Thursday, January 29, 2009

Alicante; home of the most modern archeology museum in Spain

The train trip from Barcelona to Alicante took us through a remarkably bleak landscape only alleviated by prolonged glimpses of the sea. It is hard to imagine how people survived here until the French and British arrived. After fighting the French for domination of a landscape that could scarcely support a celibate rabbit, the locals realized they could rent it out to the British.

We rolled past resort after resort development featuring acre after acre of high-rise atrocities all closed for the season, and hopefully forever. If the Israelis want to atone for their recent activities, which I doubt, they could visit upon the Costa del Azahar what they have visited upon the Gaza Strip and be praised for alleviating aesthetic suffering worldwide.

Alicante is a small town that doesn’t really have much going for it apart from being one of the last towns to fall to Franco and his militant thugs. Frankly, you can see everything of interest in a day and a half. Probably less if everything is open and you walk very fast.

This is the town's crest and it expresses the thing that Alicante is most well known for... that it has a castle on top of a cliff overlooking the town and the sea... for some time we wondered why it included a picture of a face... whether it was a very poor joke about being on the cliff-face... the sort of thing people found funny hunderds of years ago... Of course, it turns out that the cliff does resemble a face as you can see below -- although you might have to squint and use your imagination a little as it transpires that neither John nor I actually took a decent pic of it... (ss)

There is a delightful bit of old town full of perpetually crumbling two- and three-storey buildings scarcely wider that a two-door cupboard. They are variously painted in shades of white high-lighted with mismatched tiles or painted details the colours of which were chosen with no regard for their neighbours’ colour schemes. There is scarcely a street that goes in a straight line for ten paces, and not one that is level for any length.

We were surprised by the number of buildings that had been shut up for repairs or left to collapse – whichever comes first. Every street had a construction crew doing something in a charmingly amateurish manner. In one street, a man had a power tool that was plugged into a house a good fifty meters away. All the locals amiably stepped over the power cord as though it was just par for the course. Mind you, he wasn’t using the power tool but was, instead, playing a game of kick ball with one of the neighbourhood dogs. Delightful! However, there was a lot of serious construction going on, I got the feeling that the local worthies were trying to get as much new development in before someone whacked a preservation order on the place.
The old town is surrounded by the city centre which has a bland international feel and is full of the big brands that you can see anywhere from Melbourne to Chipping Norton or by local companies who have based their branding on them. It is best ignored or avoided. It attracts all the motorists who are frustrated by their inability to drive around the old town and take it out on the hapless residents of city by queuing up in traffic jams and constructively tooting their horns.

The old town and the new city are separated by a buffer zone of slightly run-down city. Here crappy little shops line the streets between elegant 19th century apartment blocks being rejuvenated for tourists who, given the current economic climate, may never arrive. There is also a beachfront woefully blighted by a marina that could happily house the Armada. It is full of modern pleasure vessels that lack all the refinements of boats of old and look like nothing so much as oversized plastic toys. Which, when you think about it, they are. Streamlined, high-power ego identifiers that are soon to become drains on over-stretched finances. Expect a sudden flurry of inexplicable sinkings and mysterious maritime fires. Kraken sightings, anyone?

We dropped our stuff off at the hotel that is one of those places that caters to business groups. It tries to dazzle you with lots of chrome, mirrors, marble and cutting edge floral arrangements in a bid to convince you of its elegance and sophistication. An effort that could only succeed on someone lacking even a modicum of both. But it did have free internet so we were happy.

We threw half our stuff on the floor, plugged the other half in and set out to have a look around. I had hoped to sit on the beach and drink beer but although the sun was up the temperature was lower than Iceland’s credit rating so we wandered about in the vain hope of understanding the layout of the place. As dusk set in we returned to the hotel and watched CNN in an attempt to lower our English language skills until it was time for diner.
We decided to go out for tapas at a place we had read about on the internet. Unfortunately, we hadn’t zoomed in closely enough on the Google map and wound up on the right corner on the wrong street. Disappointed we crossed town to look for Alicante’s main eating street - Calle Mayor. Somehow we managed not to find it.

