It’s only 15 miles (or 25 km) from Calpe, but Benidorm is another world! It’s certainly very different from when I came here as a child back in 1974. According to Giles Tremlett (author of Ghosts of Spain – recommended reading) Benidorm “is to package tourism what Las Vegas is to gambling – the undisputed capital of the world”.
We’re staying at Camping Villasol on the edge of the town, the skyline dominated by a long line of huge skyscraper hotels and apartment blocks lining the coast, with rocky mountains to the rear. There are some 500 vans here, many of which are here for the winter and won’t move until February or March, and whilst the majority of vans are British, there are quite a few Dutch vans here too.
Even though it’s mid-winter, the resort is really busy. From reading the local freebie newspapers there is a sizeable British immigrant population of mainly pensioners who have retired here. Then there are the snowbirds who are here for the winter – mainly British but also plenty of Dutch and Belgian – and there seem to be quite a lot of Spanish pensioners here too, which isn’t surprising as the government operates a scheme called imserso, which subsidises out of season holidays for the over-65’s between October and June, and under the scheme hotel rooms can be had for as little as €20 per night. There are quite a few young families around the place too, especially since the schools broke up for Christmas.
There are two distinct parts to Benidorm: the old town, and the new town. The small, pedestrianised old town feels quite Spanish with lots of narrow lanes lined with shops, bars and restaurants, and there’s a lane known as Tapas Alley where the tapas bars serve some great food.
The new town on the other hand is huge, literally dwarfing the old town with more than 330 high-rise buildings, including the 52 storey Gran Hotel Bali, the tallest hotel on Europe’s Mediterranean coast. The local population of around 70,000 grows to 400,000 in high season, with the resort attracting over 1.5 million Brits each year, and for many it’s a beach and beer paradise. The Spanish have a great colloquial word for these people – guiris – used to describe those foreigners on package holidays who wear socks with their sandals, sunburn easily, and swallow litre after litre of cerveza and sangria.
Walking around the new town, we’ve yet to spot a traditional Spanish tapas bar. Instead, nestling between the hotels are loads of pubs serving all day English breakfasts and British beer, with Sky Sports on the big screens. Between the pubs, there are restaurants (mainly Indian, Chinese and Thai), along with fish and chip shops and takeaways selling pizzas and kebabs.
One thing that’s immediately noticeable is the sheer number of mobility scooters being driven along the pavements, which I guess is only to be expected given the number of pensioners here. The scooters can be rented by the day/week/month, though after a number of incidents involving stag and hen parties only the over 55’s or those with a disability can hire one. Top of the range is the limo scooter, which is a two seater tandem (€90/week), while at the other end of the scale is a mini-scooter (€40/week). They’re a bit of a menace, particularly in shops or when a couple decides to ride them side by side along the pavement expecting pedestrians to get out of their way. Some of the larger hotels have become so fed up that they’ve banned mobility scooters, forcing their drivers to park these along the pavements outside.
So what have we been up to whilst we’ve been here? The weather has been good, with just one day of rain, so we’ve been out and about every day. A couple of afternoons were spent in the old town, though once you’ve had a look around the shops there’s not a huge amount to do apart from eating and drinking. We’ve explored the new town and have walked up and down the promenade a few times.
There’s an Iceland supermarket not far from the campsite which also sells some Waitrose stuff, so it was quite a novelty to see so much British food in one place, and it would have been rude not to have bought a couple of boxes of mince pies (so we did!). The twice-weekly municipal market is held just a short walk from the campsite, so we also went there a couple of times and it was huge – there must have been more than 500 stalls selling all sorts, though we only managed to spend €1 on a bag of clementines!
With Christmas now just days away, it’s refreshing to see so little of the commercialisation that we’re used to in the UK. The Christmas tree and lights are up, and there’s a small funfair and mini ice rink by the old town, but that’s about it. There was a charity carol concert in the campsite restaurant so we went along to check it out, only to find out that we were the choir. A raffle was held after we’d sung along to a few carols, and we won a couple of bottles of wine.
We’ve had an interesting time here in Benidorm, it’s been an eye opener. Whist we’ve enjoyed our time here, I’m not sure that I’d like to be here at the height of summer. Tomorrow we will be moving inland to a small town called Crevillent, where we’ll be staying until after the Kings on 6th January (more on that next time).