September 11th, 2012
How you arrive at your destination in Spain can make all the difference to your first impressions of the country. Flying is so much less attractive than it was in times gone past. It feels less special than it used to.
But arriving in a country by sea still has some inherent magic to it. Including when you arrive at one of the many Spanish ports. I give a big thumbs up to some ports in Spain.
The first I ever arrived at was in Bilbao. The thing that struck me about the view was the rolling countryside beyond. How green it was, even in June.
Traditionally ports are not attractive. They are not meant to be. It isn’t the job of a working port to draw in the casual visitor. After all, the chances are that you are simply passing through.
That was the case when i used Bilbao as my place of arrival in Spain, at the Santurtzi port located fifteen kilometres west of the city centre. But I do not believe in arriving somewhere and not seeing it. So i took time out to experience the proud city of Bilbao.
To make my first visit to the unmissable Guggenheim museum but also to see the less touristy parts of the city. To go in bars and sample pintxos and the good wine of the region. I walked through the lovely parks and wandered the older streets of Bilbao in the Casco Viejo area.
As water plays such a big part in the life of Bilbao, it is right to arrive there by ship. Container and cargo traffic still outnumber the number of tourist carrying ferries, but great efforts have been made to attract overseas car and foot visitors to Bilbao.
And so popular has the city become in the last fifteen years that another port at Getxo was built to accommodate all the ships heading for Basque country.
Then there is the port of Cádiz. One steeped in some serious Spanish history, as you would expect from the oldest inhabited city in mainland Spain.
A home to one division of the Spanish Navy which is based at San Fernando. In 1805, at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, fifteen ships sailed off to battle with the British navy. Only 6 ships make it back to Cádiz.
If you are sailing into Cádiz today, simply from the charming neighbouring location of El Puerto de Santa Maria, or from further afield; you will not have to concern yourself about battleships.
But you can see a very similar view of Cádiz as those who have sailed here for centuries. It is a superb view that encompasses sights such as the cathedral, one that stands out from the crowd courtesy of its distinctive roof.
The Plaza de España is dominated by the tall monument celebrating the 1812 constitution of Cádiz and that can be seen for many miles out to sea. And, as you get closer to docking, you will see the natural harbour of La Caleta. This is not just a harbour or a beach. La Caleta has been immortalised on canvas by many a famous painter and been used as a backdrop in many a movie, including James Bond films.
Cádiz is a tremendous city. Atmospheric and an ideal location to base yourself for a holiday touring the gorgeous Costa de la Luz coastline.
Some years ago I predicted to doubters that the port of Motril on the Costa Tropical would take off. And it has done exactly that.
The Costa Tropical lacks the sandy beaches of the Costa de la Luz but it stays warmer for longer and that itself attracts cruise liner devotees from America. The arrival of cruise ships has been good news for the economy of Motril, Granada and the colourful Costa Tropical.
That coupled with regular ferry crossings to Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla means the new improved port has been busier than ever before. The days when i could simply stroll to the waters edge and watch the fisherman bring in their catch have gone. All manner of security measures prevent you from getting that close these days.
A new harbour is being built at Motril so the city can look forward to welcoming some wealthy private sailors in years to come.
For many months of the year the view from the sea is one of Motril set against a backdrop of the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains.
As is so often the case with people arriving on a cruise ship, they use the few hours they have to dash off to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, or the villages of La Alpujarra. Too few people spend time in Motril itself. That is a shame as the smart shops, bars and fish restaurants should be experienced.
Cartagena is not the first place people think of going when taking a holiday in the region of Murcia.
Cartagena is another port that has played a vital part in the seafaring life of Spain. It is home to a major naval station and the Maritime department of Spain. Locals say it is the number one port in the country and has been since the 16th century.
Luis has run a bookshop in the city for decades. He tells me: “All the other ports are small compared to ours. Cartagena is the most important port in Spain and always has been. The city dates back to the Romans and today Cartagena port is much less about tourism and cruise ship passengers and more centred around the Spanish navy.”
It is a pity those who holiday in this region do not visit Cartagena. True, the beaches close to the neighbouring Puerta de Mazarrón are tempting and where most holidaymakers go. But they should put down the sun factor cream for a day and go to Cartagena. I was taken by surprise at how smart this city is.
But, strictly speaking, the largest port of them all is elsewhere in Spain.
The largest seaport in Spain is the one at Valencia. This is a seriously busy and industrious port. Indeed one port is not enough in Valencia. There are two satellite ports, at Sagunto and at the popular holiday destination of Gandia.
Of course few people need telling how smart Valencia is these days. If ever a city has been transformed in modern Spain, it is the third largest one in the country.
I have not seen a place develop and change so quickly. Not all the locals welcomed the change initially. They enjoyed being ignored!
But then high profile sporting fixtures changed all that.
First the America’s Cup sailing competition came and went and then the area around the port was transformed when they built a Formula 1 racetrack that, at certain points, almost touches the sea. A noise to rival the annual Fallas celebration staged in the city.
There are lots of reasons to visit Valencia. The very best serving of Paella, certainly. The potent drink of Agua de Valencia, yes please. Tourist destinations such as the amazing City of Arts and Science museum, or the stand out central market in the city centre.
And be sure to take a short journey to the villages of El Palmar and El Perellonet in the La Albufera area, just 15 kilometres south of the city. Have a luscious lunch there.
I know the port will not be high on anyone’s list, but maybe you should think again. I liked the bars and restaurants that are close by.
Tim Birch lives in Valencia and is delighted at the changes he has witnessed in his past twelve years living in the city.
He told me: “If the truth be known the Valencians have been quite happy for the city to be their little secret.
“Valencia is a coastal city, with a wonderful broad sandy beach. However, before the America’s Cup was held here, Valencia had turned its back on the sea.
“Now it has realised the sea is out there and it is promoting this new found zone.”
And I can confirm that Valencia is not alone in that regard. The penny has dropped that making the area close to a port more attractive brings with it much needed prosperity.
It has worked in Valencia and Bilbao and is already paying dividends at Motril.
And there is no finer country than Spain in which to find your land legs.