Long live Benidorm


Reading time 12 minutes

For years it was cool to hate Benidorm. While this resort town on the Alicante coast was busy serving millions of happy visitors, the guardians of good taste and the most snobbish middle class disapproved of it.

Benidorm was for Spaniards of the third age who came here to dance pasodobles at night, or for Britons sunburned by the sun who did so to drink in the mornings. An affront to the style, synonymous with the most tacky tourism, the low cost traveler in its most vulgar expression.

However, Benidorm has become fashionable, slowly but surely. Today, urban planning experts stand in line to praise their pioneering urbanism, the sustainable nature of their large 'vertical model' in contrast to the extensive and hungry urbanizations of resources that came later.

Famous names come out of the closet to declare his love: Javier Mariscal admires the professional efficiency of the city, his democratic character and the great design of his planning - “I prefer it to Florence” -, while the architect and artist Oscar Tusquets simply declares: “Benidorm is beautiful”

Edificio Intempo

Intempo Building © Julio Jiménez Corral

In the face of widespread disbelief, Benidorm is a candidate for Unesco World Heritage status in the category 'New city of the twentieth century'. TVE establishes its latest glamorous series, Fugitive, here.

And not least, Condé Nast Traveler publishes a report (what you are reading) of an English writer fascinated by the profile of the city of Benidorm since he came on a family vacation to the Costa Blanca in 1976.

The Spanish Mediterranean is full of tourist cities, but none has the uniqueness of the extraordinary situation of Benidorm, which flourishes on the barren coast like a low-cost Dubai.

The city was born on a rocky promontory that enters the sea between two beaches, Levante and Poniente, which cover the bay like two huge arms.

The imposing massifs of the Sierras Gelada and Cortina and the huge Puig Campana rise around the valley, protecting it from wind and rain.

Skyline de la ciudad

City Skyline © Julio Jiménez Corral

But Benidorm is not only immune to the weather. What it offers to its millions of visitors is an idyll of freedom and pleasure, away from the wind and rain of the outside world.

Take a walk through the city. The streets are full of people speaking in a Babel of languages and accents, smiling and walking peacefully.

Middle-aged couples go hand in hand, some a little shy, as if it were a practice not allowed at home.

Imagine the contrast between the warmth and light here, the relaxed lifestyle, the friendliness of the locals and the cold, gray and buttoned reality of the northern countries from which they mostly come.

In Benidorm every day is Saturday. In the streets of its modernized version of an old Mediterranean town, tourists come and go swallowing ice cream, buying old-fashioned shoes or souvenirs (the apron with the paella recipe is as popular today as it was in 1976), or taking Pints ​​of beer at noon on the terrace tables.

Bingo en el casco antiguo de Benidorm

Bingo in the old town of Benidorm © Julio Jiménez Corral

In the bar of Jeff and Carol, in the Plaza de la Señoría, a group of women with their shoulders already pinkish in the sun empty a pitcher of sangria. Satisfied faces that turn like flowers towards the light of the sea. Now look a little closer, look at the way the city works. The streets are clean and tidy; the beaches too.

Most tourists arrive from Alicante airport by bus, so rental cars are scarce and traffic flows easily along the Mediterranean avenue . The peculiar design of the city, which happily mixes residential areas with shops and services, makes it perfect for walkers and cyclists, and the distances are short.

Most of the old town has been pedestrianized and the free public Wi-Fi, available throughout the city, is just the latest example of its continuous drive for a better quality of life.

¿Arte o decoración kitsch? En la calle Gardenias de Benidorm

Kitsch art or decoration? In the Gardenias street of Benidorm © Julio Jiménez Corral

The history of Benidorm is quite strange and interesting. Founded in 1325 by the noble and diplomatic Catalan Bernat de Sarrià, for centuries the town struggled to survive and, on one occasion (in 1438), was attacked by pirates from the African coast who took their entire population to be enslaved, leaving it almost deserted

In the Boca de Calvari museum, a recent addition to the city's cultural offer, an exhibition of old photographs shows Benidorm before the dawn of tourism: a bunch of buildings grouped on a rock, crowned by the dome and the church tower, whose beaches are lonely extensions with almond and olive groves behind them.

