and restaurant owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry, thus increasing their alcohol sales.
As we finished lunch the sun slipped behind the tall buildings and cast long shadows across the square so as the temperature quickly dipped we paid up and left and strolled for a second time around the marina before returning later to the town of Quesada where we were staying and spending an hour or so in the garden before preparing to go out for an entertaining evening meal.
“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’.
The “Twelve Treasures of the Kingdom of Spain” was a contest/poll that was conducted by the Spanish Television Company Antena 3 and the radio broadcaster Cope. The final results were announced on 31st December 2007. I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the eight out of the twelve that I have visited and having completed that I thought I might come up with a personal alternative twelve. The original twelve included San Sebastián in the Basque Country but my alternative holiday beach city of Benidorm and I include it here at number six.
In the first few years of the 1960s my grandparents visited Benidorm in Spain several times. For people from London who had lived through the Luftwaffe blitz of the 1940s and the killer smog of the 1950s they applied for passports (which was practically unheard of for ordinary people) and set out with pale complexions on an overseas adventure and returned home with healthy Mediterranean suntans and duty free alcohol and cigarettes. They brought back exotic stories of exciting overseas adventures and suitcases full of unusual souvenirs, castanets, replica flamenco dancing girls, handsome matador dolls with flaming scarlet capes and velour covered bulls that decorated their living room and collected dust for the next twenty years or so.
In 1950 a Russian émigré called Vladimir Raitz founded a travel company in London called Horizon Holidays and started flying people to Southern Europe and the package tour was born. In 1957 British European Airways introduced a new route to Valencia and the designation ‘Costa Blanca’ was allegedly conceived as a promotional name when it first launched its new service on Vanguard Vickers airoplanes with four propeller driven engines at the start of the package holiday boom.
The flight took several hours and arrival at Valencia airport some way to the west of the city was not the end of the journey because there was now a one hundred and fifty kilometre, four-hour bus ride south to Benidorm in a vehicle without air conditioning or air suspension seats and in the days before motorways on a long tortuous journey along the old coast road.
Benidorm developed as a tourist location because it enjoys a unique geographical position on the east coast of Spain. The city faces due south and has two stunningly beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean Sea that stretch for about four kilometres either side of the old town, on the east the Levante, or sunrise, and to the west the Poniente, the sunset, and it enjoys glorious sunshine all day long and for most of the year as well.
Sixty years ago Benidorm, although not a fishing village as such, was still a modest beach side community, a place of sailors, fishermen and farmers who patiently tended almond, olive, carob and citrus trees – the sort of place that Norman Lewis would have recognised. Small fishing boats, the tarrafes, each with four large lanterns to attract fish at night bobbed in the water or lay drawn up resting on the sand. In 1950, Benidorm didn’t attract many visitors and life was difficult, it had no water supply or sewage disposal system and waste was tipped in the sea or simply buried in the earth.
The watershed year was 1954 when the Franco loyalist, Pedro Zaragoza Orts was nominated as town Alcalde and threw himself into his work and set himself an objective of improving the quality of life in the small town. In terms of economic potential there wasn’t a lot to work with so he decided to concentrate on tourism and he imagined a dream of creating a bourgeois pan-European holiday utopia. Benidorm had sun, it had beaches, it had sea but what it didn’t have was visitors.
Zaragoza recognised the potential of increased numbers of visitors and quickly created the Plan General de Ordenación, or city building plan, that would exploit that potential. The plan ensured that every building would have an area of leisure land, guaranteeing a future free of the excesses of cramped construction seen in other areas of Spain and it is the only city in the country that still adheres to this rigid rule. This vision for the future took six years to come to reality, while he waited he piped in domestic water from Polop, fifteen kilometres to the north in the mountains on the road to Guadalest and he ignited the building boom that followed and the flying start that Benidorm achieved in the package tour boom of the 1960s and 70s.
