“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”–Pablo Picasso
If you plan to visit the Costa Blanca area of Spain, I highly recommend spending a day, or even just an afternoon, in the little Mediterranean sea town of Altea. Google the most beautiful towns in Alicante and Altea tops the list. It’s charm is palpable, what our friend David Connell calls a “C.L.P” (Cute Little Place), and at only 45 minutes by car from Jávea it’s an easy jaunt for lunch and a walkabout.
Like so many towns around these parts, Altea has a rich and interesting history. It’s earliest inhabitants were Iberians and Phoenicians. They were followed by the Greeks and Romans for whom it became a trading port. It then supported a thriving fishing industry under Muslim rule. In the 19th century, the town became known as an artist community attracting painters, musicians, and writers; becoming a haven for the bohemian set in the 1960s and 1970s. Altea is also home to the art school of Miguel Hernandez University, the main campus of which is in Orihuela (incidentally known as the second most charming town in Alicante).
Frankly, Altea’s charm was lost on us the first two times my husband I visited, although to be fair, both of these trips were specifically to fulfill steps in the process of obtaining our residency permits. While we had read and heard, always in the most superlative manner, about the town’s charm and character, we weren’t seeing it. As it turned out, the police station and other government offices where we needed to go for immigration appointments were located in the rather drab and utilitarian outer edge of the town. But after our most recent trip to get yet another official form stamped and signed, we vowed to stay until we discovered the reason for all the effusiveness. It turns out the answer is quite simple: skirt along the outer edge of the newer part of town until the road turns steeply uphill and drive until, well, all of a sudden everything around you becomes beautiful. You’ll know it when you see it. This is the old town.
“Altea” comes from the Greek, Altahia, which translates to “I cure.” There doesn’t seem to be much information as to the reason behind the name, but the overall atmosphere is imbued with a quiet gentleness and there is a languid feel to the place. I immediately found it deeply relaxing.
Altea’s old town sits at the highest point in the city, on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean below and the mountains just inland. All the buildings are white stone. The streets are narrow and either inlaid with tiles or cobbled with small, smooth pebbles, which differ from street to street in size, color and pattern. Hip little restaurants showcase small menus with artisanal food selections. Intriguing shops, their doors open in the sunshine, tempt passers-by with colorful wares. Just behind the commercial streets the residential ones are situated, with tiny but tidy block housing. Windowsills are adorned with flowerpots and the odd dozing cat; the wooden doors are intricately carved or kookily painted. A glance in any direction affords a striking view of the sea, even if it is, as in one case, just a skinny glimpse of blue slotted through an alley barely twenty inches wide.
It’s not just feast for the visual senses but the ears and taste buds as well. Street musicians play in the little plaza overlooking the sea. On this day, a woman with a harp plucked a soft, classical piece. Some passers-by stopped to film the performance on their phones, but most simply chose to sit on the nearby benches, appreciating the music without cell phone mediation. Up until that point the thought of a harpist busker would have seemed almost oxymoronic to me, but at that moment I found it hard to imagine a more perfect instrument for the setting.
And there are some pretty impressive culinary options. Avoid the main square with the large outdoor cafes and even larger menus, many of which are dumbed down and priced up for a captive tourist audience. Instead, walk two or three streets away in any direction and see the difference in restaurants. All are really good, not to mention affordable. My favorite is Restaurante La Claudia. It’s a small-but-lovely place with the option of sitting outdoors on a tiny patio that overlooks the city and sea below. The locally-sourced menu is brief, which we like, and meat-heavy, which typically we don’t, but the youngish, art-school-looking staff were so welcoming, attentive, and kind that we couldn’t resist.
The interesting little details at La Claudia make it especially appealing. The table linens are cotton and handmade by women in Paraguay as part of a microloan empowerment program. Among the menu items are two arroz dishes, each for a minimum of two people and available only at lunch, with the ingredients changing daily. Our server politely inquired if we minded waiting the 25 minutes it took to prepare, an indication that it was cooked to order. We chose rabbit and shrimp, which came to the table in a big dutch oven, following a starter of ceviche of sea bass and green apple. Both were delicious. We also had a superb beer called Mistral, produced by a local brewery called Althaia, presumably an homage to the origin of the town’s name. It turns out that a mistral is a strong wind unique to the Mediterranean, and the beer arrived bearing a label that read, “When the wind does not blow your way, adjust the sails.”
When we asked for la cuenta, it came with a complimentary bottle of Pacharan Exteko, a digestif. By now it was late afternoon and time to head home. Whether a result of the sea views, the salt air, the local beer, the street music, or simply my belief that art in any form is powerfully healing, I’ll never know for sure, but I left with a profound sense of peace and ease. I came away cured.