Flying Visit; Most Tourists Only Know Alicante for Its Airport. but Spain's Busiest Gateway Has an Understated Charm - and Some Serious Restaurants. Paul Richardson Reports
Byline: PAUL RICHARDSON
FROM Bristol, Belfast and Bergen to Trondheim, Stavanger and Vienna, the Arrivals board at Alicante Airport reads like a roll- call of European cities. At busy times of the year, 16 flights a day arrive from the UK.
Yet Alicante itself is hardly one of the best-known places in Spain. It sounds like a paradox, but isn't, because Alicante is a classic example of the 'airport town', ignored by visitors rushing to the coastal resorts.
For most of its history this was a seaside town that lived off fishing and farming. Then in the Sixties it became the capital of that economic miracle, the Costa Blanca.
But somehow the financial benefits of the boom passed it by, and Alicante fell back into a provincial slumber from which it is only now awakening.
The city has two main reference points: the harbour, and the imposing rock-fortress of Benacantil.
In between are the charming medieval quarter of Santa Cruz, the grand Baroque buildings of the old town, and the commercial-zone which sprawls out into the tourist developments along the coast.
This may not be the most handsome city in the world, but it does have certain natural advantages. One is the sun - 320 days of it every year, reflecting off the chalky-white crags behind the coast, and flooding the city with light.
Another is the locals, who are famously hospitable and, especially around the end of June, wildly festive. The Hogueras de San Juan (on and around St John's Day, June 24) is one of Spain's most brilliant fiestas, with bonfires on street corners and fireworks on the beach.
Were it not for Manuel, an Alicantino friend who gave up a day of his time for a guided tour of his home town, I would be none the wiser about any of this.
On a brilliantly sunny day last month, we set out for a stroll along the city's most famous landmark: the Explanada, a wide avenue just behind the seafront, lined with palm-trees.
TURNING off into the old town, we visited the Church of Santa Maria, a Gothic church recently given a tremendous makeover.
Farther on lay Santa Cruz, a rickety old kasbah shored up against the rock, with narrow lanes and little houses with geraniums in tins.
This was once a den of drug peddlers and petty thieves: the Bronx of Alicante. But it is being gentrified - the houses bought up by foreigners, the streets properly paved, and the grubby old street signs replaced with pretty coloured tiles.
From there, you can walk to the fortress of Santa Barbara, crown of the Benacantil mountain. At the summit, we took in a sculpture exhibition, a couple of cold beers, and a mesmerising view of the coastline.
The shape I could see on the horizon was Tabarca, an island where, according to my friend, a few dozen people still live 'with no traffic and no stress'.
No Spanish city with an eye to the future would be without a new museum or art gallery - look at Bilbao, Valencia, even Malaga with its Picasso Museum.
Not to be outdone, Alicante has come up with several. The Provincial Museum of Archaeology, cleverly shoehorned into a former hospital, was an interactive wonderland of sound effects and installations, a far cry from all those display cabinets full of broken pottery. …