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Benidorm and the sea

In the romantic lexicon of the tourism press Benidorm is painted as the sleepy little fishing village made good. The truth is that whilst the village that became the major tourist resort in Europe owes its existence to its proximity to the deep blue Mediterranean, it never was a commercial fishing port - although as Pedro Zaragoza Orts, the visionary young mayor who brought this once small pueblo to today's vibrant resort says, "When you have no fresh water and all the land is fit for is olives and almonds you eat a lot of fish!"

The sea has given Benidorm it's nourishment, its patron saint, its lifeblood - its raison d'être, but just as its existence now depends on welcoming visitors from all corners of the globe, its origin stems from the opposite - as a defence against marauding Barbary pirates.

Since the time of Christ a settlement had existed on Tossal de la Cala, the hill above Cala de Benidorm, but on 8 May 1325 Bernat de Sarriá granted a Town Charter to Benidorm, thus establishing the first reference to the name, and regarded by historians as the birth of the town.

The role of Benidorm was to provide a secure point to resist the attacks of Turkish and Barbary pirates, one of the greatest fears of the Valencian community during the 16th and 17th centuries. But if Benidorm's attackers came from the seas so did their protector. Legend has it that the Virgen del Sufragio, one of the two patron saints of Benidorm (the other being Jaime Apostol), came to the townspeople on the evening of 15 March 1740, when an abandoned ship was stranded on Levante beach. There was neither sight nor sound of the crew, and with the plague being prevalent at that time it was decided that the vessel should be burned to protect the people of Benidorm. The conflagration destroyed everything - rigging, masts, sails and rudder, but the following morning, when some boys were searching through the ashes for nails, they discovered a small wooden statue of the Virgen, miraculously unscathed.

Almost two and a half centuries after her discovery, in July 1980, her importance to Benidorm was recognised when the Virgen del Sufragio was proclaimed Perpetual Lady Mayoress of the City, the highest honour a Spanish town or city can bestow. Annually her discovery is celebrated on 16 March and in November she is venerated during Las Fiestas Patronales, the most important fiesta in Benidorm.

Whilst the gentle slope of the resorts beaches preclude its use as a fishing port the men of the town gained renown as the foremost experts in one of the most complex fishing techniques in the world - the almadraba, the catching of tuna fish as they visit their historical Mediterranean spawning grounds.

Long before the almadraba ended though, the seamen of Benidorm had gone further afield. Since the early nineteenth century men from the pueblo had been working on major deep sea vessels, and it has been estimated that in the first half of the 20th century there were seventy-four captains, twenty pilots, eleven chief engineers, eight radio operators and twenty-seven bo'suns who travelled to the Americas and Asia on ocean going liners, and called Benidorm 'home'.

Benidorm may well not have developed as a small town tourist resort had Pedro Zaragoza decided to follow in his fathers footsteps, a captain with Transatlantica, one of the largest shipping companies in Spain. It was the experiences of those who did travel the world as seaman that helped him in his ideals to create a touristic oasis from a patch of waterless shoreline. They went, they saw, and they brought back again; the idea of what the world had to offer and the opportunity for their town to grow, harnessing the entity which had provided so much of their culture, their history, and their livelihood. The ever provident sea.


Derek Workman


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