Alicante – Art a Few Steps Away from the Beach
Alicante is one of the Spanish cities with the oldest history to look back on. Surely no coincidence, given its excellent Mediterranean location combined with possibly what could be counted as the best climate in Europe. The mild weather – comfortable and mostly sunny winters and hot but dry summers connected by very pleasant springs and autumns, and only just about thirty yearly rainy days – has always attracted a varied mixture of settlers over the centuries. Popularity also attracted plenty of conflicts over the years and the area has often been in the centre of invasions or even piracy, largely due to its attractive location. “Invasions” are common these days too, although now in the form of mass tourism and a large population of “voluntary climate refugees” from the cold and, dare we say, less relaxed Northern Europe. Expats and tourists come in hordes, where climate and beaches are without doubt the big selling points of the region.
Thus, it’d be easy to mistakenly assume that Alicante is all about the sun and fun on the long stretch of beaches, without space for much else. The beaches are indeed very long; the metropolitan area is made up of seaside resorts both to the north and to the south of the city, lined by the vacation-oriented real estate that mushroomed up everywhere since the 1970’s. We certainly approached our visit to the city with that assumption in mind, although quickly enough we knew the story was different.
In reality Alicante is a culturally rich and pretty sophisticated little city with much more on offer than just careless beach life (and lobster-coloured Brits and northern Europeans). In fact, any given day when you choose to head to the most central beach in town, the Playa del Postiguet, just a few minutes walk takes you to the historic and very cozy old town. Right here in the middle of it all, you’ll also find some elegant art museums.
Alicante beach life offers a very different possibility from most cities we know of. It isn’t a bad option at all escaping the scorching Mediterranean sun for a few hours in the afternoon to visit the old town and its museums, only to later head back to the beach to enjoy an aperitivo while awaiting the setting of the sun. But before the old town can be discovered further, the Alicante adventures usually start at the top: at the Santa Bárbara Castle.
A Castle with Quite a View: the Santa Bárbara Fortification
The towering site in the city is without any doubt the Mount Benacantil, dominantly sitting above the heart of the city centre. This 166 metres tall rock is watching over the town at its feet and the strategic importance of it through the history can’t be underestimated. The view on offer served the settlers here well, you can see the sea clearly and the land area is visible as far as some fifty kilometres away. Today the military importance of it is gone, of course, but the view on offer is nonetheless not less fascinating.
The Santa Bárbara Castle was originally constructed by the Moors sometimes in the 10th century, but already before the Arab invasion the whole Alicante area was inhabited for some 6,000 years; hunter gatherer tribes came first, but later more advanced civilisations took control of the area: Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Goths were all here before the Arab conquest. The Moors were finally chased away when the Christian Reconquista reached Alicante in 1246, whereafter the Santa Bárbara Castle only gained in importance: this was often the central point of defense against the Barbary pirates that were terrorising the coastal area.
As a visitor to the city you can reach the fort by climbing the mountain, a steep but not too difficult climb through the historic neighbourhoods of the city. The nicest approach for the climb is to take the route through the old Santa Cruz neighbourhood, best approached from the Mercado area across the Plaza del Carmen. This pleasantly picturesque district is several blocks of colourful houses climbing the hills up towards the fortification walls, linked with narrow streets and decorated houses, with big flower tubs as the most common decorative motifs. There are no signs of cars here, the feeling you get is closely resembling a trip back in time. Wouldn’t it be for the view covering Alicante’s modern skyline you could easily fool yourself.
A quicker way of reaching the castle is by simply taking the elevator from the foot of the mountain, situated just a few minutes walk from the beach. It’s the lazy solution, but if you’re in rush it could be worth the €2.50 (interestingly enough, taking the elevator down is free, the only stretch to pay for is up to the first level of the fort). The old castle offers history, some small exhibitions, a great atmosphere, no crowds (this was in May, it’s likely a bit more hectic in July and August) – and some truly spectacular views. All that totally free – pretty good value if you ask us.
