Charm is a product of the unexpected. — Jose Marti
Much of the charm and beauty of a given region lies in those small, out-of-the-way places that rarely appear in travel guides. Indeed, if you were to build a vacation around one of these spots, you’d likely be disappointed. Such locations can look and feel a little run down, devoid of chic shops, boutique hotels, or hip restaurants. Nor are they necessarily situated near attractions like beaches or mountains. If they did have any of these qualities, they would be elevated from the mundane, work-a-day towns to what my husband calls “CLPs” (Cute Little Places) that team with tourists. Yet often in these places lies the essence of a region. And happening upon one can be a surprising gift.
The thing about our area of Spain is that it is filled with such places. Places where the narrow streets that predate automobiles — often by centuries — wind through town, flanked by little houses with curbside window sills filled with cheerful flower pots of jasmine and succulents. Where the bells — real ones, not recordings — of the old, often ancient, churches, ring out several times a day. Places where panaderias crank out freshly baked bread and pastries each morning, the aromas of which waft tantalizingly into the street; places where tiny fruit and vegetable shops showcase their produce in colorful arrays on the curb outside and where the owner will often throw in an extra lemon or a handful of grapes with every purchase; places where ferreterias no bigger than a walk-in closet are stacked floor to ceiling with a head-spinning inventory of hardware supplies, yet where the clerk, in an instant, can point you to the exact size bolt you are looking for or copy a key for 35 cents. These are the places filled with a surprising number of little cafés, all of them no nonsense, family-run kinds of places whipping up regional food that has been the mainstay for generations; where groups of old men in long trousers and collared shirts sit outdoors for hours at the rickety tables, just as their fathers and grandfathers before them, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and mistela, sometimes both at the same time. Places with no menus, just an immaculately clean glass case showcasing an array of mouthwatering tapas made earlier that day, and where you can get a bocadillo and a caña for three euros while a futbol match plays on an ancient TV mounted on the wall above. Places where the owner, typically an old man, solidly built, yet with that hale, muscular leanness born of decades of gentle but consistent physical labor, will come out from the open, postage stamp-sized kitchen in a faded apron, lean on the counter, light a cigarette, sip an espresso, and argue sports or politics with the regulars he’s known his whole life. Places where the default language is not Spanish but Valencian, and no one speaks a word of English.
Béniarres, in the interior of Alicante, is such a place. And had we not had car trouble on a deserted, rural road over an hour from home, we might never have discovered it.
A few weeks earlier we decided to go camping for a night with my brother and his family. The morning of our trip, Tom and I loaded our car with the tent, sleeping bags, hiking shoes, bathing suits, a cooler full of food, another full of beer, water, toothbrushes, sunscreen, and headlamps, and hit the road for an afternoon in a freshwater gorge and a night under the stars. Paul, Altamira, Diego, and Mateo, planned to meet us later that afternoon. We were headed to a spot at the top of the Vall de Gallinera, an area famous for its cherries, about an hour and a half inland on circuitous mountain roads. The drive was beautiful, winding past groves of olive trees, craggy rock formations, and the crumbling remains of terraced stone farming walls. Our favorite station, Radio 3, was playing Spanish new wave songs, the breeze was blowing, and the intense heat that characterizes August in Jávea gradually abated with each passing kilometer.
En route to our campsite, on a narrow and remote mountain road with one switchback after another, we unexpectedly hit a bump. Within minutes, a strange flapping sound started coming from under the front of the car. Pulling over to check, we couldn’t see anything, so I videoed the sound with my phone and texted it to my brother. Paul has the uncanny ability to diagnose any automotive problem almost immediately, even over the phone. Once, shortly after moving to Spain, I was driving home from a trip to the neighborhood market about two kilometers from our house. I was in the Toyota Yaris we had recently bought, a no-frills little car renowned for being tough and reliable. But within seconds of pulling out of the parking lot, a loud, insistent beeping began emanating from the dashboard. I pulled over, idled in neutral, and the beeping stopped. But a few seconds after I resumed driving, the beeping did likewise. So I took out my phone, recorded the noise, and texted it to Paul. In a matter of seconds, I had a WhatsApp recording: “Hmmm…Do you happen to have something heavy, like maybe a watermelon, in the passenger’s seat?” I glanced over at the big watermelon in the seat next to me. It turns out, a good sized watermelon weighs enough to trick a car into thinking a person is in the front seat without the seatbelt fastened. Paul advised me to buckle in the watermelon, the beeping promptly stopped, and the watermelon and I arrived home, safe and secure.
But this time Paul’s diagnosis was less amusing and far less easily remedied, especially given our location: “It sounds like some kind of belt broke.” Tom and I sat on the side of the road and thought. Since we were now closer to our campsite than to home, with nothing bigger than a village ahead of us, we made the decision to press on and figure it out later, after Paul arrived and was able to take a look. However, a few kilometers from our destination — and even farther from any sizable towns — the battery light came on. Once again we texted my brother. “It’s the alternator belt. You can probably make it to the campsite but you’ve got to conserve your battery, so turn off anything non-essential. No radio, no air conditioning, no lights, no windshield wipers.” Normally, none of that would have been a problem. But not only was it hot, storm clouds were gathering. The thing about our part of Spain is that it rarely rains. Until it does, and then it really does. And although usually brief, the storms can nevertheless be fierce. Warily, we drove along, eyes on the smoldering sky, racing the clouds. Fortunately it wasn’t quite dark enough to warrant headlights, and even better, we didn’t need the wipers. However, we were afraid to open the electric windows, even just a crack; if the battery died, we’d have no protection in a heavy rain. Inside, the car grew hotter and stuffier. We didn’t even have music to distract us.
