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The Villas of Benicàssim, from Hell to the Heavenly Court
Publishing date 8/12/2014
The star of Benicàssim has steadily shine since the dawn of the twentieth century, when the beach was devoted to summer happiness. In those years, soirées held in the stunning holiday houses by the sea succeed and become a can't miss event for the Spanish aristocracy. The villas of Benicàssim are French style buildings, elegant and extravagant. Surrounded by lush gardens, they still maintain their romantic look. The route of the 27 villas, along a Mediterranean bay where the blue sky merges with the sea, leaves from Hell, goes through Limbo and ends up in the Heavenly Court.
Modernism arrived at Benicàssim with the most prestigious Spanish architects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They participated in the building of art nouveau stile villas. The houses were built one after another since 1880, breaking with all the previous tendencies. Its architects chose new aesthetic ideals, took art out of the academic limitations and put it at the service of decoration. The villas have, despite their differences, some common elements such as Mediterranean gardens, Palatine style balustrades, Arabic tiles coverings and fences with geometric and nature in motion patterns.
The inhabitants of the Villas were messengers of progress, new social currents and new aesthetics, music and customs. Indeed, it was they who took Benicàssim fully into a new century. The townspeople, accomplices of that progress, still save in their memory those splendid summers, where time stood still cherished by music from a jukebox, by glamorous and endless fun parties or evening gatherings.
For years, the happiness was complete in the summers of Benicàssim, but it broke when the Spanish Civil War flared up. The stage, until that moment of levity and playfulness, was readjusted to a harsh reality and the villas, under the responsibility of the International Brigades at the moment, were transformed and accommodated different strategic roles. Some became kitchens, dining rooms and the larger even libraries, archives and hospitals, as Villa Elisa, Villa Pons or Voramar hotel.
The war was a watershed event for the Villas, but peace returned and so did they to their normal life, resuming their festive activity. Some were renovated and others demolished to build new similar houses, such as Villa Elisa, built in the lot that was once home to the Coloma Villas. In this new era, Villa Elisa became the busier meeting point of the beach, where the theater and vaudeville shows were the delight of vacationers.
Hell, Limbo and the Heavenly Court are the names of the three sections of the promenade where the villas stand and matched perfectly with the character of its inhabitants: those from the Hell were restless and fun, those of the Heavenly Court sought the calm and quietness of the hot summers of Benicàssim, and Limbo stood between them. The Valencian bourgeoisie built the first villages in Hell, where glamour, parties and summer entertainment became a lifestyle. Years later, the construction of the area known as the Heavenly Court started with Villa Davalos. The name was given when their owners installed at the rear of the house a picture of Santa Teresa. These religious connotations were reflected even in the name of some later villas, such as Santa Cristina and Santa Ana.
Hell begins at a hotel: Voramar, scene of mass summer parties since its opening. The hotel was built in 1930 and was initially conceived only as a café and restaurant, but after an ambitious remodeling became a hotel with an advanced terrace by the sea. In wartime, the Voramar became a war hospital where writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Buero Vallejo and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier recovered from their wounds.
The Villa with Tower, opposite the Voramar, is the next stop on the tour and is attached to the chapel of Pilar. Although it was initially built without the tower, its protruding from the lush garden gives it a special character.
In 1942, Count Bau, President of the Kingdom Council, built Villa Elisa inspired by previous historicist models. Villa Elisa still has on one of its side walls a bas-relief of Roman times from Tortosa. The garden of this villa is spectacular, hosts more than 30 different plant species from around the world and some Mediterranean trees nearly six meter tall. Villa Elisa is now municipal property.
Villa Fabra, Paquita and Carpi were built between 1880 and 1920 and are the first buildings on the promenade. Its magnificent gardens had a vital role in the social activity of the early summers.
Villa Victoria is a romantic French-style mansion built in 1911 and visited every summer by illustrious figures of the Spanish society, such as the famous opera singer Lucrezia Bori. It was precisely the majesty of the building what favored that during the Civil War it was used as a library. Currently a fence of meticulous work protects the inside. In the garden of palm trees, araucaria and Mediterranean shrubs, two lampposts and a classical sculpture escort the entrance to the house.
Another early construction of the route is Villa Amparo, from 1880, which has maintained its original structure since that time. By contrast, the next village, Socorrito, has undergone some modifications that have changed its appearance. Two towers with tile roof varied the structure of the building.
Villa Rafaela and Villa Pons are also examples of modernist architecture. Villa Pons was built in 1905 and was used as a hospital during the Civil War. Villa del Mar, one of the most spectacular houses, is differentiated from the others by its forcefulness and church shape. It is also known as Villa Beutel, named after its first owner, a German who lived in Valencia that built it to spend the summer months.
The following houses: Isabel, Carmen and Gracia, are surrounded by the same wrought iron fence. Villa Gens gives a curious twist to the route as it is a Nordic style villa. It was the scene of numerous parties, gatherings and theaters plays during the first half of the twentieth century. Beside it, Vicentica y Rosita stand out. The latter, built in 1931, has an air raid shelter.
The highlights of the spectacular Villa Maria are its pergola and gazebo by the house, in the middle of a huge garden. This villa also has on the north side an entry for carriages. The architect Francisco Maristany Casajuana, architect of some of the nearby villas, began the construction of this magnificent mansion in 1925. Finally, the Villa Maria Julia is famous because of the illustrious visitors it received: painters, writers and other social celebrities, such as the Infanta Alicia of Bourbon, who spend their summers there. Villa Santa Ana stands beside it, in the middle of a lush garden.
The architect Maristany also built Villa Davalos, the first one on the Heavenly Court, which was made in the image and likeness of a small palace in Biarritz. Next to Villa Maria del Carmen, also at the start of Heaven, Villa Marina, Villa Santa Cristina and Villa Iluminada stand. Three constructions simpler than the previous, but no less spectacular. This set of villas was built in 1929.
El Barco, Camilleri and Solimar are the three villas which give an end to the Heavenly Court. The construction of Villa Solimar concluded in 1920. The house turned famous due to the position of classical sculptures that looked naked to the sea and were visible to passersby. The strict moral standards of the beginnings of the century forced to turn them to face the building. This fact caused that, ever since, it was known as Villa dels Culs (Butt House).
The villas of Benicàssim have been silent witnesses, summer after summer, of the going by of time and keep inside the mundane stories of Benicàssim warm midsummer. The villas tour concludes in Torre de San Vicente after showing the most spectacular corner of a city that, already in the early twentieth century, could be compared with the best tourist destinations in the world.