“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” — Mark Twain
A couple weeks ago on a Thursday afternoon Tom said to me, “Want to go to Orihuela this weekend?” I was puzzled. “Ora what?” Tom replied, “It’s a little town about two hours drive southwest of here. I googled the prettiest towns in Alicante, and this one made the list. Plus, it’s going to be about ten degrees warmer than here.” I thought for a minute. As I’ve been in Spain now over two months and Tom, over three, we’re ready to begin exploring beyond our immediate area. Plus, while the weather is pretty great around here, it had been hovering at an unseasonably cool stretch in the mid-60s and I was ready for a few degrees bump up. So I said, “Sure. Let’s do it.”
We’re fans of the weekend road trip: the somewhat spur of the moment jaunt to a place no more than about three hours away. There’s something so satisfying about being able to pack a small duffle in about eight minutes (in this case, mostly taken up an industrial size bottle of 50 SPF sunscreen and a beach towel), plus a bag with basic supplies for an Airbnb (2/3 bottle of vino tinto that’s been sitting on the kitchen counter for four days, a church key, two Mahou Estrellas, some trail mix, a couple of almost-too-ripe bananas (for Tom!), peanut butter, “Champion of the World” bread from Aldi, and, ideally, a Leatherman (especially the one with the mussels fork attachment, if it hadn’t got confiscated by TSA a couple years ago at IAD when I accidentally forgot to take it out my purse before flying), and hit the highway.
As roadtrippers know, half the fun is the time spent in the car. It’s fascinating to see the landscape as it changes and evolves even over the span of a few hours, particularly when it’s mostly unchartered territory. Road trip conversations tend to cover a wide variety of topics and twist and turn like the highway itself. If you see an interesting detour, whether linguistically or in actuality, you can opt to take it. We put the whole of Tom’s extensive music collection on shuffle, having fun with our own version of Name That Tune in three notes or less with certain songs that I lump in the category “Christmas or Jethro Tull” (one of the pitfalls of a comprehensive shuffle in April is the occasional holiday tune) and watched as road signs for cities and towns appeared on the horizon and then disappeared in the rearview mirror: Benidorm, Sant Vicent del Raspeig, Elche. Before we knew it, we had reached our destination.
The first designated city in the Alicante province, Orihuela is a town of about 33,000 inhabitants and steeped in history. Originally settled by the Romans who called it Orcelis, it eventually became the capital of the Visigoth province in 576. After the Visigoths the Moors came, establishing a strong presence here as they did in much of southern Spain. The remains of the Moorish Oriheula Castle sit atop the hills surrounding the town. One hill beyond, a large cross dominates and is easily visible from the streets below.
We checked into our Airbnb, then headed out into the warm sunshine to explore. It was indeed toastier than in Jávea. Oriheula is a charming place full of shops, cafes, and churches – many churches. The Segura River flows through the middle and walkways flank either side. As with many Spanish towns and villages it has a medieval city center with the main street, in Orihuela’s case, being solely for pedestrians. The architecture is gorgeous and the buildings and streets offer fascinating detail.
Orihuela is also a university town, home to Miguel Hernández University, named after the famous Spanish poet who figured prominently in the Spanish Civil War. His story is touching and definitely worth googling. We walked by one of the main buildings in the urban campus. As it was a nice day, students sat outside at little tables, drinking café con leches and smoking cigarettes, either absorbed in books or engaged in deep conversations. I think it’s the same in college towns the world over.
In the old town we passed intriguing little shops closed for siesta on our way to the Orihuela Cathedral, a large and magnificent gothic structure built atop an old mosque. The original part took almost 200 years to build, from 1281 to 1413. Additions were subsequently added culminating in an ornate baroque section in 1733. Walking through the massive space the evolution of the architectural styles was clearly evident.
We found a little cafe around the corner on a beautifully cobbled side street called Café del Poeta, an homage to Miguel Hernández and took a table outside. The barista/bartender, a friendly efficient guy in his late 20s came out and took our orders: two beers and a tapas we soon found was common to that part of the world called a “bicicleta” — an eggy potato salad atop a little piece of bread. The special, chalked on a small blackboard, advertised a vermouth and bicicleta for 2,50 euros. After the beer, Tom tried the vermouth. It came sweet and dark over one large ice cube and garnished with both an olive and an orange slice.
By now the little town was coming back to life after the afternoon siesta and we made our way to a small hat shop or “sombrereria” called El Gavilán, a family-owned business since 1880. Antonio, the proprietor, was super knowledgeable, professional, and one of the most fun, lively, energetic shopkeepers I’ve ever seen. Within two minutes of meeting him he had figured out exactly what we wanted in spite of our broken Spanish and his limited English. The shop was quite small and he kept disappearing outside somewhere then reappearing with his head laden with hats, stacked maybe six or seven high. He’d take them off one by one and put on Tom, saying emphatically, “No,” “no,” “no”…then, all of a sudden “Si, Si!” Two women had come in during the fitting and waited patiently and with some bemusement during the process. When they saw the final choice they joined in, “Si! Perfecto por su esposo!” Later Tom said that the second the winning hat was placed atop his head he knew instinctively it was the right choice, even before he saw his reflection in the mirror. He said it just “felt right.” Antonio insisted on getting photos of Tom, me (he put a hat on me!) and him, along with his good luck mascot from 1929. For 70 euros, we got a proper hat and a priceless story.
