In a misguided attempt to improve my Spanish, I spent the past summer in the country, working as a waitress. Mondays were my one day off, and it would have been rude not to make the most of my surroundings. So first, let me tell you a bit about my Spanish haven…
Despite the neighbouring sticky-floored tourist haven of Benidorm, Torrevieja and the surrounding cities have managed to maintain some of their Spanish culture. Torrevieja, the bustling seaside city where I spent several months this year, comes alive in the summer, with tapas restaurants staying open late into the night, and sangria flowing as waiters and waitresses dash between the busy tables, arms piled high with chorizo, cheeses and olives. During the day you can walk the promenade, as the ocean waves smash onto the rocks below, dash to find shade from the burning sun between the market stalls, and enjoy ice-cold freshly squeezed orange juice.
On the edge of Torrevieja lies the salt lakes. Glistening a perfect rosy pink, the lakes are a beautiful place to spend an afternoon. Vast and isolated, hidden behind dirt tracks and olive bushes, so that once in the water you are surrounded by a tranquil silence, the lakes are a hidden haven. The air is dusty and dry, the water shallow and warm. Because of the high salt content, just like the dead sea, you can’t do anything but float. So, of course, I spent endless afternoons drifting underneath the glaring sun until the tip of my nose was as pink as the water.
The cities surrounding Torrevieja have just as much to offer. The entire Costa Blanca is steeped in history. Alicante, for example, boasts a Moorish castle, standing on top of Mount Benacantil which overlooks the city. The castle has cafes and restaurants, and is the proud home of 500 years of local history. Cartagena’s ginormous Roman amphitheatre still stands in all its glory – over 2000 years after its construction. In fact, the city is scattered with Roman remains, with crumbling walls and pillars lying around each corner.
Just north of Torrevieja is the city of Elche, which similarly combines the new and the old in a beautiful, delicate balance. Elche’s church, built in the 1700’s, has a tower which overlooks the palm tree forest in which the city centre was built. After climbing the tower, visitors to the city can relax by walking around the markets and enjoying seafood, meats and cheeses in one of the city’s many miniscule tapas bars, hidden away in the shadowy backstreets.
The neighbouring city of Murcia is wonderfully and thoroughly Spanish. Parks full of palm trees and elderly Spaniards, plazas overflowing with tapas, sangria and cigarettes and a rigid adherence to siestas. The city, enclosed in mountains, oozes culture. The bells of ancient cathedrals ring throughout the long days, as the river rolls by and the sun beats down. Life is slow in Murcia. The lack of sea breeze means it is much hotter than the coast, and the air is stagnant. In the evenings the pedestrianised city centre comes to life, with live music filling the many plazas as the sun goes down.
But enough about that. Back in Torrevieja, in order to maintain the dazzling reputation of Brits Abroad, every evening we got drunk. Bushwacka – our bar of choice – was the crowning glory of the Cabo Roig strip. Drinks were cheap and the nights were long. Although the tourists and local brits living on the Costa Blanca mingled, it was very obvious that, in the hierarchy, locals reigned supreme. I was grateful to have my colleagues to show me the ropes, to take me drinking and dining. I wasn’t a tourist anymore. On our days off we went to the beach, or the water park, or drank daiquiris in the sun. They were kind, and very British (in that they believe all alcohol pairs well with cheesy chips). They knew the bar men you could and couldn’t flirt with.
If I’m honest, I spent a large portion of my time watching Challenge TV in my air conditioned living room. I love the sun, I love the heat, I love dipping my toes into an ice cool pool and feeling the chill spread up my sweating body. But not for 3 months. Two weeks is the ideal length of time to spend in the heat. You just begin to get sick of it before your flight home to nice 17-degrees-celsius Blighty. By 3 months you give up. When it’s nearly 40 degrees every day, showering isn’t relaxing, it’s a chore that has to be completed 3 to 4 times a day to delay the impending sweat stench a little longer.
Eating is also a chore. Tapas is lovely and all, but who wants to eat bread and sausages and paella when flies are sticking to the beads of sweat falling down your calves. If you think you wouldn’t mind it, you’re blissfully naive. I ruined a perfectly lovely post-one-night-stand brunch by flailing my arms in a helicopter fashion around my head, whilst screaming a deep guttural scream, after the flies had finally got the better of me and my sanity.
But the biggest chore of all was drinking water. Tap water wasn’t drinkable in that part of Spain – as I found out after getting an infection which resulted in my throat swelling up so tight I couldn’t eat for three days. So I decided bottled water would be best. I had to walk a daily 50-minute round trip to the supermarket, in 35+ degree heat, to carry 6 litres of water home. And now I can say, with stronger conviction than I have ever spoken with before: honestly, truly, sod ever doing that again.
Ok, so it may not have been the soul-searching, culture-absorbing expedition you had in Asia after sixth form. But the drinks were cheap, and I got a great tan, so what more can you really ask for?
Words by Becky Holmshaw
Pics: Wiki Commons