Friday, 19 December 2008

Spain 2008, Benidorm

Because we like to watch the TV comedy series Benidorm we all agreed that being only a hundred kilometres away was an excellent opportunity to visit the notorious place and see it for ourselves. Actually I have to confess to having been to Benidorm before because I spent a fortnight there in 1977 at the Don Juan Hotel, which has been renamed now but was somewhere along the Avenida del Mediterráneo at the back of the Levante beach. Two weeks in Benidorm was a very long time as I remember so I was happy that this time it was going to be restricted to a couple of hours or so.

We set off early after breakfast on what started out in the best morning weather of the whole week and we travelled the sixty kilometres to Alicante under big blue skies. This part of the journey took a bit longer than was strictly necessary because we were determined to by-pass the motorway tolls and early on in the trip we got snagged up in market day traffic in the nearby town of Saint Miguel, the very same place that we had encountered road work chaos the year before. Once safely past the tolls we picked up speed and motored effortlessly along the A7 Autopista del Mediterráneo travelling north-east through what has to be said is not the best part of Spain in respect of scenery. The land is flat and unattractive with hectares of dusty and barren scrubby land running down to the coast and disappearing into massive salt lakes that obviously aren’t terribly conducive to supporting fertile arable fields. Around about Alicante as the motorway sweeps past the city the landscape changes dramatically however almost as soon as soon as it passes from the Province of Murcia to Valencia and the scrub gives way to large dark grey deep fissured mountains that rise dramatically from the flat plains. Sadly we discovered that there is a price to pay for better scenery and there was no way of avoiding a toll that appeared from nowhere and cost us €5.15 for the second leg of the journey to Benidorm. We were annoyed about that but on reflection it was much easier than using the congested old coast road.

As we passed Villajoysa on the coast and the one thousand four hundred metre high Puig Campana Mountain to the west we suddenly got our first view of Benidorm and the unique skyline formed by its numerous tall hotels and apartment buildings, which is quite unlike anything else on the Costa Blanca, to such an extent that it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Manhattan of Spain’ or ‘Beniyork’ and I have to confess to being struck by the first sight of Benidorm which was quite a surprise. I didn’t remember it like this and one moment we were driving through brown barren hills when suddenly there it was looking like Kuala Lumpur or Monaco on the Costa Blanca with columns of concrete and glass all shining bright and looking impressive in the strong sunshine.

According to the 2004 census Benidorm has a permanent population of sixty-five thousand inhabitants but the population grows almost ten times to half a million in the summer and it therefore needs a lot of hotel rooms to cater for all the additional people because it is one of the most important holiday resorts in all of Spain. One million three hundred thousand holidaymakers annually visit Benidorm from Britain alone. The city enjoys a unique geographical position on the east coast of Spain because it 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. In 1954, the Mayor, Pedro Zaragoza Orts saw the potential of the place and created the Plan General de Ordenación, or city building plan to you and me, that 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 sparked the building boom that followed and the flying start that Benidorm achieved in the package tour boom of the 1960’s and 70s.

Until the tourist industry began in the 1960s, Benidorm was a small fishing village that had been unchanged for hundreds of years. In the early 1960s my grandparents visited Benidorm several times in the first days of package holidays and came home with exotic stories and suitcases full of unusual souvenirs, flamenco dancing girls, matadors and velour covered bulls that decorated their living room and collected dust for the next twenty years or so. I bet they would have found Benidorm a totally different place to what it is today.

We left the motorway and found a free parking place with ridiculous ease and with the anticipation of culture shock rising steadily we made straight for the western end of the Poniente beach. Almost immediately it was a huge disappointment. 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 big sunglasses but there was none of that sort of thing at all. Instead the beach was a very civilised affair with predominantly elderly Spanish people sedately enjoying the sun and a few British left overs from the winter Saga tours where the length of stay could be measured directly in degrees of orange tan, and there were some very carroty people here indeed! One man had so much tanning oil on his body as he laid out in the sun that if we had had a few rashers of bacon and some eggs then we could have cooked ourselves a full English.

I have to say that Benidorm was nothing like what I was anticipating at all but was really quite 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 four hundred and ninety nine in five thousand kilometres of coastline, the United Kingdom by comparison, has only one hundred and forty-four in nearly eighteen thousand kilometres. Greece has the second most blue flags at four hundred and thirty and France is third with two hundred and thirty-eight. Clearly the United Kingdom needs to get cleaning up!

We walked the entire two-kilometre length of the Poniente and by the time we reached the old town harbour and elevated promontory we had pretty much given up on finding anything to snigger about. In the old town itself there were more Spanish tapas bars than British pubs and there was a notable absence of those awful bars with tacky pictures of the food on the menu. I really hate that! I know what bacon and eggs looks like and I know what spaghetti Bolognese looks like (or what it should look like) and what I also know is that these pictures generally bear absolutely no resemblance to what you are likely to get if you are demented enough to order it. 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. Richard surprised us all by announcing that he was drinking water today, which he did, but he followed it up immediately with the first beer.

If Benidorm is a surprisingly nice place then the old town is 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 thirty 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 TV 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 this 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.

All along the sea front there was a programme of environmental improvements that when completed will make Benidorm a place worth visiting and I might even consider it myself in the future in my Saga years. Back at the car we drove back to the motorway, paid the toll and left the mountains of Valencia and motored south back to the scrub of Murcia. We tried to be a bit clever on the way back and see if we could get closer to home before leaving the motorway close to the toll but this went spectacularly wrong when we ran out of exits and ended up paying another €3.70 in road tolls which may not sound a lot but to put things into perspective was the equivilent of about ten bottles of San Miguel at the Mercadona!

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