The International Writers Magazine
: Spain: The Costas

Spain: A Work in Progress
Sam North

(all images © Sam North)

e thought we might be safe from the English effect in Spain by going to the mostly industrial city of Valencia for a short break. But circumstances (notably the Furniture Design Show in the city) meant that there were no hotels to be had at all and we ended up in Calpe – some distance down the coast from the old Spanish City.

There is a fast toll-road down the coast and it is about an hour’s drive but if you are a nervous driver, beware there are a lot of fast driven trucks that care not for your peace of mind. We rented a tiny Kia Picanto from Hertz which does about 60 mpg and though small is entirely adequate as long as you don't have luggage.

It is very easy to be a snob about what has happened to Spain’s Mediterranean coast in the last thirty years. Almost everyone knows that the British invaded Benidorm and Alicante in their hundreds of thousands and the Spanish catered to their tastes. Those tastes running mostly to chicken and chips, hamburgers and chips and well chips. I thought, in my ignorance about this coast, that it would be confined to a small area and essentially there would be a couple of large seaside resorts swollen with kiss me quick hats and that would be it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Just as I was horrified when flying down to Miami (where the last 80 miles of the flight we flew across continuous hotels) the Costas of Spain are way more extensive and the over-development astonishingly hideous.

But first let me state, the sun did shine, the sea was clear, the sand was clean and I can totally understand that given a choice between Skegness or Blackpool, I’d rather go to Spain, where sunshine is guaranteed and the kids will have a great time at half the price of UK resorts. I sympathise and understand this. What I don’t quite grasp is what the Spanish have done to themselves.

The entire coast from Valancia to Alicante and beyond no doubt, is thick with thousands of apartment blocks catering for vacationers. No attempt at style, or planning, is in evidence. New hotels spring up in front of others taking their views and you’d be a complete fool to buy a sea-view apartment there for in six months the view will be gone. If there is no room to build, they’ll just shovel some more mountain into the sea and build on that. (In a 1000kms of driving I saw no sewage works and did wonder where it all goes).

River beds have dried up all over Spain and they now build on them. This means should the rains ever return (as a consequence of global warming) there will be some ugly flooding in future.

There are some positives: In Valencia they have diverted the main river and built a fantastic range of parks and civic buildings that snakes through the whole city. Quite an exciting concept actually.
The new futuristic conference centre next door (see image) is astonishing. Valencia might be very old and crumbling, choked with cars, but they are building a new city right alongside it in the most modern 21st Century sci-fi style. It is worth going just to see the buildings.
There is a stunning insect like theme to the structures, the pod above seems likes a movie set but it is truly huge and the conference centre alongside here is just one of the most unique buildings in the world.

They have also installed the second largest Oceanarium in the world. You may not approve of caging fish like this, or training Dolphins to dance, you might even feel like crying when you see how depressed the poor penguins look, but at least it is ambitious. It is ocean history/science dressed up as spectacle, but keeping Life of Pi in mind, I guess, just perhaps, the seals, exotic fish and bedraggled Flamingo's like being fed and not having to search for food...but then again...I felt uncomfortable despite Spain's best intentions and the obvious enjoyment of the huge crowds (It ain't cheap either at €23 each).
Oceanarium Dolphins perform at least twice a day.

Valencia evokes the Belle Epoque in the old ciy and Alphaville in the new, a real place of contrasts but always identified with the new of a millennia. Valencia has survived since Roman times, I guess it will always reinvent itself as history demands it. You can see it had a glory day around 1900 and there is much that impresses tucked around hidden corners.

It is well served by fashion chains too and this is the place for bargains in Zara or Mango and I guess El Cortes Inglis the department store. They are extending the underground Metro and so many streets are under construction, as indeed is much of the old city as well as the new.
Sometimes I got the impression that 90 percent of the jobs in Spain are in construction in some way as they totally renew their country. Could be quite a hangover when it comes to a halt.

On the Coast:
Calpe nestles between two spectactular rocks and hence it's fame. You can see why people want a villa on the hills above it.

If you have been to Cape Town (Camps Bay) is has many similariities and the colour of the light is familiar too.
The negatives are that a pretty and friendly seaside town like Calpe is being systematically raped by developers selling apartments to the English and Germans. (Yes there are a lot of Germans there and many restuarants have menus in English, Spanish and German as a matter of course).

An example of how crazy it is was in the local paper whilst we were there. A developer building an eleven story apartment decided to build it 16 stories high. He paid the right people but was found out and I guess those who weren’t paid off are now demanding he demolish those five floors or pay them out. Multiply this by hundreds of apartment blocks all being thrown up with no respect to the environment or each other or future traffic problems or just what the beaches can bear and you have a recipe for ecological disaster. History is just obliterated. Few new designs are good, an exception being the new Hotel Bahia on Calpe Beach, but even here, a new apartment block is being built right alongside stealing it’s view. Nevertheless if you want to stay right by the beach this is most upmarket choice.

