Beaches; Summer madness

This weekend, seemingly all of Spain will descend upon the little town of Benidorm, to reclaim its finest beach from kiss-me-quick Britons.

Charles Wilson, a schoolteacher in his seventies from Bradford, who retired to Benidorm 10 years ago, is correcting the proofs of his book. It's called Benidorm - the Truth. "I can't think why Benidorm has such a bad name. It doesn't deserve it," he says. Tales of rowdy Brits, unfinished hotels, concentration-camp lodgings - all a myth, he swears.

Benidorm. The very name evokes cheap package tours and lobster-hued lager louts puking in the street. And, indeed, along a clutch of streets set back from the beach are the British pubs - the Old Vic, the Shamrock, the Star and Garter, the Scotsman, and the rest, lined up side by side. They are ill-lit, with blueish fluorescent strips, and poorly air-conditioned, but they're doing a roaring trade as young Glaswegians, Geordies and East Enders down plastic tumblers of Double Diamond at less than 50p a pint.

This little town, wedged along seven kilometres of the finest beach in Spain, is the most popular of Spanish resorts. Only two hours from Manchester or Gatwick, it pioneered the cheap British package in 1967, when the airport opened at nearby Alicante. But its compactness - which means that most visitors walk no more than a couple of hundred yards from hotel to beach - has been achieved by an exercise in vertical living that makes critics recoil with horror but now gets the nod of approval from architects like Oriol Bohigas, the builder of Barcelona.

Skyscrapers crowd the waterfront, presenting a dense and intimidating skyline more reminiscent of Hong Kong than a beach resort. Frightening though this wall of concrete is as you approach from the motorway, once in town and strolling the maple-lined boulevards, the miles of Teutonically clean promenade and pedicured beach, you just don't notice the tower blocks; you notice the wide spaces between them, and the ubiquitous wash of intense Mediterranean sun.

Benidorm is a predominantly working-class resort, and has little of the glamour or iridescent kitsch of fancier playgrounds like Marbella, further down the Costa del Sol. It has an endearing kitsch of its own: elaborate shell ornaments and carved wooden trinket boxes, to which it devotes entire supermarkets.

Brits, nearly a million of them, form more than half of Benidorm's foreign visitors every year, but Benidorm has become a favourite with Spaniards, too - particularly those from the cloudy, northern Basque country - a reflection of the modest prosperity enjoyed by Spanish workers and pensioners. This weekend marks the peak of Spain's annual holiday exodus. As millions of vehicles hurtle to the coast, there are scores of spectacular pile-ups. For many Benidorm habitues who don't fancy the daily dawn rush for the last fragment of beach, this is the time to retreat until the high-summer madness is over.

Few can match the Spaniards for the obsessive passion with which they embrace their month-long vacation. Vast floors of department stores in any Spanish town are given over to swimsuits, beach towels, parasols, plastic sandals, sophisticated picnic gear, sun-loungers and racks of suntan lotion. The brochures, of course, portray glossy twentysomethings, but those thronging the cafes and terraces are mostly over 60, or else families with young children. Snatches of conversation are in Dutch, German, Portuguese and English, interspersed with Spanish. You can spot the northern Europeans because they walk faster than the leisurely art of the paseo strictly requires.

Couples dance their lunch-times away in beachside tea-rooms to hot rhythms played on the Hammond organ or electric guitar. This is a generation of men that knows how to steer a partner around a tiny floor without crossing the line of dance, and of women who have cast off their traditional black, escaped their village or suburban hutch to parade, coiffed and resplendent in draped polyester and flowered bikinis. Having shed the pinched anxiety caused by work and poverty, they smile and laugh with the sunny enthusiasm of young girls. You don't find that in Marbella.

The weather is best in June or September, when the marcha, or scene, is hectic without being overpowering. I bumped into Doris and Sidney, a retired couple from Sunderland, in the hotel lift. They were heading for the salsa party in the aqua-blue lounge. I suggested that Benidorm was not so bad. "Not so bad? We think it's Benidorm the Brilliant!" retorted an outraged Doris. "Put that in your paper"

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