Duende in Alicante – food, wine, culture and history in Spanish coastal city

Most people who arrive at Alicante Airport head straight to the resorts along the Costa Blanca but, as Tony Bailie discovers, they are missing a vibrant Spanish city where the nightlife is so good it starts at lunchtime

A view over Alicante from Castillo Santa Barbara

THE air-raid siren howls into a high pitch and then falls away before rising again. Then comes the low, sinister rumble of aeroplanes, the noise of their engines vibrating through the concrete walls of the air-raid shelter.


The sound of the first bomb landing brings a new layer to the cacophony, and then a second and third in close succession, each one coming closer and closer until one that sounds as if has landed directly overhead bellows and fills the underground passageway.


Alicante, on the eastern Mediterranean coast of Spain, has been a strategic port/fort thousands of years and was settled by the Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs. During the Spanish civil war between July 1936 and March 1939 it was bombarded by the German and Italian air forces in support of the uprising led by General Franco against Spain’s elected Republican government.


The air raids were a trial run for the attacks that would become a common feature of the Second World War.


Around 100 air-raid shelters were built in Alicante to shelter the city’s residents and the Refugios Antiaéreos in Plaza Seneca has just recently been restored to give visitors an insight into the horror of what thousands endured during the civil war.


Steps descend from the bright plaza into a long concrete passageway off which alcoves open where up to 1,200 people sheltered during the bombing. Children’s toys, basins and food bowls, along with signs warning of the enemy within and graffiti scrawled by those who endured the raids add to the experience, but it is the sound effects of the sirens, bombers and explosions that make this a surreal and memorable experience.


There is evidence of earlier bombardments endured by Alicante 230 years before the civil war in the walls of Castillo Santa Barbara which sits on a 500 foot hill above the city.


During the War of the Spanish Succession in the first two decades of the 1700s the castle was attacked from the sea by various forces and there are 4,000 recorded impacts in the walls, with a number of cannonballs still lodged in the brickwork.


The earliest parts of the castle date to the ninth century when it was built by the Arab Moors, whose influence on the city can still be seen in the north African medina-style layout of the streets that lie immediately below the castle.


It is not hard to see why the Moors decided to build a castle on this hill. It commands views across the Mediterranean and for miles along the Costa Blanca in either direction and inland across arid desert countryside to La Muntanya d’Alacant (the Mountains of Alicante).


A winding path leads up to the castle where entry is free, although for those who are daunted by the climb in the heat of a Spanish sun, there is a lift which costs €2.70.


Below the castle lies the long sandy beach -– Playa del Postiguet – filled with sunbeds and blistered bodies, but just 10 minutes away is the centre of an attractive, cosmopolitan and unbelievably lively city centre.


The night life is so good here that at the weekends it has spilled over into the daytime and Alicante as become known for ‘El Tardero’, where the Spanish tradition of wandering from bar to bar, eating tapas and end enjoying local beers, wines and spirits begins at lunchtime and, this being Spain, continues into the early hours of the next day.


Like every region of Spain, Alicante has its own regional wines – for a crispy white try Fray Germán and a popular red is Nauta Crianza. There is a regional twist on other staples – including a hard goat’s cheese and a very spicy chorizo.


A refreshing morning drink is ‘horchata’, made from tiger nuts and almonds and ideally served in one of the cafes along the city’s esplanade which overlooks the port.


One of the best places to sample the regional produce is at the Mercado Central where fruit and vegetables along with selections of fresh and cooked fish are sold to visitor and local alike.


For the adventurous, a slice of cured tuna, eaten with a fresh tomato, sends the taste buds into a frenzy, while congealed fish eggs – caviar rolled out into a slice – takes them to new and unexplored regions.


For a more formal dining experience the restaurant at the top of El Corte Ingles, a Spanish equivalent of Debenhams, on Avenida Maisonnave, provides great views over the city and towards the sea.


The restaurant at Hotel Hospse Amérigo on Calle Rafael Altamira is a five-star dining experience that utilizes Alicante’s seasonal regional produce with another rather excellent selection of wines.


Alicante has developed a network of cycle lanes through the city and along former tram tracks that run down the coast. A guided tour on bikes hired from Tramuntana (Calle San Juan Bosco) opened up parts of the city that might be missed on foot, along routes that are not too hilly for the casual cyclist. More challenging tours are also available.


The Spanish word ‘duende’ suggests a heightened state of spiritual passion, inspiration or even enlightenment and is associated with music and dance. It is a word that can not really be translated but conveys a unique experience.


While the idea of a flamenco show might seem a bit 1970s, this is an ancient art form whose origins are hidden in myth and legend, with obvious Arabic and even Indian influences evident.


Although it originated in Andalucia, in the south of Spain, this dramatic, hypnotic and sensual artform was on full display in the superb little bar called La Guitarreria on Calle Mayor.


Stamping feet, flailing arms, elaborate guitar, wailing singing and an undercurrent of sexual tension on a small and crowded stage, whose yielding boards heightened the percussive impact. This was opera, ballet, high drama and Jimi Hendrix all rolled into one.


I emerged from La Guitarreria back into the nightlife of Alicante with a sense that I had just been brought to another place, as if I had just experience duende. Although of course the red wine may have helped.





Getting there...


Aer Lingus operates three times weekly service from Belfast to Alicante with fare starting from just £35.99 one-way including taxes.

In addition to Alicante, Aer Lingus also flies to popular sun spots Palma, Malaga and Faro from Belfast, all from £35.99.


For more information on fares and schedules visit


Aer Lingus’s Family First is aimed at giving even greater value to families offering half price on checked baggage and advance seat selection for children aged 2 to 11 years, travelling on short haul flights.



To stay


With a Salvador Dali painting hanging in its reception and an art deco setting, staying in Hotel Les Monges Palace has a cinematic feel to it.


Situated close to St Nicholas Cathedral and just below the hill on which Castillo Santa Barbara overlooks the city, it is centrally located.


The rooms are large and elegantly decorated, ranging from standard through to junior suite.


Out and about


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