Travel: The delights of Alicante

The area around Alicante is said to have been inhabited for over 7000 years. In more recent times it’s become a major tourist destination with serious development in the 1950s and 1960s resulting in large buildings and complexes springing up throughout the city.

This means Alicante is the perfect example of a concrete jungle. High rises dominate the skyline (and not in a particularly attractive way) and on first sight it doesn’t seem like the prettiest of holiday destinations. It would be easy to dismiss the city as place not to visit in Spain. But you’d be wrong. Well, they do say you should never judge a book by its cover and as soon as you start looking a little deeper into the soul of Alicante you’ll be surprised to find many beauties.

While those buildings can’t be unbuilt, a lot of effort has been made to add beauty with the myriad flowers and trees. Jacarandas, bougainvilleas and hibiscus abound (gotta love those exotic names) and there are palm trees everywhere. Of course, as you’re in Spain, the sky is always blue – different colours of blue for different times of day – the sea is warm and clear, the food is wonderful and there’s a warm Spanish welcome. Because this is a truly Spanish city where simple food is perfectly prepared using the best of local ingredients, prices are great value and you’ll need a bit of Spanish to get by.

Alicante’s Playa San Juan

We stayed in the San Juan Beach area. And my first realisation that Alicante wasn’t what it initially seemed was the sight of the stunning beach. I mean really stunning. Huge, with white sand and mountains in the background. And that fabulous Spanish tradition alongside it – the promenade. Lined with restaurants and bars, the beautifully paved area in the shade of palm trees was busy all times of day with families and friends enjoying their daily amble.

Alicante: San Juan Beach

The white sandy beach with blue sea and sky

There are so many restaurants along this stretch of sandy sunniness that it’s hard to choose where to eat. As luck would have it we picked the perfect breakfast spot on our first morning. One of my favourite breakfast treats ever is pan con tomato, lightly toasted bread served with what is basically mashed up tomato and olive oil. It’s amazing how good it tastes. Today’s offering also came with a generous portion of jamon – so that’s even better. And here’s the best thing of all – this delicious breakfast, including a glass of fresh orange juice and a coffee set us back the sum of €1.80 each. No that is not a typo. €3.60 for two filling and deliciously Spanish breakfasts at 100 Montaditos right on the beach. Seriously, does life get better than that? Breakfast certainly doesn’t.

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The best-value breakfast ever, yes ever

Alicante: San Juan promenade

They do know how to do a promenade in Spain

Lunch along the promenade also offered a range of traditional Spanish tapas dishes. Like this Russian salad (ensalada Russa) which crops up on menus everywhere I go in Spain. You can read more about this dish and try out my recipe for it by clicking here. I’ve sampled some different versions recently so think I will be redoing my own recipe soon.

Alicante: Russian salad

The ever-present Russian Salad

Playa San Juan is also the perfect place for sundowners. Especially if you’re a fan of giant gin and tonics like these.

Alicante: gin & tonics

Huge g&ts beachside while pondering our dinner destination

We meandered the streets absorbing the evening sun and the pleasant babble of Spanish voices, checking out menus while we decided where to go for dinner. One of my favourite ways of spending time! Our choice was Los Charros, a charming-looking establishment on a side street up from the beach. And what a good choice it turned out to be. We started off by sharing this delicious concoction of eggs, prawns and mushrooms with a touch of garlic.

Alicante: egg, prawn and mushroom starter

Scrambled eggs with earthy mushrooms and sweet prawns

For mains we decided on lamb and goat chops respectively – simply served grilled with some lovely wild garlic and more accompaniments than we expected, including a salad, crispy fired potatoes and padron peppers and a large dish of tempura-style vegetables. All served with a smile.

Alicante: goat chops

Tasty little chops with a fresh salad

Alicante: crispy potatoes

Love the sweetness of Spanish potatoes and these were beautifully crisp

We sat outside on the lovely terrace – something we always do when we can. I think it comes from living in the Northern hemisphere. Dining alfresco is always a treat. The tapas bar inside was bustling with locals and filled with laughter.