A woman crouches on the black spot of a fishing net. Two children play in the dusty street, next to a gasoline pump. There is a simplicity and innocence in this disappeared world that excites the most sensitive souls. Similarly, Benidorm does not give itself to nostalgia, but has always looked with a clear determination towards the future.

Detalle tropical en la avenida Madrid de Benidorm

Tropical detail on Madrid avenue in Benidorm © Julio Jiménez Corral

Join the crowd of visitors in their slow procession along Levante beach in the afternoon light. Under the ride, a chorus in flip flops and T-shirts sings Havana on the beach. Now continue along the Alameda towards the rocky ledge officially known as El Canfali and colloquially as El Castell.

The village church still has its Valencian dome with blue tiles; The small port below is a distant reminder of the maritime past of Benidorm.

Here you can stop at the Mal Pas bar, the best kept culinary secret in the city, where Trini Mas serves a sweet rice that makes more than shade for tourists' paellas. Trini arrived from Sella, an inland town, in 1963, and never left: "Benidorm hooks and lots".

From the high esplanade of the Castell with its whitewashed balustrades, which point to the bright blue sea like the bow of a ship, the view clearly shows high definition what has happened to Benidorm since the first General Urban Planning Plan of 1956.

The line of skyscrapers along the two beaches, Levante on the north side, Poniente on the south, form a horizon that rivals that of Miami or Rio de Janeiro . Here is a sense of order, of a rational project carefully followed.

Each tower has its own architectural personality, but none of them pushes its neighbor, and each one has space around it to let air and sunlight pass, like trees in a powerful forest.

The contrast between this municipality and certain neighboring cities along the Costa Blanca, where development has been a chaotic field battle, is dramatic.

Playa de Levante por la noche

Levante beach at night © Julio Jiménez Corral

The successful transformation of a community of 3, 000 souls who lived (badly) from tuna fishing into a global tourism icon is generally attributed to Pedro Zaragoza Orts ('Peret' for his friends), mayor of Benidorm from 1950 to 1967 and a man whose legend coincides with that of the city he created.

The time comes, the man comes. Zaragoza entered the City Hall at a time when the economy of Spain, hungry for income, craved the juicy wads of currency that tourism promised. His plans for Benidorm undoubtedly benefited from a political climate in which large projects could be carried out without much difficulty if you knew the right people (and he knew them).

But there was something about Zaragoza's personality, a combination of charm, willpower and an unwavering belief that a better future was as possible as achievable, which made it a reality.

When he was threatened with the excommunication of the Bishop of Valencia for allowing the bikini to be worn on the beaches of Benidorm, as the story goes, 'Peret' traveled to Madrid on his faithful Vespa and convinced Franco and his wife.

His advertising stunts were famous: he brought almond blossoms to Finland and brought the laponds to parade with traditional costumes. Zaragoza started the Benidorm Festival, inspired by San Remo, which launched the races of Raphael and Julio Iglesias.

Camino del Balcón del Mediterráneo en Benidorm

Mediterranean Balcony Road in Benidorm © Julio Jiménez Corral

The history of Spain in the last 60 years is written here in concrete, glass and brick. So far, the architectural heritage of Benidorm has not been one of the great reasons to visit it, but it will not be long before design students tour the city with the notebook in hand.

The city has more skyscrapers per square kilometer than any other place on the planet except New York, and the 'vertical model' of the General Plan of 1956 was widely acclaimed by modern urban planners for its intelligent consumption of land and resources.

Each one has their favorite buildings, from the Levante Tower, 120 meters of slender minimalist elegance by Carlos Gilardi, the impressive coastal slab of Torre Coblanca, an early work by Juan Guardiola, and the bulbous and brutalist forms of 148 meters by Neguri Gane, from Pérez-Guerras.

Lovers of mid-century modernity and Mad Men chic will be in their element in Levante Beach, place of the first important building push in Benidorm, where the high-rise buildings of the 60s and 70s with their concrete and rhythmic lattices balconies that used to be thought to be rude and ugly and now emit a tempting breath of retro glamor.

