The Ballards - Spain Javea


Spain is a rediscovered country for me: I visited in 1973 when I was far too young to really appreciate or remember the place, so over Easter 2003 an invitation to visit our Expatriate friends Clare and Martin in Javea (Xabia in Valencian) was a chance to revisit and to appreciate anew the delights of Espana.

To judge by the tabloids, Spain is full of East End mobsters living out comfortable lives in the sun thanks to lax extradition agreements, and Essex man. We would see whether the stereotypes existed....
Martin has started a scooter warehouse and a laser tag arena: we wish him well with both ventures.

Javea is on the Costa Blanca, North of (and just around the corner from) Benidorm, with all that implies in terms of high-rise dreadfulness, lager louts and football hooligans.
But Javea is smaller and more personal, less developed and more agreeable.
Visiting at Easter was taking a risk with the weather, and some days we suffered thunderstorms and overcast skies, but the sun was strong and when released from it's cloudy prison warmed us through.

So what did I rediscover?
28 years after the end of Franco's reign predominantly Catholic Spain has industrialised and gone a long way towards catching up economically with the richer countries of the EU, joined the Euro and totally failed to resolve the Gibraltar issue.
From a repressed dictatorship forming a grievous example to its South American ex-colonies, the Spanish people have embraced liberty and a modern economy without losing their history, their religion or their way of life.
Society is notably less secular than the UK: Religious Public Holidays are more numerous and more widely observed, and like Britain in the 1960s, everything is shut on Sundays.
The infamous Siesta (such an anachronism in the modern world of air-conditioning and 24 hour business) still prevails. This makes for a very long day: they don't eat lunch until 2 or 3pm and then dinner can be as late as 10pm.

The dark-skinned, round-eyed Moorish Spaniards are well-dressed and affluent on the Costa Blanca, and for 40 years they have welcomed increasing waves of ex-pat Brits escaping the weather, punitive taxation and Northern European stress levels.
Until recently, the influx has been of retired or semi-retired ex-colonial types who never quite got used to the lack of sunshine in Blighty and finally escaped to the cheapest place they could still get EU health cover and warmth.
But now Blair's government has caused a new wave of Capital flight: younger and more entrepreneurial, they want to be economically active and this may be harder for Spain to swallow. Certainly it's something for the UK government to worry about.



Spanish leather goods, especially shoes and boots, are world-renowned, and the Spanish are well-shoed: even the Police have the most beautifully-tooled leather riding boots.
When I first saw these I thought it was just the motorcycle cops, but it's all the Police.
And they look great: perhaps our clodhopping Traffic Police could do with a make-over.....

The supermarkets held very similar products to French supermarkets, which are very good, but there was less of an emphasis on cheese, and entire legs of smoked ham were in evidence next to the smoked saucissons.
There were more varieties of fish, and like Italian supermarkets, raw food is often prepared under ceiling beams that drip dust, mouse droppings and paint flakes on to the food. No wonder we get funny tummies abroad...
The food is often garlicky and universally oversalted (there goes the hypertension again...), lots of rice, olives, spicy sausage, tomatoes and oranges.
Paella is common and delicious, with many fish and shellfish dishes in evidence. As I love shellfish this not a problem, but these are the bottom-dwelling dustbin-men of the underwater world and thrive in nitrate-rich areas such as sewage outfalls: eating them requires either a willing suspension of belief in this knowledge or a true dedication to recycling worthy of a deep space astronaut...
The booze is great: Cava is fizzy wine but much cheaper than champagne, mixed with Gaseosa (like lemonade) it is wonderfully alcoholic and universally consumed. Beer is "gania" (and you thought it was "hervesa"...), and is very good.
Booze is so cheap across Europe you wonder how the UK government can justify the Duty levels it imposes: tariff "leakage" across International frontiers, especially in Kent, makes Duty differentials in the order of magnitude currently in vogue pointless and discriminatory to small businesses near the Channel ports.
The whole system is 30 years overdue for scrapping, but repeal of laws (as opposed to drafting new ones) is unpopular within the Civil Service.

The Spanish have trains, but unlike the French the Government has never shown the interest and consistently high investment levels necessary to keep up with maintenance and demand, thus the Ferrocarriles Españoles are outdated and quaint: many of the tracks are single lines and few are heavily used.

