The unspoken rules were always thus; the UK middle classes loved summering in Italy, from Capri to ‘Chiantishire’, and bought their holiday homes in France, seeking out picturesque towns in Bordeaux and Provence, while the working classes headed for Portugal, Turkey and Spain. But are things changing? Talking to friends in Spain this weekend, the anecdotal evidence certainly points that way.
After the cheap-flights boom that began in the 1970s, Spain’s Costa Del Sol became a byword for crime as Essex gangsters headed out to buy property and open pubs, and trash TV shows still revel in the gutter antics of drunk teens. But Franco’s death had started to create a more level, modern-thinking society. This become visible in the country’s changing attitudes to modern Spanish art, film, design and food. Modernism flourished while France became more entrenched in the past.
Francophones craved the Mediterranean lifestyle, the cuisine, the resorts and villages, but turned a blind eye to rising crime and unemployment, and for every picture-perfect town there’s a no-go ghetto. France has been slow to embrace cultural pluralism. (For example, the French home entertainment industry refused to allow other language options for its product, and was beaten to international profitability by Spain, who now reach large world audiences.)
But a problem remained with Spain – the British holidaymaker, sunburned and vested, tattooed and drunk, would not go away. Why should they when a Spanish home was cheaper than a UK flat? Lately, the Mayors of many Spanish towns have been raising their game by restoring rundown beach promenades and improving facilities.
Yesterday I went into Benidorm, once a laughing-stock catchphrase, the epitome of the Essex invasion, and found that it was well on the way to switching places with Nice. The Riviera epitomised elegance, but the last time I visited its buildings were smothered in graffiti, streets were dirty and run-down, restaurants were serving terrible food at insane prices aimed at the massive influx of unsophisticated Russian tourists.
By contrast, Benidorm’s stunning beachfront was being radically transformed, with a reduction in scruffy nightlife and pollution, and a zero tolerance to litter and graffiti. There’s clearly a long way to go yet – one part of the town is still the home of the British lager-lout and hen-night brigade, but it now seems constrained to one specific area.
The real difference is in the cost of living. As France chases Russian and Chinese cash, Spain and rising star Turkey offer genuine value for money. For me, though, the real shock is Europe is now the almost total absence of our American cousins, who I guess are redefining their own travel habits.