Three days out: R & R for a tour leader

Alcúdia

Surrounded by tall palms swaying in a warm breeze, Ilici, or as it is known nowadays, Alc̼dia Рa name of Arabic origin Рis an important archaeological site situated near Elche, in the Alicante province of Spain. It is most famous for its Neolithic remains and for the world-famous Dama de Elche.

In Roman times it became a ‘colonia’, which meant a settlement in conquered territory. Its name at that time was Colonia Iulia Ilici Augusta. Its history spans 6,000 years.

Some 3,000 exhibits are on display and many are of great historical importance, one of which – the Dama de Elche – is world famous. I loved the well-preserved mosaics.

The museum is owned by the University of Alicante.

Gazing at the replica of the much-revered Lady of Elche (the original is now in Madrid’s National Archaeological Museum of Spain), it is hard to realise that she was in fact created to be a funeral urn! You can see the hole in her back where ashes were placed. At the time of the Moorish conquest of Spain, she was called the Reina Mora – Moorish Queen – by local people. She has since travelled from her homeland to the Louvre in Paris, then down to Montaubon near Toulouse for safe-keeping whilst the Nazis occupied Paris. She finally returned ‘home’ to Spain during the Franco era. She has been exhibited in Madrid’s Prado as well – a much travelled lady!

The site is impressive, covering 19 hectares, and the museum has a twenty-minute video recreating the original site for visitors. You really feel transported back to ancient times when this was a bustling urbanisation, complete with thermal baths, a surrounding wall, an Iberian temple, Christian church, Venus cistern, and examples of Imperial, and Ibero-Roman houses.

Altogether a wonderful excursion from any of the nearby towns in Alicante province, and well worth a visit, especially if rounded off with lunch or tapas in nearby Elche!

The Canelobre Caves and Jalon bodega

Residents of the Alicante and Murcia regions all know the familiar ‘where shall I take my visitors today?’ dilemma. We love having people to stay, but we need to get on with our own fabulous lives too. So, the occasional coach trip is a useful option. We get to choose to stay home, knowing they’re (usually) in good hands, or we can take a day off and go along for a jolly, too.

So, when my lovely Irish friend decided to pay a quick, unplanned visit a few weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to accompany her on an outing of her choice. She chose Canelobre caves, which I hadn’t seen before, so a winner all round!

The day started well enough – I slept on the early morning coach as I usually do, lulled by the motion of travel and the hum of engines, while she admired the countryside.

Our professional and experienced guide Wendy regaled us with a fascinating commentary – just enough to whet our appetite for the day ahead. We stopped for a quick coffee en route and pulled into the carpark at the Caves entrance well before opening time. Okay, it was good to be early, to have time to enjoy the spectacular views, but it was very cold, and we were in the shade, and needed to stamp our feet to keep warm. They did at least open up a coffee stall where we could buy a plastic thimbleful – oh, I mean, cup – of very average coffee, and huddle among the smokers, listening to their morning coughs as they sucked in their poison. The coffee did at least serve to warm our fingers enough to stop them freezing solid. Maybe the exhaled smoke was a contributing factor.

For me, the caves were underwhelming. I’ve travelled far and wide, and seen many stunning examples of the ubiquitous stalactites and stalagmites. And my visitor lives close to the famous Marble Arch caves near Enniskillen.

Still, we were in good humour and ready for our much-anticipated Jalon bodega visit.

Oh dear. We arrived at 1.15 – just fifteen minutes before they closed. And there were not enough of the wee plastic (tut, tut) cups to go round. Admittedly, some of the ‘tasters’ were guzzling way more than their share and disposing of the cups into the bin at will. The upshot was, no wine for me and a couple of others. I requested that the staff bring out some more, but was stunned by the response: ‘No! We are closing soon.’

‘In fifteen minutes, right?’ I asked.’ Isn’t that time to get another bottle out?’

‘And when do I go home to eat my lunch?’ The employee answered.

‘Well, I don’t mind fetching it if you are busy. After all, that’s why we’re here – to taste your wines.’

‘Yes. But we have no more wine.’

This was delivered with a blank face, followed by a back turned, and arms folded in irritation. Okay, so he won’t be selling me any wine today, then.

So, we crossed the road to buy some delicious-looking fruit, where I discovered that poor Wendy was equally as stunned as I was by the bodega staff’s reception. How embarrassing for her.

Chin up, Carruthers, I thought. Now for lunch. Bring it on!

And at last, I wasn’t disappointed. The restaurant had recently renamed itself Black Flame Bar and Grill, and the buffet was exceptional. I ate enough for a week. Gorgeous fresh vegetables, and my favourite kind of beef (pink in the middle), very efficiently organised by our tour guide Wendy and served by friendly staff who really enhanced the whole experience. The lunch alone, and Wendy’s lively commentary, made for money worth spending.

Jumilla city tour and bodega visit.

Jumilla is a municipality situated in the Murcia province of Spain, and is famous for its wines. As we descended from the coach on arrival, we were greeted by a charming and competent local tour guide who escorted us on our walking tour.

We began in Arriba square, and strolled to the sumptuously decorated theatre.

A restored castle – an old Muslim fortification – dominates the small town, perched as it is above the narrow streets.

The Casa de la Ermita bodega and wine museum visit includes an alternative libation production area: the brewery. Realising that the thirst of toiling field workers would not be quenched by wine, the owners of the vinery decided to try their hand at beer instead.

Now, some three years later, tasting the small but varied selection of beers is an integral part of a visit to their bodega. My favourite was Casa de la Ermita Rubias.

After the brewery visit, I was surprised that we were invited to board the coach immediately. What about the wine? I wondered, very slightly panic-stricken.

‘Oh, zees ‘appen now,’ said our friendly guide. ‘Weez zee lunch. We go down zee lane by coach as it eez a leetle steep.’

And wine-tasting turned out to be a different experience here: as you enter the restaurant, a selection of bottles is placed on each table, and you can quaff as much as you like of each until you make your choice of what to buy (not obligatory), or fall over, whichever comes first. Not quite the delicate sipping from a tiny saucer which is how most vineries tickle your taste (or nose) buds!

Lunch began with a beautiful salad bowl, piled high with every salad leaf and vegetable imaginable. There followed a somewhat bewildering main course for those who are unfamiliar with Spanish cuisine: spicy chorizo sausage and boiled potatoes. Many thought it was a starter and left some room for the main course, which was not forthcoming. After a choice of puddings, we were offered dessert wines and cava, as if we hadn’t had enough alcohol already. We wove our way back to the coach to be transported down the lane back to the bodega office to make our purchases. Now I know why they use the coach for a 100-metre distance: most people could barely stand, let alone walk uphill.

Needless to say, many euros changed hands that afternoon, and within five minutes all conversation died and the whole coach was snoring.

It was an excellent day out – and very good value!

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