By Adam Paris
My girlfriend and I are both mature students and amidst the English January 'Big Freeze' and the post-Christmas university and mental lull, it was time to visit Ryanair.com. I spent fifteen minutes scanning their website for tax and fee free bargains before finding return tickets to Alicante for £15, flying out sixteen days later. (A good way to avoid card charges with Ryanair.com is to find someone who owns an electron card.) I booked up tickets for us both and waited impatiently to escape the English freeze. I booked up two hotels, one for each night, costing £80 in total on Booking.com.
The night before flying out we realised that our flight was earlier than first thought... 11.45am. I checked in online at midnight. My girlfriend and I were tiring from a two hour argument about an old Skype message. "The holiday is off!" I was going no matter what! Then we had to find a student in the house who had ink in their printer to print our boarding passes. At 1am I think I fell to sleep. Four hours later I set off on the tedious drive from Norwich to London Gatwick... with Charlotte.
Three and a half hours later we were in Gatwick's long stay car park. En-route the previous night's argument was resolved. Once through airport security we visited Boots and breezed through their sunglasses range, it was at this point that Charlotte realised she had lost our boarding cards. "How?" I asked. I was blamed for the mysterious disappearance of the tickets. We backtracked into the security area assisted by an official; a large woman appeared, waving our lost boarding cards happily. Charlotte was now backtracking... "I must have left them there?" Back in the terminal The Flying Horse pub was the next stop, a quick pint was required. We were called to the gate and boarded our plane at 11.45am.
The flight was fine until it approached Alicante. Gale force winds turned the plane into a rollercoaster. I knew it was bad when the men on board started nervously glancing at each other waiting for the first to break into blind panic. Charlotte was openly announcing that we were heading into the sea. The pilot assured us that were going to land safely. The plane lowered onto the runway and all oxygen onboard was drawn by every passenger in anticipation. We landed on the runway as if it was a mountain range. The plane stopped to a standstill and I joined the party of celebration in applause and cheers which I had only once previously encountered on an Aeroflot flight. The Ryanair theme tune quickly hooted across the loudspeaker system trumpeting their re cord of on-time flights. We were alive... although most passengers felt ill!
It was now 3pm Spanish time. What a start! Getting out of the plane was like sticking your head out of a car window on a motorway. The gales were ripping metal billboards off their scaffold stands in the distant dusty sun drenched landscape.
Outside the airport the C6 bus costing a reasonable 2.40 Euros each took us into Alicante centre, a 20 minute journey. When we arrived in the centre the thin city lanes sandwiched in towering balcony lined buildings acted as a fortress from the wind. The afternoon warmth hit us and the sweet smell of an English mild summer day was in the air.
I immediately began approaching local Alicante residents for directions to our hotel. After six people, several lanes, and a pleasant stroll through the Alicante old town a friendly old man pointed us in the direction of our 4* Eurostars Mediterranea Plaza hotel. The hotel was enclosed in the beautiful town hall square that bows before the grand Santa Barbara Castle built in the 10th century and stands to the attention of the famous town Hall.
Our room was beautiful, Room 508 (smoking). We were certain that our room was the location from which the hotel's website pictures had been taken, of all the rooms ours was most perfectly aligned for an optimal view. Two large single beds that didn't slide apart created an enormous king-size bed. A shiny black flat-screen television and impeccably tiled bathroom gave a defined sense of luxury. The balcony looked perfectly up to the Castle of Santa Barbara and as the sun set the lights lit the castle with a spellbinding power. I sat on the balcony and appreciated the evening January air, warm and fresh. The beeping scooters gave a truly foreign feel. At that point Charlotte and I realised we were hungry.
We left the plush hotel lobby and head into the direction of the centre. Upon arriving a swish neon bar called Pinocchio's drew us inside. Confused at the immediate Spanish menu we were drawn to a mojito advertised above our heads. I had never tasted a mojito, we were unaware that the major ingredient was an expensive 23 year old rum. I sipped the drink, digging my straw to the base of the glass drawing the piles of sugar diluting the rum among the mint leaves. It was refreshing but cost around seven Euros each. As the mild warmth of evening Alicante set, locals wrapped in scarves bemused us. In a supermarket close by we bought two bottles of 80cent wine, bread, sandwich ingredient, salad bags, pistachio nuts, and fruit. We then got lost in the interconnecting lanes and breezed around several quiet shops. There were endless bridal shops. I contemplated how so many bridal businesses could compete and stay afloat; either there were humongous amounts of singles that fell in love with Alicante as a wedding destination, or the divorce and re- marriage rate was as frequent as the shifting English weather patterns!
