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Spanish history in art and literature

A blog for ex-pats and others to share their love of art and books with others.

If you are stressed by Coronavirus, take a break and read a book.
26 March 2020 @ 18:22

OK, I know it's worrying, but you need to keep positive. Keep your cool, and remember that we will probably all come out of this fine. Reading takes your mind off the looming problems and relaxes you.  So leave the disaster alone for a while and let your mind go elsewhere.

Listen to this story.

The south-eastern coast of Spain is one of the driest, dustiest places on the peninsula and has been conquered and colonized by waves of cultures over the centuries. The forbidding landscape inland is softened at the coast by Umbrella Pines, firs and palmitos, a form of dwarf palm. In the rocky soil grow a host of aromatic herbs amidst the hardy grasses.

 La Dama de Elche was found in this area. She was carved in limestone by a Punic Iberian culture four centuries before Christ. The elegant Dama wears what looks like elaborately carved cartwheels (Known as Rodetes.) in her hair and supposedly has the best lips in antiquity. 

Nine hundred years before Christ, the Celts owned this land, but then the Phoenicians settled here followed by the Greeks, and Carthaginians. The Roman Republic arrived in the second century BC but they were conquered in turn by the Visigoths in the 5th century AD. Then in 711 Islamic North African Moors invaded and held the land until they were driven out by the Catholic Kings.

Many of the names of towns still carry the unmistakable flavor of Arabic. A few kilometers north from the old Moorish port of Al-acant (Alicante.) is another port which used to be called by its original Arab name of Beni-Darhim, meaning son or followers of Darhim. Now it’s better known as Benidorm.

 Benidorm is on a beautiful stretch of coast which was called La Marina before a tourist department renamed it the Costa Blanca (White coast.). Eighty years ago, Benidorm was a small fishing village perched on a promontory dividing two bays, Poniente and Levante (West and East.) each with rolling dunes of golden sand. In those days, small fishing boats or Tarrafes would sail at night with four lanterns hanging over the water to attract the fish.

Other sailors would work on the almadraba which is an annual event requiring a complicated system of nets to trap migrating tuna. The almadraba required more than a hundred kilometers of cable, netting fixed to the sea bed by hundreds of anchors, rings and gates, which covered six square kilometers of sea. The sailors of Benidorm were renowned for their expertise in this form of fishing. They were often called from as far away as Sicily and Tunisia to trap tuna there. Their women, meanwhile, tended the groves of olive, almonds, lemons and orange trees.

There were few visitors to Benidorm compared with today. It was not called tourism then, but summering, or veraneo. In the 50’s Benidorm did not even have any running water supply. Drinking water was sold by a man who brought it in a huge cask on wheels pulled by a mule. In the fields, the watering system dated from the time of the Moors who used water wheels to fill the irrigation channels. Daily waste from the houses was tipped into the sea or put on the land.

Then in 1950 Benidorm got a new mayor, Pedro Zaragoza Orts. In his early twenties, Zaragoza was a rebel with vision. He knew the future was not agriculture, but tourism. He began to plan wide boulevards and skyscraper hotels with gardens, swimming pools and ample car parking. He intended to lead a new invasion of Spain; an invasion of tourists.

Pedro Zaragoza Orts: Photo Eye on Spain

In his first year, Zaragoza began to invent a new town. He organized a pipeline to bring water from Polop, a village fifteen kilometers away where there was an estate for sale with a good well. Fifty seven villagers put in to pay the loan needed to buy the estate and put in the pipeline. By 1960 Benidorm had running water. Meanwhile, Zaragoza got the plans for his dream boulevards approved along with permission for the hotels.

At the same time, fifteen hundred miles away in 1950’s London, a man called Vladimir Raiz began a travel company in Fleet Street called Horizon, and took a group of tourists to Calvi in Corsica in an aircraft fitted out for solely for carrying holidaymakers. Post war Dakotas were parked all over England, unwanted and unused. The pilots who flew them and the engineers who maintained them were trying to fit into dull civilian lives after being part of a huge military wartime machine. Within a few years both the aircraft and the people who could keep them flying were all employed in the new tourism business. In 1953 Horizon took 1,700 ‘package tourists to Spain.

