Tag Archives: Murcia

Travels in Spain, Valencia and the Old Town

Mostly I want an airline flight to end quickly and I spend ten minutes or so willing the pilot to get the plane on the ground so that I can get off and get started but this was not the case when approaching the city of Valencia on the Levante coast of Spain.

The approach route involved a manoeuvre out over the Mediterranean and then a long languid approach around the south of the city.  The water was so blue it was as though the sky had fallen to earth and we crossed from sea to land over L’Albufera de València, the largest freshwater lagoon in Spain, a place for fishing and for growing paella rice. (Mar Menor in the neighbouring province of Murcia is the largest seawater lagoon by-the-way).

From the air I picked out the Old Town with its Gothic Cathedral and the City of Arts and Sciences and I was already looking forward to some of that paella rice later in the day.

After landing and passing through arrival security we took the metro into the city.  After being robbed on the Athens Metro I am always nervous of this mode of transportation but this seemed safe enough and within twenty minutes we were in the city still with all of our bags and possessions and then by some complete fluke I plotted a direct walking route to the hotel almost in the centre of the old city centre.

It was a nice hotel, boutique by description but not in reality and we settled in, approved the facilities and walked straight back out into the city.  Directly opposite was the Museum of Ceramics housed in the Palace of the Marquis of Dos Aguas, a Rococo nobility palace and a house considered as a supreme example of nobility and opulence.  The alabaster decoration came with warnings not to touch and reminded me somewhat of a Moscow Metro Station.

This is the Palace in 1870 and the building opposite,  previously the Duke of Cardona’s  baroque-style palace is now the SH Inglés Hotel.

Immediately I liked this place, the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona and just ahead of Bilbao and Malaga and after we had got our bearings we set off to explore the heart of the old city and started first at a tapas bar in the “Plaza de la Vergen” in a gloriously sunny spot overlooking the east door of the Cathedral.

It was wonderful, the sky was blue, the plaza was golden, busy and vibrant, the people were relaxed, the visitors were hurried, the waiters were languorous, purple shadows shifted across the pavements and disappeared into secret corners and we were back in Spain!

The decision to move on was a difficult one, I think I could happily have stayed all day but Valencia had a lot more to offer than a pavement bar and the bottom of a beer glass so we paid up, bagged up and move on.

We were planning to walk to the central market but went in completely the wrong direction and found ourselves at the very edge of the old town and on the border of the dried out bed of the River Turia so leaving that until another day we turned back and looked once more for our intended destination.

We walked through a combination of Baroque and modern, old and new, through a twisting labyrinth of alleyways and narrow streets all drizzled like olive oil in the history of the city, a combination of pristine plazas and graffiti spoilt corners, effervescent fountains and beggars pitches, forever being drawn into the historic heart of the city.  And what a city, towering mansions, brooding palaces and around every corner a tree lined plaza decorated with restaurant tables serving wine and tapas.

Eventually we came to the Market District, an area bubbling like a geyser with gay excitement.  Outside the tapas bars welcomed us in but we ignored them with a casual ‘maybe later’ and carried on to the market hall itself.  What a place. Bursting with fresh local produce, if I lived in Valencia I would spend all of my money in the central market.  Fruit, vegetables, tapas, wine, meat and fish, even though I am not a shopper I would gladly spend an hour or so there every day.

The tapas restaurants were so exciting that we thought we might return later but when we did they were all closed.  If I ever return  I will remember that.  So we wandered into the back streets of the city and settled on a restaurant which wasn’t the best but offered traditional food at a good price so foot-weary and tired we took a table and ordered food.

I wanted 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.

There was no liver, just traditional Valencian paella and I was glad about that and after we had eaten and after a very long day we made our way back through streets brimming with joy to the hotel.  I liked this place.  I liked this place a lot!

Travels in Spain, Murcia

Costa Calida Postcard

““Do you like that?” I’ll say in surprise since it doesn’t seem like her type of thing, and she’ll look at me as if I’m mad.  That!?” She’ll say, “No, it’s hideous” “Then why on earth,” I always want to say, “did you walk all the way over there to touch it?”  but of course…I have learned to say nothing when shopping because no matter what you say…  it doesn’t pay, so I say nothing.”  Bill Bryson – ‘Notes From a Small Island’

It was our final day at my sister’s place on the east coast of Spain and it looked very much as though the sun was going to make a reappearance so after breakfast we drove south into the Province of Murcia, the Costa Calida and the resort town of Lo Pagán.

