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My family abroad: Costa Blanca
In the 80’s my parents begun looking around Spain for the area they considered most suitable for their own retirement. Dad had always said he would like to retire somewhere warm, Mum was less sure about the idea but agreed to look – the extra holidays were a bonus and she had always loved looking around show houses anyway! Having holidayed in various locations in Spain and other Mediterranean countries and islands they first considered the Balearics, but soon decided that mainland Spain would be their best option. They checked out the Costa del Sol market but settled on North Costa Blanca as they both loved the dramatic scenery.
The A7 motorway from Alicante airport going north had yet to be built but was planned, so each trip they had to travel through Alicante city, along the coast road (the N332) through Villajoyosa, Benidorm, Altea, Calpe, then either head slightly inland before reaching Javea and Denia or turn off to follow the minor windy coast road to Moraira. Dad loved Moraira on the first visit. Back in the early/mid 80’s it wasn’t the slick up-market resort it was later to brand itself – sometimes referred to as the jewel in the crown of the Costa Blanca by estate agents in the early 2000’s. The town centre was small, old, and typically Spanish, a little tired and quiet. In fact, Dad once described it as ‘a bit like being in the wild west’!
They recalled the tale of how they stayed in a rather shabby hotel in town and Dad announced this was where he wanted to live. Mum was not enamoured at all! However she agreed that IF they could find the right house she would be prepared to ‘give it 5 years’. Dad was still five years off retirement (which he would take at 60) so there was plenty of time, Mum figured, to change his mind! Several trips later they concluded that the only way to get the house they wanted was to have one built so they started to hunt for a plot of land in Moraira.
My family abroad: The beginning
My aunt and uncle were the first people in the family to buy a property in Spain. In the mid 80’s they bought an apartment on the Costa del Sol, a small Spanish fishing town called Fuengirola near Malaga. I didn’t visit there until 2012 and by then it had grown to a huge and very busy town busting with people. Initially they bought the apartment as a holiday home, about 10 minutes’ walk to the marina/port area in a small apartment block overlooking a park. Their neighbours were all Spanish, they had deliberately avoided an ex-pat community.
My aunt and uncle worked hard on learning Spanish as they intended to integrate as much as possible into the local community when they moved there in their retirement. They had a neighbour in the UK whose sister had moved to the town in the 60’s with her daughters and the lady, Doreen, agreed to look after the apartment while they were in England. They had several years of visiting the apartment before their retirement and it was on one such trip that they took my widowed Grandad with them. I was told that when he and Doreen met it was love at first sight! There cannot be many who emigrate at the age of 86 years old but before my aunt and uncle retired my Grandfather packed his bags and moved to Fuengirola to be with Doreen, who was only a couple of years older than my Dad.
Not that long after my aunt and uncle moved permanently to Spain. Grandad stayed after Doreen passed away, spending his last few weeks in a Spanish nursing home at almost 95 years old. My uncle passed away a few years later but my aunt has stayed, still in the same apartment, and now in her early 80‘s is still active and leads a busy life in her adopted country.
Also in the 80’s my parents were visiting various parts of Spain, searching for a place they felt they wanted to call home. And so my family abroad had begun.
The town of Torrevieja is a short drive from our house. The small city dates back to 1802 and is named after the old watch tower (Torre = tower and Vieja = old). I have heard a number, and read a lot more, comments on how awful the place is and how crime-ridden by people who have not been there in recent years (if at all). So large cities with high rise are not my kind of place but to my surprise I find I like many parts of this particular city.
The buildings are, in the main, not that tall. In fact smaller than other large tourist towns I know well in the northern Costa Blanca such as Calpe, Denia, Javea and of course, Benidorm (which I don’t know well as one visit was enough!). The place is truly international with influences from as far apart as Italy and the Caribbean, with one of the most diverse populations in Spain. In 2014 the population is recorded as 108.063 of which around 47,000 are Spanish and the rest a wide mix from across the globe. Native English speakers make up about 11%-12% of the total population, which is pretty much in line with the overall percentage in Spain and lower than some other coastal towns. To give you some idea of how the town has expanded the current population is around four times larger than in 1990 and twice that of 2000.
The town’s blue flag beaches, long promenade, fishing port, yacht club and harbour make up the sea front. Much of the tourist area of town has undergone an up-date with new pedestrianised areas, new theatre, new out of town concert venue, new tourist information office and much more. The narrow streets are packed with individual shops and bars run by the Spanish, not ex-pats, with residential apartments above, many to only five storeys. The town has somehow maintained its identity whilst catering for international visitors which swell its number to 500,000 in high season.
So is it crime ridden? In the past the police force was over-stretched due to the very rapid expansion of the town, which stopped when the property boom ceased. These days they seem much more on top of things and crime rates are comparable to other medium sized sea-side resorts. As with resorts, cities and busy market places around the world there are pick-pockets and other opportunistic criminals taking advantage of the relaxed holiday makers. But this is the same the world over. If you take care of your belongings you will be ok. As for comments I have read about ‘bars on windows’ I can’t help but laugh. Window and door grills are, and have been for longer than the tourists have been coming, part of the way Spanish properties are built. The sudden increase in eastern Europeans living in Spain a few years ago but unable to work in Spain caused a problem as they had to steal to eat but their numbers have declined as they have realised they can do better in other countries where they can find work or claim benefits. In recent times the fact that there is no long-term benefit help to the unemployed has left some individuals desperate and feeling they have no option but to resort to crime to feed their families has become a challenge, but overall crime rates are not something to fret about. Since the town made it illegal to buy from the ‘looky-looky’ men with their fake goods touted on blankets along the sea front they have almost disappeared. Do I feel safe walking around Torrevieja? Yes. Do I feel safe walking around London? No.
