Spain’s Plain Gain

In 1977, I was one of a group of high-spirited 16-year-olds who had just finished their O levels (or GCSEs, as they are called today) and were off on their first holiday abroad without their parents. We had heard from older mates and siblings that it was the Costa Blanca, and in particular Benidorm, where it was all happening. When we got there, oh, boy was it ‘happening’! A skyline of cranes hoisted materials high above the long white beaches to erect hundreds of hotels that would cater for the tens of thousands of newly emboldened and cashed-up Brits – mainly – and Germans heading for sun, sangria and a dream of sex.

Our 14 days in Benidorm were just about identical. We’d eat our dire, devoutly non-Spanish, ‘paid for’ early-evening meal in the hotel canteen, go to some low-cost faux flamenco event arranged by our holiday rep to get sangria poured down our throats from a long-nozzled glass decanter, boogie through the night to Euro disco, grab a few hours’ sleep, eat a full English breakfast and then it would be back to the pool for a day-long doze.

Over the following decades, Benidorm’s reputation for boozed-up Brits grew, and it became a brand synonymous with all the negative aspects of mass tourism. To the point where a sitcom was made in the town’s name that has served to rub salt into the wounds, playing up the resort as a vulgar eyesore that was more ‘rough British town centre on a Friday night’ than the real Spain.

So it was that, on a trip to a conference in the town in October, I was half dreading seeing how a bit of lovely coastline had been supposedly ruined, and half looking forward to the perverse fun that can be had on seeing the results of poor taste. Gerardine and I arrived at a very tasteful five-star hotel (first preconception broken: the words ‘tasteful’ and ‘Benidorm’ are supposed to be as alien to each other as ‘tasteful’ and ‘Blackpool’), sitting three kilometres above the town. We looked from our balcony over the hundreds of high-rises surrounded by dramatic hills, with the sun sinking over the Med and Benidorm winking back at us. We decided to eat in the town.

I know it was off-season, but we didn’t hear any Estuary English and came across few English sports bars. There was hardly a Union Jack in sight, and the streets were full of Spanish folk who had clearly flocked to holiday there, and on that evening enjoyed a spectacular sunset. The tapas we ate were modern, well priced and the service was fantastic. After dinner, we strolled along the well-landscaped and tastefully lit prom for a few kilometres and agreed that this could easily be Cannes!

We cycled to the Poniente end of town the next morning at first light, through streets full of four- to fourteen-storey 1960s and 1970s hotels, many with tasteful, modern additions and all looking very cool indeed. The walkway along the front looked every bit as well done in the bright morning sun as it had the night before, and the beach – like the whole town – was immaculately clean. The sea was 24ºC and at 8.30am, we were swimming off an almost deserted Mediterranean beach. I realise that in midsummer things might be very different but here is a town that was seen as something of a basket case a few years ago, now being loved by its citizens, looked after by its council and supported by visitors from all around Spain.

There can be real value in buildings that were once considered carbuncles and so-called vulgarity can be transformed and appreciated on a different level. Benidorm is the real thing: a living monument to mass tourism, and a resort that has come of age and will go on to have a bright future.

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