Sixty years ago Benidorm, although not a fishing village as such, was still a modest beach side community, a place of sailors, fishermen and farmers who patiently tended almond, olive, carob and citrus trees. Small fishing boats, the tarrafes, each with four large lanterns to attract fish at night bobbed in the water or lay drawn up resting on the sand. In 1950, Benidorm didn’t attract many visitors and life was difficult, it had no water supply or sewage disposal system and waste was tipped in the sea or simply buried in the earth.
The watershed year was 1954 when the Franco loyalist, Pedro Zaragoza Orts (born 15th May 1922) was nominated as town Alcalde, or Mayor and he threw himself into his work and set himself an objective of improving the quality of life in the small town. In terms of economic potential there wasn’t a lot to work with so he decided to concentrate on tourism and he imagined a dream of creating a bourgeois pan-European holiday utopia. Benidorm had sun, it had beaches, it had sea but what it didn’t have was visitors.
The town had always been popular with veraneos, people who took a few days break to be by the sea, but by the 1950’s, visitors from northern Europe were beginning to arrive in greater numbers and staying for a full week at a time, sometimes two! Zaragoza recognised the potential of increased numbers of visitors and quickly created the Plan General de Ordenación, or city building plan, that would exploit that potential. The plan ensured that every building would have an area of leisure land, guaranteeing a future free of the excesses of cramped construction seen in other areas of Spain and it is the only city in the country that still adheres to this rigid rule. This vision for the future took six years to come to reality, while he waited he piped in domestic water from Polop, fifteen kilometres to the north in the mountains on the road to Guadalest and he ignited the building boom that followed and the flying start that Benidorm achieved in the package tour boom of the 1960s and 70s.
The vision for Benidorm was simultaneously brilliant and exciting and it gave the modern city its modern unique landscape because Zaragoza encouraged vertical construction of dozens of sky scrapers in a deliberate plan to make efficient use of land and to keep the city at ground level spacious and airy with green parks and open spaces and all of the accommodation relatively close to the beaches. He explained his plan like this; ‘If you build low, you occupy all the space and have a long walk to the beach. If you build high, you can face the sea, and leave room for gardens, pools and tennis courts’. This was in contrast to nearby Torrevieja and on the Costa Del Sol in the south, Marbella where excessive horizontal development has led to great sprawling ugly urbanisations that have practically destroyed the coast by burying it under concrete and tarmac. Zaragoza called this urban concentration instead of urban sprawl.
The first developments started at the centre at the rocky outcrop in the twisting narrow streets hemmed in by claustrophobic whitewashed houses, the San Jaime church with its distinctive blue tiled hat roofs, the old town promontory with the Balcon Del Mediterraneo, and pretty Mal Pas beach below and quickly spread east and west along the splendid beaches. Today Benidorm has some of the tallest buildings not only in Spain but all of Europe but the first were fairly modest by comparison, the tallest reaching only a modest ten floors or so.
If Pedro Zaragoza Orts is remembered for the Beni-York skyscraper he is even more famous for the so called ‘War of the Bikini’. In the later years of the 1950s the icon of holiday liberty was the saucy two piece swimsuit but in staunchly religious Spain, still held in the firm two-handed grip of church and state, this scanty garment was seen as a threat to the very basis of Catholic society.
Although occasionally allowable on the sandy beaches, it had to be covered up in all other areas; on the promenades and in the plazas and in the shops and the bars and cafés for fear of causing any offence. In one famous incident, a British tourist, sitting in a bar opposite a beach wearing only a bikini, was told by a Guardia Civil officer that she wasn’t allowed to wear it there. After an argument she hit him, and her strike for social justice cost her a hefty fine of forty thousand pesetas. Zaragoza needed tourists and tourists wanted the bikini and with more northern European tourists arriving each year in search of an all over suntan the Mayor knew that the banning of the two piece swimsuit simply couldn’t be sustained or allowed to threaten his ambitious plans.
Zaragoza took a gamble and signed a municipal order which permitted the wearing of the bikini in public areas and in this single act he effectively jump started the Spanish tourist industry. Zaragoza said: “People had to feel free to be able to wear what they wanted, within reason, if it helped them to enjoy themselves as they would come back and tell their friends about the place.” In deeply religious Catholic Spain not everyone was so understanding or welcoming of the bikini however and in retaliation the Archbishop of Valencia began the excommunication process against him.
Excommunication was a serious matter in 1959 and his political supporters began to abandon him so one day he got up early and drove for nine hours on a little Vespa scooter to Madrid to lobby Franco himself. The Generalissimo was suitably impressed with his determination and gave him his support, Zaragoza returned to Benidorm and the Church backed down and the approval of the bikini became a defining moment in the history of modern Spain ultimately changing the course of Spanish tourism and causing a social revolution in an austere country groaning under the yoke of the National Catholic regime. Zaragoza went on to become Franco’s Director of Tourism and a Parliamentary Deputy.
Not many people would have described Franco as a liberalising social reformer and perhaps he just liked to look at ladies breasts but not long after this lots of women on holiday in Benidorm dispensed with the bikini bra altogether and brazenly sunbathed topless and Benidorm postcards had pictures of partially clothed ladies on them to prove it.