Saturday, January 18, 2014

18 January 2014 - Exploring the port city of Alicante and travel to Tarragona

The agent of the vessel we had come to inspect in Alicante had sent a taxi to the Renfe station last evening. The vessel, MV DAINA, we were told, would sail by 2 am this morning from Alicante. It had only about 75 containers to exchange. Initially Vinod and I thought we would sail with the vessel to Barcelona and inspect her while she was sailing. When the agent told us that she was due to be berthed there only after two days we decided to complete the inspection last night at Alicante.

After a short meeting with the agent on arrival in Alicante and checking into the Hotel Centrum Alicante we went to the port in the taxi. I expected paper work and identification confirmations at least for entry into the port. The port was just a short drive from the hotel and the entry was hassle free – the security guard did not even bother to come out of the cabin. MV DAINA is a Lithuanian flagged ship and manned by same country crew; 12 of them including the Captain, the Chief Mate and the Chief Engineer. We had not had dinner and had expected the Captain to offer us something to munch, at the very least. All we got was water, a cup of hot coffee and chocolate, personally served by Captain Alexander, who had joined the ship just before Christmas. The first area of detailed check was the documentation, which had to absolutely in order if it had to pass muster with the Indian authorities later when the flag was changed after purchase of the vessel. Vinod was extremely thorough with his inspection; his professionalism elicited high praise from the Captain, who thought him to be Turkish! Examination of the engine room, the deck and the accommodation was done almost inch by inch. Since the vessel was light and under ballast the tanks could not be examined. The log books merited elaborate checks to determine consumption of lubes and fuel oil. I knocked my head at a few places while examining the deck and the cross decks. Any thought of sleep also departed after the first knock. After 5 hours of continuous work we were back in the Captain’s room. We congratulated him on the superb maintenance of the ship and I presented him with a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut chocolate!

The agent came to the vessel on a call from the Captain by 1 am and we got back to the hotel. The next vessel was to be inspected in Tarragona on the 19th. We had a full day ahead of us in Alicante, since the work was completed in the night. The breakfast spread was elaborate. I started with a small helping of Muesli and cold milk. Peach fruit juice, brown bread toast with mixed fruit jam, croissant with butter, poached egg, cold cuts of turkey breast and ham, sausages, cured ham and salami of Alicante were part of the main course. It was then time to attend to the fruits - grapes, kiwi fruit, melon (the sweetest I have ever tasted), grape fruit, orange and pineapple. A cup of cappuccino signaled the end of the morning carnage. As I got up from the breakfast table I swore that I would skip lunch!

It had been difficult in the hotel in Madrid to converse with the receptionist due to her fleeting understanding of English. However, in Alicante the gentleman at the reception explained how to get around to the train station to book tickets to Tarragona and the sights we could visit in the few hours we had at out disposal. He agreed to let us hold our rooms till 3.30 pm. A short walk from the hotel brought us to the Renfe station. It did not take us even 5 minutes to book seats on the train departing for Tarragona at 4.17 pm (no names, no passport, etc.); the middle aged booking clerk blushed a little when asked if I could take her photograph! At the hotel it was suggested that we should walk along the water front, catch glimpses of the old city of Alicante and visit the Castle of Santa Barbara. Another short walk via the Station Avenue brought us to the Plaza de Los Luceros, a big circular plaza with a dramatic fountain and a monument in the centre, which was reportedly designed in 1915 – all inscriptions and descriptions are in most places of tourist interest are in Spanish; therefore, apart from gaping at the monuments little else was possible. But what had to be admired was the cleanliness, the order of traffic, the landscaped walkways and thoughtful themes. Palm trees were liberally used in the landscaping. Suddenly we hit the Marina – it was such a glorious sight; so many sailing boats, some powered and most not, were tethered at the Marina. A few sail boats were leisurely moving out and a few serious kayakers could be seen practicing their skills.

Located in the city and just at the point where I reached the marina is one of the oldest parks in Alicante, the Canalejas Park, which was created in 1886 by the architect Gonzolez Altus. The two entrances to the park are dramatically guarded by stone sculptures of dogs and lions. Very old and huge Rubber Plants, palm trees and pretty fountains, that invited me to rest awhile, were features of the lovely park. I walked through the Park and across a couple of traffic round abouts and reached the majestic La Explanada de Espana, which is supposedly the heart and soul of Alicante. It stretches around the marina and is the most famous, and the most historic, of the promenades of the city. It has 6.6 million red, black and cream marble tiles, depicting the waves of the Mediterranean and four rows of palm trees, offering shade and an idyllic place for the romantic Spanish custom of the paseo, an evening stroll. The boulevard with its palm trees and shops selling various local handicrafts captures the essence of the city and is a heart stealer. Here the locals meet up with friends over a cup of coffee and tourists soak in the atmosphere. There is a music pavilion which hosts free music concerts in the summer.

