Contreras, Castille-La Mancha, March 4, 2015
The final 10 days of our trip will involve a lot of travelling and a lot of flitting around visiting places relating to my U3A Spanish History talk due in three weeks time, so for this week we were looking for a quiet peaceful site where we could
relax and chill out and enjoy the sun. We had read excellent reviews of this little site run by an English lady called Jill Shepherd and aptly named Shepherd's Rest. It is in a small part of Spain we did not know much about, between Cartagena and Alicante,
inland from Torrevieja. We approached it with some trepidation, particularly as the last few hundred yards was down a very bumpy farm track. However it turned out to be a very pleasant six pitch site with basic but adequate facilities. The
others who were staying there were all long term overwinterers, regulars who come back year after year. They showed us to our pitch (the only one available!) as Jill was out having her hair cut. When Jill returned she rushed over to introduce
herself and produced a Sky box and cable and set up the TV for us, obviously the most important thing to her visitors. She then showed us round the site, demonstrating the washing machine (€2 a go), the very spacious shower room with loads of hot
water and the waste food recycling plant in the form of three goats and half a dozen chicken. Fresh eggs are available daily at €1 per half dozen, a little business run by her son. There is even a small swimming pool, although it was a bit
early in the year to try it.
The nearest town to the site, about three miles away, is Dolores, also aptly named, as although it had a pretty church and main square, the town looked as if it was grieving for something, a bit run down and drab looking. It is surrounded, for miles around, by fields of artichokes, which I suppose would depress anyone. There is a small supermarket, which I visited on the first afternoon to find that although it was well stocked, it was, as the League of Gentlemen would put it, "A local shop for local people". Everyone seemed to know everyone else and it seemed to fall silent as I went in. So for the rest of our stay we did our shopping in the next town along, Almoradi. Getting there involved a five mile drive along the 'Ruta de Muebles’. Yes, the scenic road of the furniture shops, folks. Not just one DFS but fifty or so of them, lining the main road from one town to the other. The town picture at the entrance to Almoradi manages to feature both artichokes and furniture. We consider ourselves reasonably well travelled in Europe, and have seen many a strange sight, but this has to take the biscuit.
We went for a drive down to the coast, to see if it was as bad as we had expected. Well, it nearly was. As expected it is very heavily developed, with most of the old fishing villages and sandy coves swallowed up by huge developments of apartments and hotels. It was not helped by the weather, of course, overcast with a strong easterly wind. Between the major developments, though, there are some pleasant patches, with long sandy beaches and salt marshes and lagoons populated by ducks, coots and flamingos. Some of the lagoons have been converted into salt pans, with mountains of dried salt awaiting processing. Torrevieja was the biggest shock. The sea front & promenade were very tacky, the town behind was shoddy. By contrast the estates around the suburbs have some super developments of apartments and villas.
On the plus side there were three good towns and cities on the inland side of the coastal plain. Two, Elche and Orihuela, we had never heard of. The third, Alicante itself, proved to be far more than just the airport gateway to places like Torrevieja and Benidorm. So after careful studying of opening times we plotted three trips out.
Alicante has one of the best promenades on this coast, starting by the port and marina, passing the bus station and then along a lovely beachfront. It is backed by a fine avenue of palms and the city centre is just two blocks further back. The eastern end of the town centre is dominated by a high hill with an impressive castle on top. There are Celto-Iberian and Roman remains on the castle hill, but the main castle is Moorish with later additions. The English held it for three years during the war of the Spanish Succession, but were forced out by the French who built a mine under the castle and exploded 75 tons of gunpowder under the castle causing great destruction. Later, during the Civil War the dungeons were used to house prisoners by both sides.
