It's a quiet life in Benidorm

Cheap, warm and quiet, Benidorm isn't so bad out of season. And when you tire of the third-rate entertainers you can always escape to the nearby mountains. Matt Fletcher joins the fiftysomethings on the Costa Blanca
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The Independent Travel
At first, the thought of spending a week in Benidorm filled me with dread and excitement - in roughly equal measure. On my only other visit to the brimming metropolis, the streets had been filled with lobster- coloured, in-your-face, northern Europeans looking for a good time and cheap booze. I had just spent two weeks walking in blissful isolation through the Las Marinas mountains, a short bus ride away, and suddenly arriving at the Costa Blanca's hub of mass tourism, good-time bars and better-time discos was a bit of a shock.

But in early spring things are different. All the big Ibiza-style clubs are closed and the clientele changes as Benidorm becomes a cheaper and more relaxed place to stay. For many of the retired folks surrounding me at Gatwick airport, the Costa Blanca becomes the perfect place to escape freezing Britain. No washing-up, no cleaning, no month-long spells of cold, relentless drizzle, just full board, plenty of entertainment and the warmth of the sun. They are on to a good thing.

As the coach weaved through the mass of tower blocks I spotted the flashing neon sign of the Hotel Venus several minutes before we arrived. Like the skyscrapers of New York, hotels in Benidorm are in perpetual competition for space, height and recognition. Who has the biggest sign? The highest rooms? The best show? When I arrived Maria and Jose were in full flow in the upstairs bar, while downstairs, past the statue Venus di Milo, a session of line dancing was in full swing. I checked in and was given a tourist map of the town, sponsored by the Sun and the News of the World.

Like many guests in Beni- dorm I had opted for the full-board option, a choice which gave me the informal and unspoken permission to eat as much as possible three times a day, each sitting comprising numerous self- service courses. This was Fat City, quite literally, and I made the most of it.

Some 40 years ago Benidorm was a small village by the sea, with a beautiful church, the ruins of the castle, lots of fishermen and plenty of fish. Now all that the locals are trying to hook are tourists.

Most of the cliches about Benidorm are true. There is an endless supply of English bars and cheap restaurants, tacky tourist souvenirs (wooden truncheons with "Benidorm" written on them are my favourite), and third- rate entertainers who headed south when their careers ground to a halt in the UK.

But the beach is spotlessly clean, the seawater unlikely to give you more than goose bumps and the town, though supremely tacky in places, can be all things to all people and is generally a safe and happy place. You are not going to find wonderful architecture and deep culture, unless you count the waxworks museum and Museo de Erotic Art ("una experiencia inovidable!"), but you can easily find a good time.

With not a person under 50 in sight I hit the town. Dene Michael (formally of the group Black Lace and now hailed as the voice of Benidorm) was playing at the Morgan Tavern, which is shaped like an old-style galleon. A string of comedians were lined up at Gigolo's Disco Garden and Ron Jones seemed to be singing all over the place.

Wednesday night was a chance to sample the best of the Benidorm entertainment scene at the Benidorm Palace, where a grand cabaret show is staged. It was not bad at all, especially the flamenco and surreal costumes. The comedians, a magician, some guy who could pick pockets and plenty of young bare-breasted dancers all had the right amount of style, glitz and panache. The effect of the female dancers on the combined blood pressure of the male audience (average age 65) was hard to gauge.

Certain shows in Benidorm are of a more explicit adult nature, and I made a particular effort to avoid "Sticky Vicky" and her "Sexy Magic Show". I didn't want to know where she hid the rabbit. Over the passing years she has been slowly sliding down the bill (and down her chrome pole), but her popularity and fan base remain. Apparently she is a woman of inter- national renown, and guests in my hotel recommended her show wholeheartedly.

After wandering around the old part of town through the network of narrow streets and small bars, I arrived at Cafe La Sirena del Puerto Heladeria which sits on the headland separating the two beaches of Levante and Poniente. It's as nice a sea-front cafe as you'll find anywhere. And across the square, Bar de los Monstros - the Fun and Fright Bar - provides the most unusual drinking experience on the Costa Blanca: watch out for the falling witches, opening coffins and laughing skulls.

An abundance of wholesome light entertainment was on offer back at the hotel. Singers, magicians, hypnotists and comedians had full control over the dance floor of the Venus. And they put on displays of slow waltzes and traditional ballroom that would have the summer clubbers scratching their heads.

This being late winter the number of drooling clubbers is low, other than on Friday and Saturday night when warm-ups take place at Lennon's and Beachcombers on the square before moving on to Jokers, conveniently placed across the road from the Venus. Catering for a predominately Spanish clientele, Joker's plays dance music hard and fast. Unfortunately, I lacked the certain determination to see the evening through until 8am, despite offers of encouragement.

