Have Bag, Will Travel
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“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.
Malta is the most religious country in Europe…
…it has more religious public holidays than any other in Europe and 10th February is especially important because this is the The Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck which was bad luck for Paul but good fortune for Malta because it brought Paul to the island in the year 60AD and he then went promptly about converting the island to Christianity.
Saint Paul is the Patron Saint of Malta.
In a survey in 2010 95% of the population of Malta said that they were practising Catholics. Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only registered 74%. The least religious countries are all in the north where over 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t important!
Interestingly this survey didn’t seem to include the Vatican State where there is a population of only about five hundred official citizens and three-quarters of these are clergy so I imagine the response would surely have been no less than 100%
There have been four Papal visits to Malta, the last in April 2010 to celebrate the 1,950th anniversary of the shipwreck of St Paul on the island. His ship ran aground in St Paul’s Bay (obviously) and I give you my word that I am honestly not making this up but in 1997 I too suffered the same fate. Taking a speed boat ride with Tony Oki Koki ‘Mr Crazy’ Banis the boat broke down and we were stranded on the very same rock in a storm for twenty minutes or so until thankfully rescued.
Last year I visited the town of Rabat to visit his grotto next to his church where he is supposed to have spent his time on Malta in hiding from the Roman soldiers who were searching for him – rather like Saddam Hussein, two thousand years later hiding from the American troops – also in a cave.