The Remarkable Towns & Villages of Valencia
By Gerrie Summers
Part two of a visit to the region of Valencia in Spain.
After a day and night in Valencia City, my visit to three provinces in the region of Valencia, (Castellón in the north, the province of Valencia in the middle and the province of Alicante in the south) continued as we headed by bus to villages and towns in the area. Three of the villages, Morella, Peñíscola and Vilafamés are on the list of the Association of the Most Beautiful Villages in Spain.
(Drive time 1 hour, 8 minutes)
The drive to Vilafamés took a little over an hour through a picturesque countryside dotted with sandy brown and white buildings. It is believed that Vilafamés is named after a Moorish family that originally settled here. The old part of town is of Muslim origin dating back to the 11th Century. Plaza de la Fuente takes you up to La Roca Grossa (The Grand Rock) situated by the side of the road that gives access to the fortified enclosure of the village. As the story goes, some residents feared being crushed by the massive stone as it stood precariously on an incline, and tried to drag it down to the plains by tying a rope around it. The rope broke of course and they fell and ended up with red culitos (butts) and were given the nickname culrojos or “red butts” (the nice interpretation, by the way.) The red rock material was used for buildings found in the Quartijo, the old medieval neighborhood. Sites to see are Iglesia de la Asuncion (Church of the Assumption) with its magnificent interior, Le Sangre Church (Blood Church) and the Moorish castle, which during the Moorish age was known as Beni-Hamez, before being conquered by King Jaime I. On the way down, you’ll see views of the countryside and charming stone and white-washed buildings, draped with green vines and colorful flowers, leading to the Contemporary Art Museum inside the Palau de Batlle.
(Drive time 1 hour, 13 minutes)
Next up was Morella in Els Ports county, which looks impressive as you approach it in the distance, with ancient walls surrounding the city and the medieval castle that towers above the city resting upon a massive rock. Arriving at the restaurant Casa Roque, Chef Carlos Gutierrez Ibanez talked to us about the uses of truffles and how they are found with the help of “truffle dogs.” Fortified by truffled mushrooms, and wine, we went on a guided tour of the old town and castle. Built on steep slopes within the medieval walls, Morella is for the most part free of traffic, making it perfect for a leisurely stroll. On the main street you’ll find cafes, restaurants and shops. La Iglesia de Santa Maria (Saint Mary’s Church) is definitely worth seeing. Built in gothic and renaissance styles, it has beautiful, ornate furnishings that include alabaster windows, a baroque altar, huge pipe organ and the Choir’s staircase. The 13th Century San Francisco Convent is made up of the cloisters, church and chapter house. The chapter house has one of the few examples of gothic mural paintings that still exist in Valencia area and is a representation of the Dance of Death. Access to the castle is through the cloisters. The climb to the top offers Instagram-able views.
(Drive time 1 hour, 15 minutes)
The drive continued on to Peñíscola. We arrived at night and had dinner at Tio Pepe where, according to our host (because I’m no expert on this), we had an excellent paella, made to perfection. After dinner we walked over to the 14th century medieval Castell de Morella. It is a must to see at night. Illuminated and free of crowds (at least not in November) it has a magical (if not somewhat eery) feel. It was once the stronghold of the Knights Templar and the residence of Pope Benedicto XIII (Pope Luna). It was renovated and partially enlarged in the 1960s as the location for the filming of El Cid. Game of Thrones fans will know that this is one of the places the HBO series was filmed, as the fictional Slaver City of Meereen. During the day it’s filled with tourists, wandering through narrow streets with souvenir and craft shops and posing by the bronze statue of Pope Luna (one of twelve noble founders of Aragon) at the entrance of the Templar fortress castle. Pope Luna came to in Peñíscola in 1415 after refusing to surrender his Papal tiara to the Council of Perpignan. Roman de Cabrera, the Master of the Order of Montesa, offered him the fortress and Pope Luna turned it into his Papal court. Morella also has an impressive Church of Santa Maria la Major and streets to explore like Blasco de Alagon for shopping and a look at preserved 16th century buildings that were once manorial homes.
Canet Lo Roig
(Drive time 37 minutes – 1 hour)
Less than an hour drive away, we arrived in Canet Lo Roig. A bike tour with Intinerantur took us through olive groves, part of the Millenary Olive Tree route, where we learned about and viewed 2,000 year old trees. Some of the ancient trees are named and have their own legends, like “4 Patas” which, in 2016, was awarded as the best monumental olive tree in Spain. As the story goes, after the civil war a fugitive successfully hid in the interior of the olive tree during the night and could return to the mountains during the day. Afterwards we had an olive oil tasting with Cannetum, and learned about the three types of oils that they produce — Standard Olive Oil (from the Farga and Morruda trees from Maestrat region, but may contain varieties introduced in the last few years) Canetera (extra virgin olive oil native to Canet lo Roig) and Millenary (from the Farga olive trees, certified to be more than one thousand years old and indigenous to the Maestrat region.)
