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The 175.5 Stage 2, starting with the Vuelta's first ever visit to La Nucia in Alicante, is almost entirely flat with the exception of the race's first mountain - Category 3 Alto del Relleu. Though just a short way from Benidorm, La Nucia nestles in a valley of fruit trees and has a distinct lack of the sort of rowdy nightspots offered by its better-known neighbour, meaning that it's visited only by tourists seeking the quieter, real Spain. It was probably the fruit from the town that gave rise to its name - La Nucia comes from the Arabic naziha which means delicious, revealing the Moorish history of the area.
Many Spaniards in the locale remain dependent on agriculture, though an even greater number now work in the tourist industry. Almonds, olives and citrus fruits grow in picturesque groves around the town. It now also has a university, housed in a remarkable building that combines the traditional vernacular style with clean, modern additions reminiscent of Le Corbusier - the result is pleasing. Those visiting the town shouldn't miss the Fuente la Favara garden park with its waterfall, where locals gather in the shade under the trees to share food and wine. The race leaves town on the CV-767, negotiating a pair of roundabouts before it reaches the N-332, a road of which we'll be seeing plenty today; and then via more roundabouts onto the CV-770 just north of Benidorm at a point offering excellent views over the resort which has more skyscrapers per capita than anywhere else on Earth. The N-332 passes La Cala and Villajoyosa.
Villajoyosa also has an unusual history. Having been inhabited since the Bronze Age, it became an important town under the Romans who built recently-discovered baths, villas and a garrison here. Then in the early Middle Ages, it was entirely deserted, leaving just a few small hamlets in the hills surrounding the town. Its strategic value was recognised in the 14th Century when Jaime II of Aragon began to develop it as a fort controlling the coastline from invading Moors and troublesome pirates, which began to attract aristocratic families to the area. The fortifications were added to and improved during the 16th Century and many parts are still extant, some of the best in the region - the Torre del Aguila (Tower of Eagles) is an especially good example. A hundred and fifty years later, the Moors had relinquished all hold and ambition on Spain and the pirates had been suppressed which led to the town's expansion outside the walls and it began to grow, now standing at almost 35,000, many of them employed by the chocolate factories which provide as much income to the town as does tourism. The Museo chocolates Valor is worth a visit, but perhaps best avoided by those on weight-loss diets. Here, the route turns right into the mountains and past a large lake.
|The Sierra de Aitana foothills seen from near Orxeta.|
Orxeta's Christian population grew during the 18th Century, almost quadrupling to over a thousand people by the end of the century but then began a gradual decline, falling to around 400 by the end of the 20th Century. Since then, tourism has brought new people to the area - as is the case at La Nucia, some newly-wealthy Spaniards and some foreigners; and the population is now 875. Sadly, as tourists are beginning to discover the little town and ugly new villas are going up in response, it is likely to lose much of its charm in the coming years. The economy is currently largely agricultural, based on citrus, almonds, carob and grapes both for eating and wine production. In addition to the castle, sights include El Estrecho, a narrow gorge, the caves in the surrounding hills and the Festival of St. Nazaire and St. Thomas of Villanova in late September. Orxeta is exited on the C-770, continuing for a few kilometres to the CV-775 carrying the peloton to the next town through rolling hills.
|Casa Fortificada la Garrofera|
15km from Relleu is Aigües, where there was once a large and important castle of which just one tower now remains. The town is home to a holiday resort, currently being renovated, where the majority of happy visitors probably remain unaware that having started life as a spa taking advantage of the natural aquifers in the area and much frequented by aristocratic types in the early 19th Century, it became a sanitorium for children with tuberculosis in the days when that terrible disease was untreatable and, as such, must have been the site of the horrible deaths of many children. The name comes from the aquifiers, aigües being the Valencian word for water, and the spa was known as Aigües de Busot, the Waters of Busot, after the nearest town. In time, the spa became so successful that it grew large and swallowed up Busot which is now just a neighbourhood. The aristocratic presence has left many fine old villas and mansions in the town, many of them still standing.
|Alicante, with the port.|
With the decline of Rome, Alicante came under the control of the Visigoths for a brief period until the entire eastern coastline and southern Spain was conquered by the Moors during the 8th Century and then became part of Valencia in the 13th Century, following the Reconquista which ended Moorish control in the preceding century, under King Jaime II. The castle, still standing on a rocky outcrop high above the modern skyscrapers. During the 15th Century, it became one of the most important trading posts in the Mediterranean region, with vast amounts of oil, rice and other goods passing through each year, with each trade subject to taxation.
