Our English friends Kay and Marissa, whom we met some years ago on a winter trip to Sweden, invited us to join them for a week at the Costa Blanca of Spain.
Marissa’s family had been going on holiday to the town of Moraira since Marissa was a child; she has lots of warm growing-up memories of the place. We had visions of antique white-washed seaside towns, arcs of beaches between rocky promontories, and the turquoise-blue Mediterranean sea. There was indeed some of that, but this part of Spain is a product of something bigger, messier and un-Spanish.
British tourism! To be fair, northern European tourism.
Even the name of this part of the Mediterranean coast of Spain — the Costa Blanca, or White Coast — is a British coinage. Mass tourism from the north started in the late 1950’s. Tourism marketers made up the names Costa Blanca, Costa del Sol, Costa Tropical…
The region has a long history, from pre-history through the times of the pre-Roman Iberian cultures, the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians. We sought out evidence of a bit of all that, which we’ll show you shortly. What surprised us was that we had to seek it out. The reason is that this coastal area is all about holiday visitors. We mean, ALL about holiday visitors.
Kay and Marissa flew in from northern England to the Alicante airport. We picked them up, and then drove the hour back up the coast to village of Moraira. The highway paralleled the coast a few kilometers inland. The landscape in this region is mountainous scrubland without trees, so we could see far across the land to the sea. At one point, we suddenly saw a vast wall of high-rise buildings; this was the seaside holiday city of Benedorm. We didn’t think to photograph it in that moment, so here’s a view from the internet. It makes Waikīkī look like a hamlet. Where are our quaint seaside villages?
Benedorm is an unmistakeable example of British cheap-package-deal tourism. One travel site said it this way, “Many people still come here on cheap package deals, but they often miss out on the culture as they tend to stay only in the British focussed resorts, in British bars, watching British TV and eating British food. Perhaps that is why many people like it in Spain…” ※
Case in point, we read about British tourists who complained that Benedorm was too Spanish! It seems that local folks set up beach chairs and umbrellas at dawn, taking up all the free space on the beach. Tourists can’t find a spot without having to pay for one of the commercial sunbeds. You can get more of the story here.
Once we glimpsed Benedorm from the highway, we were enormously relieved that Moraira was actually a small seaside village.
But it is flanked by hundreds of holiday villas that fill the hills above the beachfront. (We rented one of those villas. It is owned by a Dutch family. It was a lovely big house with pool and walled garden.) Most of the villas are not very old.
Even the little village of Moraira, with its restaurants and shops and cafés, felt only a few decades old at most. Compare today’s carpet of holiday villas with views we found online from the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s.
We had a lovely time with Kay and Marissa, but, rather than cultural-explorer mode, we were in seaside-holiday mode. OK, a little cultural-explorer mode occasionally.
There is reportedly evidence of human habitation in and around the site of Moraira from Paleolithic times. The oldest that we saw was a bit more recent: the ruins of a 16th-century Spanish fortress, the Castillo de Moraira. It was part of a bigger defensive scheme designed to protect the land from Barbary pirates.
The giant gymnastic sculpture caught our attention much more than the stone walls of the Castillo. The name of this scupture is The Salt Giant. The public-art duo of Coderch and Malavia found their inspiration in a Japanese Butoh performance. The specific performance that they experienced reflected on the resilience and strength of human beings, especially after such enormous catastrophes as the Hiroshima bomb. The installation here in Moraira aims to reflect on more recent resilience and strength in the face of the Covid pandemic. It’s a striking piece, and wholly unexpected along a holiday seafront. ※
Here’s the beach just beyond the giant’s knees:
And even more picturesque is the walk in the the other direction, along the seacliff to the cove of Playa del Portet. Here’s the kind of place where you escape from your northern hard-working life for a few weeks in the warm summer.
We took a little drive to the nearby town of Javea. The old town comprises only a few square blocks, but it has managed to resist the modern development around it and between it and the sea. A few of the streets were picturesque. We visited on a late-May weekday, under a sunny sky. Curiously, there were almost no people about — locals or tourists. We wonder if it comes alive in July and August. We were sad that otherwise there wasn’t much liveliness there on our day.
One day we sought out an interesting and attractive destination about an hour inland from Moraira: Guadalest, whose full name is El Castell de Guadalest. Guadalest is a very old village that balances atop some impressive rocky crags.
Guadalest was founded by the moors. The oldest part can only be reached by foot through a gateway hewn out of the rock. At the top the ruins of the castle and the church’s belfry are perched spectacularly on the edge of the mountain.
The Castle of L’Alcazaiba was built in the 11th century by the Muslims and is probably Guadalest’s most photographed monument. The castle is also known as the Castle of Saint Joseph and has been modified at various points in history. The Alcala Tower is the main part of the castle that still remains.
Originally residents lived with the castle walls but as the town grew up the streets and houses were built outside of the walls. The street leading to the castle is lined with lovely white-washed houses decked out in flowers. On this street ‘De la Pena’ is the town hall and some dungeons dating back to the 12th century. (source)
The center of the village is completely souvenir shops and tourist restaurants, but that’s OK.
The setting and the views are wonderful.
Imagine living way up here, in need of such extreme protection from the outside world. Maybe they need protection from us now?
Just a simple lunch in Restaurant L’Hort in Guadalest: Locally made sausages, bread with garlic mayonnaise, vegetable empanada. Simple but really tasty.