A little bit of Spain on the Costa Blanca

Believe it or not, says Robert Elms, less than 10 miles from Benidorm is an atmospheric little town with no hotels, good restaurants and golden, Brit-free beaches
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The Independent Travel
T o steal an American store slogan: "If you can't find it in Spain, you're better off without it." What is the Costa Blanca like? And the Costas Brava, Dorada and del Sol, not to mention all those Balearic resorts? Those of us who have the clearest idea are, I suspect, the people who haven't been there.

We graze in our gites in the Dordogne, or bronze on the beach in Bali. We are securely superior, morally and financially, to the package tourists in Benidorm, Torremolinos and Lloret de Mar. They, we all know, peel idly on a filthy beach by day and swill Watney's Red Barrel by night. Spain has sold out. Every Spanish fishing village has by now been systematically robbed of its humble virtue, and the only valid reason to go to the Iberian peninsula is to seek out the "real" Spain, well away from the coastline.

It costs little to find out the reality. The British tour industry has claimed Mediterranean beach resorts as its own since the 1960s. Thirty quid for a week in the sun was good value then - but the real bargains are to be had in 1995. This summer, the same deal costs as little as pounds 99, a couple of days' work for the average wage-earner. When you get there, you discover the country's great secret: to deliver whatever the holidaymaker desires.

Your package holiday will include a room that, despite the odd tabloid story, is likely to have been fully built and is unlikely to be already occupied by cockroaches or Germans. On the streets there is indeed bacon'n'eggs'n' tea-like-Mum-makes-it (as a swift reaction to changing tastes in Britain, San Antonio even has its first Balti house), but restaurants in the same resorts sell excellent three-course Spanish meals for under a fiver. You can no longer wash it down with Watney's Red Barrel (which stopped flowing around the time Laker Airways stopped flying); most people find a funny foreign lager like San Miguel more to their taste anyway.

True, the cumulative environmental effect of our weeks in the sun is artlessly apparent when you look at some Spanish resorts. Any evidence that Benidorm might ever have been an unspoilt fishing village has long been submerged beneath the concrete towers tottering along the Costa Blanca. A two-mile strip of high-rise apartments and low-rent burger joints serves as location for the consumption, in equal parts, of alcohol, fry-ups and suntan lotion. Yet that is the sum total of the desecration in this part of the coast: two miles of architectural mayhem. A blot on the landscape that provides employment for thousands and delivers to millions precisely what they want.

Resorts like Benidorm are arguably the most eco-friendly form of tourism. All the damage has already been done; the crowds are concentrated in an area which even in the course of the most loutish night they would find it hard to "spoil" further. Their taste in beaches, though, cannot be faulted. The sand might have been filthy once, but as a result of a clean- up all along the Costas these days it is a broad, safe and brilliant white. If you yearn for something a little more sophisticated, then - as Robert Elms describes - Spain can still deliver. That unspoilt fishing village, Villajoyosa, is only a few miles down the coast. And that is the real joy of the real Spain.

Because of the way that the bay curves round in an impressively extravagant arc, you can't quite see Benidorm from here. On a Saturday night, though, with a prevailing wind and a lull in the local cacophony, you can hear its notorious high-rise, low-rent revelry. Which made it even more remarkable when the toothless and sagacious old girl opposite replied to my remark that I was bound for the notorious nearby Babylon, with the statement: "Oh you're going to Benidorm, they say it's very exciting, you must tell me what it's like, I've never been." But then she had only lived all her life in Villajoyosa, 11 kilometres and a world or two away from pre-packaged paradise.

For such a nearby world apart it actually takes a pleasingly long time for the local toy-town train to run the circuitous and surprisingly pretty route to arguably the most maligned spot on the entire Spanish coast. Benidorm has become a by-word for the worst excesses of Brits abroad and there's no denying that you can get chips with everything. But a couple of hours spent loitering on its genuinely magnificent beaches and touring its authentically diabolical bars tells you that as hells go this is a fairly agreeable one; in a tarted up and tacky kind of way of course. I couldn't imagine spending a week in Benidorm but for an afternoon it's really very good fun. I would have stayed longer but I had absolutely nothing to do back in Villajoyosa.

