Tag Archives: Eugenio Mira

My Altea

On Saturday, February 27th, we celebrated six years with AlteArte. I remember our opening day as if it were yesterday. I close my eyes and vividly recall the anxiety I felt at having to take orders in Spanish and make drinks. I remember hoping that people would come while at the same time praying that they wouldn’t  – or at least not too many anyway.  I remember the relief that washed over me when my classmates from my Spanish class were among the first to walk through the door.

In some ways, it feels not so long ago. In other ways, it feels like a lifetime.

In the last six years, so much has changed – David and I, our relationship, our vision for what’s possible and what we want to accomplish. But we’re not the only ones to have changed. Altea has changed and is in the process of changing even more.

When we arrived in 2009, the church square, home to three major bars – Bar La Plaza, La Mascarada, and Cocoon – would get packed.  Then, on the last day of August two summers ago, Cocoon – which I had considered to be one of the more established businesses in Altea – quietly closed its doors. Since then, a crab restaurant has come and gone and a new restaurant just recently opened – leaving no sign at all of what it used to be. This past winter, even the square has been quiet, and AlteArte has practically been the only place open in the Old Town during the week days.

What happened? About two years ago, Altea was designated a historical site by the European Union. The designation put Altea on the map but came with a price tag. The houses needed to be maintained, the streets needed to be cleaned and the bars had to close on time. So, after four years of closing nearly every day at 4 or 5 in the morning, we were forced to adjust our closing time after a visit from the police two Augusts ago. Our official closing time was actually 1:30, but, for the next two years, we were able to get away with closing at 2 until our neighborhood started changing also. Houses were sold and bought by new neighbors, who, apparently, chose Altea for its tranquility, yet somehow overlooked the fact that there was a bar just at the end of the street. Ever searching for tranquility, the new neighbors started calling the cops on us. As a result, much to my surprise, the police made several visits in January, informing us that the neighbors had been complaining and that AlteArte was officially under surveillance – and would be required to close at the official closing time of 1:30 every day. January is the lowest period of the low season. How ironic that we had closed at 4 or 5 everyday in the first four years, yet it was now that we were getting more heat than ever. How confusing that we’d had much busier nights and never had trouble with the police, yet here we were in January, paranoid every night that we were going to get yet another visit from the cops.

And I found myself getting mad and frustrated at these new neighbors, who, instead of adapting to the neighborhood, were trying to change the neighborhood so that it would adapt to their lifestyles. And then I realized something. Of course Altea is changing. It has and it always will. No city, no place ever stays the same. When David and I first arrived to Altea in 2009, we were the new kids on the block and didn’t know much about Altea. We would listen with amazement as Warner would tell us how Altea used to be the party place and would actually draw people from the surrounding towns, and my eyes would open wide as Peter, our neighbor, recalled how Bar La Plaza would be packed with people almost every night of the week. Just because I can’t imagine Altea or Bar La Plaza being like that now doesn’t erase the fact that they were actually once this way.

Altea has changed and it’s still changing. I’ve noticed change ever since our second year, when I marveled at how quickly the businesses that had opened right before the summer had closed right after it, but, over the past two years, a different kind of change has been taking place. I have been here long enough now that it is no longer simply Altea that is changing, but rather My Altea.

Nearly two years ago, Eugenio Mira, the ceramicist that I so deeply admire, finally decided to slow down and downgraded from the large store exiting out on to Calle Mayor, the main shopping street in the Old Town, to the back of the shop that exits out on to the parallel street – the street that AlteArte is on. He opened his small shop only in the Summer months last year, and he might not be open at all this summer, he tells me as he gives me his card so that we can call him directly when my family comes in May and my sister needs to make her annual purchase of ceramic doves. And it’s a startling thought to realize that, had I arrived to Altea just a bit later, I might never have even known about Eugenio. I would have never had the opportunity to visit what came to be one of the first shops on the Calle Mayor, and I very easily might have missed the chance to meet one of the most inspirational and centered people in Altea who, unknowingly, helped me to find grounding and inner strength at at time in my life that I needed it most.

