Vacationing is all about balance for me. My goal is to balance adventure and exploration with rest and relaxation. Too often I build too much activity into the itinerary and leave out the R & R. On a recent trip to Spain, however, my husband and I experienced a perfect balance of both.
It’s hard not to feel calm and contented on Spain’s sunny Costa Blanca. Located about four hours south of Barcelona, this two-hundred mile coastline is defined by rugged mountains and white sandy beaches, orange groves and swaying palms. And undulating east and south is the sapphire blue Mediterranean, its surface glittering in the sunlight like precious gems. In fact, it’s often said that the quality of light is different around the Mediterranean. There’s a kind of golden hue to everything, a lightness, a sheen that seems to bounce off the water and permeate the air.
It’s easy to get lost in the view, to just sit with a book and a cold beverage and be. You won’t actually read your book because you’ll be busy inhaling the fresh air and watching the clouds drift across the azure sky. You’ll want to give your full attention to the way the breeze caresses your skin, like a lover—and the musical sounds of the birds that flit in the shrubs nearby, pipping and chirping. You’ll pause and smell the rosemary that grows like a weed in this part of the world and think about tonight’s dinner: grilled chicken marinated in lemon, rosemary, and garlic. Perhaps you’ll sip a flavorful pastis and munch on some lovely chorizo bits as you watch the sun sink slowly down in the southwestern sky.
Peter and I stayed at a lovely rental villa owned by friends of ours in the small village of Benissa about an hour south of Valencia. The Mediterranean-style home with white stucco and a red tile roof is perched on a bluff overlooking the sea and the rock of Calpe, a massive limestone outcropping that juts 1000 feet into the air. Of course, with such a stunning view, the villa offers plenty of outdoor space—a terrace where Peter and I enjoyed our meals, as well as a pool area surrounded by a paved patio. During our spring visit, the pool proved too chilly for a swim, but the warm sun and the spectacular view lured us to the patio morning, noon, and night.
One of my favorite things to do when I travel to other countries is eat. OK, I like to eat at home, too, but dining becomes an adventure in exotic places. Some people like to eat out all the time when they travel, but I enjoy cooking so we do a little of both: preparing simple meals at home and dining out on some of the local specialties.
So of course we had to stock up on a few groceries. Europe has its own type of Wal-Mart called hypermarkets, where you can get pretty much anything under one roof. Unlike Wal-Mart, however, stores like Carrefour have grocery departments that I can get lost in. The produce section is about four times as big as a typical produce section in the U.S., and everything is fresh and quite affordable. It’s hard not to overbuy when you see so many lovely things you want to try.
Next to the produce is a huge olive department—mmm—where you can find all colors and sizes of olives bathed in flavorful vats of yumminess. Then there’s the cheese section with every cheese known to man on display. And if you know anything about Spain, you’ll make a beeline for the cured meats department, where dozens of variety of jamon—Spain’s prized, dry-cured smoky ham—await. Shopping for tasty ingredients for a few meals and picnics is part of the fun of being in another country, and Peter and I walked out loaded with oranges, avocados, jamon, and lots more goodies.
We also love outdoor markets and visited one in the nearby village of Tuelada. Besides stands with colorful produce, a wine merchant was offering tastes of Spanish wines. He was a friendly fellow and gave us a crash course on which Spanish wines are the best (look for wines from the Riberia del Duero region). As we walked along sipping our wines, Peter spotted someone with a shirt that said Richmond, Virginia, and stopped to chat with the German fellow wearing it and his wife, who spend winters at their vacation home nearby. Turns out Spain is rather like Europe’s Florida and attracts lots of Brits, Germans, and Scandinavians seeking warmer climes. The couple recommended a restaurant near Benissa—all I could remember was the word Piños—and told us how much they loved the region. I could see why.
One day we headed down to the coast to an attractive resort town called Javea with a beautiful boardwalk bordered by tall palm trees, a harbor where fishing boats bobbed lazily alongside sleek yachts, and cozy cafes. We found one near the marina and watched the harbor activities while enjoying a cold beer. After our outing, we tried to use the GPS in Peter’s phone to find our way back to Benissa and found ourselves on curvy roads that wound past lovely homes but ended up going nowhere.
