48 Hours In: Alicante
The sun is shining in the gateway to the Costa Blanca, and with more flights, it's even easier to enjoy this historic Mediterranean port city, says Nick Boulos
Saturday 30 March 2013
Why go now?
The gateway to the Costa Blanca will become even more accessible with new British Airways flights from Gatwick, starting tomorrow.
Many use the city as a jumping-off point for Benidorm (45km to the north-east), but those who linger a little longer are inevitably won over by Alicante's medieval history, rich cultural calendar and year-round sunshine.
There's never a bad time to visit, but it's now that Alicante starts to shine, with balmy temperatures nudging 24C. Visit around 20 June and you'll witness one of Spain's most exuberant festivals: the Fogueres de Sant Joan (hogueras.org). For four days the city is ablaze with bonfires and fireworks in a tradition dedicated to John the Baptist, celebrated since 1928.
Alicante is well connected from almost every corner of the UK. I travelled with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), which flies from Belfast, Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Liverpool, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle, Stansted and Southend. Other options include Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com); Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com); Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com); Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk); British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com); and Vueling (0906 754 7541; vueling.com).
Alicante's airport is a handy 12km south-west of the city centre. Bus C6 leaves from outside Departures on the second floor every 20 minutes from 6.40am to 11pm. It stops at the bus station (1) on Calle Portugal, the train station (2) on Avenida Salamanca and Plaza Puerta del Mar (3). Journey time about 30 minutes; €2.75 one way.
A taxi costs €19 and takes 15 minutes.
Get your bearings
Located on Spain's sunny south-eastern coast and lapped by the Mediterranean, Alicante is a bite-sized city, sandwiched between the capes of Cabo de las Huertas and Santa Pola. Rising to the east is Mount Benacantil, a 166m peak of white limestone that forms an impressive backdrop to Playa del Postiguet, a popular beach in the heart of the city.
To the west is the harbour and the parallel Explanada de España (4), a promenade of mosaic cobbles, palms and century-old fig trees.
The tourist office (5) (00 34 965 200 000; alicanteturismo.com; 9am- 8pm weekdays, 10am- 8pm Saturday, 10am-2pm Sunday) is at Rambla Méndez Núñez 14.
Dominating the harbour is the sprawling Meliá (6) at Plaza del Puerto 3 (00 34 965 205 000; melia.com). The hotel's 544 rooms all have sea views and free Wi-Fi. Doubles from around €100, including breakfast.
The Hostal Les Monges Palace (7) at Calle San Agustín 4 (00 34 965 21 5046; lesmonges.es) provides a more intimate option. It is housed in a century-old mansion, and the 22-room property oozes character, thanks due in large part to its eccentric owner, Pedro Picazo. Don't miss the original Dalí sketch in the lobby. Doubles from €60, room only.
Mediterránea Plaza (8) at Plaza del Ayuntamiento 6 (00 34 965 210 188; eurostarsmediterraneaplaza.com) is a good budget option with friendly staff, spacious rooms and a rooftop terrace. Doubles start at €45, room only.
Take a view
Sitting atop Mount Benacantil are the ruins of Castillo de Santa Barbára (9) (00 34 966 377 034; castillodesantabarbara.com; 10am to 8pm daily; free), an impressive ninth-century fortress. Take the lift (10) from Calle Juan Bautista Lafora (€2.40; 10am to 7.30pm) to the El Macho area at the top of the castle for 360‑degree city views. Tours of the complex take place daily at 11am and 12.30pm from beside the second floor lift; €3.
Take a hike
It's a gentle 20-minute stroll back to town. At the entrance of the castle, look for a clearing on the first bend of the road and follow the rocky trail along the western walls and along a series of steps leading into La Ereta Park (11) (10am to 11pm daily), with its pine trees and fine views. Colourful houses appear at the bottom where the trail splits. Veer right down a series of zigzagging stairs to the Water Museum (12). Continue straight, passing the 18th-century Convento de las Monjas (13) on Plaza de la Virgen del Remedio. Turn left on to Calle San Agustín, cross Plaza de la Santísima Faz, and pass under the archways into Plaza de Ayuntamiento, site of the Baroque Town Hall (14). It was bombed by the French in 1691; the Solomonic columns and 35m twin towers were built in the 1700s.