An Irish bar caught our fancy after I caught Tottenham Hotspur playing Manchester United on their television. I joined in with the roaring sighs and excitement with several locals, and was amused by Charlotte pointing out a woman leaving the loo with her skirt tucked into her floral knickers. I sipped the last drip of beer, agreed with a local on the universal sign of handball after a controversial last minute suspicious handball in the box, and gathered our bags. The full time whistle blew and after the day's antics Charlotte and I decided to head back to our hotel room.
Back at the hotel Charlotte managed to get locked in our room's bathroom. Quickly her laughter subsided into panic while I struggled to contain laughter and maintain my concern at her predicament that seemed to be a stroke of karma after her ridiculing the woman in the Irish bar flashing her underwear obliviously. Charlotte broke out of the bathroom, red faced and quite shocked. While Charlotte ran us both a bath I set up my essential travel ingredients, ipod and speaker system. The chill out playlist was perfect, I opened the balcony doors and stepped onto the romantic balcony planks, the wind had died and I stood in a t-shirt beaming at the illuminated Santa Barbara Castle lit in spotlights. I lit a cigarette and the ipod switched to Enigma's Return to Innocence which wisped through the balcony doors into the mild winter night.
We enjoyed a bath together, had a nut fight, snacked from our supermarket buffet , and some romancing preceded a contemplative period on the balcony, sipping our 80cent wine and stooping into deep, philosophical talk induced further with each sip of wine. At midnight we retired into the enormous bed.
I was woken by the sound of rolling curtains, streaming sunshine, and then a wave of banter broke into the room as the balcony doors slid open. Charlotte was peering down onto the square, the Sunday market was setting up. It was 9am. After quick showers and a homemade fruit and salad breakfast we ventured downstairs with our rucksacks and approached the receptionist to check out and to obtain information on how to get to Tabarca Island, the only inhabited island off the Alicante coastline. The receptionist spent 20 minutes ringing companies and bus departments to help us get to the island. She even rang the police! We were given a map and encouraged to try and catch a ferry from the seafront. If there was no ferry in Alicante we were advised to catch a bus to Santa Pola where regular ferries to the highly recommended island were almost guaranteed.
Wrapped in a map we left the hotel and walked directly into the market. Stalls of coins, papers, pictures and books spread the square's perimeter. After one lap of the market circuit I agreed on buying an old 1977 edition of Enid Blyton's Famous Five 'El Secreto De La Montana' classic for three Euros in Spanish as a souvenir. Neither of us can read or even speak Spanish... Hola! Learning Spanish is on the list of 'things to do'!
The ferry service to Tabarca from Alicante turned out to be closed until April so we took a windy walk around the pier and harbour contemplating whether to travel out of the city in search of the other ferry service in Santa Pola. The howling warm winds burrowed through boats masts as hypnotising chimes. Fresh-faced we referred to our map and decided to head to Alicante's main bus station in search of the ferry to Tabarca. At the station both of us leapt straight onto a bus bound for Santa Pola. The ticket was 2.20 Euros each for the 30 minute journey. Behind the glass we slowly burnt in the crisp sunshine, stripping jacket, and then jumper. We travelled through desolate villages into bustling glorious seaside towns. When we arrived in Santa Pola I was being followed two feet behind me by a mental stranger who I shooed away like a dog. We collared a local man carrying his son around his neck like a snake who led us to the ferry terminal. Here we discovered we had missed the last ferry.
Dismayed we started walking east back in the direction of Alicante. There was a striking appeal to the Santa Pola's seafront. It was quiet and seemed warmer and calmer. Small fishing boats were moored and the spreading apartments facing the sea were less intrusive and seemed more suiting to the area than in Alicante. To our delight a glorious beach sparking in sun yellow and dotted with palm trees emerged. At a bar we ordered two beers and I lit a smoke while beaming out to sea. The apartments behind us cut out the wind and the sun was invigorating, particularly for English citizens in the month of January. I could see a hardcore group of sun worshippers in bikini's and Speedos against the beach's concrete bank basking under the rays. We dragged out our drinks before walking on.
