Bringing the words 'culture' and 'Benidorm' together might seem as unlikely as combining 'Lady Godiva' and 'Marks and Spencer clothing catalogue'. Just as the Coventry lass must have worn a frock now and again, so Benidorm has more to offer than the knotted handkerchief, beer-gutted boozing Brit so beloved by the tawdry tabloids.
Through the 60's, 70's and 80's Benidorm became the fastest growing holiday destination in Europe and to feed the demand for servicing this touristic invasion, the Costa Klondike drew people from every corner of Spain. It was this mass influx of diverse regional cultures that created a secondary, and largely unknown, cultural element overlooked by the majority of visitors. A pocket of Andalucia here, a corner of Galicia there, a bundle of Catalans just around the corner, and as each one brought their own saints and special occasions, Benidorm now celebrates fifty-six fiestas each year.
The area beside the Plaza de Toros, on the northern edge of the city (but still only a twenty-minute walk from the sea), is about as far from the tourist bars as you can get. With it's vertical village of apartment blocks it is mainly residential and home to some of the best Menus del Dia. El Embrujo (The Witch) isn't as bewitching as it's name would suggest; you'd never call it cosy or refined. It's a neighbourhood cafeteria serving good tapas and snacks, which at lunch time during the week becomes the haunt of working men looking for a good value Menu del Dia and decent portions. For Sunday lunch the residents of the high-rise haciendas invade in their Sunday best. Great family fun, but stay away if you don't like riot.
Two streets behind, the Galicians gather at Mesón Anduriña for big plates of Lacón y Grelos, slabs of pork and fat chorizo sausages served with green veg and a big boiled potato; everything cooked in the same pot, with the stock drawn off to provide your soup. Father and son, Jose Rodriguez, bring their wine directly from a friend's vineyards in Galicia, the splendid Ribeiro, which is drunk from small white bowls. The postres are all home made and their wonderful Arroz con Leche sends you on your way with a taste of Christmas.
Wander back into town through the Parque de l'Aigües, (home to the wonderful Benidorm Song Contest) a classically designed promenade which descends slowly through an avenue of palm trees. There are two amphitheatres on the half kilometre walk, and through the summer months they offer a varied programme ranging through comedy, theatre, opera, dance, classical and contemporary music, much of it free, starting in July with the Benidorm Song Contest. It's where Julio Iglesias kicked off his career. Not much goes on there during the winter, the entertainment tends to be brought inside to such places as the tiny theatre above Cam Bank on Carrer l'Alameda. Even though it's slap in the touristy part of the Old Town it's rare to hear any accent other than Spanish. One week it might be a Russian String Quartet, another the local school Xirimita Band. It also has a regular programme of exhibitions and a fortnightly avant-garde film club.
The city is effectively split into two by the Avenida Europa. To the left is the mainly tourist area, but the further you stroll to the right the deeper you get into the heart of an ordinary workaday Spanish town. In the criss-crossing grid around the Avenida Almendros there are any amount of decent little caffs and restaurants, many serving excellent and numerous varieties of paella. Despite the Brit-press mythology of wall-to-wall fish and chips, the town only has two fish and chip shops - one less than the number of Turkish restaurants.
Across Almendros, on Carrer Maravall, the green and white front of Casa de Andalucia welcomes you to the south's little acre in the Costa Blanca. Brightly painted furniture and a wall covered with the photos of Damas de Fiestas provide a colourful backdrop to the regular Tertulias Flamencas. Famous Andalucian performers are imported regularly, and evenings and weekends are usually pretty lively.
Further down Maravall at number 19, Bar Oviedo serves the Fabada and Cerbolla con Atun of Asturias accompanied by that region's Sidra Natural. The Menu del Dia at six euros all in is a snip. Just opposite is Restaurante las Molinas, a small neighbourhood bar garnished with strings of sausages and dried gourds that give it an air of countrified kitsch. You'll have to fight for a place at one of the six tables if you want to stay for lunch. Excellent estefado with proper chunks of meat.