The vision for Benidorm was simultaneously brilliant and exciting and it gave the modern city its modern unique landscape because Zaragoza encouraged vertical construction of dozens of sky scrapers in a deliberate plan to make efficient use of land and to keep the city at ground level spacious and airy with green parks and open spaces and all of the accommodation relatively close to the beaches. He explained his plan like this; ‘If you build low, you occupy all the space and have a long walk to the beach. If you build high, you can face the sea, and leave room for gardens, pools and tennis courts’. This was in contrast to nearby Torrevieja and on the Costa Del Sol in the south, Marbella where excessive horizontal development led to great sprawling ugly urbanisations that have practically destroyed the coast by burying it under concrete and tarmac. Zaragoza called this urban concentration instead of urban sprawl.
The first developments started at the centre at the rocky outcrop in the twisting narrow streets hemmed in by claustrophobic whitewashed houses, the San Jaime church with its distinctive blue tiled hat roofs, the old town promontory with the Balcon Del Mediterraneo, and pretty Mal Pas beach below and quickly spread east and west along the splendid beaches. Today Benidorm has some of the tallest buildings not only in Spain but all of Europe but the first were fairly modest by comparison, the tallest reaching only a modest ten floors or so.
If Pedro Zaragoza Orts is remembered for the Beni-York skyscraper he is even more famous for the so called ‘War of the Bikini’. In the later years of the 1950s the icon of holiday liberty was the saucy two piece swimsuit but in staunchly religious Spain, still held in the firm two-handed grip of church and state, this scanty garment was seen as a threat to the very basis of Catholic society.
And it certainly had this effect in Spain and although occasionally allowable on the sandy beaches, it had to be covered up in all other areas; on the promenades and in the plazas and in the shops and the bars and cafés for fear of causing any offence. In one famous incident, a British tourist, sitting in a bar opposite a beach wearing only a bikini, was told by a Guardia Civil officer that she wasn’t allowed to wear it there. After an argument she hit him, and her strike for social justice cost her a hefty fine of forty thousand pesetas.
Zaragoza needed tourists and tourists wanted the bikini and with more northern European tourists arriving each year in search of an all over suntan the Mayor knew that the banning of the two piece swimsuit simply couldn’t be sustained or allowed to threaten his ambitious plans.
Zaragoza took a gamble and signed a municipal order which permitted the wearing of the bikini in public areas and in this single act he effectively jump-started the Spanish tourist industry. Zaragoza said: “People had to feel free to be able to wear what they wanted, within reason, if it helped them to enjoy themselves as they would come back and tell their friends about the place.” In deeply religious Catholic Spain not everyone was so understanding or welcoming of the bikini however and in retaliation the Archbishop of Valencia began the excommunication process against him.
Excommunication was a serious matter in 1959 and his political supporters began to abandon him so one day he got up early and drove for nine hours on a little Vespa scooter to Madrid to lobby Franco himself. The Generalissimo was suitably impressed with his determination and gave him his support, Zaragoza returned to Benidorm and the Church backed down and the approval of the bikini became a defining moment in the history of modern Spain ultimately changing the course of Spanish tourism and causing a social revolution in an austere country groaning under the yoke of the National Catholic regime. Zaragoza went on to become Franco’s Director of Tourism and a Parliamentary Deputy.
For people who had never been abroad before Benidorm must have been an exciting place in the early 1960s. Palm fringed boulevards, Sangria by the jug full and, unrestrained by optics, generous measures of whiskey and gin, rum and vodka. Eating outside at a pavement café and ordering drinks and not paying for them until leaving and scattering unfamiliar coins on the table as a tip for the waiter. There was permanent sunshine, a delightful warm sea and unfamiliar food, although actually I seem to doubt that they would be introduced to traditional Spanish food on these holidays because to be fair anything remotely ethnic may have come as shock because like most English people they weren’t really ready for tortilla and gazpacho, tapas or paella.
Benidorm is a fascinating place, often unfairly maligned or sneered at but my grandparents liked it and I have been there myself in 1977 for a fortnight’s holiday and then again on a day trip in 2008 just out of curiosity. It has grown into a mature and unique high rise resort with blue flag beaches and an ambition to achieve UNESCO World Heritage Status and I hope it achieves it.
Other posts about Benidorm:
Thanks to http://www.realbenidorm.net/ for the use of the postcard images