Thursday, September 13, 2007

Trip Report: Alicante, Spain

The vacation days had been on the books for months. We meant them for England's Lake District. But then the rains came. And it rained. And rained and rained. And soon leaving England for a few days sounded better and better.

The criteria were these: A short(ish) flight. Close to the airport. A pretty place, but not a place with lots of important places one should see. Warm. Sunny. Warm. Hot, even.

So essentially, we went to Alicante, Spain, because EasyJet flies there, it's not too far away, and it's sunny and hot.


Alicante is a Mediterranean port city. It's an area that's been settled for 7000 years and is perhaps most famous for the castillo Santa Barbara, a giant castle on top of a giant hill.

A castle that we did not go to. So, that should give you some idea of the pace of our trip. (We tried to go to the castle, but the elevators to the top were either broken or simply closed because it's Europe and it's the end of August and things close and, well, that's that. We could have walked or taken a taxi to the top. But the beach called.)

We did see other pretty things, though, like the catedral de San Nicolas and the iglesia de Santa Maria. The town also has pretty streets and courtyards, and at night, those courtyards and walkways come alive with outdoor diners and people out for an evening stroll. We visited the local market, too, which is definitely heavily used. If you're amazed that Cambridge can support its 6 or 8 butcher shops, then you should see the 40 to 50 butchers at the market. Amazing.

I should explain that scheduling is very different in Spain. You might have heard this but thought, "nah, it can't be that different." It is. Stores really do open for a few hours in the morning, say, 10-2, then close for the afternoon and reopen from, say, 5-9 or 10. Restaurants open for dinner a 8 at the earliest – we saw some that didn't open until 9. Ten p.m. or so is about average for dinner time. It suited me fine, of course, and JT even adjusted fairly quickly.

Strolling and chatting seem to be national pastimes in Alicante. Market stalls line the Explanada, a long tiled promenade lined with palm trees. Those stalls, which the tour books tell you sell arts and crafts but what really appeared to be standard fare "goods" such as wallets and purses and sundresses and keyrings, stay open until midnight or later. There's your spray-paint artist, characteriture artist, and beachscape artist, too. Toward the middle of the Explanada and toward the evening, dozens of well-dressed senior citizens show up to sit in chairs that mysteriously appear seemingly for them so they can sit and chat. It's like dozens of Spanish versions of my Grandpa Ralph.

The other thing was that it was "the end of the summer" so the hotels and beaches weren't that crowded and the streets at times were even deserted. It made for a relaxing few days.

The Beach
Alicante wasn't built up around its beach. It's a nice beach, and our hotel was right on it. We spent our first two days on the beach there, and had a lovely time.

But by the third day we thought we'd take the little tram to a beach we'd heard about, the 7-km long playa de San Juan. First, though, JT thought we should check out El Campello, the town at the end of the tram line. It turned out to be a great move. We clicked with El Campello. I'm not sure I can even tell you why, other than perhaps the pace and the layout was more amenable to a relaxing weekend at the beach. This town IS built up along its beach, meaning its promenade, lined with restaurants, bars, hotels, and shops, is right on the water. We spent the afternoon into the evening in El Campello, and liked it so much we decided to spend the next day there, too. Besides, we got to see the entire length of San Juan beach anyway, as the tram line runs right along it. It was pretty with next to nothing around it, which is great if you like that sort of thing.

El Campello on a late Saturday afternoon.

Another note about the beaches: The sunbathing is done topless. You become immune to this after a while, especially since the whole experience becomes one big lesson in the long-term effects of gravity. Every once in a while, a young, attractive woman who's surely Spanish will walk by topless and will snap your mind back to the fact that everyone around you is half-naked. But then you're almost grateful to see her because she deserves to be topless, unlike the more prevalent, most likely German and British women who invade these beaches each summer. Gravity has not been kind to them.