Saunter down to the bottom of Avenida Almendros and you'll find the Parc d'Elx. (Just before you get there, at the Heladeria on the right, opposite the Ernesto electrical shop you can lean on the external counter and have a glass of wine and 5 gambas for 2 euros.) The park is a small triangle, used more for promenading than resting. If you're lucky you might come across the lady in the white smock using one of the benches as an open air surgery, where she proudly displays the certificates which proclaim that she's fully authorised to take your blood pressure, for which all she requires is the miserly sum of 1 euro.
Sandwiched between the small harbour at the end of the park and the tiny Mal Pas beach, the recently completed Marisqueria gives an opportunity to dine with the demimonde. A testament to chrome, plate glass and designer restraint it provides a visual declaration of the cosmopolitan attitude of the 'new' Benidorm. On the terrace, pink tourists sip their cafés con leche alongside matronly madonnas in fur boleros. Inside, along the ceiling high glass walls, elegant ladies dripping with gold and Gucci lean on pale green linen table cloths, while on the other side of the room fishermen in heavy boots and torn leather jackets prop up the bar and do a bit of business on the side with plastic carrier bags full of fresh fish. Sr. Revenga, the proprietor, has had a restaurant on the same site for twenty-three years and gained a reputation for serving some of the best seafood in the whole of the Costa Blanca.
Up the narrow, cobbled Calle Alicante détente international comes together at Duomo. The sign says pizzeria, but the menu picks up portions of a spread of European tables. While the hoi-poloi pass by unawares, in it's romantic candle-lit interior knowing Benidormense drool over salmon filled crêpes. In the summer the tiny roof-top terrace offers a sun-bleached oasis high above the maddening crowd. Its near neighbour, Casa de la Portuguesa, on Calle San Vicente, is where the nobs at the town hall invite visiting dignitaries are to eat to splendid cuisine of the gloriously named Hermelinda da Palma Perez who runs the restaurant with her husband Juan Orquin (Spanish) and cluster of daughters in what used to be her grandmothers house.
A couple of streets away, on Calle de Santo Domingo, in the lively Els Ultims Gats, Valencianos rub shoulders with Catalans, jabbering away in one language with two different names. El Ultims Gats was the first café in the Costa Blanca to offer internet access while you take a glass of wine. Thankfully it never expanded beyond one computer, and you can still pick up your emails here. It's worth calling in just to see the wonderful old brass and copper Italian coffee machine, and during the day and early evening you can sit and play one of the numerous board games that Martin, the owner, keeps tucked away behind the bar.
A couple of steps down the calle, Cava Aragonesa is reckoned to serve some of the best tapas in the whole of Spain. On this one occasion you'll probably have to consort with tourists, but it's well worth it, and they'll probably be Spanish anyway. Underneath, in the Sidreria Aurrera, Basques gather to consume regional delights such as Bacalao Pil Pil, which looks like big bowls of custard topped off with bright red chillies.
The hotels of Benidorm are based on a high level of service and value. As much as the seven kilometres of beach and three hundred and odd days of sun each year, this has helped to maintain the resort's position as top tourist destination in Europe, and with 90% occupancy year-round, five million visitors can't all be wrong. In the thirty-seven square kilometres on which the city stands there are more hotel stars than in the whole of Greece.
Two of the best are settled in the middle of tourist town. The subdued luxury of the Hotel Cimbel is the place to stay if you want to wake up each morning with a view of the Mediterranean; the more glam Don Pancho, where you enter between tinkling, mock-Aztec waterfalls, is where you stay if you don't.
The delightful undiscovered little pension is a thing of the past in Benidorm, but there are enough comfortable two- and three-star hotels on the streets running off Avenida Almendros to provide a decent night's sleep without going broke. Hotel Brazil on Calle Apolo has been going for years, but the find of the year must be the Hotel Mar Bella on the opposite side of the street. Completely renovated in 2000, you can guarantee a disturbance-free stay because it's right next door to the city's main police station.
It's the quality of accommodation that is the basis of the resort's next big step in tourist development. Within half an hour of the prom visitors can be striding along the peaks of the Sierra Helada, horse-riding in the Puig Campaña, or plunging deep underground into the vaulted cathedral-like Coves del Canelobre at Busot. A new breed of visitor is arriving; often travelling from within Spain itself. They want a comfortable base from which to explore the other, rural side of the Costa Blanca. They are also discerning enough to discover the other, Spanish side of Benidorm.