Art in the old town
It’s not only beach here in Alicante, art and culture have important roles too. Once you come down from the top and end up in the compact El Barrio (also called El Casco Antiguo), wandering the narrow streets in the cool of the stone houses’ shade is a perfect way to spend a few hours. During your stroll you’ll come across the town hall (ayuntamiento – always an important part of any Spanish city), the cathedral, the old covent and plenty of restaurants and bars with cute terraces offering you a comfortable stop for resting your legs. A good advice is to stroll away from the main streets, there’s plenty to discover: you’ll even come across some modern details, like street art and some modernist design here and there.
In the midst of all the traces from the times past there are two great museums right in the centre of the old town. Just minutes away from the beach, it’s easy to combine a day in the sun with art when you need to cool your head. We certainly don’t know many other cities that can offer this combination as conveniently.
MACA – Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Alicante
Alicante’s contemporary art museum, MACA, was founded in 1977 and its existence is thanks to the local son, Eusebio Sempere, an important artist with an international profile especially known for his kinetic art and geometric works. The artist donated his entire private collection to the city and as a result the MACA was created, housing four levels of art in the Asegurada building, the oldest civil building that still exists in the city. While the outside of the building witnesses of a different past, the inside is a superb example of modern Spanish architecture.
The original collection donated by Sempere is made up of some 575 works, whereof some 200 are especially valuable: there are works by Picasso, Miró, Julio Gonzalez, Dalí, Vasarely and many more. The museum is only showing one third of the collection at once and the rotation takes place every third month or so.
After the death of the artist the MACA has actively purchased many of his works and today is in the possession of the biggest collection of Sempere’s work. The Eusebio Sempere Collection takes up the top floor of the museum, a great overview of the artist’s works.
Normally one floor of the museum is dedicated to the second collection donated to the museum by another local artist, Juana Francés. The second floor normally housing this collection is since December 2012 taken over by the Caja Mediterráneo Collection, consisting of 213 works of art by some 126 contemporary Spanish artists, a unique opportunity for a glimpse into the art scene of today.
MUBAG – The Gravina Museum of Fine Arts
Often it can get annoying having crowds to fight through in a museum. That’s not the case at Alicante’s MUBAG, in fact at our visit we were almost the only ones there. This in any case shouldn’t be an alarming sign, rather an incentive for you to go and enjoy some local Spanish art from especially the 19th century almost all for yourself (except the guard who was pretty irritating, especially very keen on us not taking pictures; never understood that). Across the four floors of the building the permanent collection takes up a significant part of this beautiful museum.
Our guess is that the lack of visitors is more a consequence that there aren’t any internationally big names to look for here. Nonetheless, this place has a lot to offer and among the 500 works there will be something to like for everyone. The decoration of the rooms is carried out very well and the presentations of the works are all done with the emphasis on lifting the paintings. All displays are in Spanish.
We definitely think this museum deserves your attention. The venue also puts on temporary exhibitions and the one on display now (unfortunately only until June the 8th) is about the works of the Swiss illustrator André Lambert. This Paris and Munich trained artist became a master of printmaking and graphic illustrator who chose to settle away from the hustle of everyday life in Jávea, an idyllic village not far from Alicante. His production for book illustrations was both rich and of the highest quality.
Alicante’s other Sights
Alicante is a perfect city for a daytrip where the above three options could make a perfect route for an outing. But there’s more, not to mention all the neighbouring towns and sights just outside the city.
MARQ – The Archaeological Museum of Alicante
If you’d ask anyone from Alicante what museum to go to, the likely answer would be a recommendation to visit the MARQ – the city’s famous archaeological museum. Located on the other side of the mountain, seen from the old town, this museum was so recently as ten years ago – in 2004 – the European Museum of the Year.