On our second night in Alicante we were highly tempted to go back to Los Charros. But as we were only there for two nights it seemed boring so instead we chose El Mayoral for dinner, which is on the San Juan promenade. The menu was extensive and we were having decision-making hiccups. Until we saw what the couple on the next table were tucking into, a delicious seafood soup. So we ordered the same – langoustines, prawns, mussels, the softest of calamari and fresh hake in a lovely saffron-flavoured broth.

Alicante: seafood soup

Seafood soup to share – the perfect start to dinner

A Spanish classic for mains – roast suckling pig served with perfect chips and slivers of crispy fried onions.

 

Alicante: suckling pig

Love the suckling pig in Spain, they know their pork!

We finished our wine after dinner alongside the beach watching the sky develop through stages of blue until it reached this stunning indigo colour with the last light of the day.

Alicante: indigo sky

Post-dinner drinks under an indigo sky

Touring on Alicante’s tram

As hard as it was to drag ourselves away from the comfort and joy of San Juan Beach we decided we had to do some exploring. So we got on the tram heading for the Old Town and the harbour. Such a lovely way to travel and to see more of the city and all for €1.45 for what was about a 35-minute journey. We passed a lot of concrete along the way and emerged into a buzzing metropolis. The main road down from the station, Ramble de Mendoza Lunez, leads down to the beach. If you’re looking for shopping opportunities take a slow walk down as there’s plenty on offer here.

Alicante: the tram

Travelling by tram is such a pleasure

Strolling around Alicante harbour

As you start getting close to the water there’s another palm-lined promenade to stroll along.

Alicante: promenade in town

More promenading opportunities in the shade of palm trees

There’s a sparkling harbour filled with stylish boats – and even a pirate ship.

Alicante: harbour

More shades of blue in Alicante harbour

Lunch in Alicante’s Old Town

After some waterside strolling we headed into the Old Town for lunch. With the feel of ancient Spain and beautiful old buildings to view, there were also plenty of restaurant choices to explore.

Alicante: Old Town

Alfresco restaurants abound in Alicante’s Old Town

Greetings of hola, buenos días lead us to a table at La Taberna San Pascual where we tucked into delightful albondigas (meatballs) and croquettes, accompanied by some delicious Spanish rose.

Alicante: lunch in Old Town

Lunch in shades of pinks and reds

Alicante: La Taberna San Pascual

The charmingly rustic La Taberna San Pascual

We finished off lunch with a charming mini-mug of the local liquor – all complimentary of course. How I love complimentary local liquor.

Alicante: local liquor

Chilled mini drinks to complete a perfect lunch

So that was Alicante, a place can see myself visiting again and again and one I’d definitely recommend for a Spanish fix. Just make sure you see past the concrete.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn San Juan which was a short walk from the promenade and the beach. Though basic, the hotel was comfortable and welcoming and has a lovely pool area for lazy afternoons.

 

 

Absorbing the sights and energy of Saigon

I’ve been having a bit of a blog-holiday so apologies for being so quiet. But I’m back now and starting the new year (happy 2017 everyone) with tales of my recent trip to Vietnam and Thailand. My first time in Vietnam and I totally fell in love with the country – its people, food and unfolding story.

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the largest city in Vietnam, although not the capital (that’s Hanoi in the north). In 1976 it was officially renamed Ho Chi Min City after the Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. It’s still widely called Saigon, though, (especially by the Vietnamese) which it was under French rule when it was the capital of Cochinchina.

The sprawling city has a population of more than 10 million and it’s rapidly growing, too. This makes for a serious hive of activity, hectic traffic, an energetic and hardworking people and, on the downside, somewhat polluted skies which means most citizens wear masks on the streets. There’s something happening around every corner and a friendliness and energetic feel that’s catching.

Here’s what you have to do when in HCMC.

Shop in Ben Thanh Market

In the centre of the city this bustling, partly undercover market sells pretty much anything you could possibly desire. Exotic, fresh vegetables and fruit, live fish and shellfish in all shapes and sizes, clothes, jewellery, souvenirs. The highlight is the towers of great quality, cheap t-shirts to choose from – don’t leave without one – Vietnamese cotton is fabulous.

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The greenness of an exotic vegetable stall

Take to the streets and view the stylish architecture

Saigon is a great city to walk around. The centre is quite small and the best way to see everything is on foot. Notre Dame is the city’s most famous landmark. Built from the 1860s to the 1880s, it’s a reminder of the French influence – all the building materials were brought over from France. Newly married couples and their entourages cluster around the cathedral for wedding pictures – it’s said to bring good luck. It seems that everyone wants their picture taken in front of Notre Dame.

