The Casino in Torrevieja is undoubtedly the town's most magnificent and spectacular building.
It is only a short walk from the fountain, opposite the port of Torrevieja, and it was there long before any of the modern roads and buildings that surround it were even dreamt of. All through the last century the Casino was the focus of historical changes and events in the town and its unique architecture and decor, along with its significence in local affairs, have survived into the twenty first century in a remarkably good state of repair.
This week I talked to the current President of the Torrevieja Casino whose name is Tomás Martinez. Mr. Martinez is a delightful and gracious man who also owns and runs a textile shop in the centre of Torrevieja. We met at his shop and I waited for him to deal with his final customer of the morning before we went into his office for our interview. Mr. Martinez has been the President of the Casino for a total of eighteen years, from 1977 to 1983 and from 1991 to the present day. He spoke of the Torrevieja Casino with tremendous affection and enthusiasm and was delighted to tell me all about its history and its huge number of present activities. In his words, it is the "jewel" of Torrevieja - because of its architecture, its history, its role in the life of Torrevieja, and of course because of its picturesque location beside the port with its spectacular canopy and terrace. I must explain before I go any further, that the word "casino" in Spanish is not what we understand it to mean in English. The casinos which can be found in thousands of Spanish towns and villages are basically social clubs where members can go to relax, read the press, play games and enjoy a wide variety of social and cultural events.
The construction of the Torrevieja Casino was started in 1867 and reached its present dimensions in 1905. Its structure is architecturally diverse, with aspects of Classical, Andalucian, Arabic and Modernist styles, its walls and ceilings are elaborately decorated and all its fittings and upholstery have been preserved to an impeccable standard. The overall structure of the building is "diaphanous", meaning that it has no central supporting pillars, which makes its meeting and recreational rooms exceptionally light, open and airy.
The doors of Torrevieja Casino are open to visitors who can look round its rooms, sit and admire its spectacular main lounge, or visit its bar for a drink. The Casino has about one thousand members and a small employed staff, whilst its president, vice-president and committee members are elected and give their time on an entirely voluntary basis. Over the decades the Casino has organised an immense number of activities including its most important annual winter festival, when a festival queen is elected. The list of events includes conferences and talks, art exhibitions, literary competitions, concerts, recitals and book fairs. Apart from the cultural side, the Casino has games rooms for playing dominoes, chess, billiards amongst other things and it also organises games championships.
The Casino has been visited by many illustrious people including foreign ambassadors and the father of the king of Spain, the Count of Barcelona Don Juan de Borbón. Mr. Martinez, in his capacity as President of the Casino, was invited to meet the King and Queen of Spain at a royal reception in Madrid in 1994. Under his presidency in 1997 the membership of the Casino was opened up to women for the first time.
Amongst its thousand or so members there are at present between thirty and forty foreigners. Many foreigners are under the impression that they cannot become members, but this is not the case - on the contrary the Casino would like to have more members from other countries. To join the Casino, you are required to have two existing members who can vouch for your character. There is a minimal amount of paperwork involved, and provided a person is recognised as being of good character, irrespective of their social status, there is no problem in joining. Not all the existing foreign members speak good Spanish. Those who don't, do not usually attend talks or conferences for example, but they often go to enjoy the musical recitals and concerts. On becoming a member you have to pay ten per cent of the annual fee, and the rest of the fee is divided into monthly payments of 12 euros. If someone wishes to become a member they should start by approaching a member of staff and asking for an application form.
I have to say that Tomás Martinez is a wonderful example of a type of person I'm slowly learning to recognise, a true Torrevejense born and bred, who whilst proud of his culture and origins, is warmly welcoming to outsiders and above all open to change. "The only people who complain about foreigners in Torrevieja are the Spanish who have come to live here from other parts of Spain." said Mr. Martinez. "The true Torrevejense welcomes people from other countries." He showed me a photograph of his shop as it started out several decades ago, photos of the various changes it has undergone, and what it looks like today – a remarkable transformation. "I am a tradesman, and all the normal tradespeople of Torrevieja have realised the need for the town to expand and become prosperous. In the end it is to everybody's benefit and all of us live better as a result. The mixture of nationalities is an important strength in Torrevieja, it has had an enormous impact on us in every aspect of our lives, but as far as I'm concerned it has brought no disadvantages whatsoever.
"The people who come to live here from abroad have obviously found something that they don't have in their own country – sunshine, a healthy climate and I think they also appreciate the good down-to-earth atmosphere amongst the local people." Mr. Martinez gestured to the window, through which scores of people of all types and nationalities could be seen walking along the shopping street: "This is Europe!" he concluded with enthusiasm and a big warm smile, and he went off for his lunch before opening his doors again to the general public.
This article is published courtesy of CB Friday in association with thinkspain.com