Sun on The White Coast

It is a great irony that the most austere ruler in Spanish history, General Franco, initiated the transformation of the small fishing village of Benidorm into the largest holiday resort in Spain.

His ambition was to create an economically successful tourist industry and he succeeded in that, but it is doubtful whether he would have approved of the liberal types that are attracted to the sun spoilt Spanish costas and their hedonistic behaviour on their holidays.

Benidorm caters for about four million sunworshippers every year and it is the perfect family holiday destination. It is also paradise to anyone whose idea of a good holiday is to languish on pristine, but crowded, beaches or to frolic in the warm seawater all day and then to party until the wee hours of the morning.

It even provides one beach that catches the rays from sunrise (Levante beach, which is considered to be in the top ten beaches of the world) and another one where you catch the rays until the sun sinks into the sea (Poniente).

The only snag for Spanish culture phobes is that to maximize their tanning time they have to wander through the old town during the middle of the day to get from one beach to the other. For those who like these kind of holiday breaks, Benidorm dishes it up par excellence. For those who are looking for a little more adventure, there is plenty to see in the rest of the Valencia y Murcia region of Eastern Spain.

Valencia is the regional capital and it is Spain’s third city after its illustrious Northern cousins Madrid and Barcelona. It has three major claims to fame (apart from the recent successes of its football team): it is home of the most heroic act of that great Spanish hero El Cid, it hosts the wildest fiesta in the Spanish pantheon (Las Fallas de San Jose), and Spain’s emblematic cuisine offering paella was first prepared in the city.

The climate in Valencia is very favourable and there are allegedly 2,600 hours of sunlight annually, so you are unlikely to get seasonal affected disorder if you live here. The centre of the city is quite compact and you can quite comfortably stroll around.

The Valencia Cathedral is mainly gothic, but there are a few other styles thrown in for good measure. Inside the cathedral is a small agate cup, which it is claimed it is the Holy Chalice (Grail) from which Jesus Christ and the Apostles drank during the Last Supper. Its octagonal bell-tower, La Miguelete, is a landmark of the city and you get a get a great view from the top. On your descent you may need to quench your thirst with a horchata. This is a local drink made from the milk of chufas (a kind of ground almond) and it is served ice cold. It is a bit sweet and is probably an acquired taste.

Around the back of the cathedral is the Basilica de la Virgen de los Desamparados (Virgin of the Helpless) who is the patroness of the city and in front of the basilica there may be some dried flower tapestries for you to view.

The Art Deco central market is filled with colour of the local produce for sale and it is here that you will be able to see traders haggle over the price of a handful of squirling squids.

The Commodities trading building (La Lonja) nearby with gargoyles all over it is an international heritage site. The Fine Arts Museum housed in a former monastery has works by Hieronymous Bosch (called El Bosco by the Spaniards), El Greco and Goya. The Gonzalez Marti ceramics museum, formerly a marquis’s palace, has an incredibly elaborate façade.

The futuristic City of Arts and Sciences complex just outside the city centre was designed by architect extraordinaire Santiago Calatrava who has been commissioned to do a bridge over the Liffey in Dublin. For those who like to enjoy the nocturnal life, you can join locals in what they euphemistically call La Movida, which basically means staying up and partying from Friday night until Sunday morning.

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (El Cid – his nickname came from the Arabic word for “Lord”) is Spain’s national folk hero, but his heroic deeds have been over mythologised in the anonymous epic poem El cantar del mio Cid.

A bit of an opportunist, he switched sides from fighting on the side of the kings of Castile to fighting with the Moors to fighting against them. His greatest act in the eyes of Spaniards was when he captured Valencia from the Moors in 1094 and he ruled there until his death.

The Spanish ability to let their hair down and party is unrivalled and legendary. They do this in the vast pantheon of festivals held throughout the year. Some of the most interesting celebrations to see are those that seem to occur spontaneously for no reason at all.

Sundays are a great day for this kind of spontaneity. You can wander into a town and see thousands of chatting people lining the streets with nothing at all happening. You ask someone and they say it is the feastday of some obscure saint that you have never heard of and that there is due to be a procession in half an hour.

The wait could go on for several hours (the Spanish word puntual is a misnomer) and then suddenly the whole place seems to erupt in an exuberant display of pure extravagance. Valencia y Murcia holds two annual festivals that make some of these spontaneous celebrations look tame.

The annual festival of Las Fallas involves lots of dangerous firework displays and the parading of huge wooden and paper mache satirical effigies through the streets. On the feast of St Joseph (March 19), the effigies, which are often caricatures of Spanish politicians and film and TV stars, are ceremoniously cremated on a gigantic bonfire.

The tradition has been traced back as far as the middle ages or even medieval times and there are three popular theories as to how it started. The first is related to the fact that St Joseph is the patron saint of carpenters and that they used to hold a bonfire with the shavings on their workshop to celebrate the saints day. There was considerable competition and animosity between the different workshops. Someone started to construct effigies to parody their competitor workshops and then added them to the pyres and from this the whole thing too off.