Our luck held long enough for us to make it to the campsite just as the skies opened. We sat in the car, sweating, listening to the torrential rain outside, windows steaming up, barely able to see outside, counting our blessings. Tom took out his phone preparing to search for the nearest talleres but couldn’t get a signal. Finally, the storm passed and the sun returned in full force, the rain a forgotten memory. We hopped out, synchronizing our exit and quickly slamming the doors behind us. Afraid even to lock the doors, I stayed by the car, while Tom wandered up the road in search of a better cell signal. Twenty minutes later he was back. Miraculously, in broken Spanish, he had found a mechanic 20 minutes away who claimed that he could fix the belt the next day after 8:00am. Things were looking up. Now we just had to hope the battery held.
By this time, Paul, Altamira, Diego, and Mateo had pulled in and we unloaded our gear. The site was idyllic: a lush green valley with a gorge running through the middle of the mountains. The sound of cicadas rose and fell in unison. Nearby, a set of rustic stone steps lead down to a freshwater pool about 50 meters in diameter, fed by a 20-foot waterfall. We set up camp under a rock overhang, on the wide, pebbly beach. Lush trees and oleanders surrounded the beach, filtering the bright relentlessness of the sun. It was breezy and pleasantly warm. A few people were swimming in the natural pool, and some were jumping off the high rocky walls into the water. At the top of the waterfall was another pool, smaller but deep, with one side of the surrounding rock wall so smooth it was like a slide into the water. We hiked and swam, drank beer and ate bocadillos, played music, hung a hammock between two trees on the water’s edge.
As darkness fell the day trippers filed up the stairs to their cars and we set up camp on the beach. We fell asleep under the rock overhang and the stars, to the sound of the waterfall and owls calling out into the night. Early the next morning, we awoke to see hundreds of bats, back from a night of hunting, crawling upside down on the rock ceiling above us, then, one by one, rapidly disappearing into crevices so narrow that they were invisible to us. We made espresso and scrambled eggs with tomatoes and goat cheese on our little camp stove, listening to the breeze rustling through the trees, early birds beginning to chirp, and the water lapping the rocky beach.
But the nagging issue of the car began looming in our minds and Tom wanted to get it to the shop as early as possible. Paul agreed to follow him in case our battery died en route. Altamira and I stayed back with the boys. Expecting them to be gone for awhile, we were surprised when, barely ninety minutes later, we saw them making their way back down the stairs to the beach. Upon reaching us, Tom was the first to speak. “I have bad news and good news. The bad news is the owner of the talleres I had contacted works only on tractors.” At this, my brother collapsed in laughter. With a broad smile, Tom continued: “The good news is, we somehow stumbled upon another shop and talked to the owner, who said he can easily fix it. But he can’t get to it until tomorrow.”
So we packed up camp and lugged everything up the stone steps to my brother’s Land Rover. Somehow we managed to fit all six of us plus our gear inside. Packed like sardines, we headed for home. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, I’ve learned I can tell a lot about a person by the way she or he handles three things: a rainy day, a broken alternator belt, and a lack of air conditioning. Happily, everyone took it in stride. Even when jammed hip-to-hip, tired and sweaty, duffle bags and trash under our feet, on a drive of almost two hours.
Our car was ready the following day. And the bill? Just 60 euros. That’s a small, Spanish farming town price for you.
We went the next day. Pulling into the little gravel parking lot of the repair shop in Beniarrés an hour before the 8:00am opening time, we decided to walk around and explore. The village was still waking up. Delivery vans loaded with cases of beer, just baked bread, and freshly caught fish, rumbled along the narrow streets, pulling halfway up on curbs in front of bars and restaurants, making their daily drop-offs. Café owners arranged their outdoor tables and swept sidewalks. Old men, impeccably dressed in trousers and fedoras, ambled slowly through the streets, walking small dogs or carrying a newspaper, stopping to greet a friend or wave to a shop owner. From behind a shutter, someone played an accordion.
We started up a steep hill toward the church passing apartments along the way, with the shutters still drawn, the smell of coffee or the sound of a television on low volume drifting through the slats. Reaching the church, the rising sun illuminated the stations of the cross made from white stone that lined the gravel path up to the entrance, interspersed with olive trees. We made our way behind the building to better see the sunrise and surprised three teenage girls smoking cigarettes, laughing, and taking selfies. Smiling at us guiltily, they slunk off towards town. Groves of plum trees laden with their not-quite-ripe fruit covered the back property. From our high vantage point we could see clearly into the valley below. Old stone terraced walls laced the mountainsides and farmhouses dotted the roads. As if on cue, a rooster began to crow. I looked at my watch. It was a few minutes after 8:00 and time to get the car.
When we walked up, the shop was still dark and locked. In Spanish towns and villages, opening times tend to be flexible and needs-based. We called Tony, the owner, who explained he was having coffee at a nearby café and would be there soon. Sure enough, within minutes he pulled in, his car tires crunching on the gravel. Hopping out, he unlocked the door and cheerfully ushered us in. His shop was impeccable: no oil stains on the floor, no rusted parts discarded in corners, no workbenches with tools in disorganized jumbles. The morning light flooded through the large and sparklingly clean windows, highlighting the orderly precision. As we paid our bill in Tony’s tiny, impeccable office we chatted about a variety of topics: the Land Rover in one of the bays (hard to find parts around here when they’re this old), the effect of the pandemic on his business (minimal), were we fans of Trump? (no). Finished, he walked out behind us, locked up, and hopped back in his car. His coffee and his friends were waiting at the café. Just like his father and grandfather before him.
So next time you hit a bump in the road, lose your way, or aren’t quite sure of your next steps, take it from me: keep on following the road until an unexpected detour catches your eye, then take it. I don’t think you’ll regret it, and it might just be the reset you need. Especially if you linger awhile over a caña and a bocadillo.