Have Bag, Will Travel
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In 1977 I had a two week holiday in Benidorm on the east coast of Spain. I’d like to tell you that I had a really good time, but I can’t because I didn’t enjoy it that much.
About two miles out in the bay between Levante and Poniente beaches was the little island of Isla Benidorm, a triangular shaped wedge of inhospitable rock, a mountain top I guess, with a regular bright red ferry boat called the Bahia de Benidorm running across the short stretch for just a few pesetas each way.
Forty years ago I failed to fully understand the opportunities of travel and with limited imagination at my disposal there was so little to do that we made the trip twice and really once would have been quite enough.
It was advertised as ‘Peacock Island’ but I don’t recall seeing any on either visit and all we found there were a few scraggy chickens trying to get by in a very hostile landscape without any vegetation or water. Fortunately there was a bar on the island with really good views back towards the mainland so at least there was somewhere to sit and have a drink while we waited for the ferry to return.
Forty years on Isla Benidorm is an uninhabited bird sanctuary and diving centre for those interested in marine life and today we were going to visit another off-shore island which is a bird sanctuary and diving centre, the islet of Tabarca about six miles from the port town of Santa Pola which fortunately sounded a lot more promising than Isla Benidorm because it has a census population of about seventy whereas Isla Benidorm has none.
We just about made boat departure time, which was a good thing because the next one wasn’t for about two hours or so (in high season they run a lot more regularly) and after purchasing our tickets we made our way to the top deck and selected seats in the sun ready for the short thirty minute crossing and after being invited to view the marine life through the glass bottom in the boat (really not worth it) we arrived in the small port and disembarked.
Before 1700, the island was known as Illa de Sant Pau or ‘Saint Paul’s Island’ on the basis that this is where Saint Paul was washed up about two thousand years ago. He must have got around a bit because he seems to have been washed up in quite a lot of places in quite a short space of time which begins to make him look very unlucky and me sceptical about the whole thing.
Personally, if I was inclined to believe any of it then I would come down on the side of the story of St Paul’s Island in Malta. The Acts of the Apostles tell the story of how Paul was shipwrecked on an island (somewhere) while on his way to Rome to face charges. You can call me a coward if you like but I wouldn’t have been going back to Rome to face charges that might result in crucifixion or beheading and I would have been inclined to stay on the island wherever it was but to be fair you don’t get to become a Saint by hiding in a cave!
Anyway, with or without Saint Paul, Tabarca turned out to be a whole lot interesting than Isla Benidorm.
In the eighteenth century it was used as a convenient base for Berber pirates from North Africa who regularly raided the mainland coast so in 1760, to put a stop to it, Charles III of Spain ordered the fortification and repopulation of the Spanish island.
A group of Genoese sailors who had been shipwrecked near the coast of Tunisia, mostly coming from the islet of Tabark, were rescued and considered convenient settlers and the islet was renamed Nova Tabarca. The Genoese were moved to the island together with a Spanish garrison.
The King ordered a fortified town and as a consequence of Royal Decree walls, bulwarks, warehouses and barracks were built. The garrison was removed in 1850 and the buildings began to deteriorate and collapse through lack of maintenance but the Genoese stayed put and now a hundred and fifty years later it is a tourist destination and a thriving fishing community.
We maybe could have done with another hour on the island but if we missed the next ferry back we would be there for another four which was too long so we made our way back to the small fishing port of the island and boarded the boat back to Santa Pola where we had previously found a nice pavement restaurant with a vey reasonably price Menu Del Dia and we simply sat and let the afternoon slip through our fingers.
Later we sat on the terrace and drank wine and ate pizza and just wasted the rest of the evening away as well!
More cave stories:
Maltese fishing boats are called Luzzus and are are brightly painted in shades of yellow, red, green and blue and the bow is normally pointed with a pair of eyes.
The most popularly accepted legend is that the eyes date back to Phoenician times, from around two thousand two hundred years ago, when those great seafarers and traders from the Eastern Mediterranean established a trading-post on Malta.
The eye is believed to protect the fishermen from any harm when they’re at sea. On either side of the prow will be the carved and painted eye of Osiris, the Phoenician god of protection against evil – an example of ancient myth in modern times.
In his book, ‘Voices of the Old Sea’, Norman Lewis recounts how the Guardia Civil in Spain took a dim view of the eye of Osiris…
“He (the policeman) called over another fisherman. ‘What purpose do you imagine those eyes on the boat serve?’.
‘We regard them as a sign against evil’
‘The evil eye, as you call it, doesn’t exist’ the captain said, ‘Paint them out'”
An alternative version is that the eyes of the boat which generally look down will guide the men to the best fishing waters.