The city remained subject to regular and costly pirate raids, however, so in the early 17th Century King Filipe III issued a decree ordering the expulsion from Spain of all moriscos (Moors who had converted - either genuinely or who continued to follow Islam secretly) who, with some justification, were seen as being sympathetic towards the pirates. This proved an extremely unwise move and proved to the aristocracy that they depended on the lower classes for their wealth - with more than a fifth of the workforce gone, Alicante entered a period of decline and several aristocratic families found themselves bankrupt. The decline was hastened during the 18th Century when Alicante gave its backing to the wrong side in the War of Succession, a decline that persisted right up until end of the 19th Century when international trade brought more ships to the area and especially during the First World War when, due to its neutral status, Spain became one of Europe's most important trading centres.
|Alicante today, with the ancient castle standing high above the city|
Santa Pola - the name is popularly supposed to have from Saint Paul but is more likely to have come from the Latin palus, meaning a wetland or bog - is a city of almost 33,000 people reached on the N-332. Like Alicante has a port and a castle. However, it is far less developed than Alicante and, as a result, far more beautiful. Remains found in the numerous caves along the rocky coastline reveal inhabitation as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic era and archaeologists have discovered many Neolithic artifacts nearby, most notably at the delightfully named Cueva de las Arañas del Carabassí ("The Cave of the Spiders"). Later, it became an important trading port for the Iberians with ships passing to and from Greece regularly. The Romans, who left a necropolis among other features, continued to use the town in this way - the Emperor Majorian's fleet docked here whilst preparing to set sail to attack the Vandals, but was burned before leaving. The town was abandoned following the decline of the Empire, though there is evidence that it was used by the Visigoth fleet up until the 7th Century. The first post-Classical documents to mention the town date from the last 13th Century and fortifications including the Torre de Tamarit ("Tower of Tamarit"), restored to its original state in 2009 in a project that arguably destroyed its Romantic beauty. The castle, Castillo-Fortaleza de Santa Pola, was begun in 1557, like most along this coast in response to pirate raids. It now houses two museums, one devoted to the history of Santa Pola and the other to fishing and seafaring.
|La Torre de Tamarit in 2006... and 2010, post-restoration.|
|Castillo de Guardamar del Segura|
The parcours passes along the western edge of the town on the N-332 and past La Laguna de La Mata and Laguna de Torrevieja, a pair of vast saltwater lakes used since ancient times for salt production, before reaching Torrevieja which is located 155km from the start line. Changing onto the CV-898 leading into the town, travelling along the Carreterre del Torrejón, C. de la Mata, Avenue de Alfred Nobel and Av. Dr. Mariano Ruiz Casanova, closely following the beautiful rocky beaches before turning into town and using a road a street away from the beach. Another beach section brings the peloton to the Paseo de la Libertad which runs around the harbour, then onto the Av Desiderio Rodriguez with numerous raised traffic-calming bumps before it reaches the roundabout at which the peloton turns right onto the CV-95. This road then passes under a fly-over carrying the N-332 before reaching a roundabout where the riders will turn left onto a sliproad joining the road they've just passed under and continuing south towards the end of the stage.
|Torre del Moro|
The N-332 passes through first countryside and then built-up areas, soon reaching Dehesa de Campoamor - sadly not the most attractive point along the stage, as uncontrolled development aimed at bringing tourists to the area between the 1960s and 1990s has destroyed much of the area's natural beauty and historic buildings. The route then passes via a tight corner down to the Playas de Orihuela where the stage ends. With a straight final section up to the finish line, the race is likely to finish with a sprint.
Predictions: It can be very hard to predict the outcome of a stage so early in a three-week stage race - in fact, it can be very hard at any time in a sport such as cycling, which is why our predictions so infrequently prove correct - and it's harder still on a course such as this one. With the exception of that Cat 3 in the first third, it looks set to be a day for the sprinters - provided all the sprinters get up and over the climb in good shape, that is. In fact, should one of them managed to really blast the rest into the weeds as the finish line approaches, it's just feasible that we could see a sprinter in yellow tomorrow. There is, of course, a certain Manxman who is capable of doing that in the final seconds. He hates climbing, but the mountain is early in the stage and he has remarkable powers of recovery. If he manages it, he will join the elite band of riders who have won stages in all three Grand Tours during a single year - a nice addition to his already impressive list of achievements, and a handy way to let young pretender Marcel Kittel know who the daddy is.
Weather: La Nucia, Orxeta, Aigües, Alicante, Elche, Dolores, Guardamar de Segura: 33C, sunny, wind 24kmph east. Punta Prima: 31C, sunny, 26kmph wind east.
Hot enough to bother those who dislike it, riding humidity through the day will make it begin to feel uncomfortable later on though the stiff breeze will improve matters in that respect. However, the wind is just enough to cause problems, especially on open sections such as along seafronts.
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