I have taken this drive before but here are some new pictures…
Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…
I have taken this drive before but here are some new pictures…
Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…
After simple breakfast at Pensión El Pirineo I persuaded the others now to join me on a voyage of personal nostalgia and rediscovery. I visited this part of Spain forty years ago when I went on a two week holiday to Benidorm and I thought it might be fun to revisit the places that I had seen in 1977.
First we went to Guadalest (picture above, 1977) a small mountain village with a castle which is a short bus trip drive out of Benidorm and a day trip that I took all those years ago. It hadn’t really changed a great deal, except it had had a few coats of fresh paint and the local ladies selling genuine lace products had been replaced by tourist shops selling junk.
We stopped for lunch and a walk around the narrow streets but it was much smaller than I remembered and it didn’t take long to refresh my memories and soon we were on the road into Benidorm.
Mick wasn’t looking forward to this at all, I think it is quite low down on his list of places to visit in Spain but I was really happy to be revisiting the place that I had hated in 1977 and Mick hates in 2017.
Back then 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 my girlfriend, Linda (later my wife) had been there some time before with her parents and had liked it.
Iglesia de San Jaime y Santa Ana near the Balcón del Mediterráneo in 1977..
And again in 2017…
Benidorm is one of the most popular tourist locations in Europe, today six million people go there each year on holiday but in 1977 it was even more popular and that year attracted the most holidaymakers ever and over twelve million people poured into the city. That peak in numbers has never been matched since and it is unlikely that it ever will be.
Arriving in Benidorm we left the motorway and found an underground car park with surprising ease (underground car parks are always empty in Spain because the Spanish refuse to pay parking fees) and with the anticipation of severe culture shock rising to near boiling point we made straight for the old town.
Almost immediately it was a huge let down. We had been expecting tat shops and British pubs, the distinctive smell of Hawaiian tropic, fat bellied lager louts with tattoos and peroxide Essex blondes with fake designer sunglasses and massive boob-jobs but there was none of that sort of thing at all. No rampaging bands of tourist hooligans just a pensioner choir singing on the beach.
It was a very a very civilised affair with predominantly elderly Spanish people sedately enjoying the sun and a few British left-over’s from the winter Saga tours where the length of stay could be measured directly in degrees of orange tan. Not even any ‘looky-looky’ men to pester us!
I have to say that Benidorm in 2017 was nothing like what I was anticipating at all but was really rather pleasant and the beaches were immense and spectacular with beautiful clean sand and blue flags flapping proudly in the breeze. It is an interesting fact that Spain has more blue flag beaches than any other participating country with five hundred and eleven in five thousand kilometres of coastline, the United Kingdom by comparison, has only one hundred and twenty-five in nearly eighteen thousand kilometres.
Balcón del Mediterráneo in 1977…
In the old town itself there were more Spanish tapas bars than British pubs and there was a notable absence of those awful places with tacky pictures of the food on the menu. There was not a bit of it and after wandering around the old town searching unsuccessfully for cheap souvenir shops we had to finally admit defeat and sit in a bar on the seafront and have the first beer of the day.
If Benidorm was a surprisingly nice place then the old town was an especially nice place with a blue domed church, reminiscent of those in the Greek islands, and a pedestrianised area that was positively delightful. I remembered this from my visit forty years ago but not much else I have to say and with refreshment time over we walked a short way along the Levante in search of what we were sure was the real Benidorm from the television series but without success we called a halt to the expedition and retraced our steps back to the car.
Although we were disappointed not to see what we had come for it was a pleasant surprise and we left with the confirmation that despite the tourists that flock in every summer that Benidorm is a very real Spanish town, with Spanish culture and a Spanish history of tuna fishermen and merchant sailors that was actually quite plain to see.
I wished that I had grasped that in 1977 because if I had then I am sure that I would have enjoyed it more then.
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!
“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’.
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. Early visitors would have looked out over a double crescent of virgin golden sand and rolling dunes that stretched out in both directions from a rocky outcrop that divided the two beaches where Benidorm castle is believed to have once stood.
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, or Mayor and he 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 the first whiffs of global tourism drifting in from Northern Europe and spreading south along the Costa Brava 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. Few people in Spain enjoyed the sort of standard of living to be able to take holidays in the 1950s, so he needed to attract overseas visitors.
The town had always been popular with veraneos, people who took a few days break to be by the sea, but by the 1950’s, visitors from Scandanavia and Germany were beginning to arrive in greater numbers and staying for a full week at a time, sometimes two! 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 unassuming by comparison, the tallest reaching only a modest ten floors or so.
My grandparents were used to living higher up than most people because they lived in a first floor flat but I imagine that they found a high rise hotel in Benidorm really exciting. In the early hotels there was a lot of utilitarian concrete and steel and I am certain that we would consider them quite basic affairs now but they had something that Nan and Grandad were not accustomed to – an en-suite bathroom, because they didn’t have the luxury of any sort of bathroom in their Catford flat.
The first hotels have mostly been demolished and replaced now but I imagine they enjoyed sitting on the balcony of their room and looking out over the inviting Mediterranean Sea because this was a thousand miles and a hundred thousand years away from reality. They were certainly very relaxed because feet on the table like this would never have been permitted at home. We were only allowed into the best front room once a year at Christmas and we weren’t allowed to touch anything so I am surprised by this.
Not everyone approved of the changes however and Norman Lewis may have had Zaragoza Orts in mind when he wrote in ‘Voices of the Old Sea’:
“The ancient handsome litter of the sea front had possessed its own significance, its vivacity and its charm. A spirited collection of abandoned windlasses, the ribs of forgotten boats, the salt wasted, almost translucent gallows on which the fish had once been dried, the sand polished sculpture of half buried driftwood … was now abolished at a stroke”
Click on an image to scroll through the pictures…
The weather was good to us for most of our stay and mostly it was sunny and dry, which meant plenty of time for lying on the beach or sitting around the swimming pool that was directly outside the front of the hotel.
During the second week however there was a change and we experienced some very heavy showers. One afternoon it rained so hard that the Avenida de Almeria, the road to the beach, was completely flooded and rather than a street instead resembled a river in full flow. We couldn’t go out that afternoon so we sat in the bar with another older couple and shared a bottle of bacardi that I had won the previous day on a trip to the mountain village of Guadalest.