Had we arrived later, I might have looked with disdain at the abandoned house just across and slightly down the street from AlteArte that, due to its rapidly declining condition, has practically become an eyesore. I could never have imagined that this blemish on the street that tourists now try to angle out of in their photos was actually one of the most photographed houses only two years ago. I might have wondered how a house on such a charming street could be so lifeless, never knowing how full of life it once was – with a bedroom full of books and a facade that overflowed like a waterfall with plants and flowers. I might have wondered who lived there, but I never could have imagined the woman who actually did. Anna had such a grandiose presence and such a theatrical voice that she singlehandedly filled the neighborhood with life, drama and adventure.  Sometimes she would exit from her house barefoot, take a seat at our smallest table, order a glass of white wine and read her book. Sometimes she would tell me about her life which involved several countries and many men, and which, as hard as it was for me to fully grasp for all the things she has done, definitely was not wont of adventure. Sometimes she would call from her balcony, her face all but hidden by her plants, to Karl as he leaned out of the window of the house next door. Their constant banter, and the way that these neigbors would each complain to me about the other made me wonder about their relationship. And then one day Anna fell on one of the steep staircases of her narrow, three story house and was taken to the hospital. Her decline was quick, and, within months, she was moved to a home. And when I saw the impact that her absence had on Karl, I understood that their love/hate relationship actually had more to do with love than hate. And when I saw how the house has declined since she left, I understood it was she who added all the life and it was she who added the soul. And when I saw how the neighborhood has changed since she has been gone, I feel grateful to have arrived in time to meet one of Altea’s most vibrant characters.

My Altea continues to change. Juan Dura, the artist who captured the charm of Altea in his paintings that he would sell from his small shop in the square but who also made me fall in love with Altea during our very first visit to Altea, left his shop and Altea this fall, when, as rumors have it, he fell in love with a woman from Malaga. Had we arrived just years later, I never would have known that there was once an artist who would set up his easel just outside of his shop and paint a perfect picture of the picture perfect setting before him.

And shortly before leaving for California in November to surprise my dad for his 75th birthday, Pepa and Warner came in. We had known Pepa since our first year. She had opened her shop, Artesans, a short time before we arrived to Altea. And, through the years, we watched as she became part of the ebb and flow of Altea’s seasons – as, every spring, she prepared her store for yet another summer – painting the walls, shopping for new merchandise, taking a gamble on what this year’s tourists would spend their money on, and ironing the new clothes hours on end. We saw as she converted her living room into a second room for the store and added second hand merchandise, trying to adjust to the times and appeal to a new type of customer who was spending carefully and buying less.  I knew that Pepa had been struggling to make ends meet, so the announcement that she was moving to the north of Spain to open a store in a ski town that supposedly had two high seasons didn’t surprise me, but it deeply saddened me. Warner would go with her to help her get her new store ready as he had helped her with her store in Altea. So, on October 31st, instead of dressing up in impressive costumes as they had every Halloween previously, they were setting out to set Pepa up with a new life – and a new store. Had we arrived to Altea a little later, I might never have gotten to know Pepa who helped clue us in to all of Altea’s fiestas, who told us about the shooting stars in August, and who has been such a part of our history that she helped us perfect our mojito so that we could  officially became a mojiteria.

And when I returned from California a month later in December, David told me how El Raconet had closed while I was gone. And I was beyond shocked.  The closing of El Raconet signified something grand. It was a bar that had opened about a year after we took over AlteArte. They had entered the scene strong, created a lot of noise, and had quickly become the new popular hangout for the students. Insecure and only in our second year, we couldn’t help but compare ourselves to them, to wonder if they had more customers than we did, if they were open longer or if their parties were better. El Raconet’s arrival made us focus on what we wanted AlteArte to be and tested our focus and dedication to that vision until we were able to move beyond the initial feeling of insecurity. Had we arrived later, we might have missed that era altogether that made us question and define AlteArte’s identity early on.

And, as if all of that wasn’t enough, in November, Sissel moved back to Norway. One of my first friends in Altea and one of our first customers at AlteArte, Sissel had been one of our strongest supporters since the beginning. Altea is a transient place, and I have learned time and time again to say hello and goodbye as people come and go, but Sissel’s departure was one of the first times that I had to say goodbye to someone who had been here longer than I have. My Altea was most certainly changing.