(Drive time 10 minutes)
Just a few minutes away, we had lunch at Casa dels Capellans, which translates to “House of Priests,” where you will find the Real Santuario Virgen Fuente de la Salud (Royal Sanctuary Virgin Fountain of Health) nearby. There is a legend that a mute shepherd, who was thirsty, asked the Virgin Mary to help him find water. He spotted a herd of sheep emerge from behind bushes, mouths wet from drinking water. Finding the source of water, he drank and miraculously he was able to speak. A chapel was built on the spot and Casa dels Capellans was built for priests to take care of the sanctuary. The site now consists of a complex of buildings that includes the church, the hospice and the Palace of Duke Alfonso of Aragon. The church is worth visiting, with beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceiling, a beautiful altar and a room that contains small gowns to dress the Virgin for various occasions.
(Drive time 2 hours, 45 minutes)
In the morning we toured Denia in Costa Blanca. Denia is an intriguing mix of modern coastal resort and medieval village, where you can walk along Calle Marques de Campos, a treelined avenue with shops, restaurants and bars, or a bustling marina with nightlife, and ancient historical town, where you can walk the historic part of town, which includes the old fisherman neighborhood Baix la Mar and of course, Denia Castle, the 16th century Moorish castle that rests regally on the hilltop. And for nature lovers there is the Montgo Nature Reserve. Denia has been declared a Creative City of Gastronomy by UNESCO. Here I learned the difference between Paella Valencia (the most popular rice dish with meat, fish and seafood) and Arroz Alicantino. We had a demonstration on how the dish is prepared at La Seu.The most typical type of Arroz Alicantino is arroz a banda, the traditional rice of Denia which translates to “rice on the side” and “plenty of rice.” The meal was originally a fisherman’s dish and unlike paella, the rice is presented on a separate plate.
(Drive time 1 hour, 18 minutes)
Then it was off to Alcoi (also spelled Alcoy—as mentioned in part one, you’ll see toponyms, streets and squares in Castilian and Valencian). Alcoi is surrounded by two nature reserves, Serra Mariola and Font Roja, and is known for its bridges. In fact, Alcoi means “city of bridges.” Its Plaza de Espana features a design by Valencian architect/sculptor Santiago Calatrava, known for his bridges and sculptural designs in railroad stations and other areas. Hoja de Sant Jordi is a exhibition room he designed, that is located under the Plaza and resembles the ribs of a whale. After touring the town, we stopped at Lluna Cerveses Bio for a beer tasting. Also on the itinerary was a visit to Cementerio Municipal De Alcoy, which may sound like a strange site to visit, but it is included in the Council of Europe’s official European Cemeteries Route due to its artistic beauty and is something to see.
(Drive time 36 minutes)
We headed for Bocairent for dinner and to stay at Hotel L’Estació. Our hot air ballooning experience for the early morning was nixed due to high winds, so rather than be blown all the way back to Valencia, we toured Bocairent. At a distance, Bocairent looks like a mountain of tan and white buildings with the tower of the Church of Our Lady of the Ascension, jetting out majestically on top. Our tour included a visit to El Casco Antiguo (the Old Historic Quarter) and the Moorish Caves, a group of man-made caves with window-like holes carved out of the rock face. There are about 50 such windows, leading to as many rooms. It’s not known what these caves were used for, but theories point to use as funeral chambers, granaries or a Visigoth monastery. Another site was Sant Blai Ice Cave in the old historic quarter, were ice was once stored. Inside the subterranean tunnel excavated out of the rock, you’ll find a circular gallery with illustrated panels explaining the history. There are also several museums to see in town.
(Drive time 35 minutes)
Our final stop was Xàtiva, just a short 30 – 35 minutes away. Xàtiva is called the city of the Borgias. One of the town’s many historical buildings includes the birthplace of Pope Alexander VI Borgia.The Municipal Museum is inside a renaissance building with a gothic facade and cloister patio with Ionian columns and round arches, and now has exhibits of archeological remains, fragments of Roman sculptures and an 11th century Islamic fountain basin. You also cannot miss the Castle, which was fortified by the Iberians and the Romans, but most of the walls and towers are Moorish and gothic in style. For lunch we went to Els Porxes for taste of arròs al forn (oven’s rice), which, as the name suggests, is baked in an oven. The dish, also known as arroz al horno, has humble beginnings, being made from leftovers, and now often includes chickpeas, pork ribs and sausage. In fact, the National Arroz al Horno Competition is held in Xàtiva. Our final dinner was at El Tunel Tapas Restaurante, unassumingly located on Calle Portal Valencia. Once inside you see that the restaurant is housed in a lovely restored townhouse (you have to ring a bell to get in), a pleasant way to end our village-hopping drive through Valencia.
For More Information:
Spain Tourism: www.spain.info.
Comunitat Valenciana www.communitatvalenciana.com
Costa Blanca www.costablanca.org
Hotel RH Porto Cristo (Peniscola) https://www.hotelrhportocristo.com
Hotel L’Estacio (Bocairent) http://hotelestacio.com
Lluna Cerveses Bio www.cerveseslluna.com
Gerrie Summers is a New York-based freelance writer and has been writing professionally for several years in the areas of entertainment, beauty, lifestyle, travel, and wellness. She is currently the Style Editor for New York Lifestyles Magazine where she also writes about wellness and travel, and a regular contributor to Real Health magazine and Sisters from AARP. Her travel features have appeared in Luxury Living Magazine, Foxnews.com, Trip Savvy, For the Bride and Today’s Black Woman. She also writes the blogs SummersRetreat and The Tranquil Traveler.