Mention Benidorm and with it, by implication, the concepts of package tourism, hotel buffets, British bars with one euro a pint lager, northern English Working Men’s Club turns imitating something neither themselves nor their audience have ever been, lobster-impersonating spit-burnt sunbathers and fried English breakfasts with the bacon already coated in tomato sauce, and I would bet that very few punters would auto-associate the phrase “cultural experience”. More likely, perhaps, might be the image of over-revelled revellers spewing out from the industrial-sized, garish and scruffy discos along the strip at nine in the morning, seated wavering by the roadside amidst the split, cracked and squashed plastic waste which these no doubt environmentally aware individuals seem to generate by the ton.
Benidorm, certainly, is not Spain. Like many other popular mass tourism resorts around the world, it has an identity which is quite apart from its host country or hinterland. Benidorm is not Spain in the same way, perhaps, that Kuta is not Bali, Nice not France, nor Acapulco Mexico. On the same scale, Blackpool is Britain! In effect these places are melting pots of imported identity, usually with a strong flavour of the largest group of visitors. In the case of Benidorm, of course, it’s the Brits. A fortnight in Benidorm can offer about as much exposure to Spanish culture as the experience of September lights in Blackpool informed the visitor of the Lancashire cotton industry. (The past tense is highly relevant here.) Equally, Benidorm juxtaposed with the word “culture” might vie for a definition of “oxymoron”, alongside German with humour, Ireland with culinary and British with honest. (I may borrow here and there from our working Men’s Club humour tradition, but perhaps employing a consistently different skin colour!)
Benidorm is known for its seven kilometres of perfectly kept, clean beaches, its year round tourism, its millions of visitors. It has fine places to eat in its old town and environs. It has nightlife, theme parks and five star golf resorts. It is surrounded by mountains, has an island nature reserve. And in a European sense, the area as a whole is truly cosmopolitan and increasingly sophisticated.
So when my wife and I came here about five years ago to claim a November base while we examined the possibility of a life-changing shift from work-a-day pressures, our prime goal was to investigate whether, near this tourism megalith, there might be space for a small rental business, aimed at those who might crave proximity to the iniquitous den whilst also wanting to retain a suburban distance from the rasping motorbikes, the hen and stag parties, the beachfront Harley Davidson pubs, the plastic glass discos and even the line dancing. Well we found our place and took the plunge. What we had not bargained for was “the culture”.
In that first month, as late-booking package tourists ourselves, we were making our first visit to mainland Spain for 24 years and we were pleased to find an odd festivity or two. Having lived here for a few years we now know, of course, that it’s actually quite hard to avoid them! The Benidorm town band – symphonic bands are the Valencian tradition, we now know – did a free concert in the salubrious Benidorm Palace, a place whose usual show apes the Folies Bergeres. The local choral society did the Venusburg music from Tannhauser alongside original compositions for the band and some populist offerings. We sought and found a sub-set of the band doing a jazz and Latino evening at the CAM Bank auditorium where, another night, there was a chamber music recital. Just along the road at the Cultural Centre in Alfaz del Pi there was an American pianist who had studied in Barcelona playing Montsalvatge.
Similarly, we found a soprano giving opera arias in Calpe.
And so we bought the place and we were owners of a house with two apartments, a beautiful Mediterranean garden, proximity to the tourist hub, but still very much a part of its own town, a place with outstanding local services. Our aim was limited, pragmatic and clear. After some fifty-six years of unbroken professional employment between us, we decided that a change was potentially better than a rest. We had already lived and worked in five countries and had extended experience of several others, but we had also concluded that pounds of flesh weigh the same the world over. Though we had gained a few of these over the years, having them occasionally demanded and extracted ran the risk of their being ripped from critical areas. Over the years the pay had been good, the pressure significant and, overall, the rewards worth the pain. But times change, lives change, priorities change and people reach fifty.
This was the time to do something different, to trade income for quality. We bought a house in La Nucia, just five kilometres from Benidorm’s beaches, the town’s skyscraper hotels visible from our front balcony. Our aim was to establish our own niche business renting the two bedroom garden apartment while we lived a modest if sometimes indulgent life on the first floor. We have now been doing this for more than four years, have an established clientele and basically have achieved what we wanted to achieve. We will not get rich from the trade. That was never our goal. From the start we wanted to offer simple, clean, affordable accommodation at a reasonable price, modelling our pitch on the kind of place middle class backpackers like ourselves would find both satisfying and a little surprising at the price. And it has worked well. What we had not bargained for was the “culture”.
For some sixteen of our thirty or so post-graduation years we had lived in London. We were vultures of the cultural type whenever energy levels ran to it. We were friends of the English National Opera during its ‘power house’ years. I was a teacher and, during school holidays, used to walk from Balham to central London for the lunchtime concerts, St James’s in Piccadilly being my favourite venue. Then we moved to Brunei and then to the United Arab Emirates. In Brunei we were members of the Music Society and helped to organise concerts. In Abu Dhabi, cultural events were very much in the purview of the diplomatic and private sector people, and there was and remains a vibrant cultural life in the city which, after all, is the nation’s capital. So we were able to attend good quality cultural events, comprising mainly music, theatre and visual arts, in both places. And then we came to Spain.
Our initial visit had suggested that there was more going on in this sphere than a browse through the package tour brochures might suggest. But if I was to relate that in the last eight months we have been to four operas, four full orchestral concerts, ten chamber music recitals, five local festivities, an international film festival, uncountable art exhibitions and goodness knows what else – and furthermore if I were to qualify this by saying that not once did we have to travel more than ten kilometres from home, would you associate this with Benidorm and the Costa Blanca? And, if you are mildly surprised by what I have just claimed, it would probably further surprise you to learn that in addition to this, Benidorm itself is building a new cultural centre, that ten kilometres down the road the new Villajoyosa Cultural Centre is about to open and that this year La Nucia, our home town, itself opened a 600-seat concert hall and a 3000-seat outside auditorium.
Perhaps I need to re-state how local is my claim. About thirty kilometres down the road from Benidorm is Alicante, a regional centre with a nineteenth century theatre presenting a full programme of ballet, drama and opera. About a hundred and forty kilometres north is Valencia, where the programme of the spectacular new Reina Sofia opera house is coordinated with those of New York’s Met and London’s Covent Garden. What I have described excludes those venues and only includes what can be found within ten kilometres of where we live, within ten kilometres of Benidorm, a cultural paradise.
You may have guessed that we are very keen on music, my wife and I. But we are also keen on theatre, dance, painting and the arts in general. We don’t tend to go to pop festivals, but if we did we have those locally as well.
Why not check out the listings for La Nucia, Altea, Benidorm, Alfaz del Pi, Villajoyosa and Finestrat? Choose your time of year and you could attend a superb musical event every night of your stay and I guarantee that the performance standard will be as good as anywhere. And if you can also take in Joachim Palomares and his ensemble playing their arrangements of Piazzolla tangos, or Altea’s April opera week or La Nucia’s Les Nits festival, you are in for a real treat. And when Benidorm’s new cultural centre is open, imagine glossy package tour brochures offering deals inclusive of stalls seats for Puccini or a performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming! Followed, of course, by a one euro pint of lager, bacon and eggs and a northern comic, perhaps.