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Notre Dame’s pinkness is iconic Saigon

Saigon is also home to the most beautiful post office I’ve ever seen – designed by French architect Gustav Eiffel, who the Eiffel Tower was named for.

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Post offices don’t get prettier than this

Ho Chi Minh himself takes pride of place in the square in front of the City Hall which was built in the early 20th century – some more of that Parisian flavour – the city is also known as The Paris of the East.

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Ho Chi Minh stands guard over the city

Eat Pho and drink coffee

When in Vietnam…eat Pho. It’s a traditional Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, noodles, herbs and meat. It’s popular street food and it’s eaten any time of day – even for breakfast. Usually served with a plate of herbs on the side so you can add them to suit your taste. A deliciously, satisfying one-pot meal, one that I am certain to be making at home. Oh and there’s plenty of other street food on offer too.

Coffee is the most popular drink in Vietnam and coffee shops abound in the city, so no problem getting your caffeine fix as you explore.

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Traditional pho topped with fresh herbs

Visit the War Remnants Museum

Okay this isn’t the happiest thing you’re going to do in Saigon but I’m big on remembering and learning from history – something humans really aren’t that good at. This museum offers a pictorial record of the brutal Vietnam/American war and its aftermath. Some of the photographs are stunningly heart breaking and while the story is clearly told from a Vietnamese perspective the exhibits provide an almost overwhelming overview of this horrific time in Vietnamese history. Outside you can see the planes and the iconic Huey helicopter that I always associate with Vietnam. I’m too young to remember the war but one of my favourite songs is Goodnight Saigon by Billy Joel which is possibly one of the most powerful songs ever written. Worth a listen.

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The Huey helicopters that flew in packs

Chill out at a roof-top bar

Get a different perspective on the city and enjoy a local beer (or a tasty cocktail) at the same time. Our hotel The Majestic (more of which later) has a lovely roof-top bar overlooking the Saigon River. The perfect place to relax and plan over a cold one.

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Cheers from on high in Saigon

Marvel at the traffic and master crossing the road

The traffic is kind of a tourist attraction in its own right. There are millions of motorbikes in Saigon (they say there’s 25 to each car – and there’s no shortage of cars) and they don’t stop at red lights and have no compunction about riding on the pavement. So you need to keep your wits about you wherever you’re walking. I diligently pressed pedestrian crossing buttons to begin with but a red light didn’t stop the traffic. The best way to get across the many-laned roads is to walk at a steady pace without hesitation (when the lights are in your favour obviously) and the traffic will avoid you. Yes, I know I didn’t believe it either, but it seems to work.

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The traffic is a spectacle to behold

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Even at night it never stops

Take a dinner cruise

I do love seeing  a city from the river and the Saigon River is perfect for a cruise. We hopped on board our junk Le Perle de l’Orient at 7pm and settled in at a window table to take in the view. And enjoy a nine-course set menu of delicious Vietnamese food.

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Large, juicy prawns served in a coconut

The modern part of the city’s skyline sparkles in different colours, making for beautiful reflections in the river.

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The Saigon night skyline and its colourful reflections

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A traditional lotus salad with prawns and pork

Where to stay

We stayed at The Majestic Hotel, perfectly placed on the riverside corner of Dong Khoi Street – one of the best shopping streets in the city.

Our room was plush and spacious, overlooking the Saigon River and the bustling streets below. The huge bed was made up with some of the best linen I’ve ever slept in, I was tempted to pack the duvet cover in my suitcase! (No, of course I didn’t.)

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The best linen in the world? Possibly.

The hotel has a lovely rooftop bar/restaurant and the fabulous breakfast spread is served on an open terrace overlooking Saigon life.

Service is welcoming and efficient and the hotel has a relaxed elegance and calm about it – most welcome after the bustling life at street level.

Have you been to Vietnam? What was your favourite part of the trip? I’d love to hear your recommendations – they’ll give me an excuse to return.

COMING SOON

Read about my stay at the fabulous Victoria Beach Hotel and Spa in the seaside town of Phan Thiet.