If you aren’t keen on driving, getting to La Romana means taking a bus or a train from Madrid to Elda (see Guidepost Spring-Summer 2012) and then through Novelda. Of course, for a seasoned traveler this poses no problem at all. The sheer excitement of boarding a train and riding the local bus, and the thought of unexpected thrills along the way, can make the venturesome sight-seer eager to depart at any time.
Mr. Alan Cook was waiting for me in front of the imposing casino in Novelda, the charming little town where I would be putting in for the night. Characters and places of three British writers came trooping into my mind: literary film and thriller writer Graham Greene (The Third Man and The Quiet American) who frequently made trips to Spain; English writer and hispanist Gerald Brenan (The Spanish Labyrinth, South From Granada) who shipped 2000 books to Spain in 1920 before heading to a hamlet called Yegan near Granada; and Laurie Lee, English poet, novelist and screenwriter who perambulated across Iberia in 1934, initiating his twelve month journey in Galicia and described vividly in As I Walked Out One Morning.
Behind the wheel Alan asked, with a broad smile, if I “would like to see the sights.”
“Thanks I’ll do that after I’ve heard about your project,” I replied.
“Brilliant! Then let’s go to the Mayor’s office.” We drove off.
As the town came into view a sense of well-being and tranquility descended on me.
“Welcome to La Romana,” Mayor Manuel Hernández Riquelme greeted me with a firm handshake…
I had a question for Manuel: “What do you think of your town?”
“La Romana is a pueblo with a bright future.”
Clearly, Manuel related integration with that bright future. At the launching of the Community Center “the pueblo was receptive to other cultures and the community was enriched by them.”
I turned to Alan. “Could you tell us about your project?”
This was Alan’s favourite topic: “Los Amigos de La Romana was mainly created to help this village and the people in the surrounding areas. There seemed to be a need to assist those who are disabled, sick or in need of help in other ways. And one of the most important things for the village way of life is one single word – integration. There are many foreign nationals who retire in Spain. A lot of them go inland where it is more quiet and pleasant.”
He goes on to explain that when they need to process their papers language can indeed be a stumbling block. They need a translator and a lawyer. And this of course costs money. “So as you can see Los Amigos de La Romana is a community as well as an information centre.”
In the big cities and in many of the touristy towns there are retirees who live on funds from their countries and get by in the local vernacular in their daily errands. Others are fortunate enough to live in a community surrounded by services offered to them entirely in English. Going to the movies is a sheer delight for them as many of the latest films are in the original version. But not in La Romana.
“Where do you get the funding?” I asked.
“Manuel and I have been working on this for a long time. We started the boot sales long before the opening of the Centre. We now have the monthly bazaar plus four auctions a year. The money that is raised is used for purchasing the necessary equipment like wheelchairs and provides the necessary services that we can give the residents in our village, and beyond, who are in dire need. Integrating everyone in our community and in the neigbouring areas is the way to move forward.”
The Amigos de La Romana (www.amigosdelaromana.com), a charity organization, was officially inaugurated by the British Consul from Alicante in February 2012. Besides praising Alan Cook’s initiative Consul Paul Rodwell asserted, “I was very impressed by the way Amigos de La Romana has set up a central hub in the village where the residents of all nationalities can get information and welfare support. The fact that it is run both by Spanish and British volunteers are a heartening sign of integration… It was a smart move on the part of the Amigos de La Romana to have asked for help from other charities such as MABS, RBL and ACASA. It couldn’t have had a better support in the world.”
The consul stressed that the main hindrance to integration is “without doubt the language barrier.” He went on to say that at this time of the crisis, when many young people are unemployed, it is better “to get people talking to each other.”
Los Amigos de La Romana has a weekly language exchange programme.
Next, Alan takes me to the first charity shop located in a historical building about which he is very sentimental. “I feel passionately about this village,” he admits.
Upstairs DVDs, music, books and other items are neatly laid out in a spick and span room. The table in the office downstairs is filled with forms and information sheets.
The other charity shop, located next to The Village Inn, an authentic English pub, would be a pricey and posh boutique if it were not that the elegant ladies´ apparel and accessories are second-hand. The Town Hall was kind enough to provide both premises for a noble cause.
La Romana is a compact town neatly laid out in a grid pattern. No high rise buildings. A perfect chill-out spot for the family. It is a sheer delight walking leisurely through the town. There are tracks and scenic views for hikers. Kids can frolic in the parks.
Delving into history we learn that various civilizations, notably Roman and Moorish, had passed through La Romana without leaving any extant settlements behind. The Caves of Elscalderons is prehistoric. (Other caves have been turned into modern abodes and welcome visitors.)
In 1929 La Romana, noted for its marble and limestone, split from Novelda. Farming too plays a vital role. Vineyards are in abundance and the wine from the bodegas and table grapes are exported to Britain. Almonds can be found in the outskirts.
The 102 year old St. Peter’s Church houses images of the town’s patron saint. The image of The Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary is an outstanding work of art. The bell and clock tower are a focal point, visible from many parts of the town. The old wash house where women once gathered to do their laundry and listened to the latest buzz draws a lot of visitors.
The town is also well known for its three hermitages: The Ermita de Algayat which dates back to 1891 and was built in honor of The Sacred Heart of Jesus; the Ermita de San Isidro, dedicated to the patron saint of Madrid; and the 500 year old Ermita de San Anton which draws a lot of pets since he is the patron saint of animals.
La Romana is a town with fiestas galore. In June there’s Los Pomares, a religious festivity where processions are held to honour the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In the third week of August, after the procession, cultural and musical events are held. The streets come alive with the feast of the Moors and Christians. Another outstanding event is the feast of the pirates. During the Semana Cultural locals and visitors can sample cultural, music and the gastronomical offerings. The culinary delights include crab or rabbit with rice, gazpacho, gacha miga (bread crumb) porridge, fassegures (somewhat akin to big meat balls) and pastries like the buñuelos de San Anton.
After Alan had treated me to a hearty paella at the Bar Restaurante Polideportivo we bade each other adieu and promised to “keep in touch and remember integration – the key word.”
Francisco, the director of the local school, drove me to the outskirts of the town. Among other things, he teaches English. “Other people get away to the beaches but my family is so different. We do not leave town .We stay here to pick the almonds,” he confesses proudly.
We halted near a huge tree. It was La Carrasca (The Millennium Oak Tree). An awe-inspiring sight indeed. Lord Buddha would have found enlightenment here.
When we parted I felt sure the diminutive La Romana would have a bright future, thanks largely to Alan Cook’s initiative.
“La Romana” comes from the Arabic Al-Rumana, meaning pomegranate tree
Population: 2500 inhabitants
Location: 40 kilometres from Alicante, on the east coast of Spain
Getting there: From Alicante by car
Accommodation: Casa Rural La Romana www.lacasalaromana.com. Phone 606 522 350
Food, home-cooked style: Bar-Restaurant Polideportivo, Calle San Isidro 1
Tourist information: www.laromanaalicante.com