Benidorm is a phenomenon. It boasts more high rise buildings per person than anywhere else on the planet.
And the best place to see all this is from the Benidorm Cross, up on the Serra Gelada overlooking the Playa Levante. The view from up here is astonishing. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.
But the cross itself began life as a protest. Against bikinis, of all things.
In the late fifties and early sixties, wearing a bikini was considered shocking, especially in General Franco’s Spain.
Back then, Benidorm was just starting its transformation from obscure seaside resort into the tourism powerhouse that it is today. Women, mostly foreign tourists, had taken to wearing those sinful bikinis on the beach. Cue outrage from the Catholic Church.
Apparently, the Bishop of Orihuela, just down the road, threatened to put signs up outside the town proclaiming “El Infierno” (Hell!). So as part of a “Day of Forgiveness”, it was decided to carry a huge wooden cross from the church of San Jaime up to a high point overlooking this sinful town.
Journalist Giles Tremlett, in his excellent book “Ghosts of Spain”, tells a great story of how, years later, he talked to the man who was Benidorm’s mayor (alcalde) at the time, Pedro Zaragoza Orts.
Alcalde Zaragoza, who did more than anyone to pioneer Benidorm’s tourist boom, told how he decided, on his own initiative, to permit bikinis in the town. He knew it was good for tourism. A wrathful Church threatened him with excommunication; then a serious business in Catholic Spain.
So the mayor went right to the top. He stuffed some newspaper down his shirt to keep out the cold, jumped on his Vespa scooter and rode all the way to Madrid to see Franco himself. Quite how he managed to talk his way into seeing the Generalísimo isn’t known, but it did the trick. According to Economist magazine, the old dictator took a liking to this moustachioed mayor with oil on his trousers. Eight days later, Franco’s wife Carmen came to Benidorm…and apparently visited regularly for years afterwards. With that seal of approval, alcalde Zaragoza heard no more about excommunication.
His Vespa ride to see Franco featured in a short film – called ‘Bikini’ appropriately enough – made for cable network HBO Latino in 2014.
The wooden cross the faithful carried all the way up the hill that day was toppled in a storm in 1975. Perhaps a sign that the Almighty wasn’t really that bothered about bikinis?
God-fearing folk clearly weren’t taking any chances though. So another cross, this time made of metal, was put in its place…and that’s the one we see today. It’s since become a kind of unofficial shrine where people, mostly Brits, leave photos, flowers and tributes to dead friends and family. The scrawled graffiti on the cross and its base is definitely on the tacky side though.
It’s a bit of a climb from the end of the Playa del Levante (Calle Berlin) up to the cross, especially on a hot day. Beware: there’s no bar at the top (unusual in Spain!), so take water. Allow about 45-50 minutes, but the views are worth it. Or take the lazy way up by driving – it’s on Calle Taywan on satnav or Google Maps – park just below the summit and walk the rest of the way.
For serious hikers, this is also the start of a proper walk across the Serra Gelada nature reserve to the little town of Albir on the other side. Full disclosure: we haven’t done this one yet!
© Guy Pelham 2018