We used the lift to access the top of the castle. This is reached through a long tunnel from the promenade and turns you out in the main keep area. From here we wandered the walls taking in the incredible views. Unfortunately, probably due to the high winds, the very top of the castle was closed. Many of the buildings have been converted into small museums and exhibitions, including a wonderful video of that French attack which could have been drawn by Terry Gilliam. Although it was windy it was hot out of the wind. We headed for the cafeteria to find all the outside seats, sheltered from the wind, were packed. We sat inside for a beer and a sandwich. At one point I was slouching against the plate glass wall and was disturbed to find it being buffeted by the wind (outside, that is).
The other attraction in Alicante we wanted to visit was the Museum of Modern Art (MACA) and we were not disappointed. Like many Spanish museums and galleries it was an ultra modern exhibition room set in an old building. There was an exhibition there of the drawings, stage scenes and costumes that Joan Miro had produced for a stage production of Mori el Merma, a very weird surreal performance. Also an exhibition of work, both painting and sculpture, by Eusebio Sempere, an artist I had not come across before but whose work was really riveting. There was of course a lot more unintelligible works of splodged paint and ripped canvas.
There was time for a wander around Alicante to look at some lovely buildings, old and new (as well as a few eye sores!). We saw a big encampment of homeless people picketing one of the banks, then back down on the avenue behind the promenade where lots of people in Andalusian dress were watching more dressed up people on stage giving a concert. Of course, it was Andalusia day, and although Alicante is technically in Murcia, not Andalusia, there are a lot of people who regard themselves as Andalusians.
Next day we set off to visit Elche, a city famous for having the largest number of palm trees in Europe. There are said to be 70,000 in the city centre and 200,000 within the city boundaries. The female plants produce dates, the male plants the fronds used in Palm Sunday parades. It is believed the palms have been there since Phoenician times, 5th century BC. We climbed the church tower, all 170 steps, to get a view of the central park.
On the way in to Elche we came across the archaeological site of La Alcudia, the amazing site of the original settlement of Elche, with Iberian, Roman, Visigoth and Moorish remains one on top of the other. The city was abandoned after the Reconquest of Spain, much of the stonework taken off for other buildings and the land covered with soil for agriculture. It was rediscovered in 1897 when a farm worker, digging up stones, uncovered the bust of La Dama de Elche, one of the best preserved examples of Iberian art. The original is now in Madrid, but the site has been decorated with many copies! Again, there is a huge modern ‘Interpretation Centre’ with displays and a video, and as a guide each visitor is give an I-Pod to lead them round the site. A very good idea in theory, but not much good for technophobic old people, particularly in bright sunshine when we can’t see the screen!
On another day we visited Orihuela, the one -time Visigoth Provincial capital, once capital of an area incorporating both Murcia and Alicante, but now in charge of a strip of land from the mountains to the sea, 140 square miles and 92,000 souls. Nevertheless it is still an important place to have never heard of, so had to be visited. There are a number of fine churches, a cathedral, a museum in the house of Miguel Hernandez, a famed Spanish poet. He was a member of the Communist Party and staunch Republican during the Civil War, which of course was a death sentence. It was commuted to 30 years, but he died of TB in 1941 as a result of the harsh conditions in prison. The re-vamped Elche & Orihuela University is now named after him.
The University was founded in 1510 and at one time was one of the top three universities in Spain. Unfortunately it backed the wrong side during the War of the Spanish Succession. It subsequently lost all its secular students, but survived as an ecclesiastical college until 1835 when it was shut down. It was re-opened in 1996.
When they were building a new university building they discovered the remains of Moorish houses and the old city walls in the basement. Now in York they would have documented all this and then carefully covered it up, or perhaps converted it into a Jorvik amusement park. Not here, oh no. They completely changed the design of the new building to have it up on stilts, so that the excavated ruins remain intact and visible inside. Glass walkways take you round and a speakerphone tells you all about it. It must have cost millions to set up. We were the only visitors and the staff outnumbered us two to one. And it was free.
So, after a comparatively relaxing week in Dolores, enjoying the warm sun and the peaceful agricultural setting (apart from the barking dogs and braying donkeys that is) it was time to move on again, this time up into the mountains and onto the central plain of La Mancha.