Lunch on the run
There's an abundance of tapas restaurants along Paseo Explanada de España; one of the best is La Terraza del Gourmet (15) at No 2 (00 34 692 994 025; latabernadelgourmet.com). Jamón ibérico, hake tempura and montaditos – grilled sandwiches with fillings such as roquefort, cured beef and rocket – start at €3.50.
The main shopping streets are Avenida Maisonnave (16) and Avenida de Alfonso X El Sabio (17). For fashion, head to Plaza Calvo Sotelo (18), where you'll find Purificación Garcia at No 13 (00 34 965 204 629; purificaciongarcia.es) and Bimba & Lola (00 34 965 203 026; bimbaylola.com). Those with a passion for interior design will enjoy Azul Tierra (19) (00 34 965 140 230; azultierra.es), around the corner at Angel Lozano 2 (most stores open 10am to 9pm Mon-Sat). On Sundays, head to the weekly antiques market from 9am to 2pm on Plaza de Ayuntamiento (14).
With outdoor tables, the harbourside Soho Mar (20) at Muelle de Levante 1 (00 34 965 204 411; sohoalicante.com) is the hippest bar in town. Sip a glass of local chardonnay (€3.50) while the setting sun basks the boats in a soft amber glow to the sounds of chill-out music.
Dining with the locals
Hollywood stars have been won over by the rustic dishes – oxtail ragout and pork stew with lentils – at Piripi (21) on Avenida de Oscar Esplá 30 (00 34 965 227 940). Booking is essential. If it's full, try sister restaurant Nou Manolín (22) at Calle Villegas 3 (00 34 965 200 368; noumanolin.com). For a more formal experience try Alderbarán (23) at Muelle de Poniente 1 (00 34 965 123 130; www.maestral.es). Chef Roberto Jimemet specialises in paella-style dishes such as rice with cuttlefish and artichoke (€12). Closed Sunday night.
Sunday morning: go to church
Alicante's original place of worship is named after its patron saint. The Cathedral San Nicolás (24) at Plaza del Abad Penalva 1 (00 34 965 212 662; concatedralalicante.com) has been welcoming devotees since the 1600s. Beyond its Spanish Renaissance façade of pale sandstone, excavated from the nearby mountains, is a striking Baroque interior. The colourful altarpiece is the handiwork of Nicolás Borrás. Open 7.30am to 1pm, 5.30pm to 8pm daily. Tourists are welcome at Sunday mass, which takes place hourly between 9am and 1pm.
The Archaeological Museum (25) at Plaza Dr Gómez Ulla 3 (00 34 965 201 039; www.marqalicante.com; €3) has a collection of 15,000 pieces from 300 sites in the region with a special focus on underwater and urban archaeology (10am to 2pm Sunday, until 7pm Tuesday to Saturday, closed Monday).
Elsewhere, the Museum of Contemporary Art (26), housed in a former prison dating back to 1685 at Plaza de Santa María 3 (00 34 965 213156; maca-alicante.es; 10am to 2pm Sunday, until 8pm Tuesday to Saturday, closed Monday; free), displays pieces by Picasso, Gargallo and other artistic greats.
Out to brunch
The scrambled eggs with asparagus and freshly caught prawns (€12) at Ibéricos Luceros (27) (00 34 965 125 464; ibericosluceros.es) are worth the detour across town. This cosy restaurant at Plaza de Los Luceros 12, run by the Alamo family, overlooks the circular plaza at the centre of which stands an ornate fountain based on four horses.
Icing on the cake
Escape the city and enjoy a little pampering at the Asia Gardens & Thai Spa resort (28), a peaceful resort on the outskirts of Benidorm (00 34 966 818 400; asiagardens.es). Rooms have touches of Bali and Japan, and hidden within the quiet landscaped gardens are waterfalls, infinity pools and more than 300 exotic plant species. The spa's therapists have all been trained at Bangkok's Wat Pho massage school. Pure bliss. Doubles from €240, B&B.
The 25-minute cab ride costs €60, and buses to Benidorm leave from the station (1) all day (returns from €8). A taxi from Benidorm costs €10.
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