West, built later, is bigger and bolder, with the Timeless Building, a brilliant gold arch that would not be out of place in the capital of some Central Asian Republic rich in oil, and the 186-meter Grand Hotel Bali, the highest hotel in Europe. If Benidorm were a Manhattan by the sea, this would be its Empire State Building.

And when the urban jungle becomes too much, there is another kind of wildlife just around the corner. If a way to measure the quality of life of a city is how fast you can get out of it, Benidorm has a high rating.

From the end of Levante, where the towers go out, a path leads along the promontory and in a matter of minutes you find yourself in the Serra Gelada Natural Park. Below is the small Mediterranean cove of Tío Ximó, heartbreakingly beautiful, where it is said (another legend of Benidorm) that Uncle Ximó rented his stone cabin to the couples on their wedding night.

Runners and walkers walk the coastal paths. To the north from the Tower of Les Caletes of the 16th century, recently restored, there is an amazing view of cliffs that rise 300 meters of orange-colored rock with deposits of ocher color, as if the setting sun had touched them .

Back in the city, the night walk is in full swing. Families huddle in the corridors of the beach. Grandmothers go from side to side in 'senior mobility' vehicles. A girl in a black tracksuit runs with a small white dog on her heels.

You will hear speaking in French and Portuguese, Norwegian and Russian, not to mention the British accents of Newcastle, Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow. Benidorm is multicultural, diverse and wildly cosmopolitan.

The sociologist José Antonio Núñez de Cela, in the City Council, says that the city has no social hierarchies and that its wealth is distributed equally. In the towers, the flags of the balconies are not only Spanish, also Valencian, Asturian, British and rainbow colors.

The Basques have brought Benidorm to their hearts, as well as the gay community, which compensates for the city's tolerance and the hedonistic spirit by organizing, in September, the fourth most popular Pride festival in Spain.

Walking at sunset along the boulevards of Levante and Poniente you could almost be in a Latin American city : look at the soft air, the palm trees, the bright lights, the high-rise apartments, the reggaeton coming out of the bars, except that there is no threat of street crime or favelas in the hills.

Acceso al mercadillo en la carretera de Albir

Access to the street market in Albir © Julio Jiménez Corral

Now turn on the Mediterranean Avenue towards the streets of Ibiza or Mallorca. You will know that you are approaching the 'English Quarter' when you see British tourists sitting at dinner at seven in the afternoon, piling their dishes with roasted meat in sauce.

Beyond is the notorious Rincon de Loix, its huge open-door bars that at that time are already alive with bright lights and girls in pornographic poses. Here tourists are in their twenties, some in the process of undressing, others in groups with strange attire: the controversial British bachelor parties.

This is where the dream becomes stale. It is a kind of nightmare to see the wobbly drunks of Rincon de Loix, both men and women, and their loss of dignity. This is also part of Benidorm, but at least it is cornered and controlled.

In any case, the vast majority are happy with the quieter pleasures, such as shopping, walking, having a drink in the bars, the beach and tasting coffee on the terraces. Late in the afternoon, a family sits on a bench on the seafront, without drinking or partying, but chatting happily about the events of the day.

For the accent and appearance, bare legs that were once white and are now a bright pink, shorts and tiny shirts, you would say they are working-class people from Scotland. They seem transported, ecstatic, as if they couldn't believe the paradise they have found and the 18 degrees of temperature it is doing here on this spring night.

Next to the bank, under a grove of elegant palm trees, is a fountain where white doves flutter and coo. The Scottish family does not see it, but under the water there is a stone plaque (originally a gift for Mayor Zaragoza, of his friends), with an inscription that says something simple about the undeniable and unwavering attraction of Benidorm: “Illusion also you live. "

* This report was published in issue 119 of the Condé Nast Traveler Magazine (July-August) . Subscribe to the print edition (11 printed numbers and digital version for € 24.75, by calling 902 53 55 57 or from our website). The July-August Condé Nast Traveler number is available in its digital version to enjoy on your preferred device.