Most people landing at Alicante airport head straight out on the fast road north towards the famous beaches and resorts of the Costa Blanca – to Benidorm mostly – and bypass the city itself. This means cheap flights in summer but these holidaymakers are missing a treat as Alicante is a place worth visiting with two cathedrals and a fabulous sprawling castle on a hill, a narrow traditional old town, several museums and some of the best shopping and eating in the whole of Spain. It even has a beach. Alicante’s attractions are well known to the Spanish and a handful of other nationalities who holiday there regularly, spilling out of the cafes and restaurants on the promenade with laughter and bonhomie of the more refined variety.
My daughter Caroline and I checked into one of the city centre hotels for a week to give us chance to explore at our leisure and also have time to sample the food; after all this is the home of paella. We spent our first evening exploring the narrow streets of the Old Town. We hadn’t been able to find a guidebook in English before our arrival – so little is this city promoted at home - but the concierge was very helpful so armed with our map we went in search of the perfect Spanish meal. The traffic-free streets were full of tables as dusk fell – the Spanish eat late – and we joined in with a huge pan of the famous black rice with added squid ink and crammed with seafood and chicken and vegetables.
“Very salty and very fishy” was how Caroline described her first real Spanish paella, one that bore little resemblance to the ones we’d eaten in Britain. After washing it down with a couple of jugs of refreshing Sangria we moved on to chocolate crepes and then were glad of the walk or rather waddle, back to our hotel.
The next day was dedicated to exploring the Castle of Santa Barbara on the high hill overlooking the city. This did have a guidebook and we learnt that it is one of the largest medieval fortresses in Spain, originally of Arabic origin but then re-conquered from the Moors in the mid-13th century. Much bigger than it looks from a distance, most of it was built in the 16th century but then added to in the 18th and 19th centuries so that there are three different levels from three different periods. One area used to be an old prison and graffiti from the former inmates can still be seen on the remains of the stone floor. Our favourite part was the old ruined chapel with the forlorn Madonna sitting in a crumbling alcove that had once been a beautifully carved altar. It was a hot summer’s day and so we took the lift up to the summit – an experience in itself as it whisks you through the inside of the mountain in no time and you emerge in a hot dust and glare which requires you to stand and adjust your eyes slowly. The views of the city below, with the rusting cannons pointing down on it, alone make the visit worthwhile but on such a humid afternoon we were glad to explore dungeons, cool towers and air-conditioned exhibitions and to sit for a while in the gardens shaded by pine trees, listening to the constant chatter of the seagulls circling overhead and to sip cold drinks under the awning of the café. As the city’s defence it has seen many battles and one wall had cannonballs still lodged in it – whether from the original fire or just to demonstrate what the holes in the walls were caused by we couldn’t discover.
That evening we headed to the sea front and the famous promenade which is a beautiful mosaic trompe l’oeil, perfectly flat but with the appearance of walking on colourful waves. It was lined with craft stalls too so it took a long time to stroll the full length and it was backed by restaurants and bistros of every culinary type from Indian to Italian and of course Spanish, with tapas featuring in most places, perfect for a feast washed down with the rather good and inexpensive local wines. As we bit into our succulent large Calamari, garlic mushrooms, tortilla and freshly baked breads with local olive oil, live music from the bandstand or buskers added to the atmosphere and, as the heat of the day cooled into night, no-one was hurrying, but rather leaning back in their chairs with liqueurs and coffees or a dish of the excellent home-made ice-cream. It was too hot to eat much during the day so dinnertime was an event everyone lingered over.
Residents of Alicante will tell you that they have two cathedrals. The first was the old church of Santa Maria, a gothic temple built on the site of a great mosque and with a single nave full of art and documents dating back to the 13th Century and a 17th Century baroque organ. It sits tucked away in a quiet square like an ancient monument with its huge wooden doors closed against the hot sun. Outside all is as peaceful as inside until you descend the many steps down to the road or walk further along towards the wide breezy squares where the restaurants wait for customers.
Not far away is the co-cathedral of St Nicholas. A Latin cross plan church in the Renaissance style with a 15th Century cloister and huge heavy baroque doors. We’d seen the sumptuous blue dome from the castle but it was too high to see close up as being in the middle of the old town and hemmed in by cafes and houses we were unable to get far enough away from the building for a view. The inside offered cool dimness and incense and a place for some quiet contemplation away from the bustle along with a mix of artworks from many centuries including this one.
Our favourite place for a drink was an old Spanish galleon, permanently moored in the harbour among the modern yachts and behind a striking modern surfer sculpture emerging from the waves. The ship had been turned into a restaurant and bar, but still housed a museum of life on board in the bad old pirate days. To sit on deck or in a velvet throne possibly once belonging to a ship’s captain and sip a cocktail seemed the height of decadence. We read the sea-faring tales on the walls and grimaced at the idea of rats or operations involving saws and brandy and reflected instead on the bravery of those early sailors setting out for the unknown world.
The rest of the week raced by as we visited museums and art galleries to view works by Picasso, Dali or Miro, some Roman remains and some exciting modern installations. We admired the 18th century baroque palace that was now the Town Hall with its beautiful bell-tower and balustrades. We had a near miss taking a photograph of it as the pavement square opposite suddenly erupted into fountains out of what we had just thought were drainage grids. Everyone smiled – tourists were probably always getting caught out – and the overheated children leapt under the cool showers with glee. We tried as many different tapas as we could find and of course browsed the huge flagship stores of famous Spanish brands who just happened to have the sales on for our visit. Then loaded down with purchases we boarded the plane with all the other passengers who had spent the week on the beach and realised that although we’d seen the beach we’d never actually ventured on it…or taken a boat trip to the nearby island…or swam in our hotel pool. There was just too much to do so it looks like a return visit will be in order.