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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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