Doing nothing whatsoever from sunrise to siesta and then - if you've got the stamina - repeating the experience from the evening to dawn, is precisely what this unsung, unpretentious and therefore blithely unreconstructed little Costa Blanca town was made for. The population splits between a large permanent gypsy encampment who live lazily and noisily in the wondrously tumble-down alleys and peeling squares of the old town, and a summer invasion of working-class Spaniards who fill the humble modern holiday homes which spray out high above the bay. There are no hotels and almost no foreigners because there's little to actually recommend Villajoyosa. Unless that is you want one of the loveliest and best kept beaches in all Spain, some of the finest and cheapest sea-food served on a splendid promenade and one of the most effortlessly atmospheric little towns you could wish to stumble upon. (It also has Moros y Cristianos, Moors and Christians, one of the best and most traditional annual fiestas in all Spain, but humble Villajoyosa doesn't like to boast).

It's almost impossible to discover Villajoyosa in any other way than by accident. Wedged between Alicante, where the chartered foreign hordes arrive late and depart instantly for the numerous holiday factories, and Benidorm, the most infamous of those, Villajoyosa is just a strange word on a motorway sign to most who flash past. (Made even stranger by the fact that it has two spellings: one Castillian - Villajoyosa - and one Valencian, the local variant of Catalan - La Vila Joiosa.) It is also the sort of place that revels in its relative obscurity, the kind of place Spaniards keep quiet about so that they have somewhere civilised to go on holiday themselves.

These though are not the kind of Spaniards who wear make-up on the beach, feature as extras in Hola! magazine and crowd into Puerto Banus every summer trying desperately to look like Le Jet (set). Villajoyosa is more Clacton than Cowes, but the Essex coast was never like this. Recently the crumbling multi-coloured houses of the old quarter, which lean together like a drunken film set, have been recognised as the architectural treasure they really are and some effort has been made to restore them. But as yet the flamenco warbling, noisily feuding and defiantly nocturnal gypsy families who live in this magnetic warren have managed to keep their hold on such an intensely Spanish neighbourhood. The gnarled old town of Villajoyosa would be worth travelling a long way to experience, but in many ways it's an added bonus: the big deal here is 200 yards down the steep hill at the beach.

This is one of the very few sizeable stretches of sand on the entire Mediterranean coast not given over to gaudy developments and acres of ugly umbrellas. It's just a beach, golden and clear, fringed by a swanky new balustraded promenade which houses a series of near-identical restaurants whose tables fan out to provide a perfect place to unpeel some garlicky prawns, drink cold beers and wonder when you'll finally make it down the few steps to the sea.

What awaits you when you finally muster the energy to flop out on the sand is a scrupulously clean beach festooned (though never overly so, even in burning August there's always plenty of space) with large Spanish families lazily doing what they do on holiday. This of course is pretty similar to what everybody else does on holiday but it's all a touch more familial, a tad more exuberant and a little less forced. Picnics abound, mothers fret, dads snore, grannies grumble and kids torment anybody or anything smaller than themselves. But in a very Spanish way.

Then, when the bathing day is finally done, they retire to their little apartments, nap again, change into their finery and parade ferociously along the prom before it's time to sit down for more prawns and more beer. Evenings go on forever, overdressed kids stay up just as preposterously late as everybody else, while teenagers run off to the one disco, up the other end of the bay, to flirt and snog while the waves roll behind their backs. In the old town there's usually an extravagant argument going on somewhere should you want some excitement, but that kind of misses the point. Benidorm is exciting, Villajoyosa is wonderfully, perfectly, dull and predictable,

For the next day exactly the same thing will occur with exactly the same intense languor. The same families will act out their time-honoured roles and the same food will be served, the sun will doubtless shine and the waves roll on to the nice neat beach. And it will begin to dawn on you why people first started coming to Spain for holidays all those years ago when Benidorm was just the next little village up the coast. Villajoyosa thankfully still is.