Initially we had planned to walk along the beach for ten minutes before stopping at a bus station but the walk was so pleasant, we kept on going, meandering in and out of small pocket beaches, stopping and sipping the leftovers of my 80cent red wine at intervals. The main road was blocked by an extensive slice of mountain. It was yellow and dusty scattered in green splodges of bush. I imagined Clint Eastwood rising from a lookout. The scene was extremely Wild West. Set back from the minor road along which were houses engulfed in fortress fencing, they resembled cheap palaces. We strayed through a parking area spread in caravans and large families discreetly sipping drinks and talking. Several nationalities smiled and winked in our direction as we casually cut through the social gatherings. After 3 hours our legs were tired, not being accustomed at walking we found a bus station. I could see Santa Barbara Castle in the distance but the distance was no longer drawing closer. After several confusing exchanges with locals neither of us were wiser on whether a bus to Alicante arrived at the stop we sat at. A bar close by was calling us and we decided to take time out.
The bar and restaurant was small and cute. The first drops of rain on our trip tapped the tables outside as the barman explained that a bus would arrive, probably late. So we waited... and drank to his pleasure. As the sunset and the rains died the bus slowly emerged climbing over the hill and I darted out to flag it down. It stopped. A faint rainbow arched over the ocean facing Africa as we snuggled into the comfy soft seats of the bus.
Back in Alicante it was time to begin searching for our next hotel, Kriss Alicante (3*). The route scathed the perimeter of Benacantil Mountain that housed Santa Barbara castle upon its summit. We stopped at a restaurant en-route, ordering whatever the barman told us, the language barrier was beyond bridging here, and we sat waiting for our surprise meal with a beer in hand. A burger filled in egg and kebab, salad and other strange combinations landed at our table. On the television Seville were playing football while wafts of nostalgic cigarette smoke swum the air from several customer's tables.
The first impressions of Kriss Alicante Hotel were good. The lobby was stylish and impressive. We checked in and were elevated to our room. I was slightly disappointed with the room, it wasn't as grand as Hotel Mediterranean and the sea view was framed by a rather undesirable view. The room was spacious but the balcony was enclosed in covered framework. I didn't appreciate this touch. Charlotte and I bathed and relaxed with the ipod sending us off to an early sleep.
The night however was far from over.
I woke to grumbling and shoving...it was Charlotte. Then I heard it... a deep roar... my eyes fixated on the glass of water on my bedside table... it was like the scene from Jurassic park, the water trembled with motion. Again the roar thundered... the water shook again... I sat up and gazed into the bed headrest wall... this was not a wall... it was a speaker surely! "That guy snoring is driving me mad." Charlotte began pummelling the wall like a desperate prisoner breaking escape. I watched amazed as the roar grew louder into a growling commotion. Soon I was back in the lobby requesting a room transfer; the receptionist's English was limited as was my Spanish so I resorted to a snore impression. He nodded acknowledging he understood my bizarre grunting noises, he accepted my request and I was given a new room card. The new room was two levels higher and positioned on the opposite side of the building from the growling beast we had neighboured. We drifted back to sleep with our ears twitching for the next event to entertain this lazy night. There were no more disturbances that night.
We slept in until 1o am and dashed downstairs to grab our buffet breakfast that was included in the price. I managed four rounds of breakfast, two coffees, two fruit juices, and a bowl of fruit dessert. It was then time to explore the hotel, taking the lift to the highest level in search of a sauna or something extravagant. Surprisingly we found ourselves on top of the building's roof looking out over Alicante aside the birds. The sea was vibrant and glowing, sparkling in white flashes of sun. The mountain-like exterior of the city was laid before us. Ten minutes was spent wandering the rooftops before collecting our bags from the room and checking out, forgetting to inform the staff we had raided the mini-bar... the free drinks were payment for the growling beast. We then set off to climb to Benacantil Mountain, to the city's treasure; the castle.
