Why Alicante is a real city of light

Alicante at night
Alicante at night

“I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than in most countries. How easy it is to make friends in Spain”.

It was 1984 author George Orwell who expressed an enduring love for the country and having moved to Barcelona in 1936, just months after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he later penned Homage to Catalonia, his first-hand account of war and revolution.

And Orwell was not alone.

The American musician Lenny Kravitz also spoke of his desire to move to the Iberian Peninsula for a couple of years - just to learn Spanish music.

Located in the middle of the Costa Blanca, Alicante is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Spanish east coast. And, as Kravitz would attest, it has a unique beat of its own.

The Romans named it “Lucentum,” which means “City of Light” and it’s a mix of happy contradictions - modern and traditional, vibrant yet tranquil, dark but luminous, modest yet exhuberant, serious but playful.

Around each corner you’re met with surprise. It’s a city that’s all things to all people.

A flight of under three hours from Belfast can take you here. You can be on the beach sipping cocktails wondering why you hadn’t done it before.

The city has the sort of climate we Northern Irish can only dream of, balmy winters and long hot summers and an average temperatures of 18 degrees. Sun worshippers take note, Alicante gets 3,000 hours of sun a year.

It offers a uniquely ecletic package for any traveller: beaches and sunshine, heritage, history and culture as well as shopping, golf, leisure and fabulous gastronomy.

What’s striking is that Alicante has one foot firmly in the past and one in the present. It’s a place of deeply-rooted traditions with Moors and Christian festivals such as the Night of San Juan, a bonfire celebration held in June when ninots, papier-mâché effigies or rag dolls are flouted on the streets during the day and burned at the stake at night.

We stayed in the quirky Les Monges Palaces Hotel, in the heart of the charming old town district at the foot of the old walled city with Santa Barbara Castle, one of the largest medieval fortresses in Spain, towering above us.

There’s a treasure trove of history around us among the bootlaced narrow streets and alleyways: the 16th century Gothic church of Santa María, built on top of an old Arab mosque and a few paces away the Casa de la Asegurada Museum which houses a notable collection of contemporary art, with artists of the stature of Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso and Eduardo Chillida. The city and its harbour are flanked by the Benacantil mountain, a rocky promontory crowned by the Santa Barbara fortress.

And another surprise: the castle is accessed through a James Bond style 600 feet long underground tunnel, encased in steel, which leads to a lift to take you 400 feet above. All that’s missing is villain Blofeld with his white Persian cat.

Of Moors origin, the castle bears the marks of all the different peoples that the city has sheltered. From atop you have the best possible view of the entire city, its urban sunbaked sprawl, bathed by the Mediterranean sea, with the island of Tabarca in the distance.

It’s clear Alicante doesn’t want to escape its past but instead to celebrate it, even its most painful episodes. Around a street corner in quiet downtown we descend into a dungeon of war, the dark, dusty R31 Seneca Air Raid Shelter.

More than a hundred public air-raid shelters were built beneath the city during the Spanish Civil War in the mid 1930s. The Alicante Municipal Archives hold reports written by technicians who inspected the shelters in the 1940s, In 2003 information on the air-raid shelters was included in a Special Plan aimed at protecting Alicante’s archaeological heritage - and sharing it with all who came here.

But consistent with the city not taking itself too seriously and just a short walk from R31, you’ll find San Francisco Street, complete with Yellow Brick Road and giant mushroom figures. As our guide Felipe confides, they do love their mushrooms here.

However it’s the coastline that really has the wow factor and a magnet for the nine million people who fly here each year. In May this year, for example, four passenger ships deposited 12,800 tourists on a single day. It’s appeal as a holiday destination is growing.

And those visitors were able to enjoy an amble along the magnificent Explanada de España promenade, across from the port (now the virtual home of the Volvo Ocean Race) where excited children toddle alongside their parents and Segways whizz past.

Lined with 400 palm trees, the boulevard, paved with more than six-and-a-half million marble tiles, faces onto terraces, shops and pavement cafes. It’s where locals and visitors mix to enjoy the region’s wonderful food and drink - it’s really a foodie’s paradise.

We’re told Alicante folk love their rice. More than ­115,000 tons of it are produced in the city each year.

And you can join one of the many gastronomy tours and try authentic tapas and local dishes like arroz a banda (rice with fish) and arroz negro (“black rice”, with cuttlefish) and horchata, one of the oldest beverages in the world, drunk by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

Alicante is also a Spanish Denominacion de Origen (DO) for wines which are said to date back to ancient Roman times.

French monarch King Louis XIV apparently asked for some Alicante wine on his deathbed and Queen Elizabeth I was said to love wine from the area. Local people are proud of their wine heritage, dating back to the sixth century, with varieties such as Monastrell, Muscat of Alexandria and Garnacha the most popular.

And no visit would be complete without a recommended visit to La Guitarreria Fablao Flamencol in calle Mayo. It’s flamenco like you’ve never seen before: a raucous, sensory-shaking celebration of native dance accompanied by epileptic Spanish guitar.

Mr Owell, no doubt, would have approved.