“History lies underground. On the surface is the bustling life of Spain with its smell, noise, burning sun, decay, street life, mountain shrines, fiestas, markets, dark win, acrid dust… hard mountains, rushing ravines, hopefulness and resignation, openness, tragedy and song” – Christopher Howse, ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’
With an area of just over five hundred thousand square kilometres Spain is the second largest country in Western Europe after France and with an average altitude of six hundred and fifty metres it is second highest country in Europe after Switzerland. That is a lot of country to try and see and visit and with so many northern European ex-pats living down the eastern coastal strip then the chances of experiencing the real Spain was always going to be difficult to achieve in this part of the country. And so it was.
On the first morning we woke to worryingly indifferent weather with grey clouds obscuring the sun and we had to spend the first hour or so before the Mercadona opened sitting on the balcony, drinking tea and surveying the skies for signs of change.
Luckily it wasn’t cold and with promising signs of improvement our first job was to go shopping and stock up on alcohol and breakfast food, but mostly alcohol! We drove from Las Ramblas to the nearby Villamartin which are both modern urban centres that cater for overseas property owners and golfers and as such they are not especially representative of the real Spain. There are rows and rows of apartments and villas and the occasional unfinished commercial centre with what always seems to me to be far too many Chinese restaurants and Irish pubs and a desperate shortage of anything authentically Spanish. In actual fact it comes as something as a shock to even come across a Spaniard because most of them sensibly live inland well away from the scruffy coastal strip.
Villamartin is an urbanization in the Province of Murcia, which is an Autonomous Community established in accordance to the second article of the Spanish Constitution which recognises the rights of regions and nationalities to self-government whilst also acknowledging the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’.
Currently, Spain comprises seventeen autonomous communities and two autonomous cities, both of which are on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. As a highly decentralised state Spain has possibly the most modern political and territorial arrangements in Western European. Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia are designated historic nationalities and Andalusia, although not a nationality, also has preferential status; Murcia, like the other remaining twelve is a regional Province without nationality.
Most afternoons we made our way to the beaches at La Zenia and Campoamor which are close to Villamartin and reached by crossing the murderous old coast road which has a full range of confusing traffic signs, road works and a high volume of traffic all trying to avoid the motorway tolls. On the first afternoon our holiday almost came to a premature end when I mistook a feeder lane for the main carriageway and came within a split second of being crushed into the roadside barrier by a coach driver who didn’t appreciate me trying to use a piece of highway that, I have to be honest, he had much greater entitlement to than I did. This was close and almost necessitated an unscheduled change of underpants and I took a great deal more care to pay attention to my driving after that.
The coastline here is called the Costa Cálida, which means the warm coast and at La Zenia there is a nice clean sandy beach (not blue flag though) and a convenient restaurant situated in an opportunely elevated position so that we could eat, enjoy a beer and keep an eye on the beach activity below. The lucky-lucky men pedaling their fake designer sunglasses, watches and belts amused us because they appeared to suffer from serious memory deficiency on account of the fact that their sales technique was to offer their goods for sale and after rejection give it about fifteen minutes or so (sometimes less) before trying once again to sell exactly the same merchandise to exactly the same people who had said no thank you only a very short time previously. These boys really could take rejection squarely on the chin!
Just a little further south is the blue flag beach at Dehesa de Campoamor which was a nice little place where we found a perfectly acceptable little beach bar selling San Miguel and with a children’s climbing frame that we just had to climb to the top, play Spiderman and make an exhibition of ourselves. The final beach we visited was even further south at La Torré (not Blue Flag either), which just like the others had marvelous clean sand and a beach bar where we stopped for a beer and listened with interest to a group of Essex ex-pats telling trivial stories to each other at the top of their voices and making each other giggle uncontrollably.
North of the Costa Cálida is the Costa Blanca which refers to approximately two hundred kilometres of coastline north and south of Alicante. 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 flights of around £30 fully inclusive represents just about three hours work today in comparison with what of been about a hundred hours in 1960.
If we couldn’t find the real Spain or the real Spanish people we thought we might at least find the real Spanish weather. This south-eastern corner of Spain is officially geographically designated as arid whilst north and south it is Mediterranean. This obviously accounts for the absence of any arable farming and not a lot of vegetation either. Surely then this was the place to be to enjoy uninterrupted blue sky and daylight hours full of sun, but this was not to be either. Last year had been gloriously sunny but this year the weather was much more changeable and irregular and we encountered cloud at some point every day.
A barman at the beach at Campoamor lamented that until recently weather had always been predictable from March to October and the sun would shine continuously but in the last few years this had not been the case. He blamed this on global warming and I agreed with him. One afternoon it rained so hard that we had to abandon the beach bar in an undignified rush and dash for the car and return to the Apartment along roads that were awash with water and accompanied with rapidly plummeting temperatures. We had to wear pullovers that night and we couldn’t sit under the stars to eat either.
Most nights we ate at Villamartin which is a modern development built in 1972 and has evolved into a pseudo Mediterranean village of apartments, townhouses and villas with a central square with a bank, supermarket, shops, cafes and restaurants. There is nothing very Spanish about this place I can tell you and most of the staff are young Brits who were dragged over here by their parents ten to fifteen years ago and this is the only available employment for them.
There is a nice Argentinian steak house in the square however and we enjoyed a few meals and a lot of San Miguel there. Speaking of San Miguel there is a municipality of that name about ten kilometres inland which does have a history going back to Roman times that did seem to be a little more Spanish and we found a nice restaurant there that served what seemed to be traditional Spanish food.
San Miguel de Las Salinas is a village based traditionally on agriculture and the salt industry and more recently the citrus industry of orange and lemon groves. On the face of it this seemed a lot more Spanish but hang on because according to official statistics in February 2008 41% of the population is now British and only 35% is Spanish. And there was an Irish pub that would be open in a month’s time. Oh dear!
One day we drove to the city of Cartagena in search of Spain but the weather was poor and when we arrived there a big black cloud rolled in and blotted out the sun. We parked the car in an underground car park that made us feel uneasy and walked for a few minutes along the marina but it was cold and miserable and we weren’t especially impressed so we left without giving the place a fair chance to prove itself and returned to the ex-pat world of Las Ramblas.