The roads are lousy: not just badly maintained but badly designed and badly executed as well: the bends are of unpredictable radius and badly cambered, the surfaces are often badly potholed even on very major highways and at any point cars, tractors, mopeds, pedestrians and animals enter the carriageway with no prior warning, making any speed above about 40mph dangerous at any time. Give Way notices are arbitrary as to direction, lanes are too narrow and badly painted, and the roundabouts, as in France, are cambered in the wrong direction.
This, however, does not stop the Spaniards who drive powerful (mainly German) cars too fast for the conditions, don't look when pulling out and as a result have regular, messy crashes.
The Spanish Government (with big EC grants) are building a motorway down the East coast which is helping, but Spanish drivers don't look far enough ahead resulting in traffic bunching and nose-to-tail collisions being commonplace. It is said they are "one generation from the horse and cart" which in some cases is sadly all too evident.
And the signposting is appalling. Inconsistent, poorly lit and often just wrong, it makes navigation a lottery. It's nearly as bad as Central London...

The parking is a scream: they park just anywhere that won't interfere too much with the traffic flow. Marked spaces, pavements, traffic islands, verges, roundabouts, anywhere vaguely resembing a flat space where cars will not be travelling too fast.
As a result, driving around towns is a slow, ambling affair through the numerous chicanes caused by blocks of double and treble-parked cars. Traffic Police attempt to keep order but fail to have the vitality of the piecework privateers employed by English councils to ticket/tow away/clamp anything remotely resembling a parking offence within seconds.

When it rains it rains a lot in a short period, the poorly drained roads function very well as drains, and become awash in minutes.
The lack of any meaningful camber on most carriageways means you drive through a constant-depth river, always concerned that water will enter the engine intake and lock the pistons (water is effectively incompressible).

These storms also cause huge power outages from lightning strikes: nothing quite on the scale as Southern Florida but still very impressive. We visited the most wonderful 1970s-decorated "backwards" English cinema (the screen was at the top of the slope and the seats pointed upwards) in Javea town, and power outages caused many stops and starts during the film.

Quaint ex-pat clubs such as the cinema above and the Javea Computer Club abound: run by semi-retired Brits who have too much time on their hands, and too much energy to sit around and drink.
The ex-pat culture is in evidence: the warm climate is very condusive to sitting around on the patio drinking and chatting until all hours. I can imagine Planters chairs and a Gin & Tonic delivered by the House boy. Almost African colonial.

But we shouldn't underestimate Brit-power on the Costas: they are numerous, they are everywhere, and they have the money. There's a series of "Costa" English language newspapers specifically aimed at ex-pat Brits and an edition of the Daily Mail is even printed in Spain every day (which says something about the type of Brit that goes to live in Spain).
You can survive entirely without socialising with any Spaniards or speaking any Spanish, and many do. That's not the point of living in a foreign country, but then that's not how many people see Spain.

International schools, mainly catering for English and German students and their educational systems, are commonplace and tend to attract still more foreign families. They tend to be good, and (relatively) cheap.
It's interesting to see children of 14 and 15 whizzing about on mopeds: their parents would never have let them loose on UK roads at that age, and yet the Spanish fatal road traffic accident rate is only 1.3x the UK rate (2001 figures), so perhaps we should allow it here?
Of course what all the ex-pats want is UK TV, so there is a huge Sky and BBC satellite market. The BBC have made life difficult by moving their TV (but interestingly not their radio) channels off the Sky satellites on to a more Northerly-pointing transponder, meaning everybody on the Costas needs a bigger dish and a more sensitive LNB. Expect Javea to look like Trinidad soon with huge dishes pointing at the satellites.

Renting the car was an interesting experience: rather than rent from a major car hire company we opted for a local Spanish company we found and booked through the Internet (Nessie is especially good at Google searches: she just typed in "Valencia airport car hire"), at half the price. The result was a visit to a van parked in the car park (oo er missus...) where amazingly they had heard of us and our Internet reservation, all went smoothly and within 5 minutes we zoomed out in a very smart Ford Focus turbo-diesel estate that had 100Km on the clock and went like a rocket.
This is a diesel? They've got a lot better recently. Good car, in fact.