Eyes like this were once common on fishing boats in Greece but the practice has all but died out there. Eighty years ago fishing boats in Mediterranean Spain and the Algarve in Portugal also used the symbol of the eye but, apart from Malta, the only place to be sure of finding them now are on traditional boats called Jabega in the port of Malaga, which was also once a Phoenician trading city.
In Spring 2015 we spent a few days on the island of Malta. This was a bit of an experiment on my part because I wanted to see if Kim liked it there as much as I do. It is sometimes said that you either love Malta or you hate it, it is like Marmite, there are no half measures, there is no sitting on the fence. As it turned out Kim loved it and eighteen months later we returned to the same place this time with grandchildren.
This was to be a family holiday, sightseeing would not be a priority but there were one or two things that we wanted to do all the same. One of them was to go to the village of Mellieha and visit the Second-World-War air-raid shelters which were closed the last time that we had visited.
As it was a hot day and the children preferred to stay at the hotel swimming pool so we spared them the ordeal of the walk. It was a steep climb to the village with a long sweeping road and baking tarmac that looped around in teasing bends and we were glad when we reached the top and the huge Parish Church because although this was October it was still very hot.
Everyone was keen to tell us that Malta was suffering a drought and there had been no real rain for eighteen months or so. We sympathised with them of course but secretly hoped that the drought and the hot weather would last just a few more days!
Every village in Malta and Gozo has a church the size of a medieval cathedral and all have a story of how it was paid for and built by the residents of the village and Mellieha is no exception. It is indeed a grand structure standing in the most prominent place in the village with glorious views in all directions.
This time we were pleased to find that the shelter was open for business so purchased our good value tickets at only €2.40 and went through the entrance and immediately underground.
These shelters were cut into the rock all over Mellieha and the rest of Malta during the war because the island has the unenviable record for being the most bombed place in all of Europe. To be specific and before someone picks me up on this point, I am talking about the longest sustained bombing campaign and not the most destructive.
This was because of its strategic importance to both the Allies and the Axis powers. The capital of Valletta and its important harbour was of high strategic value, for the British to protect their Mediterranean fleet and a much valued prize for Germany as an important place to support the supply chain to the overstretched army in North Africa.
In two years from June 1940 the Luftwaffe flew three-thousand bombing raids over Malta, nine thousand buildings were destroyed and seventeen-thousand more severely damaged. In March and April 1942, more explosives were dropped on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta – smaller than the Isle of Wight – than on the whole of Britain during the first year of the Blitz.
People needed somewhere safe to shelter and two-thousand miners and stonemasons were recruited to build public shelters and began to tunnel into the limestone rock of the island.
The shelter at Mellieha was one of them and it took us into a labyrinth of passages nearly half a mile long with a decent amount of displays and reconstructions to tell the story of the shelters and the daily life of the people who like Hobbits, had no option but to use them. Most people sheltered in the crowded communal tunnels but some were fortunate to have their own private rooms and there was a confessional shelter and a two room maternity wing.
By June 1941 the digging workforce had increased to over five-thousand and nearly five-hundred public rock shelters had been finished and another four-hundred were in progress. In all they could house over two-hundred thousand Maltese civilians which was just about enough but also thoroughly uncomfortable.
By February 1942, with raids often continuous throughout the night, shelters became congested with chairs and bedding brought in for comfort and rest. The four square feet per head originally allowed was reduced to two and was hopelessly insufficient. Anticipating a night of raids, people began to rush to shelters straight after dinner every evening. Spaces were often over-subscribed and crowded. Conditions were said to be dirty, cramped and noisy but at least provided safety from the raids above.
It reminded me of when I was a boy of about ten and I had a friend called Dave (Daddy) Elson who had dug an underground camp in his back garden – we used to go to his camp and sit in it by candle-light and wonder why?
On the way out we spotted a sign which said…”Life during the enemy blitz is not an experience we wish to relive, hence the Mellieha World War II shelters stand as a testimony to those who endured the adversity of war until victory was won.” – I think that just about says it all!
To be honest, apart from a visit to the war time air raid shelter there isn’t a great deal more to see in Mellieha. Even though it has been included in the EU list of ‘European Destinations of Excellence’ it isn’t really a tourist attraction and it is all the better for that, so after a while exploring the streets and the tiny working harbour we made our way back down to the holiday bay and selected a bar for a beer and a snack of a Maltese platter and a reflection on life under ground and what life might have been like during the siege.
Other Cave Stories:
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!