In 1976 I travelled to Europe for the first time to Sorrento in Italy with my dad who obligingly stepped in at the last moment following girlfriend trouble. Very soon after that we patched things up and in October the following year I went to Spain with my fiancée, Linda. 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 the Avenida del Mediterráneo, just behind the Levante beach because Linda had been there some time before with her parents and had liked it.
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. In the early 1960s my grandparents visited Benidorm several times in the Freddie Laker days of package holidays and came home with exotic stories and suitcases full of unusual souvenirs, flamenco dancing girls, matador dolls and velour covered bulls that decorated their living room and collected dust for the next twenty years or so.
The name Costa Blanca was allegedly conceived as a promotional name by British European Airways when it first launched its air service between London and Valencia in 1957 at the start of the package holiday boom. At that time the cost of the fare was £38.80p which may not sound a lot now but to put that into some sort of perspective in 1960 my dad took a job at a salary of £815 a year so that fare would have been about two and a half weeks wages! The average UK weekly wage today is £450 so on that basis a flight to Spain at British European Airline prices would now be £1,100. Thank goodness then for Ryanair because I flew to Seville last year for just £30 return which represents just about three hours work today in comparison with what of been about a hundred hours in 1960.
We flew from Luton Airport in Bedfordshire (made famous by Lorraine Chase in the 1970s Campari television adverts) on Monarch Airlines which was in the days before low cost airlines when flying still felt exclusive and glamorous. The pilots were all ex RAF and called Toby or Edward and the air hostesses were tall and elegant, wore smart uniforms and looked like catwalk models. The seats were comfortable with generous leg space and there was a free meal thrown in. There was a drinks trolley at below United Kingdom prices (today a cup of tea on Ryanair costs £3) and a genuine duty free service for spirits, tobacco and perfume.
As an experience flying has mostly deteriorated in quality since 1976 except in one important area where there has been massive improvement. In 1976 passengers that smoked were still allowed to light up a cigarette on board which meant that because of the way aeroplanes recirculate air in the cabin everyone else had to as well. To be fair they did all have to sit at the back of the aircraft, a bit like Dante’s Inferno, and puff away together but after a couple of hours there was a horrible acrid odour of stale tobacco and the entire cabin smelt like an unemptied ash tray. Actually it wasn’t just cigarettes but pipes and cigars as well and this was so bad that even the cigarette smokers complained about this. Pipes and cigars were banned in 1979 but a ban on cigarettes had to wait for another ten years. As there has been no smoking now on planes for twenty years I am always curious why arm rests still have ash trays in them because the only purpose they serve now is a place for ignorant people to stick their discarded chewing gum.
The flight lasted a little over two hours and then we landed at Alicante airport about sixty kilometres south of Benidorm and as this was in a time before Spain’s modern motorway network had been constructed the coach took the old coast road north through a string of small towns and villages. Just past Villajoyosa on the coast and the one thousand four hundred metre high Puig Campana Mountain to the west we snatched our first glimpses of Benidorm out of the right hand side windows of the coach and we could see a ribbon of golden sand at the fringe of the magnificent bay and behind it a strip of concrete skyscrapers towering into the blue sky above.
Once in Benidorm we went through the tedious process of dropping people off at their hotels and as the Don Juan was at the far end of the eastern Levante beach we had to wait quite a while to arrive there. Thirty years or so later the Don Juan isn’t there anymore and I might be mistaken here but it might now be the refurbished Don Pancho. It certainly looks similar and it is just about the right location. If I am correct it is only two hundred metres from the Hotel Los Pilicarnos on the Calle Girona, which is famous for being the setting of the Television comedy series, Benidorm.
The Don Juan was a typical 1970s Spanish seaside resort hotel with a cavernous reception and public area, a dining room that was little more than a school canteen and an entertainment room for evening activity. The hotel was an eighteen storey concrete and chrome building and we had a room on the front about half way to the top with a good view out to sea. In the 1970s rooms could only be described as functional because these were the days before mini-bars, Televisions, internet wifi access and complimentary cosmetics in the bathroom but it was nice enough and it was going to be our home for two weeks.
Later that day we had our first evening meal at the Don Juan and it has to be said that this was by no stretch of the imagination a gourmet experience. The menu was limited and consisted mostly of the sort of food that British holidaymakers, unfamiliar with Spanish cuisine, would have insisted upon in 1977, beef burgers or chicken, chips and overcooked vegetables, and for sweet it was a restricted choice between crème caramel or ice cream and it was the same for the whole of the fortnight. One thing was certain – it was unlikely that we would be introduced to traditional Spanish food on this holiday. To be fair however anything ethnic may have come as shock because like most English people I wasn’t ready for tortilla and gazpacho and although I am now rather partial to tapas and paella I had certainly never been introduced to these Iberian gastronomic delights in 1977.
If the twelve million visitors to Benidorm came in equal numbers each week, which of course they didn’t, then there would have been nearly a quarter of a million visitors to entertain every night and after dinner we walked to the old town, which even in October was bursting at the seams with visitors wandering around the bars getting lashed and in the shops buying things they didn’t really need. In 1977 most of Spain was still shaking off the restrictions of the Franco regime, in June there had been the first elections to the National Parliament since 1936, but Benidorm was way ahead of the rest of the country.
It was loud, brash and noisy and so was the hotel when we returned later on. There was entertainment on the ground floor and even though we were at least six floors up the noise from the discotheque could be heard all the way up to our room. The booming of the bass kept us awake and so did the loud German couple sitting on the balcony of the room next door who were having a conversation with someone in Hamburg! Sleeping has never really been a problem for me and I eventually managed to drop off but sometime in the early hours of the morning I woke up and found Linda on the balcony tired and sobbing and desperately in need of sleep. I think that it was at this point that I wondered just how we were going to survive fourteen nights in Benidorm!