I was fascinated by the low price of petrol and diesel fuel: about 55 € cents, or 40p a litre. Now surely we are all in the EU and there's free movement of goods within the EU, no? After all, that's what we were told in 1973 by Ted Heath, free movement of goods.
So what's to stop me filling up a petrol tanker in Javea, driving it to the UK and selling it to the petrol stations there?
Er, UK Government Duty, that's what.
So why is the EU not fining the UK Government £billions a week for restrictive trade practices?
Remind me again what the EU internal market is?
Why are we paying in to the EU but not gaining the benefits?

The houses, or villas, are entirely designed around the country being hot. Which, of course, much of the time it isn't. So small windows, sunshades, shutters, patios, shady spots, many trees, roof terraces and a complete lack of central heating is in order.
Except that in the winter, it's bloody cold.
It has been said that Spain is a cold country with a hot sun: I can believe it.
The single allowance for the winter is a log fire in the sitting room, with an electric draw fan (which I've never seen in the UK but is a damned good idea).
Much of the house building is done by the property owner, and done very badly (I don't think they have Building Inspectors). Insufficient mortar, inadequate pillars, oversized or undersized concrete beams at random, and all problems hidden behind the universal painted cement.
Well, at least they don't build their houses entirely from wood like the crazy Americans...
Everybody has a pool: usually solar heated, and often what I like to think of as "edge of the world", where from the pool there appears to be nothing between you and the view. On a steep slope overlooking the sea, this looks great.
Security is big, I suspect because of the influx of North Africans(or are they to keep the Costa Crime boys out?). Security grilles and many locks complete the picture.

The plumbing uses the same pipe sizes as in the UK (15 and 22mm) unlike France where they use 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22 and 24mm(!), but most of the joints are swaged and tee extractors are common. My good friends at Kopex tell me not to be fooled: the pipes are of a different grade of copper than in the UK. Nothing is ever simple.
And of course, the crazy European electrical system. Tiny plugs with tiny contact areas, no cable clamps, mixed lighting and power systems, mains sockets in the bathrooms and virtually in the showers and baths.
And they say our systems are "Over-Engineered". Thanks, but I'll stick to "Over-Engineered" as opposed to "Bloody Dangerous"...

Despite the 3rd World electrics the phone system is excellent. Unlike most stupid countries they don't use a country-specific telecomms plug: they just use the US-standard RJ11 instead.
Much more compatible: why can't we all do that?
And everybody gets ADSL.
Ha bloody ha: BT need fining £1m a day for their rural ADSL fiasco.

Around the Costa Blanca, on the wide, lush coastal plains, endless orange groves soak up the sun. Every hill is terraced, every square inch made to work. terracing, some going back thousands of years, maximises the growing space.

The Sunday markets are something else: in the UK it's all phoney CDs and cheap toys 10% below the shop prices.
Here, it's tools tools tools.
I nearly died and went to Heaven, but I'd never have got any of the tools back in my suitcase.
Heavy Kango hammers for €30 before I even bargained: nice-looking tap and die sets for €10, and even a real HMV wind-up 1920s gramophone with needle and rose petal speaker for €100.
Worth 4 times that in Camden Market. IF you could get it home undamaged...

So, do the stereotypes exist?
Well, the Costa Crime boys failed to materialise: maybe they're further South, but I did see a lot of Chigwell cowboys with shaven heads, rented 4x4s, sons called Darren and daughters called Chan'elle.
Trophy bottle-blonde wives that haven't eaten since 1974 with tattoos in the smalls of their backs leafing through the papers in search of their new villa. This is the cash economy.
As "Only Fools and Horses" says: "No Income Tax, no VAT....."

Would I go back? Well, Clare and Martin were very hospitable and I did fix their garden wires, water heater, video camera, scanner connector, CD writer, anti-virus, firewall and DVD player, so maybe we'll go back when the weather is warmer and more reliable.
I think we can do the flights cheaper.

And Spain? In conclusion, very Brit-friendly, and definitely worth more exploring, especially away from the wide, Brit-infested coastal plain.