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Lying on the eastern coast of Spain, the Costa Blanca draws millions of tourists each year to its turquoise waters and miles of white, sandy beaches. Alicante is the capital and major city on this stretch of coast, but it is Benidorm that attracts the most visitors, and this is the place to go for those looking for a lively and entertaining holiday with hundreds of bars and all-night clubs. However there is more to the Costa Blanca than crowded beach resorts: within the mountainous interior there are a series of fascinating medieval towns and fortified villages which have been largely unaffected by modern development.
Alicante is best known as the gateway to the many glittering resorts in the region, but the city is actually an interesting urban destination, with history and culture aplenty to offer those who can be distracted from the beach. Those who have some time in Alicante should head to the Catedral de san Nicolas from which the narrow old streets of the historic quarter, El Barrio, radiate outwards.
The most popular time to visit the Costa Blanca is between May and October when the weather is guaranteed to be sunny and warm most of the time. The temperature can get up to 104°F (40°C) in August, with the sea at a very comfortable 77°F (25°C). It is too hot and crowded for some during this busy summer season and some visitors holiday in the spring and autumn months, when it is cooler and there is the chance of light showers. However, many of the bars and restaurants close outside of the peak tourist season.
The impressive Santa Barbara Castle has its origins in the Muslim rule of the 9th century, towering over Alicante on top of the Benacantil Mountain. Most of the chambers that can be explored today date from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The fortress is massive, encompassing moats, drawbridges, tunnels, cisterns, and dungeons, not to mention a stately tower and keep. It has endured many attacks, rebuilds, and renovations during its long history and was opened to the public in 1963. Today it houses the Museum of the City of Alicante. From the top of the castle superb views over the bay and the city can be enjoyed. The castle can be accessed via elevator from the Explanada d'Espanya for a small fee, but if you walk up to the castle you can take the lift back down to the beachfront for free. The walk up from the beach is very steep with a lot of steps, and is only suitable for the fit, but it is possible to drive up the mountain as well.
In the Plaza de Santa Maria stands Alicante's oldest building, a former granary dating from 1685. Ironically the city's oldest building contains its most notable modern art collection, donated by painter and sculptor Eusebio Sempere in 1977. The Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Alicante is commonly referred to simply as MACA. Among the noteworthy paintings on display are those by Dali, Picasso, Calder, and Miro, and one of the highlights is the section dedicated to Sempere's own geometrical, moving sculptures. As other famous modern art galleries have realised, the contrast between an old building and a colourful modern art collection is striking and interesting. The building is located in the historic city centre, opposite the Basilica of Santa Mariaan, an area which most tourists will pass through on their sightseeing jaunts in Alicante. The museum is part of the project to revitalise the historic quarter. The gallery is cool and inviting on a hot day, with good air-conditioning, and seldom feels crowded. Guided tours of the museum are available free of charge, but must be organised in advance. It is a small but classy provincial gallery which is well worth a visit for art lovers.
Just 12 miles (19km) inland west of Alicante is Europe's only palm forest, forming a lush oasis around the city of Elche (Elx). The city boasts several beautiful parks, public gardens, and palm groves. The Palmeral of Elche, an orchard of more than 200,000 palm trees, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Parque Municipal is one of the most popular places to enjoy the trees, with the palms interspersed by grassy promenades and children's playgrounds. The most beautiful palm garden is the Huerto del Cura, filled with trees, water features, and bright flowerbeds. Another attraction in the city, located right next to the municipal park, is the Altamira Castle, which was built in about the 12th century and was renovated in the 15th century. The fortress has been used as a prison, a town hall and a fabric plant but now houses the Elche Archaeology and History Museum. A wealth of archaeological remains have been found in Elche, unsurprisingly as the region was settled by the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans. The most famous find is the stone bust called the Lady of Elche, dating from about the 4th century BC.
The tiny islet of Tabarca is becoming an increasingly popular day trip destination from Alicante or Santa Pola, with its quiet fishing village offering an old fort, several very reasonably priced fresh seafood restaurants, a rocky beach with clear turquoise water, and several coves and tidal pools ideal for bathing. Tiny and picturesque, Tabarca is the smallest permanently inhabited islet in Spain and can very easily be explored on foot. The islet is part of a marine reserve (Reserva marina de la Isla de Tabarca) and promises varied marine life, clear unpolluted waters, and a healthy bird population. An artificial reef was planted near the island to further cultivate marine life. Formerly called Saint Paul's Island, in honour of the saint who is supposed to have made a landing here, visitors can still visit the Church of St Peter and St Paul, built in 1779. The island lies 10 miles (16km) south of Alicante and can be reached in an hour by ferry from the dock on Explanada d'Espanya in the city. The island becomes crowded in the peak summer months but is still a charming destination.
Situated on the outskirts of Benidorm, Terra Mitica is Spain's largest theme park and, with its rides, shows, restaurants, and shops, can be a great day for the whole family. Rides like the Tizona, an inverted roller coaster that reaches speeds of 62mph (100kmh) and heights of more than 100ft (31m) with visitors suspended beneath the track, and attractions like Warrior of the Dawn (a simulated game) provide exhilarating entertainment for all ages. The park is divided into five themed zones: Egypt, Greece, Rome, Iberia, and the Mediterranean Islands. Recently the park has been further divided into two separate zones: Iberia Park is a free to enter area which operates on a token system, while Terra Mitica is a pay to enter area where all rides are free once inside. There isn't much shade and visitors should go prepared for the sun, especially in summer. The queuing sections are almost all cooled down by sprinkler systems and there are some great water rides to cool down on. In the peak summer months the park is often open till midnight and visiting at night is a wonderful option. Those who have difficulty walking can hire scooters to get around.
The myriad attractions of the Costa Blanca's beach resorts hardly need elaboration, as everybody can understand the appeal of gorgeous beaches, turquoise Mediterranean waters, white sand and a rollicking nightlife. Those intent on doing some actual sightseeing in the region should explore some of the more authentic villages just inland, some of which host weekly craft markets.
Of the famous resorts the charming Altea is the least commercial and the best place to get a taste of real local culture. Altea has a renowned craft market every Tuesday, between April and September, and La Nuncia, just north of Altea, has a good Sunday market. Tourists wanting some culture should also take advantage of Alicante's historical attractions.
The formidable Moorish Castell de Santa Barbara looms over Alicante and visitors can explore some of the tunnels, dungeons, towers and chambers that make up the impressive fortress. The tiny, picturesque Isla Tabarca, is a popular excursion from Alicante, and the city of Elche, inland from Alicante, is also an interesting excursion, containing Europe's only palm forest.
For amusement park thrills and spills, instead of culture, head to Spain's largest theme park, Terra Mitica, just outside of Benidorm.
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