Benidorm: an architectural pilgrimage

by Annie.Bennett

Design might not be the first thing you associate with Benidorm, but the mega resort on the Costa Blanca is a microcosm of 1960s and 70s architecture. The contemporary buildings are pretty groovy, too

Bali meets Morocco at the Asia Gardens, Benidorm’s newest and most luxe hotel. It’s all in the best possible taste and jaw-droppingly chic – and certainly not the sort of place you would immediately associate with the Costa Blanca. Hidden in a pine forest in the hills just outside Benidorm, the Asia Gardens is only half an hour from Alicante airport and perfect for a pampering break. Water is a major feature of the terracotta complex, whether you want to swim laps, have a spa treatment or just lie languidly around one of the seven pools listening to your iPod.

You can dip into the bars and boutiques in Benidorm as much or as little as you like, or explore a bit further afield and stroll around the lanes of the pretty towns of Altea or Villajoyosa. But you might also just want to stay put and make the most of the jogging tracks that lead through the lush foliage, play golf or just chill out. You can even arrive by helicopter if you want to, as the hotel has its own heliport.

Early days

Benidorm has certainly come a long way since the 1960s, when the dynamic mayor, Pedro Zaragoza, had a dream of turning the sleepy village into a seaside resort that would attract tourists from all over Europe. Topless sunbathing may be the norm today, but half a century ago in Spain you could get arrested for baring your midriff, never mind anything else. To get the regulations relaxed so his plan could go ahead, the mayor hopped on his Vespa and rode off to Madrid to ask General Franco for special dispensation. He got his way, and bikinis were soon a familiar sight on the beaches of Benidorm.

The resort developed very quickly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the hotels built at the time – a total of around 120 - form a unique collection of the architecture of the period. While some are undeniably horrendous, others are fabulous examples of the architecture of the time and should be recognised as such. The resort is, however, undergoing a constant revamping process, which means that some of the buildings of greatest architectural interest are either being changed beyond recognition or disappearing altogether. Far from the image of dull concrete skyscrapers that flank the seafront in many resorts, these early hotels are a riot of tangerine, pink, lime and purple, with much use of quirky shapes such as hexagons, pentagons and trapeziums.

Retro tour

One of the oldest hotels in Benidorm is the Gran Hotel Delfín, which was built in 1963 and features a rear wall decorated with a blue mosaic of dolphins, their fins curving around the vertical line of porthole windows. The hotel overlooks the beach in La Cala, the area tucked into the headland at the quieter, southern end of Benidorm, where you are lulled to sleep by the waves softly lapping the shore.

This is a good example of a ‘tram hotel’, a style typical of the first hotels to be built in the 1960s. These long, narrow buildings are only three or four storeys high, and set sideways on to the beach, so that most rooms get some sort of sea view. At the other end of the resort, the Diplomatic and Los Alamos hotels were also built in this style. This design was, however, only constructed in the early days, as high-rise buildings soon took over once Benidorm really got going.

The Belroy Palace is one of Benidorm’s signature structures, with a honeycomb appearance created by rows of elongated hexagons. Turning around, you are confronted with what looks like a massive loofah. Letters dancing across the roof tell you that this is the Playmon Bacana apartment block. Like the Delfín, it also faces the sea and it is the back of the building that is most interesting, as it is made up of rows of concave concrete strips with eye-shaped windows complete with steel eyelids.

One of Benidorm’s best-known hotels, the Sol Ocas, has undergone numerous revamps and little remains of its fab original interior, but the hundreds of circular balconies on the exterior have survived, lending the building the appearance of a 1970s lampshade.

Walking along the swanky new promenade, you pass the the jazzy pistachio and cream frontage of the Hotel Selomar. The promenade was designed by Catalan architect Oriol Bohigas, who has arranged endless marble and granite slabs along its length to create miles of hexagons, in homage to the unique style of the Belroy Palace. Bohigas, the man behind some of the most spectacular buildings in Barcelona, is obviously keen to let Benidorm’s kitsch character shine through in all its glory.

While I love the retro style of these hotels, and hope the buildings survive, I have to admit that some do need dragging into the 21st century when it comes to the design of the rooms and the facilities on offer. Until that happens, you’ll find me on the bonsai terrace at the Asia Gardens, idly perusing the cocktail list.
 

Annie.Bennett

I specialise in writing about Spain for national papers and magazines, including the Telegraph, Guardian, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Conde Nast Traveller, Elle and National Geographic. This gives me a great excuse to mooch around the country, talking to everyone from Michelin-starred chefs to old codgers in mountain villages.

I have been living in Madrid on and off for the last 25 years, since I went there to improve my Spanish after finishing my modern languages degree. Soon I was teaching English, translating for art magazines and galleries and researching for television programmes. That was only meant to last a year or two, but I had made so many great friends, quite a few of whom were instrumental in the cultural explosion underway at the time, that it would have been daft to leave. Almost without noticing, I started writing about what was happening in Madrid.

I am passionate about Spanish food and wine, and love trying the local specialities wherever I go. In Madrid, I eat out nearly every day in a quest to track down the best restaurants and tapas bars. My UK base is on the Gower coast in South Wales.

My Madrid

Where I always grab a coffee: Pepe Botella in Malasaña (Calle San Andrés 12), with its marble tables and red velvet banquettes, is the perfect place to read El País with a café con leche.

My favourite stroll: I love walking through Los Austrias, the medieval part of the city, for the combination of history, tradition and contemporary life. I always see something I’d never noticed before.

Fiction for inspiration: Benito Pérez Galdós was a sort of Spanish version of Dickens or Balzac. A lot of his novels are based in Madrid - including Fortunata and Jacinta, Miau and Misericordia – and many of the locations still exist, relatively unscathed.

Where to be seen: Le Cabrera for cool cocktails after shopping in the chic Las Salesas area (Calle Barbara de Braganza 2, www.lecabrera.com).

The most breathtaking view: You can see right across the city trom the roof of the Círculo de Bellas Artes (Calle Alcalá 42, www.círculobellasartes.es).

The best spot for some peace and quiet: Madrid is incredibly noisy, but the Retiro Park is perfect for picnics, quiet reading at outdoor cafés, rowing on the lake or just strolling around.

Shopaholics beware!: The outlet shoe shops on Calle Augusto Figueroa in Chueca are difficult to resist.

City soundtrack: Fito & Fitipaldis seem to be blasting out in every bar. 

Don’t leave without...Having a vermut at the Mercado de San Miguel before lunch. It’s the best way to get a handle on what the city is all about (Plaza de San Miguel, www.mercadodesanmiguel.es).