Char and I shared an earphone each and I selected Feeder Hole in My Head to inject some walking power and began the ascent of Benacantil Mountain to the castle through a twisting path. Small curved stone hideouts dotted the dusty hillside of the path. Wild West sets again came to mind. At the great gates of the Santa Barbara Castle's entrance we were blown away. The wind was unbroken and drove our hair into frenzy. Meandering into the castle's hub was blissful, there the wind was defeated by the high rising stone walls and the sun's warmth struck back with vengeance. Through an unmarked doorway we examined an enclosed cabinet of memorabilia and picked up a complimentary map. We then strolled back into the castle's grounds stopping by a large pineapple-like tree at a kiosk manned by a largely unsociable attendant; she sold us two printed drawings of the castle for a very reasonable 3 Euros. We grabbed a can of San Miguel each and sat to examine the surroundings. The cacti and bushes were a vibrant green, the sky was baked blue, and the castle walls shone a creamy yellow. The colours were inexplicably Spanish and delightful. We continued up the mount of pathway that strayed on a tangent towards the Castle's peak. I peered into an old dungeon, the dungeon door was bleak and blackness beamed out the caged door window.
I admired the sun dried mountain exterior of Alicante from my vantage point. The city planted in its heart, poured with buildings and high rise structures of terracotta, whites, creams and greens. The bustled cityscape was contrasted with the bare green foliage and contours that surrounded it. At this perfect photograph location Charlotte's digital camera ran out of batteries. A new set at the kiosk would have cost 8 Euros, so we decided to resort to using our camera phones instead. Charlotte then got a text informing that a friend had caught her boyfriend cheating on her a day after he actually did it. Pictures had been posted on facebook damning the man caught red-handed with the mysterious girl. Facebook is people perpetuated Big Brother- for better or for worse. At the castle's peak summit on the Look-out we stood beneath the flapping Spanish flag and beside a canon we looked over Alicante.
Upon our descent down the castle's grounds we engraved a cacti with our initials 'A.S 4 C.G' as had many hundreds of others like the Romeo and Juliet house walls in Verona (an acceptable form of graffiti) before stopping at another pleasant kiosk hidden from sight and largely shielded from the wind. Another two cans of San Miguel were ordered before being invaded by an army of white pigeons of whom I further encouraged with a collection of Pistachios that remained in my bag. We left the castle and jumped off the main pathway back to the city to explore the thin tracks in the woody terrain below. The off-road track was interesting and felt rather more adventurous.
I was then interrupted by a call from a bailiff demanding money from an unpaid parking ticket that had been processed unknowingly through the Magistrates Court. We headed through Alicante's old town and disappeared into a quiet restaurant for a quick pasta dish and another beer. From the restaurant a grand inspiring square appeared. It was filled with ancient trees that looked like props from 'The Lord of the Rings'. The trees trunks were enormous and ran to the root like tendons flexed from their mighty necks. The scene was romantic and beautiful. I was then to discover that the square was dedicated to the famous writer Gabriel Miro (1879-1930) who was born in Alicante. Out of the poetic square we immediately walked past a group of scantly dressed middle-aged women with blood red lipstick and dry dyed hair, they were itching for custom. Three women occupied each side of the dead street. 'How poetic,' I thought.
Finally we arrived at the bus station and prepared our goodbyes for Alicante. The C6 bus wasn't arriving for fifteen minutes so we darted into several shops and purchased a wristband each (our travelling custom) and several Ben 10 and Gormiti treats for my son. The 2 Euro bus journey took 20 minutes. At the airport Charlotte and I slumped silently with a beer and some crisps. In our sleepy daze we became confused with which of the two terminals we needed to be in and began running through the terminals and queues thoroughly confused and frantic, eventually discovering where we were meant to be. I threw my bag on the conveyor belt. I was beeped at by the metal detector and inspected, uncovering keys, coins, and lighters out of my pockets. The remains of my 80cent wine was dangled before me by an airport official, "Sorry...In a rush! Chuck it," I responded. Charlotte and I then sprinted for the gate and caught the tail-end of the last passengers disappearing down the stairwell to the runway to our plane bound for London. The flight was reasonably steady and we arrived home safe and sound and thoroughly impressed with what Alicante offered us. The entire trip including, flights, hotels, food and spending money was £100 each. There is not a lot you can do with £100 these days, with careful consideration, planning, and refraining from needless spending it is truly amazing what you can achieve.