I’d been to Spain a lot when I was younger. Mainly on those package holidays most people I know did in the nineties. And while I’d always enjoyed my time there, in recent years I’d written off large swathes of the country, which I thought were overly-resorty and, well, full of English tourists. However, I’ve recently been lucky enough to see a different side of this magical Mediterranean country.
The last few times I’ve been to Spain, I’ve stayed at my boyfriend’s family’s apartment in the community of Valencia. And, I’m happy to report, that away from the drinks packages, sunburned swarms and all day English breakfasts of the Spain I remembered, I’ve been forced to readdress my preconceptions of this lovely country.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Benidorm as much as the next person. I’ve drank €1 pints, sat through numerous tribute acts, witnessed a small boy riding a penis-shaped bucking bronco and snuck onto the Benidorm TV show set, before being unceremoniously thrown off. And, what’s more, I’ve embraced it all. But, when it comes to summer holidays, I’d say I prefer a slower pace.
And that’s what I love about the village where we stay. While there are a lot of British expats who live there, there’s also genuine locals living side by side. So while there’s a bar with a weekly quiz and bingo night, right next door you can feast on delicious, locally-sourced tapas before heading to the town square to wash it down cold Mahou alongside the locals.
So, excited by my new-found appreciation of the Spanish way of life, this time round I wanted to plan some day trips. Due to the location of the village we usually hire a car, so it seemed a waste not to use it. The city of Cartagena lies an hour’s drive away from where we were staying. So, we decided to head there one day.
Cartagena is a major port city with a rich cultural history. The city’s impressive past is evident everywhere, not least of all at the Roman Theatre. Amazingly, the carefully restored amphitheater laid undiscovered under the city until 1988 and was not fully uncovered until 2003.
The structure dates from between 1-5 BC. But, in the following millennia, it was covered first by a market, then a cathedral and finally a residential neighbourhood. Seeing the scale and the splendour of the uncovered amphitheater today, it’s hard to believe it went undetected for all those years. A modern museum is attached to the archaeological site and displays the numerous ancient artifacts that were found onsite.
After visiting the Roman Theatre, we wandered around the city and along the port where we found the panoramic lift which leads up to the Castillo de la Conception and offers a vertigo-inducing panorama of the coastline below. Cartagena really impressed me. It had a long shopping promenade – that was bustling even on a mid-week afternoon – impressive architecture and an amazing history.
Our next trip out came a few days later when we drove north to the Guadalest Valley. The drive up to the village of El Castell de Guadalest is not for the faint-hearted. The vertigo-including ride involves zigzagging up a jagged mountainside on a road that barely seems wide enough for one lane, never mind two. But, the town at the top is well worth the journey.
El Castell de Guadalest was like a side of Spain that I’d never, ever seen before. Now, don’t get me wrong, this place is hardly off the beaten track. Bus tours ferry in hoards of tourists from the various resorts on the Costa Blanca each day but, to me, it had remained simply Spanish.
I loved wandering the villages narrow, cobbled streets of whitewash stone buildings. After a mooch around the town, we headed up the steps towards L’Alcazaiba or Sant Josep, a castle built by Muslim settlers in the 11th century.
The top end of the town offers an unbelievable view over the Guadalest Valley and the turquoise blue lake below. There’s also the charming town square which perches precariously on the right side of a sheer drop.
After a few hours checking out the delights Guadalest, we headed along the valley to the Algar Waterfalls. The mighty river Algar forms these breath-taking falls as it makes its journey towards the Mediterranean Sea. The whole surrounding area is a protected nature reserve and features a number natural pools and luscious, sub-tropical flora and fauna.
The Algar Waterfalls are an amazing place to spend an afternoon. You can chill on the rocks and be soothed by the sounds of water. Dip a toe in the icy pools. Or, completely immerse yourself in the crystal waters. No matter what you do, you’re bound to have an unforgettable day.
Although the beauty spot is undeniably touristy, when we went in early September it wasn’t overwhelmingly busy and the atmosphere was pretty idyllic. I would definitely recommend getting away from any crowds by braving it in the freezing water and swimming up towards the mighty falls. I honestly didn’t think anywhere like this existed in Spain.
So, I can gladly say I was wrong to associate a whole country with the package holidays of my past. I can’t wait to explore more of this amazing landscape in the future. In fact, I already have a full list of places on my bucket list. Viva Espana, indeed!