We eventually settled on Los Penguins II. This is a tiny place that caters to locals either too lazy or too incompetent to cook for themselves. The d├ęcor did not try to impress and succeeded brilliantly. It was nicely homey in its feel with the television blaring in one corner and the radio competing for our attention in the other. The Spanish are Europe’s most avid television viewers. I can’t understand why as most of it appears to be crap. The radio sounds to be crap too but without pictures to back this up I will give it the benefit of the doubt. In its favour I must say that Spanish radio at least is not full of 80’s British Europop as Italian radio was. I think I heard Ultravox’s ‘Fade to Grey’ 1,000 times while we were in Milan.

The only patrons of Los Penguins II, apart form ourselves, were an ancient couple who left shortly after we arrived (the two events were unrelated) and three men who sat wreathed in cigar smoke and wine fumes across the room from where we sat, luckily, with our backs to the wall and near the exit.

I say luckily because one of the men, although not old enough to have fought for Franco and, obviously, too alive to have fought against him had the slicked-back dyed hair, creepy moustache, steely squinty eyes and ruddy healthy frame turning to fat of an ex-military type. Having seen a disgraced colonel in Istanbul I recognized the type as an ex-falangist. I became acutely aware of the Anarchist logo emblazoned on my jacket sleeve.

The owner seemed unconcerned and was very friendly if somewhat surprised to find tourists in his establishment. He rattled through the menu twice before realizing our Spanish was worse than he thought possible at which stage he switched to English which was likewise. In a feat of cross-cultural communication that would have done the U.N. proud we managed to order salad, paella and a bottle of white wine.

The salad was what you would expect in the off-season in a country that thinks meat is a vitamin. We fell upon it like Berbers on a baggage train. We had felt as though we were suffering the early signs of scurvy after five weeks in Europe without fruit and veg, or at least fruit and veg that hadn’t flown further than we had.

The paella was brought to us by the magic of microwave and, though a tad crunchy (Shiralee insists this is a local specialty), was remarkably good. I thought I detected a trace of truffle. The wine was perfectly fine as well. In fact we haven’t had a bad wine in Spain apart from the occasion(s) when I have inadvertently ordered sweet wine. Yuk!

Our host then suggested dessert. I declined but he was persistent. Shiralee, ever the ambassador, kindly accepted. It was great. It was a coffee-based thing. It made me regret, for the first time ever, having refused sweets from a stranger. Anyone under 18 should ignore this paragraph.

All up it cost us eleven Euros. I have seen more expensive hamburgers on Chapel Street! As we left the owner placed a little wickerwork breadbasket full of what appeared to be playing cards on our table and signed that we should take one. They turned out to have calendars printed on the back. It appears to be a local custom. We flicked through them trying to choose between football heroes and scenic vistas. My squeak of embarrassment when I discovered a card featuring the ‘money shot’ of a carelessly dressed woman amused everybody. Even the falangist colonel whom, I am sure, was plotting my death.

The next day we went and looked at a few of the…well few main attractions, none of which stuck in my memory. Mind you, most things were closed or not built yet. The tourist map we had was, frankly, misleading. It is merely disappointing, or not depending on your point of view, to discover that the Modern Art Gallery is just a construction site. It can be nearly fatal to blithely stroll passed armed security guards into a government building that is not a gallery despite what it says on the tourist map.