Nearby Altea is an old hilltop town that is in the process of selling out to tourism, but if you are thinking of buying there check the beach out first, it’s all rubble! I am not kidding. If you use the local train (Alicante to Denia) you might not be able to see out as graffiti covers all the windows. Shame really as it goes throughsome pretty hair raising tunnels and trundles around some steep waterfront bends. I have a strong feeling that I am in this region 40 years too late and those coming now really don't care about history. The natives as well as the tourists like the new. Sometimes walking in the few old streets still left in Calpe you get a glimpse inside of the old dark dwellings and you can understand that though designed to be cool in summer, they must be cold and depressing in winter.

We used the excellent new toll roads to go from Valencia to Alicante and to be honest the whole way down the entire region is a building site. We glimpsed Benidorm from the road and saw skyscrapers that would seem tall in Manhattan. No sense to it other than greed. To go there could only be a nightmare. Alicante is virtually brand new, spreading, oozing over the orange and lemon groves that used to surround it. Traffic is in a constant jam everyway you look and if you can avoid, do so.

You could argue that this is all about bringing prosperity to the Spanish who thrive from mass tourism. Indeed the French owner of our hotel was keen to point out all the new villas being built in the orange groves all around us above Calpe. His own hotel was surrounded by the very last working farm. We knew all about this farm. It had a very loud cockrel that crowed at 4am, 5am and 6am every day and the farmer also had five dogs tied up in a small cage that barked all night long. We watched him picked his figs every day and stare hard at the last fruit trees in the town. By tomorrow it will all be gone, if not tomorrow, the next day and the villas the Spanish are building themselves are very smart, with lots of security… Calpe residents have all sold out to the devil. You cannot develop these resorts to this extent and not exhaust the environment. There really isn’t enough water to support this many people. You only have to drive across the mountains to Guadalest and beyond to the burgeoning city of Alcoy to see that this is a desert in the making.(Despite the pines being the most vivid green I have ever seen) In fact when you get to the pretty mountain town of Guadelest you’ll find about 20 tour buses disgorging the English on tour from Benidorm. It’s a shame but then we were there too…
The images below are what people come to see in Spain- see it now before it becomes an apartment block.

Spain is in a building frenzy, villas and apartments for foreigners to buy or rent, intensive farming (much of the land is under plastic) each town choked with traffic and if you aren’t on the A-7 toll road, the normal roads jam up in every town as you snake through the narrow crowded streets. By-passes seem almost not existent.

There are some places that are better to visit than others. Cullera is one to avoid totally. It had the atmosphere of a place where you’d go to die. Gandia is more cheerful (but watch out for wedding parties, those fireworks are very loud and dangerous) and Javea is the least spoiled of all the coastal towns (so far) but even here the restaurants seem to be owned by the English, the food is excretable. A tip - avoid any restaurant with an English menu.

In Calpe we swam in the warm sea and did our best to get a decent coffee (Café Nero could make a fortune there). We found one good restaurant in the town by the church called El Dos Canons and on our last night we got a decent meal in the harbour in the restaurant attached to yacht club. (You might want to avoid the fish restaurants the other side of the wall where it completely defines the concept of mass tourism. You chose your dish from a stale plate on display and yes your fish and chips will arrive looking much like the display unit. It is VERY crowded but perhaps people like that).

Valencia was confusing, but I confess that’s down to my map reading. The old town lacks the charm of Jerez or Seville and as stated earlier, much of it is undergoing renovation. The new is at least ambitious, world class architecture. The buses are useful and if you have a car, park it out of the city and use the bus, it is much less stressful.

But if you want a restful vacation and would like to engage with real Spain, you’d be better off in Andalucia by a long way. The Costa’s will sink under it’s own weight and one day it will all unravel. If Spain doesn’t get some sense of planning and do some environmental impact studies soon, it may well be too late to save what’s left. (Which isn’t much and is a big shame).

Pic: Altea graffiti © Sam North 2005

© Sam North October 2005

Kit and I stayed at Hotel Rocinante: Entrada Calpe Sur, 03710 Calpe
(which has the cutest dog Ralph) and it has a good view of the whole coast from each balcony. The host is French, speaks good English and is very friendly. They allow dogs and motorcycles. Free car parking and serve good simple food.
March to October only: Tel: +34 965831200

Sam North is the author of the new Sherlock Holmes adventure 'The Curse of the Nibelung' available by order from Amazon UK and Amazon USA

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