The Conde de Vallellano promenade runs parallel to the La Explanada – here you can catch the refreshing sea breeze and watch the happenings of the marina. I sat there admiring the huge yatchts in the marina and the lovely little cafĂ© that jutted out over the water. At one end of the promenade is the interesting sculpture that appears to be floating in the water. The piece titled ‘Icarus Returns with a Surfboard’ is the creation of Esperanza d’Ors. I did a full round of the Marina – the imposing Castle in the background provided glorious photo ops, which I did not miss.

In the heart of the city is a wide arc of golden sand that is the gorgeous beach of Playa del Postiguet. Situated at the base of the imposing Monte Benacantil, the grand mountain that holds the Castillo Santa Barbara, the beach has easy access and is backed by a palm shaded promenade with a three dimensional walkway, the Paseo de Gomiz, with modern bars offering refreshments and food. It is lapped by tranquil waters and is used at all times of the year, particularly on holidays – people were already out on the beach and a few were indulging in a vigorous game of Beach Volleyball. I realized that the majestic beach could be crowded in the summer.

Alicante, as an important sea port through the ages, was a magnet for traders and conquerors. All the usual suspects of the ancient lands paid visits to the area for one reason or another – Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and the Romans left their mark on the city BC. The Roman influence wore thin by the 5th century and the local chiefs extended their friendship to the invading Moors, who brought with them medical knowledge, advanced irrigation systems, books, education and most importantly, oranges, palms and rice. By the 13th century the city had turned its back on Mecca and had become part of Catholic Castilian territory. A long period of uncertainty and war followed as the city became embroiled in domestic and international disputes. However, the city became more important politically and economically. The port grew as trade increased and so did the population. Alicante became the capital of the Kingdom of Valencia when Valencia was occupied by the French. The modern city thrived on trade with the US and the coming of the railway in the 19thCentury. The city exploded beyond its old walled boundaries and many of the new districts were built in this time of expansion.

The main attraction of the city, small in size but rich in history as explained, is definitely the Castillo Santa Barbara.  An aesthetically built flyover from the Postiguet beach area took me to the entrance of the Castle. The castle is free to visit, but there is a small charge for the elevator going up through a tunnel carved out of the rock. The elevator deposited us at the top of the Castle to begin exploration. It is one of the largest medieval fortresses in Europe and covers the complete summit of the Benacantil Mountain. Originally built by the Moors in the 10th century, the castle received its name from the conquest of King Alfonse the Wise that took place on 4th December 1248: Saint Barbara's day. Over the following centuries it was developed and extended leaving it with three main areas all dating from different eras. The Castle has cannons, a palace, dungeons, a moat, the ruins of a small church and a famous lookout tower. From all around the walls you get the most fantastic views of the sprawling city, the promenades, the Marina et al; definite photo opportunities. It is said that Santa Barbara Castle is an excellent place to visit at anytime of the year - in the height of summer it is a perfect place to catch the sea breeze, whilst in the cooler months the walk up to the castle through the parks and pine wood allows you time to reflect on the difficulties of capturing it. A stroll in the Castle premises reinforced the observation.

A light rain and threatening overcast conditions made us tear away from the absolutely marvelous sights of the city, the Port, the Marina and the Mediterranean Sea. The city, from that vantage point, looked spread out and small by no means. Back on the trek to the hotel we yielded to the temptation to take a small bite and a drink – I settled for a ham and cheese sandwich with a chocolate milk shake. By the time I reached the hotel my feet were weary and the hips ached. Before leaving for the train I decided to rest awhile in bed.

The checkout did not take much time and we walked to the train station. The luggage slightly slowed us down, but we were well ahead of the scheduled departure – the platform had not yet been announced. When it was we moved to it only to be made to wait for the ‘check in’, when the train tickets are scrutinized. The train, as I had come to expect, closed doors promptly and left at the schedule time. After jotting down my observations of the day I slept till the train was pulling into Tarragona. Antonio, the representative of the agent who had fixed up the inspection of MV RED SPIRIT, picked us up from the train station and lodged us in SB Hotels. The hotel, as compared to the one is Alicante, was a bit pricey. It was quite cold as it had rained just before our arrival in Tarragona. Antonio told us that it was a peaceful coastal town with very little tourists. He added that it is a city steeped in history – I wanted to start exploration almost immediately. Vinod was not in a mood for it. Moreover, it had become dark and colder. 

We decided to dine at a small nearby eatery. Vinod ordered a meat grill and I a fish grill. For those who wanted to enjoy the outdoors Casa Matias had a small enclosure on the street, common in most small cities in Spain, kept warm with gas lit heaters. The place was noisy, as was to be expected on a Saturday night. Youngsters in all sorts of clothing and hairdos greeting and exchanging notes at the top of their lungs kept the atmosphere vibrant. As soon as the order arrived I knew I had got it wrong – there was shrimp all dressed up in its finery, mussels in opened shells, an indescribable table fish that looked shocked that it was being served up as a meal, a huge helping of undercooked squid and a baby octopus with some dip and a small toast. To get over the ordeal I ordered a chocolate crepe with whipped cream. The sweet dessert helped me forget the course before!

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