That night we managed to find the Calle Mayor. To our chagrin the only places that were open the desperate brightly lit establishments you wouldn’t normally enter unless you had forgotten to snack when the Spanish do. After wandering up and down the street a couple of times we moved to one of the side streets. We passed a little place that looked like a pirates’ lair. I was tempted to try it out but decided it would be best approached with a concealed weapon or two, preferably one of them nuclear. We eventually settled on a local bar that looked like it acknowledged the Geneva Conventions. It turned out to be a cozy little place and we settled and scoffed tapas and drank a bottle of white wine. After dinner we were in a cheery enough mood to try something we saw one of the locals ploughing her way through. Via my Spanglo-italian and the waiter’s competent English I ordered a glass each for Shiralee and myself. The waiter presented us with something we came to call ‘The Devil’s Mouthwash’. It was a clear liquid with a greenish tinge that fluoresced, alarmingly, under incandescent light and tasted like toothpaste. It also had an instant effect on our worldview and ability to walk. We made it home laughing all the way about the slipperyness of the marble pavements. In our defense I have to say that it had been raining and the pavements were slippery – just normally we would have considered them a hazard not a hoot.

On the way home we discovered one of the highlights of our stay. In the middle of a park in is a small building you would easily mistake for an information kiosk full of fish. It is a large, free-standing, aquarium inhabited by a collection of huge, lethargic pisceans of the kind you would eat if they weren’t so ugly. The best feature was a sub-marine nativity scene. Honestly, you can’t make up stuff like this.
We went back during the day to take a better photograph (night shot on the flickr site)... John is in the shot to prove that it really is a HUGE aquarium... and apart from the nativity pot and the fish, otherwise entirely bare.

Our last day was spent visiting the Archeological museum. It was all very modern and, well, not really interactive. It had data projectors, filmed re-enactments of ancient peoples standing around and chatting, and various really annoying sound effects. It is designed to appeal to children and is very good at what it does. There is enough stuff to spark your interest but not enough to bore you. The attempts to place things in context are often supported by some very clever visual effects. We liked it.

The only annoying thing is gaining entry. You eventually find the front doors only to be told by a guard that you need to go to the ticket booth back across the front garden. “What ticket booth?” you ask. The guard points you in the direction of an obscure little building. As you walk to the building you spot the ticket booth sign cunningly hidden behind another sign and shielded by a tree. Once there a young woman gives you a ticket. It is free if you are a teacher or otherwise employed in education. You take your free token back to the entrance. You are waved past the front desk only to be stopped by someone who tears your ticket. This was a recurrent theme throughout Spain even in free museums. One person insists on giving you a ticket and then another person has to check, bend, fold, spindle or mutilate it. It is a scam to create jobs. I’m all for it if it keeps food on the table and tourists on edge.

We also visited the bullfighting museum. There is nothing to say in favour of torturing dumb animals so I wont say anything about it at all. However, the matadors’ costumes are another thing. Dancing shoes, pink stockings, pastel colours with lots of embroidery, and silly little hats. What are they thinking? I reckon the bulls aren’t annoyed by all the barbs and silly cape waving. They just can’t stand the clothes. If the Spanish want to make this so-called ‘sport’ humane, all they need to do is dress the local egomaniac as a cross between Peter Pan and Liberace and make him dodge peak-hour traffic. That way we can all laugh at his misfortune and don’t have to feel sorry for either the antagonist or his victims.
That night we managed to find the tapas bar we had searched so vainly for. It is called Piripi and is the hang-out of choice of all cool and well-off Alicanteans. We ordered too much food but ate it all because it was hideously expensive. Nevertheless, it was very good and the service is a thing to watch in itself. A central semi-circular bar is surrounded by groups, families and individuals all apparently ordering things at random between drags on their cigarettes. Behind the bar a group of men, cut ham from the bone, pour drinks, slice bread, decant olives etc with the kind of organization airport flight controllers can only dream of.

Afterwards we decided to try out the ‘pirates’ bar’ despite being unarmed. It turned out not to be a seedy dive at all but was instead a student hang out. You enter by a precarious half-flight of stairs and ducking through pair of inaptly hung doors with a lintel low enough to brain a dachshund. Once inside anyone over 5’10” will is unable to stand upright unless they find a space between to roof beams. Anyone over 6’ just has to get used to stooping. It was very cute with graffiti covered walls, a bar that the staff had to crawl under to get out of and a lack of adequate seating. Students stand around sipping tea or spirits and practising their Albert Camus impressions. It had no name so you will just have to stroll around to find it. Good luck.

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