By 1959 the first fruits of Zaragoza´s dream were beginning to form when package holiday flights began to arrive at Valencia airport, bringing tall blond northern European people. The Spainish clergy had already decided that tourism and a beach culture would be a moral danger to the nation. When Zaragoza signed a municipal order to allow bikinis to be worn on Benidorm’s beaches he had no idea how serious the consequences would be. After heated debates, the clergy discovered that Zaragoza had no intention of rescinding the order. The war of standards escalated and the Archbishop began an excommunication process against Zaragoza.

Excommunication was a serious undertaking for the church. For Zaragoza it would be a disaster, making him a leper in society. His friends in high places turned away when he took on the church, especially when two government ministers backed the excommunication campaign. He became one of the few Spaniards alive who had had an excommunication process started against them.

One day, at his wits end, he rose at four in the morning, stuffed newspapers down his shirt to keep warm, set off on his Vesper scooter and rode for nine hours to Madrid, where he asked to asked to see Franco. He was ushered into the office of the Caudillo where Franco asked him how he had arrived in Madrid. When Zaragoza told him he had ridden all the way on his Vespa, Franco was impressed. After talking to the Dictator and explaining his problems and his dreams, Zaragoza rode all the way back to Benidorm.

Eight days later, Franco’s wife and the Minister of Governance and his wife arrived in Benidorm and stayed with Zaragoza in his house. They publicly re-confirmed his appointment as mayor and gave him a pass to wear on his jacket so that he could enter El Prado in Madrid whenever he wanted. In the following years Carmen Polo, (Franco´s wife.) would come to stay for eight days in the summer and fifteen days in the autumn at his house.

The church got the message. The excommunication order was dropped. If Franco had not supported Zaragoza he would have had to back down to the all- powerful church. Legislation on the beaches might have killed the budding tourist industry and the eager holidaymakers would have gone elsewhere.

Benidorm now is to package tours as Las Vegas is to gamblers; the undisputed capitol of the world. Zaragoza´s original idea of a middle class holiday utopia did not quite turn out as he expected. Benidorm, for the British tourists anyway, has turned out to be a Skegness or Blackpool on the Med. It´s a homely place with all day cooked breakfasts, fish and chips, pies and English pints. Paella and sangria have stopped being Spanish and become just another item on an otherwise wholly English menu. Nevertheless, five million people a year come to stay in Benidorm for their allotted two weeks holiday. Many come back year after year to the same hotels. “The comedians in the clubs are great.” One said, referring to the British stand-up comics who come here to work the summer season.

Zaragoza is philosophical about the Benidorm that grew from his dreams. When asked the question that Benidorm was an ugly blight he replied. “ I don´t know if Benidorm is more or less attractive to look at then it was, but we have running water, we have asphalt, we have hospitals. We didn´t have them before.” Most of the critics have never set foot in Benidorm. On the radio he had heard a town councillor from Marbella warning that his town was going to rack and ruin and would end up like Benidorm. Zaragoza rang him up to speak his mind but the rattled councillor would not come to the phone. 

The latest addition to the high rise hotels is the Bali. 186 meters tall, fifty two floors, the Bali is most spectacular at night and from a distance. Then it looks like a massive silver knife projecting silver beams into the clouds. By day it is a dull grey concrete and glass giant. The building of the Bali was an epic affair. It was put up gradually over fourteen years by a group of local hotel owners who poured their annual profits into it. No loans were taken out. The Bali was built on the back of a boom.  During good years it rose steadily upwards. On excellent ones it rose faster. It is a huge vertical container for package tourism. Holidaymakers are cycled in and out in a steady stream, generating work for thousands, and holidays for tens of thousands of tourists. In short Benidorm has become, in the words of one Spanish observer, “The great touropolis.”

The Spanish who remember the 50´s and the fishing village are still here and what they think of the new glitzy Benidorm is a mix of emotions. Some speculated and won the jackpot. Many more thousands more found permanent employment for their families and friends. Nobody can deny that Zaragoza kick started the tourism boom when he kick started his little Vespa scooter at 4am in the morning all those years ago. For better or worse, Zaragoza’s dream brought work for the Spanish and cheap holidays to millions of people. In retrospect, that was not a bad achievement.

Taken from: The Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlet. (not word for word, but very close.)

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