Perhaps one of our favourite pass-times when we go to Torrevieja is to visit Valors and enjoy their chocolate y churros, on the opposite side of the road to the square by the church of the Inmaculata Conception. The original church, like much of the town, was destroyed by a major earthquake in 1829 and the current church was built in 1844 using the stones from the original watch tower (Torre) in the foundations. If you have children then the fun fair and Park of Nations are a must. Or if you prefer more cultural surroundings then have a coffee in the Casino (which is not a casino but a restaurant and art gallery and social centre). If you are there for the right week in August then you can experience the Habaneras Festival which has been run annually in the city for over 40 years. This is a music festival and competition where the music is a fusion of Cuban and Spanish.
Torrevieja grew from the salt industry, still a major employer, producing half a million tons of salt a year. There are two lakes, Laguna Salada de la Mata and Laguna Salada de Torrevieja, but they are more commonly known as the blue lake and the pink lake. The Parque National surrounds the blue (La Mata) lake while the pink lake is a hive of industry. The lakes, together with the Mar Menor to the south and the Santa Pola salt lakes to the north, create a unique micro climate, one the World Health Organisation lists as one of the healthiest in the world; particularly good for those who suffer with joint or respiratory problems. Combined with the warm average winter temperatures (higher than the Costa del Sol and several degrees warmer than north Costa Blanca) of over 10 degrees (usually upper teens in the day)
Childhood Spain – more oddities.
One year I remember the hotel advertising that one night they would be showing an English film in one of the bars. Rumours abounded about what it may be but a Bond film was the clear favourite. We all settled down to watch, too many people packed into room so it was hot. A Tom and Jerry cartoon came on and we laughed at the antics of the feuding friends. A nice touch for the children before the film, so we thought. Then another Tom and Jerry, then a third and even a fourth. It was getting a little boring, we had seen them all before! Eventually, Tom and Jerry-ed out, we welcomed the interlude. My sister and I, along with most of the other children, were packed off to bed while our parents settled down to watch the much publicised film. In the morning we were told that our poor parents had had to endure another hour of Tom and Jerry cartoons! I have no idea why the Spanish hoteliers thought a couple of American speechless drawings represented the best of the British film industry but, being British, no-one had any intention of complaining!
Until recent years there were no UK daily papers available on the actual day, you could buy them at an extortionate price the day after they were published. Hence we would never really know what was happening back in old Blighty while we were on holiday.
It strange to today’s youngsters to think that we didn’t have any contact with our friends or family for an entire fortnight. No English TV, no internet, no mobile phones, no emails. How did we survive?! Each year Dad would ensure my grandparents and a friend knew the name of our hotel, its location and through which travel agent in town we had booked our holiday so if we needed to be contacted we could be. I don’t ever remember any emergency requiring Dad to be called so maybe, just maybe, we did ok surviving without today’s technology.
Childhood Spain – with my Grandparents
On our second visit to Spain my Dad had thought it would be a great idea to take my Grandparents (his parents) away with us. My Grandmother had never been outside the UK and my Grandad’s only previous experiences had been whilst serving during WW2, mainly in North Africa. My relationship with them was probably unusual, I was not close to either, although my relationship with my Grandad grew closer over the years. My Grandma had never forgiven me for being born a girl and I can honestly say although I saw her almost every week of my childhood we were almost estranged. I wasn’t therefore particularly excited about them coming along.
My strongest memory was that I saw my stern and fierce Grandma, a woman who usually frightened me, laugh and smile. My Grandfather I remember as being fun but always saying or doing the wrong thing. I suppose today you would call his comments racist and bigoted but it was the 60’s, pre EU days, his memories of sights from the War still playing over in the back of his mind. My Dad was forever apologising to people for his behaviour. He hated the food, the ‘foreigners’ and the heat! He told a ‘bloody crout’ to ‘go back to his own country’ and when Dad pointed out that as we were in Spain we were actually the foreigners he replied that he was British so couldn’t possibly be foreign!
However my strongest memory of them is at the beach. Grandad with dad taking me into the sea and between them swinging me high as I ‘jumped’ the waves. Grandma sitting under the thatched sun shade knitting, wearing her flowered frock and hat – and still in her stockings! Despite everything they both said it was the best holiday they had ever had.
My Grandma died in 1985 and a year or so later my Grandad holidayed in my Aunt’s apartment on the Costa del Sol and when he met the lady who looked after the apartment for my Aunt it was love at first sight. Doreen had lived in Spain over 20 years so was not inclined to move back to England now she was a pensioner in her early 60’s. So at the age of 86 my Grandad moved to Spain to spend his last years living as an ex-pat. He and Doreen had 7 happy years before she died of cancer and my Grandfather outlived her by another two years, staying in Spain, living to the ripe old age of nearly 95. A happy but rather ironic story!