Monday, April 2, 2012

Thousand Tastes of Spain

 Straining toward the sea as it hunkers beneath a castle-topped mountain, Alicante is fishing port, yacht haven, and beach resort in one. Called the “City of Light” for the bright wash of sun on its ancient streets, Alicante – like so many Spanish cities – comes most alive in the evening, when locals and vacationers gather around drinks and the savory delights known as tapas.
Capital of the Costa Blanca, Alicante retains far more of its historic identity than nearby megaresorts. The romance of its high and lonely Moorish castle contrasts with the elegance of Baroque buildings wedged into steep medieval streets. Ultimately, Alicante is defined by the sea – trade route to Africa, boundless well of fish, and rhythmic source of waves lapping pale, sandy beaches.
 Once the vacationers have come down from the castle ramparts, or ambled back from Postiguet and Sant Joan beaches, Alicante gets its sea legs for the evening. As a cool ocean breeze stirs, people promenade down palm-lined Explanada de Espanya, the wide esplanade separating ancient city from modern seafront, paved with 6.6 million marble tiles laid in wave patterns. A sudden urge to drink and snack overwhelms the city. It is time for tapas.
 No-one knows when the tapas tradition began, but the practice of placing a small dish atop a glass to keep out the flies has evolved into Spain’s most generous act of hospitality. An ingrained part of Spanish culture, tapas sampling lets visitors socialize elbow-to-elbow with fellow drinkers and diners at the bar. Although many tapas – from Jabugo mountain ham to La Mancha’s ewe’s-milk cheeses and the ubiquitous potato omelet – can be found across the country, each region also boasts its own specialties. To see what will be on the bars of Alicante at night, one need only visit the Mercado Central by day. The great slabs of red tuna and the clenched blue shells of mussels displayed on ice will become delicate tartares, seared bites, or pink morsels in a tangy vinegar sauce. Few drinks better suit these explosively briny tidbits than Fondillón, Alicante’s unique, long-aged wine, with overtones of almonds, ginger, dates, and dark dried fruits.
 So superb are the tapas at Alicante’s bars that it’s tempting to stay put once you have found a rail to lean on. But inertia violates the unwritten rules of a night of tapas-hopping. Each establishment on the esplanade or in the narrow streets of the medieval quarter has a treat it does better than anyone else – so staying in one means missing the others. Eating tapas can be a means to stave off hunger until a typically late Spanish dinner (always after 10:00 pm), or it can become dinner and the evening’s entertainment all in one – in which case, it is perhaps wisest not to look down at the swirling, wavepatterned pavement on the way home.
 A Day in Alicante 
Alicante is one of Spain’s major cities on the east coast and has a much more “Spanish” feel than many of the surrounding Costa Blanca resort areas. The historic port, beautiful beaches, ideal climate, and fabulous gastronomy have much to offer visitors. 
Take the elevator from Postiguet Beach through Benacantil mountain to the Castell de Santa Bárbara, expanded from a 9th-century Moorish castle, for panoramic views of the city and the coast. 
  Visit the Baroque Concatedral de San Nicolás de Bari with its lovely images of saints painted on wooden panels. Try to decipher the Bible stories on the Baroque facade of Santa María church, and don’t miss the twisted-barleycorn columns of the Town Hall. Leave time to relax on Sant Joan beach, easily reached by tram. 
   Immerse yourself in one of Spain’s best tapas scenes. The splashiest bars are on the Explanada de Espanya, but seek out gastronomic heaven on narrow interior streets like Villegas and César Elguezábal.  
  European and Spanish carriers fly to Alicante airport. Get around the city on foot or by tram. 
 Hostal Monges Palace (inexpensive) is family-run, with stylish small rooms in the historic downtown. Melia Alicante (moderate) offers resort hotel amenities near the esplanade. Hotel Spa Porta Maris & Suites del Mar (moderate) combines two luxury hotels on a downtown pier. 

Right :  Super-fresh ingredients of immaculate provenance and an eye for presentation put Alicante’s tapas among Spain’s finest
 Left : Fish and seafood such as gambas (shrimp) and langostinos (langoustines) are specialties in this coastal fishing port

Right : An extraordinary elevator bored through the rock will take you to the Castell de Santa Bárbara, perched high above Alicante

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