I went on a rare expedition to Benidorm this Sunday morning. It is only ten minutes away by car but I very seldom visit the town. What motivated me to go there was an old photograph of a donkey. To be more precise, a noria with a working donkey.
It was an early study by photographer “Quico”, the man who would later become a celebrated record keeper of Benidorm’s rapidly changing skyline as the town developed in the 1960s and 1970s and became a by-word for mass tourism and package holidays.
The noria is an example of Islamic technology introduced into Spain during their 700-year long domination of the peninsula. There were still many working norias in the 1960s and 1970s in Spain, but they are now gone altogether. My friend Paco Amillo – historian and retired Head of the Benidorm Instituto – has done some excellent research on the history of the water systems in the locality and the following illustration is from his superb blog post last year on the aquifers of the Marina Baja, which led to my own interest in the local water supply and Paco’s help with collaborative teaching in my Geography lessons.
This location of this particular noria in Benidorm can be identified by the topography: there is a road bridge above a barranco or water gully. The alignment of the Valencia road is clearly shown, in the direction of the Plaza de Alameda and the church of San Jaime, shortly before the road turns right towards Alicante. (This road is now a four lane highway out of town, the N332.) Here is the animal in close up: it is clearly a donkey, not a mule. Both were used to power the norias.
I calculated the spot carefully and it is now on the Via Emilio Ortuño, as confirmed by a very helpful senior citizen of Benidorm who happened to be passing. I stopped him and asked if he knew whether the noria was in this spot, and his response was immediate: “¡Si, exactamente aqui! This is what it looks like today:
I suppose some people wondered why “the tourist” was taking a photograph of such an unappealing urban mess, with a smile of pleasure on his face. In fact I was no longer in that place but happy to be momentarily transported to the 1960s when I watched the donkeys and mules drawing water at the many norias that were still functioning on the island of Ibiza where I lived at that time. I said my farewell to the vanished donkey in the grainy photo and headed towards San Jaime in Benidorm old town for Sunday Mass. On the way to San Jaime I paused to take a photo and observe the differences between a 1949 photo of Calle Alameda and the present day.
Enough of reminiscing about donkeys in the 1950s and 1960s… It is time for the ten o’clock Mass in San Jaime, and that is where my rare morning in Benidorm finally led me.
I was surprised to see that in the Catholic Church in Benidorm this Sunday is known as the “4th Sunday of Eastern”. Clearly they treasure their Islamic past here, with the site of a donkey noria so close by.
Thank you to Paco Amillo for the following photo which he has just sent me, showing the site of the former noria after the building developments of Benidorm wiped out the view of San Jaime. This photo must be circa 1970s?
Also, I have now established the etymology for the word noria in Spanish: it is via Arabic ناعورة, nā’ūra, but originally Syriac, ܢܥܘܪܐ, nā’urā. The meaning is beautiful from a donkey perspective! Classical Syriac ܢܥܘܪܬܐ (nāʿōrtāʾ, “water wheel; growler”), from ܢܥܪ (nʿar, “to roar, growl, bray”). So the very meaning of the word noria connects with the sound made by a donkey.
More about noria technology: