The streets of Altea are quiet these days and it’s hard to imagine how Altea was just a few months ago when they were bustling with couples and families and strollers and when the restaurants had their terraces out full of people until well after midnight. But even though the contrast is great, it doesn’t come as such a surprise as it did the first time around when I didn’t yet understand the ebb and flow of Altea’s seasons.
Life in Altea has a rhythm of its own. Like the Mediterranean that surrounds this coastal village, the majority of time the rhythm is calm, quiet, tranquil. However, every so often, the weather gets stormy, and the sea becomes troubled, creating an impressive show of force as the water crashes dramatically against the wall of rocks. The Summer season is similar. It’s dramatic and unrelenting with its steady flow of people weaving in and out of Altea’s labyrinth of streets. Spring and Fall provide a brief relief from the extremes of both.
Though the seasons still take some adjusting to, the underlying current of constant change has surprised me even more. When we first arrived to Altea, we were impressed by the businesses that had been open for decades. But the foundation that seemed so solid has given way to reveal a much more transient world underneath. Within the past year, we have seen more changes than we can keep track of. Many businesses opened up in the Spring, poised to capitalize on the busy Summer months. But already by Fall, their stay had expired and they were already shutting their barely-opened doors – for good, like the random vintage photo studio where customers dress up Victorian style and the silk store next to AlteArte that added a splash of color to the white street with its purple doors and fast-talking, money-flashing, salesman-like owner. One clothing store moved from its small modest store just outside the old town into a beautiful, flashy space that was visible from the square only to vanish from Altea altogether just months later. A bar opened just off the square in December with odds that were stacked against it: the rent was formidably high, the space was a cave with no outside space (it’s practically suicide to not have a terrace in the summer), and the owner was one person doing everything himself. While many placed their bets that the bar wouldn’t even last until the Summer, the owner, though small in stature made up for his physical size with a resilient determination to defy the impossible and ultimately defied the odds and endured. But, in order to do so, he had to make some choices. To attract the bar-hopping youth, he stayed open after the other bars shut down. Thus, his bar became a popular After Hours place where the party would often continue until 9 in the morning. The strategy was an effective way to attract business in the short term but was impossible to reverse and, in the long term, became the cause of his demise. In September, he received police orders to close the bar.
Being a relative newbie in Altea, I lack the perspective to know whether this constant shifting underneath is Altea’s natural ebb and flow or if it’s a disturbing sign of the times.
Plagued with unemployment rates of more than 20 percent and still struggling to find its footing after its 2008 dip into what has been called “the greatest recession in sixty years,” Spain certainly wasn’t a land of opportunity when we first arrived in 2009. And, in Torrevieja, the news headlines played out on the ground, making it feel more like an abandoned ghost town rather than a bustling city of 100,000. For Sale and For Rent signs hung from every building, large restaurants stood vacant, and desperation and desolation plagued the air. So when we arrived in Altea, it was a breath of fresh air in many ways. Not only was Altea far more picturesque and charming than Torrevieja, but it also seemed more insulated from the recession – as if somehow this small village cradled between the mountains and the sea could defy the economic storm that was whipping through the country. For Sale signs were scarce, the homes well-maintained and the businesses were, well, in business.
But perhaps even Altea is no longer safe. Just recently, the city hall laid off 24 employees and the debt rose to 47 million euros. That’s following a Summer where the store owners on Calle Mayor – the main avenue where if a shop is going to work, it’s going to work there – complained about their sales. Sure, the streets may have been full of tourists this Summer, but they weren’t spending, the shop owners reported. Fortunately, for us, the tourists still had to eat and drink. And, thanks to David’s strategizing, we decided, after hearing again and again how good our mojitos were, to go full force and specialize in just that. We made mojitos our niche and have developed a line of different flavored ones. As a result, not only did we significantly increase sales from our first Summer as the average drink order increased from 1.50 (the price of a beer) to 5 euros (the price of the basic mojito) but we turned our first employee, Pablo, into a mojito machine as he churned out thousands over the course of three months.
The trick right now is to stand out, especially in Spain which has the highest ratio of bars to population. Since bars are the businesses that work best in Spain and jobs are hard to come by, naturally, more and more of our clients who are unable to find jobs are creating their own by opening bars of their own.
Those that survive not only the natural ebb and flow of Altea’s seasons but also the economic storm that only seems to be growing will be the businesses that think outside of the box and respond with new and creative ideas, like Pepa who has turned her store, Artesans, into a second-hand shop… the first of its kind in Altea’s old town. From racks that were once filled with designer names now hang a mishmash of clothing, including one of my shirts – last time I checked. By doing so, she has differentiated herself and has breathed new life into her business. Xef Pirata has become popular with its high end tapas because it satisfies a craving left by Altea’s numerous Italian restaurants that all offer too much of the same. With our mojitos, we hope to give people a specific reason to come to AlteArte.
Following a Summer that was disturbingly lackluster, the long Winter ahead will be a crucial time for many. Some will inevitably be washed away by the tide. Others will find their footing and face things head on. As for us, I know that as long as we take the time to properly sow the seeds in the rough times, we’ll outright flourish in the good times ahead.