Later that evening we meandered through the downtown, killing time before our dinner reservation. A large square dominates this part of town; a big fountain anchoring one end and a substantial play ground, the other. Benches line the sides and on this beautiful Friday evening the space was teeming with people. Kids ran around laughing loudly, riding scooters, playing chase or pick-up games of futbol. Older people, almost all casually but nattily dressed, sat chatting in pairs or groups. Teenagers in jeans and T-shirts, the latter often sporting nonsensical statements in English (“Brigadier Denim Co. London City, Go On!” “San Diego River Rowing Club, Est. 1987”) flirted inexpertly and checked their cell phones. Parents helped their children down the slides or up the monkey bars. Chic grandmothers wearing oversized sunglasses and leather moto jackets kept a sharp but indulgent eye on grandkids. I am a sucker for urban public spaces that are well used by all demographics and this square seemed almost perfect in that regard. We sat on a bench people-watching and petting the dogs walking by with their owners.
For dinner, we had chosen The Agus Gastrobar, a restaurant that came highly recommended on TripAdvisor and which was an easy walk from our Airbnb. As it was Friday evening, to be safe, Tom had made a reservation. Like many restaurants we’ve come across in Spain, Agus doesn’t reopen after siesta until 8:00pm. Being the Americans we are, we showed up at 8:01pm and discovered we were the first customers of the evening. The maitre d’, although pleasant enough seemed baffled by our promptness in spite of the reservation. He was still sweeping the front stoop but gamely led us to our table. The interior was decorated in an Art Deco style with a lot of black and chrome and low, purple lighting. My hunger outweighed my embarrassment at our early arrival faux-pas. The good news was we had about four waiters all to ourselves, hovering by the our side and helpfully translating the finer points of the Spanish-only menu. Starving from walking around all day, we basically ordered one whole page of the menu: ensalada mixta, poached bacalao, paella, anchovies, a mushroom pasta, and of course a bottle of vino tinto. Within 30 minutes, the place had filled up and was lively and bustling. A DJ came in and proceeded to spin a 2-hour long set revolving around the beat of A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” The clientele was a mix of couples and families, most of them multi-generational, including small children. The wait staff were young and hip but they seemed to genuinely enjoy the kids, sometimes scooping up a wayward one in their arms and carrying the toddler around the restaurant. It was a lot of fun to watch. The food was delicious but the true pièce de résistance was the paella, which was plated for us table side; the server scraping the “pot sticker” crispy rice at the bottom (my favorite) and squeezing the shrimp heads over the entire plate as one might do with a wedge of lemon. At the end of the meal we split a dessert of a molten chocolate cake filled with a bourbon sauce and which arrived a la mode. I think the entire bill came to just over 60 euros.
The next morning, we made a beeline for the Cafe del Poeta (why mess with a good thing?) for coffee, then set off for a hike up to the Moorish castle. The trail, some parts more clearly marked than others, wound from the city center below to the ruins above. As we trekked upward the church bells began to ring ten times for the hour and two roosters in the town started to crow, their cockadoodle-dos clearly audible from the summit. (I have yet to hear a Spanish rooster crow before 9:15 in the morning.) The view of the city nestled in the valley below was spectacular. Ancient church bell towers, densely packed apartments, and the periodic cobalt blue tiled domed roof evidence of the Moorish influence sparkled in the sunlight, surrounded by farmlands and groves of olives, lemons, oranges, almonds, hemp, and pomegranates.
We spent most of the rest of the day on a side trip an hour south to Cartagena (a future post!) but got back to Orihuela in time to catch an interesting festival that seemed to be about the Virgin Mary. As we changed for dinner we heard what sounded like a marching band down below in the street. We ran out in time to catch a big parade. A big group of women in dark clothes and white gloves were carrying a large statue of Mary on their shoulders. Just behind, a group of men, again in dark clothing, marched along playing trumpets, trombones, and drums. Tom remarked he wasn’t sure if he was in Orihuela or The Godfather Part II. Later, after dinner as we walked back to our room past the public square we saw that it was filled townspeople. Primarily senior citizens, they were seated in row upon row of folding chairs listening a priest lecturing into a microphone from atop the little pavilion. Around him were seated about 15 other priests, nodding in agreement with his words, the statue of Mary carefully ensconced to one side. All around the perimeter, albeit a bit more quietly and respectfully, the children ran and played, the teenagers flirted, the parents helped the smaller kids on the merry-go-round and the money bars, and the grandmothers, chic as ever, perhaps with an ear attuned to the speech nearby, kept ever watchful eyes on their grandkids.