In 1976 I travelled to Europe for the first time to Sorrento in Italy with my dad who obligingly stepped in at the last moment following girlfriend trouble. Very soon after that we patched things up and in October the following year I went to Spain with my fiancée, Linda. We could have gone practically anywhere we liked, so long as it was within our restricted budget of course, but we choose to go to Benidorm on the Costa Blanca for two whole weeks and we selected the Don Juan hotel on the Avenida del Mediterráneo, just behind the Levante beach because Linda had been there some time before with her parents and had liked it.
We flew from Luton Airport in Bedfordshire (made famous by Lorraine Chase in the 1970s Campari television adverts) on Monarch Airlines which was in the days before low cost airlines when flying still felt exclusive and glamorous. The pilots were all ex RAF and called Toby or Edward and the air hostesses were tall and elegant, wore smart uniforms and looked like catwalk models. The seats were comfortable with generous leg space and there was a free meal thrown in. There was a drinks trolley at below United Kingdom prices (today a cup of tea on Ryanair costs £3) and a genuine duty free service for spirits, tobacco and perfume.
The flight lasted a little over two hours and then we landed at Alicante airport about sixty kilometres south of Benidorm and as this was in a time before Spain’s modern motorway network had been constructed the coach took the old coast road north through a string of small towns and villages. Just past Villajoyosa on the coast and the one thousand four hundred metre high Puig Campana Mountain to the west we snatched our first glimpses of Benidorm out of the right hand side windows of the coach and we could see a ribbon of golden sand at the fringe of the magnificent bay and behind it a strip of concrete skyscrapers towering into the blue sky above.
Once in Benidorm we went through the tedious process of dropping people off at their hotels and as the Don Juan was at the far end of the eastern Levante beach we had to wait quite a while to arrive there. Thirty years or so later the Don Juan isn’t there anymore and I might be mistaken here but it might now be the refurbished Helios Hotel. It certainly looks similar and it is just about the right location. If I am correct it is only two hundred metres from the Hotel Los Pilicarnos on the Calle Girona, which is famous for being the setting of the Television comedy series, Benidorm.
The Don Juan was a typical 1970s Spanish seaside resort hotel with a cavernous reception and public area, a dining room that was little more than a school canteen and an entertainment room for evening activity. The hotel was an eight storey concrete and chrome building and we had a room on the front about half way to the top with a good view out to sea. In the 1970s rooms could only be described as functional because these were the days before mini-bars, Televisions, internet wi-fi access and complimentary cosmetics in the bathroom but it was nice enough and it was going to be our home for two weeks.
Later that day we had our first evening meal at the Don Juan and it has to be said that this was by no stretch of the imagination a gourmet experience. The menu was limited and consisted mostly of the sort of food that British holidaymakers, unfamiliar with Spanish cuisine, would have insisted upon in 1977, beef burgers or chicken, chips and overcooked vegetables, and for sweet it was a restricted choice between crème caramel or ice cream and it was the same for the whole of the fortnight. One thing was certain – it was unlikely that we would be introduced to traditional Spanish food on this holiday. To be fair however anything ethnic may have come as shock because like most English people I wasn’t ready for tortilla and gazpacho and although I am now rather partial to tapas and paella I had certainly never been introduced to these Iberian gastronomic delights in 1977.
If the twelve million visitors to Benidorm came in equal numbers each week, which of course they didn’t, then there would have been nearly a quarter of a million visitors to entertain every night and after dinner we walked to the old town, which even in October was bursting at the seams with visitors wandering around the bars getting lashed and in the shops buying things they didn’t really need. In 1977 most of Spain was still shaking off the restrictions of the Franco regime, in June there had been the first elections to the National Parliament since 1936, but Benidorm was way ahead of the rest of the country.
It was loud, brash and noisy and so was the hotel when we returned later on. There was entertainment on the ground floor and even though we were at least four floors up the noise from the discotheque could be heard all the way up to our room. The booming of the bass kept us awake and so did the loud German couple sitting on the balcony of the room next door who were having a conversation with someone in Hamburg without a telephone! Sleeping has never really been a problem for me and I eventually managed to drop off but sometime in the early hours of the morning I woke up and found Linda on the balcony tired and sobbing and desperately in need of sleep. I think that it was at this point that I wondered just how we were going to survive fourteen nights in Benidorm!