Follow MV Northern Exposure on  Follow MV Northern Exposure on Twitter or  Instagram @NorthrnExpo

We'll post whenever the website changes.

Sunday, July 24, 2011, in Alicante, Spain

Hi all. We arrived in Alicante today, making our way up the Spanish Mediterranean coast. Last week, we were still in Cartagena.

After an early start into slightly rocky seas, we spent the departure day from Cartagena in a postcard-pretty downwind sail, and arrived in early evening at Santa Pola, a town primarily devoted to tourism. We were welcomed immediately; the boatyard at the entrance must have seen our American flag on the stern. Suddenly, the US national anthem blared across the harbor. We waved to land in general, not really knowing who was behind this fanfare.

The marina, recently expanded, was sparsely filled. The marinero helped us get settled, and we finished our arrangements with the office in a reasonable time. After dinner, we took our first walk in Santa Pola. It’s got a long history. The Iberians were there in the 4th century BC, even before the Romans. The town was built over an old Roman settlement called Portus Ilicitanus, and fields strewn with ancient piles of rocks attest to the antiquity of the place. There’s a 16th-century castle that was built to fend the place off from the Berber pirates, who had settled on the nearby island of Tabarca, always bearing in mind that one country’s pirates are another country's navy. But today's Santa Pola is singularly a resort, sprawling and somewhat disheveled.

Now I don’t mean that the place is messy; it isn't. And it isnt even well-worn; unlike the coast we've seen and even Gibraltar, the housing blocks in Santa Pola don’t cry out for painting. The places look cozy and well-tended. It’s just that there isn’t any obvious town structure. There’s no pedestrian shopping street. The two small streets that claim the most shops don’t look substantially different from the surrounding streets that have no clear zoning. A cheery new ice-cream shop stands alone in the center of a block of abandoned warehouse-sized retail spaces.

People come to Santa Pola for the beaches, but the helpful tourist information center and kiosks around the town are happy to give you maps and ideas. This is the sort of place that would have a museum of salt. Yes, salt. The salt flats in town attract flamingoes and other birds in season, and salting of fish has been practiced in Santa Pola since Phoenician times, and was well entrenched by the time Romans were around.

It took us a few passes around the block to find an opening in the fence surrounding the museum, and we walked on a wooden walkway by a salt pond. The museum is housed in what was once a salt processing factory. A lone flamingo had the entire pond to himself. Here’s something you probably didn’t know; I didn’t. The Spanish word for flamingo? Flamenco! I’m sure I’ll never see the dance the same way again.

The interior of the museum displays the abandoned salt milling equipment and fills the walls with photos of this very factory in operation, and posters describing the importance of salt to human survival over time. The men in the photographs were dwarfed by piles of white salt, making the scene look like a ski adventure.

I thought that Santa Pola looked like a sleepy town, attributing this to the crowds on the beach rather than in the streets, the shuttered shops, and the long siesta. But then we took a walk in the pre-dinner time frame, just before ten PM. It was as if Brigadoon had just emerged from the mist. A military Renaissance fortress-castle overlooks paseo ground zero in the evenings, sparkling and serene. Built in 1558 to ward off pirates and corsairs; today, it houses several exhibitions and small museums stashed in the corners.

Shops that might have looked empty, covered in steel garage doors during the day, suddenly made their appearance. Racks of shoes crowded the sidewalk outside of a shop, where a tiny shop probably escaped my attention in the morning. Ice cream places dotted the streets where an active paseo was keeping them busy. Tiny restaurants expanded by a thousand percent by placing tables out all over the street. Whole blocks were filled with patio furniture; no car would dare to drive there. Apparently, we weren’t yet operating on Spanish biorhythms.

We discovered a nearby UNESCO World Heritage site a bus ride away in the city of Elche, or Elx in the local Valencian language. Elche qualifies with UNESCO on two bases, first, its 200,000-strong palm grove. The second World Heritage feature is an annual play performed in mid-August continuously since medieval times.

I’d put Elche on a heritage list for a different reason. In 1897, a sculpture found on a local estate turned out to be a painted Iberian artifact from the fourth century BC. Though that particular piece is so valuable it now sits in a museum in Madrid, there are plenty of local finds from many cultural eras in the museum in Elche, conveniently nestled inside an Arab fortification.

Like so many other museums we’ve seen in this area, the archaeological displays are new. The rooms are filled with artifacts from millennia past, and the finds are well-described in Valencian, Spanish and English with electronic assistance. On a Friday in the middle of summer, it was quiet. Most people probably would simply prefer to go to the beach.

We wandered through the somewhat over-decorated Basilica de Santa Maria, a baroque cathedral that was originally built over a former mosque.

It isn’t always easy to coordinate visits with museum timetables, as they, too, go into a vegetative state that persists until evening every day at 1:30. But we did manage to see the museum that celebrates the mid-August play every other day of the year. The Misteri d”Elx is a two-act play that is performed one act at a time on August 14 and 15. It celebrates the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

It’s a huge celebration in the town and one of the very few performances that are permitted with the walls of a Catholic church. The church’s structure is actually modified to create the illusion of the appearance and disappearance of characters between earth and heaven.

Our walk back to the bus station took us through some of the palm groves. Even this tree has religious significance in Elche and in Catholicism generally. A palm frond takes a leading role in the Misteri play, and that doesn’t even take Palm Sunday into account. But the history of this grove predates its medieval Christian importance. It was first planted by the Phoenicians before the Romans arrived, and it was extended by the Arabs. The Arabs installed state-of-the-art irrigation systems using technologies they’d developed in the Middle East and Africa.

The next morning, we left the marina in Santa Pola and motored the short distance to the city of Alicante. There wasn’t any point in even trying to sail, and the days that give you no wind for sailing at least make it easy to dock. We were settled by lunchtime.

Hope you’re all surviving the heat where you are. Write to us and let us know how you’re doing.

Love, Karen (and Art)