I don’t go into Benidorm very often but when I do it never ceases to surprise me. Today was no exception and I would like to share a little of my Benidorm history morning with readers of this blog. The above photograph is from the Alicante newspaper Información, showing the state of Benidorm’s beaches at the start of the long weekend, in tempestuous conditions. We have had a four day break, thanks to Saint Joseph whose feast day was on Thursday: so we all took Friday off as well, and we had a four day weekend.
It has been a wet week but a very special week. Last weekend it was the 275th anniversary of the arrival of the Virgin Mary in Benidorm.
That probably needs explaining. In March 1740 a deserted merchant ship drifted into the bay of Benidorm and the ship was brought in to the beach. Due to the possibility that all aboard had died of disease, it was decided that the ship should be burnt. The good Catholic people of Benidorm saw that there was a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus on the boat, so the pleaded with the authorities not to burn Our Lady and Jesus. The statue was spared, and the Virgen del Sufragio is the town’s patron today.
An exhibition opened in the old town hall in Benidorm this week, recording the tradition of the Virgen del Sufragio. This morning some dedicated resident historians of Benidorm wandered among the various replicas of the statue, memorabilia associated with the tradition, and a film showing the restoration of the original. Among those present was the famous Benidorm photographer “Quico” who recorded the transformation of Benidorm in the 1960s, and whose capture of the social history and economic transformation of the town has been likened to a “semi-divine eye”: very little escaped him.
When the Virgen del Sufragio arrived in Benidorm in 1740 it was only a short time before the British first invaded. As we learned this morning on our history walk around the castillo in Benidorm, the town did not get its first Brits invading on British European Aiways Viscount turbo-prop aircraft in 1960s package holidays: the British navy made a full assault on the beaches of Benidorm in 1812, capturing the town from the French who had been occupying it as an important defensive position.
The French occupying forces made the residents of Benidorm dig up the old town cemetery and fling the bodily remains of many generations into the sea below, as they reinforced the defensive position. This is now the place where tourists mingle between the Poniente and Levante beaches, and very few even know that Benidorm has a history as a strategic military base. They see the cannon lined up on the castillo in the town and think they are quaint fakes put there for the tourists. In their day the bigger guns had a range of a kilometre, and they were strategically placed across the beaches of Benidorm to provide lethal crossfire.
Happily, once the French and the British were gone, more peaceful history arrived in the form of lamp posts. Please note: I am simply re-telling the sequence of history I learned from this morning’s ventures, and not attempting to provide any logical connection between these events. Clearly, some new economic event must have happened between the Napoleonic wars and the arrival of lamp posts, if only to pay for them and to provide gas infrastructure to power them, but that remains a mystery.
The streets of Benidorm are lit at night by lamps (posts and wall-mounted lights) which look like quaint replicas in this teeming tourist town, but they are in fact early 19th century original pieces. The first was placed in the Plaza de la Constitución in 1832 and there are many more of the same period on walls around the old town.
One thing that everyone seems to know about Benidorm is that before it became the model for 1960s mass tourism and package holidays, “it was a quiet fishing village”… How many times have I seen that in tourist information (even local tourist information!) and how wrong it is. Benidorm had fishermen, and in fact its “almadraba” tuna fishing expertise was known all the way from here to Cadiz, but it was never a “fishing village”. It had both fishing and agriculture, yes, but its main association with the sea was both naval and mercantile. Shipping interests provided the wealth and international connections for Benidorm in the old Roman and Carthaginian Mediterranean world and in recent times too.
A story was recounted today of a visitor from Madrid who came into Benidorm in the 1920s in a Mercedes and expected the locals in the bar to be impressed with a visitor from so far away. “I’ll bet you’ve never been to Madrid, any of you!” said the visitor. The local Benidorm drinkers at the bar shook their heads, for they had indeed never been to Madrid. They quickly explained to the visiting Madrileño that they were much more familiar with Buenos Aires and New York. Benidorm was a town that produced sea captains.
The Virgen del Sufragio exhibition continues throughout the year, at the old Town Hall building in Calle Tomás Ortuño in Benidorm.