“Catholic among increasingly secular peers, isolationist in a gradually uniting Europe, tainted by its semi-fascist credentials, in Franco’s last years Spain was an enthralling prodigy among the powers. dark, but sunny too, fascinating but forbidding, unique at once in its ancient glories and its twentieth century anomalies.” Jan Morris – ‘Spain’
In the first few years of the 1960s, in the days just before and then during the Freddie Laker days of early package holidays, my grandparents visited Benidorm in Spain several times. For people from London who had lived through the Luftwaffe blitz of the 1940s and the killer smog of the 1950s they applied for passports (which was practically unheard of for ordinary people) and set out with pale complexions on an overseas adventure and returned home with healthy Mediterranean suntans and duty free alcohol and cigarettes.
They brought back exotic stories of exciting overseas adventures and suitcases full of unusual souvenirs, castanets, replica flamenco dancing girls, handsome matador dolls with flaming scarlet capes and velour covered bulls that decorated their living room and collected dust for the next twenty years or so.
In the photograph my grandparents Ernie and Olive were roughly the same age as I am now and they were clearly having a very good time sitting at a bar enjoying generous measures of alcohol, the same sort of good time that I like to enjoy when I go travelling. I’m guessing of course but Grandad, who looks unusually bronzed, seems to have a rum and coke and Nan who looks younger than I can ever remember her appears to have some sort of a beer with a slice of lime and that’s about forty years before a bottle of Sol with a bit of citrus became anything like fashionable. With him is his brother George (no socks, very impressive for 1960) and his wife Lillian. Nan and Grandad look very relaxed and with huge smiles that I can barely remember. I wonder how they managed to be among the first early holidaymakers to visit Mediterranean Spain in the 1960s?
In 1950 a Russian émigré called Vladimir Raitz founded a travel company in London called Horizon Holidays and started flying people to Southern Europe and the package tour was born. Within a few years he was flying to Majorca, Menorca, and the Costa Brava. In 1957 British European Airways introduced a new route to Valencia and the designation ‘Costa Blanca’ was allegedly conceived as a promotional name when it first launched its new service on Vickers Vanguard aeroplanes with four propeller driven engines at the start of the package holiday boom. By the end of the decade BEA was also flying to Malaga on the Costa Del Sol.
The flight took several hours and arrival at Valencia airport some way to the west of the city was not the end of the journey because there was now a one hundred and fifty kilometre, four-hour bus ride south to Benidorm in a vehicle without air conditioning or air suspension seats and in the days before motorways on a long tortuous journey along the old coast road. Today visitors to Benidorm fly to Alicante to the south, which is closer and more convenient, but the airport there was not opened until 1967.
“We waded out at the edge of the sea to a fishing village and it was so lovely we promised to go back and stay. When I did go there, ten years later it was unrecognisable. Only the name remained of what was once so exquisite” Patrice Chaplin – ‘Albany Park’
I am curious to understand how they were able to afford it? Grandad was a bus conductor with London Transport on the famous old bright red AEC Routemaster buses working at the Catford depot on Bromley Road (he always wore his watch with the face on the inside of his wrist so that he didn’t break the glass by knocking it as he went up and down the stairs and along the rows of seats with their metal frames) and Nan worked at the Robinson’s factory in Barmeston Road boiling fruit to make the jam.
I cannot imagine that they earned very much and 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! Each! The average weekly wage in the United Kingdom today is £490 so on that basis a flight to Spain at 1957 British European Airline prices would now be about £1,225. After paying the rent on the first floor Catford apartment Grandad used to spend most of the rest of his wages on Embassy cigarettes, Watney’s Red Barrel and in the Bookies so perhaps he had a secret source of income? He does look like a bit of a gangland boss in some of these pictures or perhaps he had a good system and had done rather well on the horses.
Benidorm developed as a tourist location because it enjoys a unique geographical position on the east coast of Spain. The city faces due south and has two stunningly beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean Sea that stretch for about four kilometres either side of the old town, on the east the Levante, or sunrise, and to the west the Poniente, the sunset, and it enjoys glorious sunshine all day long and for most of the year as well.
Today, Spain is a tourist superpower that attracts fifty-three million visitors a year to its beaches, 11% of the Spanish economy runs off of tourism and one in twenty visitors head for Benidorm. The city is the high rise capital of Southern Europe and one of the most popular tourist locations in Europe and six million people go there each year on holiday.
“…before the boom in package holidays, easyJet flights and the slick rebranding of Spanish cities… this is the Spain of Gypsies, bullfights, orange groves and castanets. It is a place where young women look demure in frilly tops and men strut in bolero jackets, a place where the industrial revolution never happened, where Franco is still all-powerful.” Jo Littler – The Guardian Newspaper (UK)