In There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon, Marian Taylor journeys to Spain to volunteer in a hospital during the Spanish Civil War. Furious with her family and disenchanted with her privileged lifestyle, she leaves New York City in 1937 and doesn’t return to the U.S. for more than fifteen years. She spends most of that time in Altea, a town on the Costa Blanca on the Mediterranean. Living with her in-laws after the war ends, life in Altea is hard for Marian. She struggles with the steep steps of the town’s streets, and longs to swim at the beach but is unable to do so. Townsfolk are suspicious of one another, and a failure to show proper religious deference or attend church could mark her as an enemy of Franco’s regime. Things are bleak, but Marian finds relief and joy during the daily trips she takes with a new friend outside the city where they collect plant specimens.
Years later when Marian’s granddaughter, Amelia, visits Altea hoping to connect her grandmother’s past to her present, the atmosphere in the town has completely changed. It is now a tourist destination full of vacationers idly enjoying the delights of Mediterranean living.
In this edition of Armchair Adventurer, we take a journey to places familiar to both Marian and Amelia. Come with us as we swim at the beach, stroll on the promenade, and explore the twisty streets, all the while keeping an eye out for signs of history!
Nuestra Señora del Consuelo
If you’re in Altea you can’t miss the church of Nuestra Señora del Consuelo (Our Lady of Comfort). From its seat at the top of the hill, its blue-and-white tiled domes dominate the skyline. A church has occupied this place of geographic prominence for more than 900 years, with the current one built in the early twentieth century. If you look closely, you’ll notice that one of the bell towers is missing. Destroyed during the Spanish Civil War and never rebuilt, its absence now serves as a reminder of the war. Climb the steps through the narrow streets of Old Town to reach the captivating church, view its beautiful stained-glass windows, and enjoy dinner or drinks at one of the many bars and restaurants surrounding the church square.
Playa de la Roda
If you’re looking for history, you can travel north from Altea to Playa de la Olla where you can find a restored bunker from the Spanish Civil War. But if you’d rather stay closer to Old Town, Playa de la Roda is the perfect place to sunbath on a lounge chair or swim in the cool water. It’s boarded by a promenade with shops and cafés in case you need a tortilla or an ice cream to tide you over until dinner. The beach is rocky, meaning it’s usually somewhat quiet—just don’t forget your water shoes!
Peñón de Ifach
While lying in your beach chair, you might be wondering about the huge rock that looks like a smaller Gibraltar. It’s Peñón de Ifach, a limestone outcrop that is famous for its various types of rare plants and animals. A botanist’s dream! If you’re up for an adventure you can hike to the top. It’s a challenging climb but the views of the surrounding area are worth it!
Fiestas Patronales and Moors and Christians
The festival of Christ and San Blas, the patron saint of Altea, and the Moors and Christians festival are held in Altea the fourth weekend in September. The festivities include parades, fireworks, and lots of music. Costumed townsfolk reenact the conquest of the Moors and their subsequent defeat by the Christians. The town is alive with merriment during this time but also has a few solemn religious rituals. We’ll let you decide what you think of this celebration and its history.