Benidorm – ah! The cracked jewel of the Spanish Riviera, the tarnished zircon tiara of the Costa Blanca, home of the one-euro, all-day British breakfast and the Beach Rock Burger Café, of pub karaoke with wide-screen TV sport, and girls in tiny T-shirts with "Tits on Tour!" badges flooring pints of vodka and Red Bull at Gigolos and Rockefellas. Ah, Benidorm, the high-rise capital of Alicante, the most popular tourist destination on the Mediterranean coast-line, and soon-to-be Unesco World Heritage Site...
Well, not yet, it's true, but it seems possible that Benidorm, one of the laughing-stock holiday destinations (along with Torremolinos and Magaluf) for lowest-common-denominator British tourists, has been praised as one of the wonders of the world; and praised not by a dubious, sex-'n'-sangria tour operator, but by a French intellectual. It may join the Taj Mahal and the Jordanian ruins at Petra as sites of world interest.
Professor Philippe Duhamel, a geography teacher at the University of Angers, loves the place. He thinks its dispiriting purgatory of Legoland high-rises – sorry, its "unique collection of skyscrapers" – has immense cultural importance. "Benidorm is the Dubai of Europe," he says. "It is unique in Europe, is known worldwide and is a remarkable site for what is understood by mass tourism." This might strike some cultural snobs as a bad thing, but not the Professor. "For many years, everybody spoke badly of Benidorm, but with time it has gained value, as has happened in other examples of architectural world heritage."
Where's he thinking of? The list of World Heritage Sites takes in 878 places in 185 nations, from the mosques of Timbuktu to the Great Barrier Reef. The Spanish locations that have been deemed worthy of preservation and special treatment tend to be venerable (Alhambra, Granada), or religious (Santiago di Compostela Old Town) or both (works of Antoni Gaudí). Among the national parks and historic city centres of Spain, France and Italy, it's hard to find a single one that's a metaphor for tourism at its most nakedly sloshed. Among the 27 WH sites listed as part of Britain's "heritage", you'll find St Kilda, Stonehenge, Blenheim Palace, Westminster Abbey and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, but nowhere, as yet, that's devoted every summer to happy-hour binge drinking and al fresco, beach-blanket shagging.
It hasn't always been like this. Before the tourism behemoth rolled over the place in the 1960s, Benidorm was a charming little fishing village with an unusually fine beach. Sylvia Plath, no less, spent her honeymoon there in 1957, and wrote a poem called "Fiesta Melons". It begins:
In Benidorm there are melons,
Whole donkey-carts full
Of innumerable melons,
Ovals and balls,
Bright green and thumpable
Laced over with stripes
Of turtle-dark green...
She wrote in her diary about their stay, and about their dubious housekeeper, entries that Sylvia later worked up into her story, "That Widow Mangada". It is, indeed, hard to imagine Benidorm as a place of languorous ease and Mediterranean je-m'en-foutisme, but that was 51 years ago. It was first settled by the Moors during the Arab conquests of the eighth century. It once boasted a castle, built in the 1320s to repel marauding pirates. For centuries, little happened beyond the discovery of irrigation drainage, the building of churches and occasional outbreaks of Phylloxera which destroyed the grape harvest. Tourism raised its ugly head in 1914, when a new narrow-gauge railway brought the first day-trippers south from Madrid to check out the wonders of the coast. Could they have known they were the early progenitors of the Club 18-30 fun-seekers in the Rich Bitch nightclub?
When Sylvia and Ted were discovering melons on honeymoon, the town was bang in the middle of a transitional period. The population numbered 3,000 and its main activity was tuna fishing. But fish catches had been dropping and the tuna industry was going pear-shaped. The town council approved a Plan General de Urbanismo in 1956, which decided to throw its resources into tourism. A hectic new building programme was planned, to accommodate an influx of visitors.
Benidorm's elderly olive and citrus groves were concreted over to make way for a new "garden city". The concrete city grew, flourished and grew more – between 1956 and 1964 it multiplied 146 times, and kept on going into the 1970s and 1980s, given a spurt in 1967 by the opening of an airport at Al Eltet, also known as Alicante. By 1997l, the town's population had grown to 50,000.
It is, by its lights, fantastically successful, pulling in 4m visitors a year; by many other people's criteria, it's a loud, grotty, noisy, violent bit of home-from-home Blighty, in which the least appealing elements of British youth routinely get off their faces (and on each others) in English-style theme bars and just-like-back-home pizza parlours. There's even been a crass TV comedy drama about the place, starring Johnny Vegas and several pints of lager. It is not a place about which culture vultures can feel confidently proud, for all the blandishments of Professor Duhamel.
Beware of Frenchmen bearing congratulations. The fact is, Benidorm has been trying to raise its game in recent years. In March 2004, its tourism director Roc Gregori announced he was hoping to change the town's image to find a different kind of traveller. From now on, he said, they'd concentrate on the parklands, the water features, the lovely open-air concerts by The Corrs at the football stadium.
His plan seemed to spell trouble for the culture of beer, chips, sex and football in the sun. And I think we can see the intervention by Professor Duhamel as a sneaky desire to keep Benidorm in its place as a scabby metaphor of British cultural poverty. We should ignore him and look forward to the town's future as a dream destination for sherry, polite conversation in the Terra Natura, and the strains of Verdi in the boiling Spanish night.
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