It wasn’t the first time we would get lost in Spain. Another day we tried to find the ruins of a castle we’d heard about. We followed the GPS to a pretty town called Jalon and ended up on a dirt road that skirted fields and climbed up into the hills and suddenly petered out. I’d been wanting to hike so we parked and wandered up a path, where we saw a sign that said “Donkey Sanctuary” with an arrow pointing up another path.
We never found any donkeys, but we enjoyed an amazing hike. A few British ladies passed by walking their dogs, and we had a brief chat. “We love it here,” they said. Was the universe sending us a message?
Back in Jalon, we decided to explore further and followed a road along a river through a lush valley, where picturesque groves of almond trees and orange trees covered sloping hillsides. In the distance the Sierra de Bernia Mountains—part of a range that slides down the center of Spain—provide a buffer and give this valley its own microclimate, where warm, sunny weather prevails year round. Soon Peter and I began planning to join the rest of the happy folks here and buy a little hacienda overlooking the Mediterranean one day. It’s always good to dream, right?
Peter still wanted to find the castle ruins so we headed up into the mountains, climbing 3000 feet on steep, winding roads. At the top, enchanting views of the valley below and the Mediterranean to the east awaited, but we never found the castle ruins. We did however find a charming restaurant with an outdoor terrace and decided to stop for lunch. Lemon trees lined the road, and as we sat and enjoyed a glass of wine, the owner picked an apron full of lemons for the kitchen. Nearby heavenly smells wafted from an open-air barbecue, and I was delighted to find lamb on the menu.
Since we weren’t too hungry, Peter and I decided to share a multi-course prix fixe meal. It’s a good thing we did. The salad alone—with flavorful heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, spring onions, beet bits, tuna, olives, egg slices, carrots, and orange slices— was huge, a meal in itself. The second course was to-die-for lamb stew. Next lamp chops from the BBQ, tender and smoky, with potatoes and chick peas and a slice of fresh lemon. For dessert? A simple vanilla pudding dusted with cinnamon and served with fruit and whipped cream. The meal even included a ½ bottle of red wine—all for 15 euros including tip!
We languished over our lunch and made friends with a calico kitty looking for a handout. Soon a handsome musician appeared with a guitar and a friendly smile. He played inside so we only heard a little of his music, preferring to stay outside where the sun washed over us and the majestic view provided sufficient entertainment.
Another day we found the restaurant in Piños recommended by the German couple and enjoyed a delicious lunch. For starters we tried a fabulous appetizer of thinly sliced baby artichokes, roasted in olive oil and flavored with smoky paprika. It was divine. Paella is a regional specialty, so we ordered a pan for two: glistening yellow rice surrounded by rabbit, mussels, shrimp, and large flat fava-like beans. Our meal came to less than 25 euros including a bottle of local white wine. Overall we found Spain to be an amazing bargain.
But the best parts of our stay were the meals we prepared in Benissa: breakfasts on the patio with fresh bread Peter fetched from the nearby bakery, cheese, fruit, and coffee. Or the simple pasta dinner we enjoyed, sitting at a wooden table in the yard, watching the sun go down as we sipped on a bottle of red Spanish wine.
One night we made a fire from twigs we gathered in the yard and fed with firewood we discovered under a tarp and grilled chicken flavored with lemon, rosemary, and garlic. Using the branches from the rosemary, we made mushroom kabobs and cooked them in the smoke on top of the chimney—amazingly flavorful. All told, it was a simple feast, but one that lingers in my memory.
In fact, Spain is a state of mind. If I close my eyes, I can still see the blue waters of the Med, feel the silky breeze, and taste the rosemary and lemon and smoky mushrooms. I love Spain’s authenticity, the people’s inherent zest for life that permeates their culture. I mean, how wonderful is it to take time off in the afternoon for a siesta, a chance to let your body and mind come to a place of rest and stillness. No wonder people look so healthy and happy in Spain. I can’t wait to go back for more of Spain’s simple pleasures.
Delta flies to Valencia. an hour north of Benissa, in the summer months. You can also opt to fly into Alicante, which is an hour to the south.
Where To Stay
Where To Eat
• Sa Canterella Tarbena 34-659-486-215
• Casa El Peon de Piños 34-629-655-035