Located in the old hospital of San Juan de Dios, the museum in its eight galleries uses both important artifacts, but also multimedia to illustrate the life of ancient civilisations. Remember, Alicante was a city that went through all phases of ancient history – from Phoenicians to Arabs, where possibly its glory days as a Roman outpost – called Lucentum – played a major role. The site of the old Lucentum can actually be visited today at the archaeological site of Tossal de Manises.
Port of Alicante
Alicante’s port has been going through several phases of reinvention through its history. The latest one took place in the 1980’s when the harbour hit hard by the industrial decline transformed itself into a touristic hub, making Alicante one of the main stops for the Mediterranean’s cruise ships. Today this is a relaxed, beautiful spot, where not only cruise ships dock, but also many sailing boats sailing along the Costa Blanca. Off the water there’s plenty to do, besides the obvious strolls to the sound of the gentle waves.
The Esplanada de España
Starting just outside the port, the Explanada de España promenade is one of the most liked ones in the country. Paved with some six and a half million marble floor tiles, it creates a wavy pattern, giving the feel of a three-dimensional optical illusion. This is the city’s principal meeting point, both young and old come here to meet and relax and talk underneath the palm trees lining the promenade’s both sides.
Alicante is the hub within a vivid region with many interesting sights to visit. Thus, if you make Alicante the choice for a weekend trip, the choices for trips outside the city are also plentiful. Just to mention a few options, Murcia about an hour away or the twin city of Elche some 25 kilometres away are great alternatives for the ones who would like to see something different.
The province of Alicante isn’t only famous for the Costa Blanca and the beach tourism. The mountainous region is an important spot for mountain sports like climbing, mountaineering and mountain-biking. But there’s also plenty around Alicante for the cultural traveller, for instance there are many historic and picturesque villages worth looking into. Just to mention one, there’s Finestrat some 55 kilometres to the north, offering an idyllic setting atop of a small mountain.
Alicante is also famous for its wine. where the wine district of Vinalopó, some hour inland, is the one most worth a visit.
Should You Go – and When?
Alicante is thus a city that offers more than you might expect from it at first glance. It’s not often you can travel to a city where as easily as here you can combine a beach vacation with a cultural break. There’s Barcelona, for sure, but Alicante comes across as even more convenient, everything is on walking distance. The experience of a visit in May only left us with a positive impression. Sure, in high-summer the situation might be different, but avoiding the crowds of the hectic mega-touristic summer is easy: just go right before or after the high season. A trip in late spring or late summer is the optimal time for going, you’ll have the benefit of great temperatures and no crowds. Or why not skipping the winter all together and spend a few months here – suddenly it’s very easy to see the appeal of it.
Useful info about Alicante art spots:
MACA – Museo De Arte Contemporaneo De Alicante
Tuesday-Saturday: 10 am – 8 pm
Sundays and public holidays: 10 am – 2 pm
Admission: Free. yes, for real.
Plaza de Santa María, 3
03002 – Alicante
Phone: +34 – 965213156
Website: MACA Alicante (Spanish only)
MUBAG – The Gravina Museum of Fine Arts
Tuesday-Saturday: 10 am – 8 pm (July-August: 11 am – 9 pm)
Sundays and public holidays: 10 am – 2 pm (July-August: 11 am – 3 pm)
Admission: Free. yes again, for real. Guided tours available upon request (but likely only in Spanish)
Calle Gravina, 13-15
03002 – Alicante
Phone: +34 – 965 14 67 80
Website: MUBAG Alicante (Spanish only)
MARQ – The Archaeological Museum of Alicante
Mondays 8 am – 3 pm
Tuesday-Friday: 8 am – 7 pm
Saturdays 9:30 am – 7 pm
Saturdays 9:30 am – 2 pm
Admission: Free. yes, for real. Guided tours available upon request (but likely only in Spanish)
Plaza Dr. Gómez Ulla
03003 – Alicante
Phone: +34 – 965 149 006
Website: MARQ Alicante (Spanish only)