For daytime entertainment you can really take your pick: marine parks, water parks, amusement parks and race tracks all await, while a new all- singing, all-dancing theme park - Terra Mitica - will be finished this year. But if you tire of the hamster wheel of entertainment and sitting on the beach in 17C weather - not bad for February - reading trashy novels, the perfect tonic lies just a few kilometres inland. For me the news that a star of Black Lace would soon be appearing in my hotel bar spurred me into action, and I grabbed my pack and headed into Les Valls de la Marina.

The beauty of the mountains hit me just as forcibly as it had done the first time I caught the bus that slowly climbs away from Benidorm into the Guadalest Valley. In February and March the almond trees blossom, colouring the terraced mountain slopes pink and white. Lime-tolerant plants, like the yellow anthyllis, produce carpets of colour in early spring, and sage, thyme, rue, curry plant and cotton lavender all bloom, filling the mountain air with sensuous, familiar scents.

An area of overlapping mountain ranges, Les Valls de la Marina, occupies the huge headland jutting out into the Mediterranean between Alicante and Valencia. These mountains are not giants - Aitana is the highest peak at 1,558m - but the terrain, arid, rocky and marked by fissures and crags, is varied and wild. High ridge walks, treks along gorges and trails from mountain peak to seashore are all possible and it's easy to disappear into the mountains and not speak to another person for days on end. And you can do this for nine months of the year. (You'd have to be crazy to walk under the fierce sun during June, July and August.)

Four days before my arrival, Benidorm had experienced some of the lowest daytime temperatures in living memory: 4C and it had snowed on the coast. In the mountains three inches of white powder still lay in north-facing and sheltered gullies. But high up on the sierras of Aitana and Serrella the sun was warm and welcome, the air fresh and sharp.

Walking in the mountains was a joy. On the major ridges trails take off in all directions. Some merge with forestry tracks, some are marked as PR routes (official footpaths marked with yellow and white flashes) and some are no more than goat tracks with the odd cairn to show the way. Often I heard the sound of goat bells ringing far down the valley and occasionally I stumbled across small circles of rocks filled with wild grass, a kind of rocky dog basket. This, I was later told, was a basic shelter constructed by the goatherds who still watch over their flocks through the night and day. I climbed through Fat Man's Agony, the narrow entrance to the main ridge of Sierra Aitana, and scrambled along Sierra de Bernia, a jagged ridge of white limestone that runs east to west down to the sea. It required rather more nerve than expected.

I went up to the remains of the Moorish Castillo de Serrella and walked along cobbled Mozrabic trails, a left-over from the Moorish occupation. Dotted around the mountains are nevera, huge cylindrical pits in which winter snow was stored for keeping produce fresh in summer; they were still being used at the beginning of this century. I discovered remote springs, perfect camp sites and local restaurants that served up the most exquisite Valencian cuisine. I would particularly recommend El Trestellador in Benimentell.

Of all the mountain villages in the region Castell de Castells was my favourite. Not yet stripped of its local population, yet renovated thanks to EU money, the village has a vibrant soul full of fiesta in summer and warm hospitality in winter. I stayed in Pensin Castells where the welcome was friendly and informal, and the knowledge of the local walks comprehensive. Up the road from the pensin, Calle Mayor is marked for Raspat, a Valencian version of the Basque game of handball in which strapped hands are used to strike a ball down the street. In summer games are regularly held up to make way for passing traffic, and spectators are frequently forced to dart into doorways when the hard rubber ball comes hurtling towards them. Everyone is part of the grand game.

Back in Benidorm there are plenty of games to play. The town has something for everyone, and behind the cheap frontage and downmarket reputation it's a fine place to escape to. And even if all you do is sit in the sun, dip into the occasional book, and eat until you burst, then what's wrong with that?

Taking it easy in Benidorm in the early spring can't be called a sophisticated travelling experience. But as a retreat from the biting winds of northern Europe and as a getaway where you can mix with warm, friendly types in an untroubled, uncomplicated way, you could do worse.

BENIDORM

WHERE TO STAY

Pensin El Trestellador (tel: 00 34 96 588 52 21) in Benimantell has singles/doubles at Pts2,000 (pounds 8) to Pts5,000 and offers the best Valencian cooking in the region. Highly recommended.

Pensin Castells (tel: 00 34 96 551 82 54) has doubles for Pts6,000 plus breakfast. The owners, Camilla and Martin Darburn, also offer guided walks in the mountains.

GETTING THERE

Matt Fletcher travelled to Benidorm with Thomson Holidays (tel: 0990 502 555). Seven nights' full-board accommodation at the Hotel Venus starts from pounds 339 per person in April, based on two people sharing, and including the price of a return charter flight from London Gatwick.

GB Airways (tel: 0345 222111) offers flights to Alicante from pounds 114. Iberia (tel: 0171-830 0011) provides a daily service from London Heathrow to Alicante.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For information on holidays to Benidorm and the Costa Blanca, contact the Spanish National Tourist Office (tel: 0891 669920, premium rate call).

Matt Fletcher is one of the contributors to the new Lonely Planet guide Walking in Spain, which is due to be published in May.

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