Our visit to a café for Wi-fi and coffee routine was a fair bit later than usual so it was eleven o’clock before we were ready to venture forth. Outside the café, the sunshine was glorious, as it has been throughout the whole of the past month. Blue sky and warm sunshine, in November, it’s why we come here after all.
‘Shall we go off for a run.’ I asked. Meaning, a ‘run’ in the car, for those who don’t know us personally. Marigold has never regarded distance running as a viable option, an opinion I have come to share over time.
We set off with a fixed plan in mind: turning right at the motorway entrance and stopping when we felt like stopping. Not much of a plan, but hey ho.
Heading towards Murcia, we bypassed several likely stopping points, chatting away, enjoying the scenery on a virtually empty road until we passed a sign saying ‘Torrevieja’ and we’re instantly (figuratively, not literally) transported back in time almost thirty years.
Before we sold up and shipped out to live abroad, we were like most other people, taking ‘normal’ holidays, in the U.K. or abroad. One such holiday was to a newish Resort, in Spain, Torrevieja.
Friends told us of a couple who rented out their villa in Spain and we got in touch. We only ever met Sid and Nancy, in person, once. If you were expecting Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, think again. (Just looked up how to spell Spungen and saw she died in 1978 - 39 years ago. Feel very old now).
Sid (that’s ‘our’ Sidney, not Mister Vicious) was a teacher and Nancy a ‘proud housewife,’in her words. Sidney, was a woodwork teacher, but gave it a somewhat grander title, which I have forgotten, and Nancy’s every utterance was in praise of her remarkable husband. Every woman’ s dream, assuming you were a woman without a feminist cell in your body, had willingly signed on for a life of indentured servitude and hadn’t had an original thought since birth. She chain smoked, sucking furiously at her cigarette every three or four seconds. Vast takes of nicotine had deprived her blood of oxygen over a prolonged period and surrounded her mouth with the characteristic finely drawn lines of a serious addict. Marigold and Nancy were never likely to become friends.
Sidney was tall, skeletal and intense with dark rimmed eyes receding into their sockets like two dried up waterholes and hectored us at the same volume he presumably deemed appropriate to quell a class of unruly schoolboys . He was unlikely to become my best mate either.
‘One hears you’re interested in renting out our Spanish casa,’ Sid said as we arrived at ‘Chez Nous’, yes, really!
We agreed we were indeed interested, viewed the only photographs they had available, three of them, each showing only a fuzzy view of what may or may not have been a house. Not a villa after all, but a ‘town house,’ in other words a terraced house. It was cheap, Marigold and I both fancied the idea of driving across Europe to get there and an agreement was reached.
‘The little lady will pop directions and a few pointers in the post,’ Sid announced and we somehow managed to get twenty yards away from the front door before collapsing in hysterics.
Directions arrived in the post, as promised. Three sheets of them, in vast detail, denoting every turn of the road to what was still termed ‘the villa’ and every line of all three pages spellbinding otiose.
We’d said, several times, we were going to drive, by car, but the directions were mostly concerned with leaving Alicante airport, locating a car hire firm and where to find a shop that sold ‘English provisions.’
Also included was a separate sheet of paper telling us how to work a flush toilet and remember to add water before switching on the electric kettle. A final, underlined, paragraph said, ‘please leave the villa in the same state you found it.’
When we eventually found the ‘villa,’ some weeks later, we spent the first two hours cleaning it and putting away the solidified remains of partly opened packets of food left in various places. The two bedrooms each contained twin beds with sagging springs and mattresses which looked as if they’ d been scavenged from a skip. We went out and bought a pair of blow up mattresses, some sheets and pillows and slept on the floor for a fortnight. As with so much in life, memories of disasters endure long after those of better times have faded and we still laugh about our time in Stalag Sid and Nancy.
We remembered Torrevieja as being slightly seedy, surrounded by building sites, prone to graffiti attack, packed out with Brits and and with a huge open air hippy market, selling tat to tourists, every evening by the port. In short, a place we have never wanted to return to.
The hippy market is still there, not as seedy as it used to be but also completely lacking in charm. The old town, the original part, has narrow streets and is still very ‘Spanish.’ The remainder of the town is entirely based around tourists. The weather was lovely, we enjoyed strolling around, there were people swimming in the sea and it was all very pleasant.