The second theory is that it started as a pagan custom to celebrate the Spring equinox. A third theory is that it developed because of the local contempt for the muslim rulers and that the effigies represented Mahomet, a despised Egyptian sultan.

At 2 pm each day during the week long celebrations are the mascleta. This is a deafening display of smoke bombs and firecrackers that lasts a few minutes. In the evenings there are spectacular fireworks displays. On St. Jospeph’s day itself the celebrations come to a head.

One of the most important ceremonies is the offering of the flowers to Our Lady of the Helpless in a ceremony that takes place in the square in front of the basilica. The whole square fills up with tons of flowers. A gigantic flower sculpture of Our Lady and her son is made with multicoloured carnations. In the evening, the Fallas are paraded. Local communities donate money to the craftsmen who make these incredible satirical effigies (called ninots by the Valencians) that may be many metres tall and can take many months to construct.

The night of the 19th of March is called La Nit del Foc (night of fire) and after the parade most of the ninots are burned on a huge bonfire. Only a select few ninots are spared and placed in a special museum. Then there is a huge firework display ending in the great crescendo of the terremoto (earth mover).

The nearby town of Bunol is the scene of the La Tomatina festival on the last Wednesday in August, which is the most bizarre and hedonistic food festival in Spain. It has replaced the now discontinued cruel Aragonese festival where they pushed a live goat off the top of a church tower as the messiest fiesta. It is one big manic tomato fight and overripe tomatoes are thrown around with gay abandon. The tomatoes are not local and have to be imported from the other side of the country. The streets are filled with blood red tomato juice. After the fight, water is pumped from a nearby Roman aqueduct and by mid afternoon there is barely any trace left of the mess. The tradition may have started as a friendly fracas between some friends, but some say it was when some people smashed up a fruit stall during an anti-Franco rally.

Paella is the most famous dish of Spanish cuisine. It evolved when the Muslims brought rice to Valencia in the 8th century. In Spain it is the last great male bastion of cuisine and it is usually cooked in a shallow pan with two handles over a slow heat. After all the ingredients have been added you cannot stir it around anymore and it takes considerable skill to ensure it does not dry out, stick to the pan or burn. There is not just one secret recipe for paella, as there is considerable variation depending on who does the cooking. The rice used in a Valencian paella is grown in the nearby L’Albufera area. Although paella should be cooked with saffron, the expense of the precious crocus stigmas grown in nearby La Mancha means that it is often substituted with paprika.

The biggest ever paella with 38 tons of ingredients was made last year and a host of Spanish celebrities gorged themselves on the massive meal. It was prepared as a publicity stunt for a certain mild green washing up detergent and it took one litre of the stuff to wash the gigantic 32 ton paella pan afterwards. My personal favourite is the paella de marisco con el arroz negre, a fish paella with the rice coloured by the black ink of cuttlefish.

Ancient Greek tradesmen who founded a colony on the Costa Blanca about 2500 years named it the Akra Leuka (white headland). Alicante is the major town on the costa and it has retained its original atmospheric character in the Barrio de Cruz where you can wander aimlessly. It is an ancient and strategic port and has played a pivotal role in all of the major Iberian battles down throughout the centuries. It is thought that the Roman city of Lycanteum was based here.

The most dramatic landmark of the town in the 16th century Santa Barbara Castle way up on the hill above the port. The long palm-lined promenade is ideal for the great Spanish tradition of an evening stroll. At the end of the promenade is the Playa del Postiguet where you can catch some rays during the day and there are plenty of cafes around if you feel a little peckish.

The Museum of Modern Art is worth checking out for some great Spanish art. A little further out are the bigger more popular sandy beaches of Saint Joan and La Albufereta. If you are in the city in late June, you may see the Les Fogueres de Sant Joan fiesta, which is a kind of miniature version of the Valencian Las Fallas.

The underdeveloped Costa Calida with the inland sea of Mar Menor lies to the south on the Andalusian border, which is several degrees warmer than the Mediterranean in the summertime. There is the pervasive feeling that this area is on the way towards a Costa Blanca type tourist development. The major city in the area is Murcia, which was founded by the Moors in 825, and it has charming elegant squares and narrow pedestrianised streets with traditional shopfronts. The highlight of a visit to the city is the elegant baroque cathedral of Santa Maria.

The Costa del Azahar stretches up to the border with Catalonia and is the most neglected costa in the region.  Benicassim is the biggest resort town and it has an impressive stretch of beach. In the old town of Peniscola, which was built by the Knights of Templar on the ruins of a Moorish fortress, the maverick antipope Benedict XII set up his papal palace in an old fortified castle on a rocky promontory. From here he issued his unauthorised Papal Bulls that resulted in the foundation of St. Andrew’s University in Scotland.

The University crest has his crescent moon and they have also kept a single strand of his hair as a memento. The film El Cid starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren was also made here. In the early evening you can sit outside one of the waterfront restaurants and enjoy a plate of paella washed down with a tasty local wine. You can imagine the final scene of the film when the body of Charlton Heston (or a double) playing a dead El Cid is strapped to his horse and sent leading his men into battle against the Moors as it was filmed right on the beach in front of you.


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