For years I associated Alicante as the gateway for all beer loving Brits to their beloved Benidorm – a concrete jungle of high rise hotels built in the decade architecture forgot. But after a two hour flight with orange pensioners and hen-partys it’s only 15 minutes before you’re stepping off a bus into a town which is so far removed, culturally, from the above.
Alicante is now the administrational town for the whole district, so you’re hanging with the locals from the off and its sense of history and culture shines through immediately. But who knew it had such a rich heritage? Within a few square miles of the ancient port you catch glimpses of architecture that ring bells of Madrid’s Gran Via with its ornate yet grand early 20th century buildings. Then around the corner you’re in the old town which gives a big nod to the Arabic presence that was here in Alicante from the 16th century onwards. But just a short walk away and you may stumble across a little neighbourhood which would have you thinking you were in Cadiz judging from the whitewashed narrow streets with contrasting blue doors and windows. And then the modern marina with its stylish bars and restaurants. But, all the while you’re aware of the looming presence of the Santa Barbara Castle sat high above the town on a rock of its own. What a melting pot! So, how better to discover the ins and outs of a place than to take a tour!
A Gourmet Food Walking Tour of Alicante
We met Arturo, our cheery Spanish guide, in the most obvious of spots – right at the front of the town, overlooking the sea. Like a hard back book with a gilded cover we eagerly anticipated the stories we were about to hear regarding the town that sat behind this beautiful facade.
The first stop on our Alicante walking tour was a welcomed breakfast treat of Horchata and Almond Cake – a milky drink made locally but not of the most assumed origin : no cows were involved and it survived it’s journey from Egypt. The white liquid is made from the chuffa nut; not actually a nut, the tubers of the plant are ground for their juices and added to water and sugared to taste. The area of Valencia is perfect in geographical terms and mimics the Egyptian circumstances from where it came. It’s so refreshing and very high in iron and potassium, along with a low fat content – that’s good then, more room for another portion of almond cake! The Valencians claim their almonds to be the best in the world, always organic and who am I to argue!
As we sat with our late breakfast Arturo divulged us with some fascinating insight about our surroundings. You will see when you visit Alicante that before you penetrate the heart of the city you are greeted with the most wonderful of promenades – a beautifully tiled walkway where old folk saunter and healthy lycra-clad enthusiasts add mileage to their inline skates. Lining this pedestrianised area are myriads of palm trees standing proud but unfortunately their eminence belies their tragic fate. Look carefully and you will notice each tree has a little green plastic button on it : apparently all the palm tree’s in Alicante are dying! And in many other parts of Spain too. Unfortunately the 80’s property boom in Spain progressed at such a pace that all the new housing estates built for an evergrowing expat influx were requiring more palm trees for landscaped areas than the country could keep up with. Palm trees were brought in from other countries and with them came pests and diseases. The property market collapsed and Spain was left with a mass of palm tree’s nobody wanted. Many towns created similar areas like this spot in Alicante, they put the trees to good use and beautified public squares and waterfronts. Several years later when a particular beetle had knawed it’s way through the inside of the trunks, palm tree’s started falling left right and centre. How sad. So, what are the little green buttons on the palm trees? Botanists are eagerly searching for a cure and they administer the plant medicine via tubes into the heart of each tree underneath the little green buttons. As of yet, no cure has been found.
We finished our Horchata and made our way into the town to carry on our Alicante walking tour. Initially I had been so excited about the prospects of trying Spanish delicacies but what became clear as the time progressed was how the deep history of this place was so finely interwoven into the foods of Alicante that the two elements of history and food couldn’t really be separated! I mean, in Nottingham where I live, apart from mushy peas with mint sauce (I know – what’s that all about!?), and perhaps the unique blend of
dog and rat meats that go into one of ‘Babs Kebabs’, I don’t think we can lay claim to any exclusive local produce. Not so in Alicante. We got to try local market fare and learnt why strawberry’s here for instance tasted so different to what we’re used to. What the climate does to the local grapes and how that makes the wine taste (apart from delicious obviously). And, why a tin of tuna could set you back €30! I can’t say I loved all of the foods we tried, but having Arturo with us was like having a back stage pass to Alicante as he conversed openly with the stall holders and shop keepers for insider-tips – this I did love!
Just outside the market, on a Saturday between 11am and 3pm, youngsters and families alike, congregate with their plates of cured meats and glasses of local wine, on a square that seemingly has no attraction. If I wandered by unwittingly I’d perhaps presume it was somebody’s wedding or family occasion but Arturo explained that the Tardeo was just something that evolved one day, and why not : an open space, so close to the market and an opportunity to catch up with friends and family alike. The atmosphere was very much alive and the subtle police presence was acknowledged with nonchalance. What a fantastic tradition and one I think most towns would do well to adopt – a quick weekend rendezvous to stroke and stoke the relationships of neighbours and friends. By 3pm the square was quiet again and the world went on like nothing had happened.
History Of Alicante
Apart from the wonderful food and drink we got to try on our Alicante walking tour, I was most overawed by how many secrets Alicante held. Writing on the wall of the San Nicolas de Bari Cathedral which was centuries old because of a clever mixture of organic inks which had stood the test of time – but what did the writing mean? When local men left Alicante to better themselves at ancient schools and then returned with law degrees and medical qualifications, the town celebrated their accomplishments by writing their name and other details on the walls for everyone to see – they were the celebrities of their day and Alicanteans were proud of their townsmen. Other questions like why the drainage grates are so large on Las Ramblas in a town that only see’s 13 days of rain a year? Why did a sacred convent have the emblem of the Real Betis football team on the door? How, on one day of the year, is it ok to burn Angela Merkal? (for that answer you really have to pay a visit to the Museo De Las Hogueras) And, how did a serious Heroine problem in the town eventually lead to a thriving El Barrio, or neighbourhood of bars? These were a few of the wonderful stories we were told on our tour of Alicante.
It was all fascinating and quite a lovely surprise. At one stop we found ourselves peering into a very modern building on Calle Mayor that ordinarily we would have just sailed right on past, presuming it was offices, but Arturo pointed out that the insides were not what you would expect – a block of modern offices had been built upon an ancient settlement and the owners had wanted to sympathetically preserve the history (yet go ahead with their building project) so they constructed a clever mezzanine to showcase the towns heritage. It made me so happy that the old and new had come to a compromise but it made me even happier to see how proud Arturo was of Alicante and its desire to preserve the past, this guy is really in love with his hometown and I was beginning to see why.
However, none of this would even be here if it wasn’t for one mans ingenuity to build a large water pipe from the River Tagus hundreds of miles away at its source. The town quadrupled in size preceding this feat of engineering, and in what is otherwise an arid desert, the wonderfully ancient town of Alicante began and became all of what it is today, afterall – what is a town without water? Genius!
If you would like to take the tour then get in touch with the guys at AlicanteSmartDestination.com and book your place! It really is the best way to discover Alicante. Are you hungry yet?
For our stay in Alicante we used the fabulous spa hotel Sercotel Suites Del Mar – a modern hotel with fantastic rooms and excellent value for money. For more hotel options and the best deals in Alicante, click here.
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Disclaimer : My tour was complimentary and all thoughts and opinions are my own.