So pleasant, we decided we’d have lunch at one of the sea front restaurants. We picked the only one that didn’t have a waiter outside beckoning customers inside – we don’t like pushy waiters – and decided to have fish and chips as a trio of ladies, and a single harassed looking man, with Birmingham accents who were just leaving said ‘the fish and chips is bostin’, the highest praise a Brummy can offer. Over the centuries, this area of Spain has been home to Celts, Greeks, Romans, Iberians and Muslims, all of whom have left their mark on the gastronomy of the region. Despite this, thanks to the recommendations of our fellow citizens, we ordered fish and chips! One of the women, slightly the worse for drink, clung to my arm and said, ‘you like you fancy a bit of F and C.’
It took me a few moments to realise she meant fish and chips and not some form of fetish native to Birmingham.
We ordered and eventually a young lad brought our meal to the table. It looked okay, maybe not ‘bostin,’ but okay.
The batter was soggy, the fish itself was grey in colour and had a texture more like a fish cake than a fillet of any known fish. A hundred yards from here, fishermen were unloading their catch so there’s no excuse for serving up what was on our plates. There were peas, garden peas, in a beaker at the side. When Marigold tipped the peas onto her plate half a cup of water came out with them.
We did wonder about the palates of the ladies from Birmingham, with some concern!
Complaining wasn’t easy. The young waiter didn’t speak any English and had very little command of Spanish either. He did say ‘sorry’ at one point. We are not 'complainers,' in general, but this was inedible.
Marigold was magnificent.
She decided, unilaterally, that I would be best placed in reserve while she went off to remonstrate with the chef. She was away for quite a while, but came back like a victorious Roman Emperor. No charge, even for the drinks we’d already drunk and a fulsome apology. We left, still peckish, but with the scent of victory in our nostrils.
There are still a lot of British, both visiting and resident here, but there are no more empty building sites. For many years, Torrevieja was a magnet for Brits. Property was cheap and the sun shone almost every day. A no-brainer, then. Over-expansion led to crashing property prices and many sorry tales to satisfy the ‘Brits ripped off in Spain’ diet of English tabloids.
When we were here last, we drove through Torrevieja, kept on going for a while past half finished, or abandoned, building projects, until we reached Sid and Nancy’s place. Today, it took ages, the traffic was relentless, new apartment blocks lined the road and one shop or restaurant in three catered to an English clientele.
Cabo Roig was a new development thirty years ago. Today, it looked pretty impressive. We found Sid and Nancy’s house straight away. It’s now inside a gated complex, very secure, and the communal grounds are superb. Mature trees and shrubs, none of which we remembered, and it all looked very smart. We’d happily rent a house here. Preferably one with beds fit for purpose.
There used to be a winding narrow track down to a small marina and we walked along it every day. This is now a paved walkway, the beach was packed and the marina is about five times bigger.
It was obvious we wouldn’t get back before dark, but we still took a couple of detours. The first being a beach, far from tourist traffic with only a dozen of the motor home brigade in residence - they always seem to find the best beaches. Glorious sandy beach, a good beach bar too. We were still hungry so tuna and salad baguettes went down very well.
Our other brief stop was to seek out the salt pans and flamingos of the Mar Menor, the largest sea water lagoon in Europe. The Mar Menor is separated from the Mediterranean by the 24 kilometre long La Manga del Mar Menor (The Strip). The average depth of the Mar Menor is four metres and at its maximum it is seven metres which means that the seabed slopes very gradually and you have to wade out a very long way before the water reaches a depth where swimming becomes necessary.
The water in the lagoon is incredibly salty, so like the Dead Sea, it’s very safe for swimming as it is almost impossible to sink.
We found a few flamingoes, but not many today and mostly young ones. Where flamingoes are concerned, you are what you eat. Flamingo chicks are born grey, and do not become pink until they reach maturity at the age of five. For the first five years of their lives the pink pigmentation is gradually acquired by means of the carotenoids in their diet, which includes large quantities of brine shrimps.
The shrimps themselves do not create the pigment: this comes from the bacteria and microscopic algae which live in the saline plankton which are consumed by shrimps and flamingoes. The tiny organisms need the pigment to protect them from the high salinity, low oxygen levels and strong sunshine in the water of the salt flats.
We learnt all about saline shrimps on our recent visit to Antelope Island, near Salt Lake City. The Mar Menor is also a Salt Lake and we went to look at the huge mounds of salt painstakingly gathered from the lagoons. The pumps used to be powered by windmills, but nowadays the process is all electric. The windmills are still here though.
We’re planning a longer trip soon, maybe next week, but as with all our ‘plans,’ no details available yet. This next trip is at Marigold’s instigation, based on some article she read in a newspaper, but she’s a bit vague on detail, so far. Should be interesting.