Retirement is great. It means you can welly off somewhere without having to explain yourself. After half a century of travel, I finally decided to try somewhere I’ve been avoiding all that time: Spain’s holiday coast.
Never having been one for package holidays in the sun, the place that invented them offered little appeal. But, by taking the plunge out of season. it was easy to avoid acres of broiling pimples marking time between late-night clubbing. Having long been a fan of cosmopolitan Barcelona, that seemed a good launch pad. After catching the excitement of a massive Catalan crowd giving a boisterous finger to the visiting Spanish Vice-President, a weekend of tapas and sangria in the Ciudad Vella seemed tame, but enjoyable and a chance to dust off sputtering Spanish. People great; food great; city great.
Sadly, the launch pad of Sants station showed that it is RENFE that needs a rocket, with chaotic control of passenger flow, with misleading announcements in the mix. Though the Euromed train was modern, service was medieval—as was the track, which foes along way to explaining why the 200 miles to Valencia took over three hours when an equivalent LNER journey takes under two.
Getting to Valencia makes the wait worth it. Another bustling city mixing boulevards with narrow calles. Despite being mobbed by tours even out of season, the area around the cathedral that lies between Pllaza de la Reina and Plaza de la Virgen rewards exploration. It is full of hidden shops and restaurants. Tourist info helpful, people helpful bur RNEFE not. Why they need two stations within 200m of each other and run trains from both to the same place remains an Iberian secret.
A further 100 miles of coast south through Benidorm lies Alicante. The coast to there seems as despoiled as the 200 miles from the north. Trains do tend to run through industrial and less scenic areas. But, with the exception of dwarf orange groves and glimpses across sandy beaches to a glittering Mediterranean, the view was of endless beige tilt-up warehouses and boxy 12-storey apartment blocks. These latter were especially evident down the Costa Blanca, all the way into Alicante.
Less cosmopolitan than Valencia, Alicante boasts a marina, a broad beach-front promenade and an old city that wraps around the spectacular Castillo Santa Barbara atop its lofty 500-foot crag. unfortunately the promenade is flanked, as in Nice or Santa Barbara, by a four-lane arterial highway. The old city is a delightful maze of alleys and squares on a bewildering variety of levels, The old buildings towers several storeys above cobbled streets wide enough for a car to pass. The Calle Vieja leads down to La Rambla (main drag) and offers a variety of restaurants, my favourite being Casa Ibarra and their Sopa de Mariscos.
The rest of the city—and the Costa Blanca—suffer the same problem: a profusion of sixties architecture that taste forgot. Lego towers clash at all angles to get a sea view. Many arre still half-built and the site fences regularly swallow the pavement. It’s as if Franco had all the building inspectors shot. The streets between are dark canyons where traffic grumbles through a haze of tuk-tukking two-strokes. The city does have a tram system stretching into suburbs on a scale with San Francisco that puts Edinburgh (at half again as big) to shame.
But, as with Valencia and Barcelona, Alicante is a city worth visiting. Stay in the old city —but NOT with a car. Try somewhere like La Milagrosa B&B. It’s fabulously central and you can hit both the Art Museum (MACA) and the Basilica (St Maria) with a bread roll from its rooftop terrace. And be aware the Spanish are noisy. They yell at each other in the street, especially kids; bats boom bass music until 4am, at which point, street sweepers and garbage collections take over. They still take siestas 1 – 5pm to compensate.
But if the noise and the tasteless towers get to you, try a day out on Tabarca. The catamaran leaves from the marina at 11 and gives you four hours on a mile-long piece of unspoiled 18th century dreaming just 10 miles offshore. Even the cats there are friendly.