Have Bag, Will Travel
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“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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
I really need to be careful about making bold statements because upon returning from Morocco in December 2011 I said that I would never go again. This is what I said…
“I enjoyed the experience of Fez, the Riad was excellent, the food was good, the sightseeing was unexpected and we were treated with courtesy and respect by everyone associated with the Riad but I have seen Morocco now and I think it may be some time before I return to North Africa as we resume our travels through Europe.”
Well, now I have to eat my words because our first overseas trip in 2016 was to Essouria on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Why did I go back on my statement – return flights for less than £40 each are just too good to resist and nothing beats getting on a plane with temperatures hovering around zero and then getting off again three hours later into 20°, blue sky, sunshine and swaying palm trees.
We like to visit Spain at least once a year but somehow managed to miss a trip in 2015 so after a two-year wait we were happy to be going back, this time to Andalucía in the far south, the second largest and most populous of all of the Regions.
After picking up the rental car we headed immediately to the Autopista del Sol,an ugly, charmless toll road which conveniently by-passes the congested coast road and moves traffic from east to west with brutal efficiency. It reminded me of what Laurie Lee had to say about it: “The road to Malaga followed a beautiful but exhausted shore, seemingly forgotten by the world. I remember the names, San Pedro, Estepona, Marbella and Fuengirola. They were salt-fish villages, thin ribbed, sea hating, cursing their place in the sun. At that time one could have bought the whole coast for a shilling. Not Emperors could buy it now.”
We travelled to Ireland in 2014 and went to the west coast and a year later we went to Northern Ireland and stayed in Belfast. Despite Ireland’s reputation for Atlantic storms, dreary weather and lots of rain we enjoyed blue skies on both occasions. So good was the weather that Kim thinks it is permanently sunny in the Emerald Isle so we arranged to go again this year and this time chose the city of Cork, the county of West Cork and the south coast of the country as our destination.
Also in June…
I last stayed in a caravan in about 1970 and I said that I would never ever to do it again. I have consistently maintained that I just do not understand caravanning at all or why people subject themselves to the misery of a holiday in a tin box with no running water, chemical toilets and fold away beds, there is no fun in it whatsoever.
I am pleased to be able to report that modern caravans are much improved and imagine my shock then when I tell you that I was so impressed with our holiday caravan accommodation in Borth because it had all of the facilities of a modern home with running water, a bathroom, electricity and a fully equipped kitchen and after preparing and enjoying a full English breakfast I walked out with a spring in my step on a voyage of rediscovery.
At school holiday time there is always the threat of an extended visit from the grandchildren which can be a stressful experience as they spend a week dismantling the house and trashing the garden.
This year I decided to rent a holiday cottage elsewhere and let them destroy someone else’s place instead. I chose a cottage in the village of Thornton Stewart in North Yorkshire and drove there one busy Friday afternoon along the A1 – The Great North Road, which many people claim is the only good thing that comes out of London.
We had not visited the Cyclades Islands in Greece since 2011 and so we were interested to see what changes there might be in five years.
We no longer choose to fly to Athens because there is always the risk of industrial action on the buses or the metro or the ferries, or getting caught up in a demonstration in the city centre as we did in 2011, so this year we flew instead to Mykonos, a popular tourist destination in the centre of the island group.
South Wales isn’t new to me of course, I studied history at Cardiff University between 1972 to 1975, worked a summer season at Butlin’s Holiday Camp at Barry Island and I have visited several times since but on this occasion I was travelling with my good friend who hails from the Rhondda Valley and he had promised to show me some things that I might not otherwise have expected to see. A privileged insider’s view as it were!
Also in October…
I have heard it said that you either love Malta or you hate it, there are no half measures, there is no sitting on the fence. I love it I went several times in the 1990s on family holidays and I returned for the first time since then in 2015. I hoped that Kim would love it too and as it happened she liked the place so much that we returned for a second time in October 2016.
My sister, Lindsay, more or less lives permanently in Spain now on the Costa Blanca so this provided a perfect opportunity to go and visit her and spend some time in a part of Spain that I haven’t visited for several years. I have never considered it one of favourite parts of the country so I was interested to see what impression it would make this time!