Six years may have passed in the blink of an eye, but, when I step back and look at the big picture, I realize exactly what six years represents.

And finally I can better understand why the old woman across the street from AlteArte was so upset when we added an extra table to our terrace. It had caused such an uproar and literally almost caused a war, and I couldn’t understand how one table could cause such discontentment. Not having been in Altea or Spain long enough, I hadn’t realized that the addition of that extra table prevented her from setting out her chair on the street and sitting there on a countless summer evening watching the people walk by. It was a custom that she had been doing probably for as long as she could remember, yet here we were, newcomers to Altea, disrupting her sacred tradition. For her, us placing the table and filling it every night with customers marked one significant way in which Her Altea had changed.

Altea is constantly changing and will continue to change. Last week, I met a couple who just arrived to Altea. The husband asked if we could meet for coffee as he had questions for me since they have dreams of establishing a business in Altea. And I can’t help but think of when we were just setting out on our own adventure six years ago. And I wonder if we’ll come to represent something significant to this couple just as people like Eugenio Mira, Anna, Juan Dura, Pepa and Sissel and places like El Raconet had come to represent something very significant to us. I wonder if we’ll become a part of Their Altea.

Places mean different things to different people. They are moments captured in a snapshot and comprised of the people, the experiences and the memories of each individual who walked its streets during a certain period in time. No matter how much Paris changes, in my mind, it will forever remain the place that I knew it in 2000 – pre Euro, pre Starbucks when life was affordable and you could walk Paris’s streets without feeling the presence of the U.S. New York City will forever remain the city that I knew it between 2005 and 2009 as a city of dreams and aspirations. When I’ve gone back to Paris in recent years, I’ve been shocked by how expensive the city has become and how the energy has shifted.  If we were ever to visit our old East Harlem neighborhood again, I doubt that I would even recognize it, for it was just on the brink of gentrification when we left in 2009. Places change. They have and they always will. All we can do is enjoy the present moment even if it’s fleeting, make our time meaningful while we’re here and be ready to embrace the change that’s sure to come.


Anna’s house then… it’s the one overflowing with plants and flowers on the left.


Anna’s house now. It’s just a shell of what it once was.


Anna’s house now.

Street Scene

Juan Dura was painting during our very first visit to Altea.

Pepa and Jenny

Pepa (on the left) has been part of our Altea since the beginning.

Ivan and Sissel

Sissel (on the right) has been one of our strongest supporters since the beginning.


Then. And Now.

Our landlord is a hippie. With a long beard and a laid back, laissez faire attitude, he’s more than happy to go back in time over a beer at AlteArte. With a grin on his lips and a light in his eye, he relives his days of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Now in his 70s, he often travels locally to compete in quick, less than five minute chess games with some of the best, but he once was the one pouring the drinks and turning up the music at El Corral, the tri level bar that was the first pit stop in “La Ruta del Bakalou,” an infamous route of techno music and drugs that started in the 80’s and stretched from Altea to Valencia. High on drugs and life, people would depart from El Corral at 2:00 am and stop at different bars along the way, not arriving at the final destination in Valencia until 11:00 am. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, some wouldn’t make it to that last stop, losing their lives somewhere along the curvy road that hugs the Mediterranean. La Ruta del Bakalou came to an end in the mid 90’s. What brought about its demise? Pepe shrugs. It was just the trend of the people at that moment in time, he says matter-of-factly. The people changed and so did the trends.

Fast forward several decades to March 1st when we celebrated our fourth anniversary and excitedly opened the doors to ArteAltea, a light and open space much more suitable for exhibiting art. The store just next door to AlteArte had become vacant in October, and Pepe approached us about taking it. Cautious to not be too hasty in our decisions, we gave it careful thought and considered what we wanted for the future and for AlteArte. And we realized that it was an opportunity that might not come around again anytime soon. So, for the next two months behind closed doors so that no one could see, David, with the help of a construction worker and an electrician, set to work painting, installing professional lighting and cabling for the art, and furnishing it modestly but just comfortable enough so as to provide extra seating. And, just as he had done years previously with AlteArte, he molded it and transformed it and created a space that was beautiful and inspiring. And, in the last week before our 4th anniversary party, he added the window and the door and united AlteArte with ArteAltea, making it hard to imagine that, at one time, they had ever been separate.