The Food
I have managed to lose almost a stone (look it up) since moving here, but I won't step on a scale now because I'm sure I put it all back on in Spain. And, I'm OK with that. Mmmm. Part of the problem was that our hotel had this amazing spread for breakfast. This is what my plate (ummm, the first plate, anyway) looked like for five days in a row:

The quiche looking thing is tortilla, or an omlette of sorts. More like a frittata, really. Most of the recipes have you fry the potatoes in oil first, but there's one that has you roast the potatoes. It's so simple, so delicious. The others are various sausages and ham or ham-like products – which we enjoyed often throughout our trip. Those latter two are truly amazing. I think my favorite meal was a pizza with dried, cured ham, marinated wild mushrooms, and arugula. Oh my stars, it was delicious. Another highlight was my ensalada murciana, which was the most enjoyable use of fresh green pepper I've ever tasted. (recipe recipe recipe) (The recipes don't call for green peppers, but trust me, dice some up fine and toss. Mmm.) (Oh, and the recipes are in Spanish.)

The Basketball

We've already told you some of this, but the hotel next to ours was housing the basketball players in town for the Alicante branch of the Eurobasketball 2007 tournament. We also told you about our Tony Parker/Eva Longoria sighting. On our last night there, we ate dinner one table over from them in a near-empty restaurant.

(An aside: Both JT and I had work conference calls the day after we got back. Our celebrity sighting made both of our elevator summaries when we were asked how our vacations were. And both of us had to explain who Tony Parker and Eva Longoria are because the other people on the call didn't know. So, for the uninitiated, Tony Parker is the point guard for the San Antonio Spurs, and Eva Longoria stars on Desperate Housewives and is a repeat covergirl for Maxim.)

As we were led to our table, we shot each other a look as we recognized our fellow diners. We spent the rest of the evening barely talking to each other, as we were able to pretty much completely eavesdrop on Tony, Eva, and their two fellow diners, who may or may not have been Tony's mother and the coach of the French basketball team. What was so striking was how normal they were. They talked about how they didn't know how much or whether to tip waitstaff, hotel staff, etc. They talked about their wedding like two giddy newlyweds, not like two celebrities whose wedding in Paris and reception at a French chateau was covered by every newspaper and tabloid on Earth. Tony talked about how he broke his finger during a game last season, and proudly held up his hand to show his dining companions how it's still out of whack. A fan came over for autographs and a picture, and after he took a picture with his camera, Eva handed the guy her Treo and asked if he'd take a picture of her and Tony with it.

We sat there debating what to do – ask for a picture, ask for an autograph, etc. We decided to ask for an autograph when they got up to leave. Eva slipped out pretty quickly, but we caught Tony, and I got him to sign my Spanish phrase book. (Hey, I didn't go to dinner with a reporter's pad.) We chatted very briefly about San Antonio and told him that our marriage has survived in spite of JT being a Pistons fan. He was very cordial. It was almost sad, then, when they walked out the door of the restaurant, which we could see from where we sat, and we saw the repeated flashes from a photographer's long-lens camera. They are, after all, just very pretty, very famous folks out for a dinner with friends.

Oh, Eva's purse was a conversation piece, too. Eva's purse had a chair of its own right next to her. I'd imagine her purses carry a pricetag that means you don't throw it on the floor or over the back of a chair. I still don't know whether it's a Famous Purse, but just type "Eva Longoria purse" into Google. You will be amazed at how much cyberspace has been devoted to her purses. The purse she was carrying (you see a glimpse in this photo) was far more classy than this one. Hopefully she stopped carrying that one because someone pulled her aside and told her how hideous it was.

Anyway, it was a good time, and we did actually come back to perfect Cambridge weather -- sunny and about 62 degrees. We felt like we had our six days of summer, and it was lovely. Muy bien, even. (Oh, I haven't mentioned language. I used my Spanish, and sometimes even effectively. There's nothing like immersion, and context counts for a lot. My shining moment was asking a storekeeper if she spoke English, her saying no, me asking if there was a grocery store nearby, and me understanding her directions. I was pleased.)

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