Spain – Altea, Costa Blanca, the Spanish Mediterranean
This mediterranean coast of Spain is a charming stretch of beaches and resort towns that seemingly cater mainly to European vacationers. We are staying in a villa near the town of Altea, a slow paced small town built around an old city on a hill. A beautiful blue domed church dominates the scene at the top of the hill and whitewashed houses cascade down towards the sea.
Altea was saved from the large hotels invasion and high-rise residential complexes that have taken over nearby towns because it does not have a sandy beach. There is a small stretch of beach but most of the sea-front is covered with smooth round pebbles and the small bay does not lend itself to major beach development. That’s what I like about Altea. It’s small, quaint, pretty and laid back. Not that it has completely escaped tourism and not that it wants to. Tourism brings in business and is good for the local economy.
Summers here are very busy as evident from the very long, marbled, palm tree lined promenade along the sea and the restaurant after restaurant and several cafes serving the summer crowds. Vacation homes, shops, golf and a marina provide fun activities for tourists. In addition to local Spanish residents who live here year round you see enough hardy souls that come to spend the winter here as tourists, like us. Unlike some of the resort towns that turn into ghost towns in the winter, Altea is very much alive and everything is open for business, albeit, not as busy as it would be in the summer.
We traveled up and down the coast visiting all the towns from Calpe in the northern end to Alicante and Elche (Elx) in the south. Each town has the same long promenade on the beach, palm trees on both sides and a stretch of sand separating it from the water. Restaurants and shops line the promenades and several languages can be heard at the tables in the cafes and restaurants.
Altea, Calpe, Alicante and Guardamar stand out as some of the more appealing towns to visit around here but there are several other small and charming towns all over. A few of the towns are interesting to see once but didn’t make me necessarily want to go back. Some of the towns, such as Guardamar, have a large number of British residents and businesses in that community cater to the British who live there quite a few months of the year. Menus are in English, business and stores signs are in english and restaurants advertise “English Breakfast”, whatever that may be.
Altea, where we are staying has the old city up on the hill and the newer neighbourhoods that are built in the surrounding area. Main street with shops and cafes is parallel to the promenade along the beach, just one street up, and the street where most local business seems to be conducted is just a couple of street up from the beach.
We went exploring the old town, parked our car on a small side street and begun the climb up to the church. I loved that experience. Narrow streets, so narrow you can practically stretch your hands and touch the houses on both sides. The streets zigzag their way up, connected here and there with stone stairs at the end of a street. People actually live in those homes and only a few have cars up there. We saw locals carrying their market bags up the steep narrow roads to their homes. There are several restaurants there, some of them closed for the season. Very few people venture up the hill now when it’s off season but we are told that in the summer you can barley move in the narrow streets filled with the crowds of tourists.
Towards the top of the hill you reach a plateau with it’s own “main” street and a little square with orange trees and a few restaurants. The setting was so beautiful and quaint, just the kind of experience I was looking for when planning this trip. It’s here that I wanted to be, in my mind at least.
Hungry or not, I was going to settle at one of these restaurants and take in the scene. We chose the pizza and tapas Italian restaurant with orange furniture and a couple of orange trees creating a garden atmosphere for the outdoor diners. The setting was so ideal. A multi generational family occupied one table and a couple occupied the other.
We ordered roasted vegetable pizza and a glass of red wine and the pizza soon came, beautiful and crisp with a wood burning oven crust. I don’t know if it was the setting, the wine or just my love of new experiences but everything was perfect at that moment. The pizza, the wine, the scene, the scent from the orange trees, the cobble stone lined narrow street before us. Even the church bell was ringing, as if on cue. See, contrary to popular belief, I am not THAT hard to please:).
We struck conversation with a Swiss resident of the area who moved here with his wife more than 15 years ago. With a little bit of Spanish, a little English and a lot of head nodding and hand gestures we had quite a discussion going. Why did he move here? how can you ask why, look around you, it’s a beautiful place to live. That it is. As soon as the pizza arrived though he bid us buena appetite and allowed us to enjoy our food quietly.
After lunch we continued the last stretch going up the hill to the church. The church with its round blue dome, built around 1900, is situated on a plaza on top of the hill. There are several restaurants and bars around the square and the views from there are breathtaking. You look over the rooftops toward the mediterranean and see the town stretching before you.
A small funeral procession was advancing towards the church. The black mercedes funeral car carrying a casket and a group of locals dressed in black were walking up the narrow street behind the car. A police car drove slowly behind them. After congregating outside the church waiting for a service to end the funeral procession entered the church and George and I followed and sat at the back row. It was a funeral of a woman and the service was dignified with the priest singing and talking about the deceased. No tribute was made by anyone else and after about 30 minutes the service ended and the procession exited the church and dispersed back to their regular lives. It was interesting to sit at the back of the church and in some respect participate in a local ritual.
We walked down a different way exploring more of the old town on the way down. Here they hang their laundry to dry in the sun, which is quite common in Europe, especially along the mediterranean where clothes can dry quickly. I was quite indignant realizing there was no cloth dryer in the villa we are staying at, and I could make a list of ” North American” deficiencies, but here you see that this is how people live and it works. We are so wrapped up in our own lives and reality that we forget that there are other ways to do things. Travel is such an education. I love to travel and feel at home in the world, wherever I happen to be. I am taking so many photographs, as if I wish to grab the moments and hold on to them, not let them go.
We covered most of the area here along the mediterranean and tomorrow we leave for Valencia, the third largest city in Spain. There is a lot of history there to explore as well as a large market and many tapas bars. I booked a tapas tour with a city guide and I look forward to experience and report back on these pages.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.