We had spent so much time planning and plotting and through it all trying to keep everything a secret, but, little did we know that we were in store for some big surprises ourselves. Two days before the big party, on a quiet afternoon, Pascual walked by – as he often does – and motioned to me that there were customers outside. Grabbing the menu and rushing outside in fear that they had been sitting there for a while, I stopped dead in my tracks and my heart skipped a beat as my brain tried to register what my eyes were seeing. There, in front of me, within touching, were my mom and my sister who had traveled from California just to be there for the party. And as the realization set in, the emotions came pouring out. For, as important as the approaching day was, I had never, ever expected my family to make such a long journey just to attend, and it touched me deeply that they had made such an effort to be there. But, barely had we gotten our heads around that surprise when, the very next day, in walked another – David’s mom. She had flown in from Paris just to be with us. And, on the actual day, Sissel, one of my first friends in Altea who filled AlteArte with all of her friends on our very first day and who is like my Norwegian mom in Spain, made the final surprise, having flown in from Norway just for the weekend. Already, the day was memorable before it had even started!

Our anniversary kicked off with an art opening by Hans Peter Fjugstad, a Norwegian artist and a loyal customer who we had chosen to inaugurate the space. Juan Rivera, a well-known, local DJ transitioned the art opening into a party while Antonio, a professional balloon artist who has an amazing ability to make flowers, animals and just about anything imaginable from a simple balloon, added just the right touch to make the evening fun and original.

And people flowed through the three levels and onto the street outside, including Geir and his group of 20 friends who had traveled all the way from Norway for the party. And the whole space was alive with energy and excitement and celebration.

At first glance, those old enough to remember might have looked at this once again tri-level business and been reminded of the days of El Corral when Pepe and his wife, Sandra, got fines for having 100 people in the street and eventually got shut down by the city, but, upon closer inspection, they would have seen that what we were creating was something entirely different. The times had changed and so had the people and the trends.

And with ArteAltea finished and officially open, what David had envisioned and created triggered my own ideas and inspirations for the potential of this new space. And I began to dream bigger and think larger. AlteArte hadn’t been the most conducive for activities or events. But, now with this new space that was joined yet independent from AlteArte, suddenly the possibilities seemed limitless. And, in the months following the opening, I busied myself with researching local talent because there’s nothing more beautiful than living in a place like Altea and having the type of business where we can showcase that talent.

And I organized a local author event and poetry reading and acoustic music for Sunday afternoons. We also organized creative workshops like how to make tie dyed t-shirts. It went over so well that one of the attendees showed up a week later, telling us how she had so much fun tie-dying that she had tie-dyed everything white that was in her wardrobe! And we got articles in the local papers and the dynamics changed.

And when Eugenio Mira, a movie director who is the son of Eugenio Mira, the ceramist who I admire so much and wrote about, was not only willing but excited to carry out my idea of organizing a screening of his recently released movie, Grand Piano, starring Elijah Wood, with him in attendance for a Q&A afterwards, I was humbled and proud at what we were accomplishing. Mira had done screenings around the world but this would be the first in his hometown and we had the honor of hosting it.

We had effectively transitioned into being a place that showcased talent, created memorable moments and brought people together. And what started out as just a local, off-the-beaten-path bar, was becoming a destination on the map. And I hoped that, through these efforts, we were making a positive impact and adding to the beauty of Altea. And just like Pepe and Sandra made history with El Corral in the 80s, perhaps one day, decades from now, people might talk about David and me and the impression that AlteArte and ArteAltea had on Altea.

But the future is the future and some things are too hard to predict. So, for the time-being, I travel back in time with Pepe – whenever he chooses to take me. At his request, I play I Can’t Get No Satisfaction by Rolling Stones, and we both get lost in our own thoughts. We are at different stages in life and have very different pasts, but the song speaks to both of us and unites us in the present.