Spain’s southern Mediterranean coast has been a magnet for British and northern European holidaymakers since the 1960 and 70s. Temperatures stay warmer longer and when the north of the continent is plunging into a dark, wet winter, promise of beaches, sunshine and a cheap holiday attracts them in droves. Alas, this migration of visitors and ex-pats has also resulted in the worst kind of mass tourism, with tactless developments found all along coastal regions collectively known as the Costa del Sol and Costa Blanca.
We broke up our journey by stopping each night, though many yachties bypass the area altogether when tracking southwest towards Gibraltar.
At times the raw, rugged landscape would break through with deserted expanses of untouched dark rock cliffs, inhospitable to development. Yet for the most part, sadly much of the coast is scarred by monotonous stretches of soulless holiday apartments.
Benidorm was particularly intriguing. Already under motor with no wind, we slowed down for a drive-by. On the surface it appears Spain’s version of Surfers Paradise, without the surf. The mass-tourism hot spot boasts Spain’s tallest buildings and, in my experience, the tallest of anywhere we’ve cruised on the Mediterranean coast. The stats speak for themselves. With a permanent population of just 73,000, Benidorm receives a whopping five million tourist visits per year and has more high-rise buildings per capita than any other city in the world. And with more than 40,000 hotel rooms available, in Europe only Paris and London can claim more rooms. Crikey!
It had been some months since we were blessed with the company of dolphins. One afternoon while (again) motoring west we were approached by our first pod of Spanish dolphins – a couple of adults and their youngsters who, as they came and went in pairs, appeared to be learning to surf the bow pressure wave. Moments like these are undoubtedly one of the simplest and most spontaneous pleasures of boat life.
An important shipping port, naval base and popular wintering marina for yachts, Cartagena’s deep harbour, fortified walls and turbulent history delivered a refreshing cultural break along the southern coast. Its strategic location close to the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea ensured it was inhabited and controlled by various empires over the centuries (Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantine, Carthaginians, Muslim rule under the Moors and eventually Spanish), all having left their mark on the city.
The foreshore and port has been recently re-developed to accommodate cruise ships, whose passengers come to wander the pedestrian shopping mall lined with Modernista architecture and visit an impressive 2nd century Roman theatre, which is nestled amongst homes and shops.
Early last summer we relished many free (or very cheap) moorings in majority of Greece’s town quays. Outside of that, on the rare occasion we visited a Mediterranean port or marina we’ve generally paid anywhere from A$80 – 200 per night for our 44’ Lagoon catamaran (the highest was A$270 in Sardinia). Hence we choose to avoid marinas majority of the time. Cartagena’s natural harbour is very deep, so anchoring was not an option. Thus you can imagine our delight when quoted just 19 € + VAT (about A$30) for a marina berth – the added bonus of catamarans at the same rate as monohulls. We’ll take it! And a key reason the port is a popular wintering destination for yachts.
Whilst only stopped for an overnight visit, we found the meandering town to be thought-provoking; it was apparent so much history remained buried under the city foundations and unexcavated dirt mounds currently utilised for viewing vantage points.
I’ve mentioned previously that, after trawling a significant tract of the Mediterranean coast, we’d not caught a fish in almost two summers. We’d snagged plastic bags, floating branches, a fishing net and once when jigging we even hooked a starfish. Yet recently cruising the Balearic Islands Mike had a stroke of luck hooking numerous bonitos; a young swordfish and a fighting one-metre sailfish that flicked itself free a short distance from the boat. There’d been teasing words between captain and first mate as Dad was gradually becoming frustrated with the lack of action on his starboard-side reel.
Though shortly after departing port, again motoring in the Motor-terranean’s glassy waters, Dad quickly redeemed himself and hauled the heftiest scaled beauty I, personally, remember witnessing pulled fresh from the ocean. Perhaps a species wayward from the nearby ambienbuy Atlantic source, we identified this gift from the sea as a salmon!
Dad expertly filleted the salmon taking care to clean the boat and drains to avoid a stinky after trace. Within minutes of finishing the task, his line was running again and he’d hooked a nice bonito. Seriously, we’d been daydreaming of this moment since arriving to the Med last summer. With all the essential ingredients stocked in the galley (lime, coriander, chilli, avocado, mango and so on) we dished up squeaky fresh sashimi and ceviche with homemade tortilla chips for lunch, BBQ salmon and asian-crunch salad for dinner, plus sumptuous fish tacos the following day. If this is taste of what waits us in the Atlantic and Pacific – when we need food to simply throw out a line – bring it on.
Large expanses of coast to the west of Almeria are blanketed with white plastic. Due to a temperate climate and excellent highway connections, wall-to-wall greenhouses grow and supply a significant portion of Europe’s fresh fruit and vegetable produce. A sea of white stretches between shoreline to foothills as far as the eye can see; and a quick look at Google Map Earth (switch to Earth view) will allow you to comprehend the staggering footprint of Europe’s ‘fruit bowl’.
Granada and its fabled Alhambra is the cultural gem of the south. With the boat safely moored in another (very cheap!) marina at Almerimar, we rented a car for a one-day road trip inland, away from the overly developed coast and through the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Granada was the last Muslim stronghold of the Moors. Their reign withered during the late 15th century when, weakened by internal fighting, the observant and patient Spanish crusaders pounced to reclaim the land for Christianity. The Moors departing legacy was the remarkable Arabian-influenced ornate palaces and sprawling gardens of the Alhambra; left in disrepair for many years before its cultural significance was recognised and its shine restored in the 19th century.
Today the 1,000 year-old citadel and palace complex is one of Spain’s most popular and sensitive attractions. As such the UNESCO World Heritage protected site implements a strict ticketing system with limited access across two daily sessions. Online tickets sell out early (for those who already know their exact visit dates – we of course, did not), otherwise an additional allotment is sold each morning. During peak season hundreds of visitors line up from near dawn to secure remaining tickets. We were able to walk up mid-morning and purchase general admission to the gardens and most sites, although unfortunately we missed out on entry into Alhambra’s prized palace – Palacious Nazaries. An unexpected sneak peak through a window (inside a random Japanese art exhibition) allowed me to snap one of Granada’s most iconic settings – the reflective pool of Patio de Arrayanes.
There were gardens to wander, roses to smell, water fountains and intricate carvings to photograph, views to admire, ramparts to climb, tour groups to dodge plus a rich and intriguing history to ponder. Having now just returned from Morocco as I finish this post, the Alhambra’s architecture, mosaic ceramic tiling, arches and artistically carved cedar and stone is typical of what we saw throughout the Islamic North African country. Granada is pretty awe-inspiring and well worth of visit (again, out of season if you can).
Our transit from the Balearic Islands took 10 days. In that time we enjoyed just one excellent day of sailing, plus a few hours here and there. Otherwise we motored for five to seven hours each stretch in exceptionally glassed-out conditions.
An ominous grey cloud hung over ‘little Britain’ as we approached the famous Rock of Gibraltar. Which, after 14 months cruising over two years, signalled our final departure from the Mediterranean. We collectively agree our time in Europe has been one long adventure and lesson, though anticipation is high for the new horizons, colours and countries that await us. We hope you’ll continue to follow us on our journey!