What’s the best way to wind down after a long summer filled of meets? The beach. I try to stay away from chlorinated bodies of water during my breaks, so that when it is time to start again I am more than willing to dive in. That being said, I have no personal ban against salt water. In fact, there’s nothing more rejuvenating that the sea.
Ironically, when I first arrived in Spain I was eating chocolate with Ana and Carlos, two friends from my masters program at a Valor Chocolate restaurant. They were telling me that it was the best chocolate produced in Spain and that they had active factories. I remember looking at the city where the factory was held – Villajoyosa – and telling Carlos that I would probably never make it there just to see a chocolate factory. Little did I know that three years later I would be spending more than 10 days in this small fisherman town and visiting the chocolate factory firsthand.
La Villajoyosa, whose name quite literally means the “joyous town” is tucked in between Benidorm and the Capital Alicante. Thus far the hoards of tourists have yet to encroach upon its charm. And hopefully it stays that way.
One of the best parts of the trip was the delicious food. With such fresh products you do not have to do too much to enhance their flavor. Many of the restaurants did not drench their fish in sauces or other garnishes, but rather let the high quality food stand for itself. One great example of the fresh produce to table movement would be the Mercado. At the local market you enter and buy all of the food you would like to eat and then bring it to bar where they cover a small fee to cook it for you. Walaaah a fresh delicious lunch. Another local specialty is the paella. Everyone knows about Spanish Paellas. They are synonymous with Spanish cuisine. I, too, thought I fully knew what a paella was until this trip. I have never had paella that delicious and in fact my mouth is water just writing this post. Unfortunately, I cannot say what the secret is – some say it’s the water, others the ingredients. All I can say for certain is that I will not be ordering paella in Madrid for I am sure to be disappointed.
To top off any great meal we fulfilled our sweet tooth with a stop at Buen Gusto, the local ice cream establishment. A special delicacy called a black and white (Coffee Granita with a scoop of vajilla ice cream) was my favorite treat.
On Sunday evening we attended a Concert in the Church of the Assumption. By the time the musicians took the stage every seat was filled. Since it was the middle of the summer fans constantly buzzed throughout the concert, despite the fact that the conductor asked the audience to refrain from fanning themselves during the pieces. The musicians took turns playing different pieces, both religious and secular music from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A soprano with a gorgeous voice also joined them for a few of the numbers. The sound bounced throughout the church and even without microphones filled the space. In many ways, I felt teleported back to a different era.
Another highlight was the Casa de la Barbera de Argonés, which was a home that pertained to a noble family who first settled in the region in the 15th century. The house remained in possession of the family until the heiress died. Since she had no children, she left the house and estate to the city, which has since turned it into a museum. We had a fabulous guide whose passion for the subject matter was initially apparent and I learned much about typical houses of the area.
Of course, we had to visit Valor Chocolate factory. The visit started with a cheesy video discussing different procedures from the beginning of the company to its current global production. I was hoping for more information about the techniques used to make the final product, but the video focused primarily on showing people enjoying eating chocolate. Following the video we walked through an old house that displayed the evolution of the brand, particularly focusing on the different members of the company and the marketing cases for the various types of chocolate. Finally, we were able to walk through the factory. Today, the chocolate is made in highly controlled steel vats. It is quite hard to tell what is actually happening in each setting. Afterwards, you are allowed to sample some of the new tastes. I loved the martini flavored bonbons and look forward to seeing them in stores. Later in the week we had a cup of warmed chocolate in the original Valor Restaurant bringing my Valor experience full circle.
We also took three day trips to cities nearby. Our first was to the highly recommended Altea. The city itself if comprised of white houses perched 60 km above sea-level, which gives it a picturesque feel. Nonetheless, it is not as quaint as it first appears, as all of the restaurants in the city center are catered directly towards tourists. We were rather concerned that we would not find a good meal, but thanks to a recommendation from a friend, we found the best restaurant down next to the water. Altea is also known as being an artists’ haven and I was hoping to find a piece of art to add to my collection; however, nothing struck my eye. Instead we saw a few minion balloon sculptures wandering through the city.
Our second day trip was to Benidorm. Cristian, my roommate, is from Benidorm and so I was quite excited to see his hometown. Despite numerous warnings that Benidorm was the New York City of Spain, or that it was over-run with tourists, I still naively expected to find something along the lines of Altea or Villajoyosa. Maybe if we had traveled later I would not have been so aghast by the sights of cheap tourism everywhere, or maybe not. The worst part was trying to find a place to eat – even the good district Barrio de los Vascos was found wanting. The lesson is that I have quickly become a Spanish food snob. I want economical food that is well made. Needless to say, we could not leave Benidorm fast enough.
Our third day trip was to the Capital Alicante. Here I expected a large city, given that I had already visited Benidorm and knew that it was the capital. We spent the morning climbing the mountain upon which the Castile of Saint Barbara is perched. Although it is rather barren, it provides some incredible views, which makes it more than worth the effort. We ate lunch at Nou Manolin, which is known as the best tapas bar in Spain. It was a delicious meal topped off with Irish Coffees. We spent the afternoon wandering the various streets and stopped for ice cream at a store that is housed in the first building to have an elevator in Alicante! Our last stop was to the Anthropological Museum, where we took a tour of the special exhibition of the Fragata Mercedes. The ship recently made the news in 2007 when the American Firm Odessey uncovered a boat filled with treasure. It was heralded the greatest treasure found in the seas. However, they concealed much of the information about their findings, hoping to sell the treasure. Through pieces of evidence leaked, Spain realized that the boat resembled the Fragata Mercedes that was sunk by the British fleet in 1804. In 2012 after five years of fighting for the ship and its treasure the US Justice System ordered the Odessey to return all objects found to Spain. Currently, an exhibition has been rotating throughout anthropological museums in Spain discussing the events that led to the destruction of the Fragata as well as the legal battle waged to recuperate its treasure. It was a very well put together exhibition.
I have, of course, been saving the best for last. With all of these activities you may be wondering about the relaxing beaches. Intermixed with these different activities we found time for a dip in the ocean almost every day. However, my favorite outings were those to beaches far away. A few of the days we dedicated solely to visiting beaches that were about a two-hour hike along the coast away from the city center. The views from the cliffs were absolutely breath-taking. There is nothing more refreshing than taking a dip in the ocean after a long hike.
With all of my energy restored from a long summer and a stomach full of paella, I left the Joyous Town ready to embrace the new year.