On the way we drove past salt water lagoons, separated from the sea by a narrow strip of land and now a site of carefully managed and intensive salt extraction.  It turns out that this is the biggest and most important site for sea salt production in all of Europe.  I didn’t know that!  The flamingos did and there were flocks of hem paddling about in the shallow water and expertly fishing for salt water shrimps!

Spain lo Pagan Flamingo

It reminded me of what else Spain is famous for (other than flamenco, bullfighting and El Cid).

First of all olives because Spain is the world’s leading producer of olives and is by a long way the country with the highest number of olive trees (more than three hundred million) and nowadays the world’s leading olive and olive oil producer and exporter and the world’s leading producer of table olives, which explains why cafés and bars are always so generous with a plate of olives to accompany every drink.

Next – Serrano Ham because go to Extemadura in the west and you will drive through fields of grazing Black Iberian Pigs gorging themselves on acorns in preparation for being turned into the Spanish gastro specialty, Jamón ibérico. Iberian ham products are processed throughout Extremadura, making this region the country’s leading producer and in a sparsely populated region about a million hectares of open range are used by over one thousand-five hundred livestock breeders.

One of the fascinating things about the world’s great food it seems is the way they are a product of geography and Spain is a classic example, salt from the Mediterranean, Olives from the sun baked plains of Andalucia,  Jamón ibérico from Extremadura and Rioja wine from the vinyards of the north.

Lo Pagan Murcia Spain

I didn’t know what to expect of Lo Lo Pagán, would it be stylish like Alicante or utilitarian like Torrevieja?  As it turned out it was somewhere between the two, leaning towards Alicante I would say.  We stopped for a beer as the sun burned through the thinning cloud and then walked along a causeway which extended a mile or so into the lagoon.  It was a lovely walk in the weak sunshine with statuesque flamingos on one side and see-sawing fishing boats on the other.  At the end of the causeway there was a pumping windmill, idle today, but nothing else except an opportunity to look out to sea before turning around and walking all the way back.

The weather was good and I was almost tempted to suggest a swim in the sea but I could tell that no one else would be terribly enthusiastic about that so I said nothing and we returned to the car and drove to a shopping centre at La Zenia.

I am not a big fan of shopping as you know and fortunately neither is Mick so we left Kim and Lindsay to browse the shops and we went for a beer and a bocadillo!

In the late afternoon it started to rain, just a little drizzle, but we didn’t mind it was our last afternoon and evening and next morning we would be returning to English drizzle anyway.

It had been a good few days in Spain especially because I was able to confront some of my prejudices about the Levante region of Spain.  I have to say that it is unlikely ever to become my favourite but I was able to scrape away at the surface of ex-pat life and appreciate some of the heritage and history of the region and I look forward to going back again!

Lo Pagan Spain

Alternative Twelve Treasures of Spain – Benidorm

Benidorm Hotel Terrace c1960

“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.   

 Benidorm in the 1970s

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.

Benidorm Fisherman

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.

Benidorm 1978

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.

Benidorm, Naked Lady Postcard

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. 

Benidorm Spain

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Other posts about Benidorm:

Benidorm c1960

Benidorm, Plan General de Ordinacion

Benidorm, The War of the Bikini

Benidorm 1977 – First impressions and the Hotel Don Juan

Benidorm 1977- Beaches, the Old Town and Peacock Island

Benidorm 1977 – Food Poisoning and Guadalest

Benidorm – The Anticipation

Benidorm – The Surprise

World Heritage Sites

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Thanks to http://www.realbenidorm.net/ for the use of the postcard images

The Search For Real Spain

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Our latest book – click image to preview.

With an area of just over five hundred thousand square kilometers Spain is the second largest country in Western Europe after France and with an average altitude of six hundred and fifty metres it is second highest country in Europe after Switzerland. That is a lot of country to try and see and visit and with so many northern European ex-pats living down the eastern coastal strip then the chances of experiencing the real Spain was always going to be difficult to achieve in this part of the country.
On a visit to eastern Spain it occured to me that there must be more to the country than beaches and condominiums and so the search for real spain begins…

Benidorm – The Anticipation

Benidorm

On a golfing holiday with my brother and our sons we all agreed that being only a hundred kilometres away was an excellent opportunity to visit the notorious city of Benidorm and see it for ourselves.

Read the full story…