I love Spain. We have travelled through large swathes of it over the years and have been thrilled with its stunning cities and towns and its beautiful whitewashed villages.Off season, the climate is mostly very pleasant indeed and of course, everything is much, much quieter. Last March, we headed for Alicante and the well known Costa Blanca but quickly left behind the high rise hotels and over – developed resorts by heading inland.Over 4 full days (can’t believe it was so short) we were seeking medieval villages, Crusader castles, vistas of vineyards, olive groves and mountains.We found all of that aplenty and more. In fact we found what I thought was one of the loveliest villages I’ve seen in Europe (and we have seen a few) – Albarracin – a place of rose coloured stone, pan-tiled roofs and medieval cobbled streets, overlooked by stark, rocky mountainsides.We also discovered some gems on the coast itself, a far cry from the Manhattan – on – Sea skyline of Benidorm yet not really that far away in distance. In off-season, La Granadella was a glorious little corner of turquoise seas, sandy coves and rocky cliffs.Spain draws us back again and again; it is so different to Italy and France (which we also love) and with very little effort, the hidden gems of this – Europe’s most mountainous country – will delight all who have the good fortune to experience them. Viva Espana!
Firstly, A Disappointing Arrival
Arrived 10pm in early March at an empty Alicante airport, got the hire car very quickly and headed for the area of Santa Pola and our apartment for the night, which promised to be around 15 mins drive from the airport. As ever, driving in the dark, it took us twice that time but eventually we found the gated entry to the newish apartment development. It wasn’t easy to get something good/charming so close to the airport; we were in Urbanization land where mile upon mile of newish holiday apartments and homes have been hastily put up over the years, often amidst unremarkable , even scruffy landscapes and ringed by busy roads and motorways. We use Airbnb quite often and usually have great experiences (I research places to death) but I made a mistake with this one. The cramped accommodation we had was below stairs, cold and dark and I could smell the drains even before we reached the bathroom. We thought it might be better in the morning when we could open up the terrace doors but the nice patio in the photos was cluttered with BBQ stuff, boxes and general crap! Actually the development itself was nicely done, low rise, landscaped gardens and there were decent sea views but we just wanted out of the place. The breakfast items left didn’t appeal either – a selection of plastic wrapped rolls and pastries.Time to hit the open road….
Day 1: Alicante to Alarcon/Valhermoso de la Fuente (160miles, 3hr 10min drive)
VILLENA – CASTILLO LA ATALAYA
Blue skies and warm sunshine at our first stop, the town of Villena and its wonderful Arabic castle. We spent quite some time here, admiring the views from the ramparts. It really is a beauty. Strolled the town after that, perhaps not quite as lovely as I’d hoped and extremely busy with traffic, but with an excellent cathedral , the Iglesia de Santiago. Made the major mistake of forgetting about the Archaeological Museum which houses what I’d read was the ‘outstanding’ Villena Treasure, one of the greatest hoards of Bronze Age gold ever found. We were well on our way to Alarcon before I remembered. Chris was in total ignorance of this as it’s me that plans each day (like a military campaign though I should have been demoted for that omission), which then unfolds in front of him and which I hope will provoke amazement and awe. Oh the pressure…..
Wow! What a stunning approach to this spectacularly sited village.
It took our breath away. Spent some time just admiring it all from the parking area overlooking the Jucar river and reservoir, where the 13-14th century castle (now a Parador) sits perched on a cliff. Got parked easily near the Parador itself, desperate for a coffee. The hotel is such a beautiful place, very grand. The castle is Arabic and there was a fortress first raised on the site as early as the 7th century.
A beautiful medieval gateway, very narrow, just enough room for the road, is the entrance to the village itself, a sleepy wee place of stone and white washed houses, with those lovely iron grills on the windows which look very decorative. There were fine churches too with richly decorated stone facades. Had lunch in a small place overlooking the Parador, very simple but very tasty – Rabo de Toro (Oxtail stew, my favourite) with roast potatoes and roast chicken and good home made chips for Chris. Perfect and cheap too.
CASA DE LUCINIO
It took us an age to find our B&B, a tiny hotel in the nearby village of Valhermoso de le Fuente. I must admit we were both dubious about where we’d chosen at first, the village looked untidy and charmless, some of it like a dirty building site ! We circled it three times before noticing the neat little façade of the Casa. Still a bit dubious, I rang the bell and the minute we were greeted by the lovely young lady who ran the place and shown into the utterly charming interior, I felt a wave of relief. It was exactly what I’d hoped for, a very traditional old building, huge ceilings, wooden beams, a roaring fire – it was cold up here! – comfy armchairs. Perfect.
Our room was delightful too, spacious and simple. We were the only guests and were served some tea and home made cake. Nice to tuck ourselves in for the night with some reading and research (just in case I had missed anything.)
Day 2 Valhermoso to Albarracin via Cuenca (114 miles 3hrs 45)
Breakfast next morning was first class – yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice (a joy of being in Spain) , homemade muffins and cakes, toast and Pan con Tomate , a lovely fresh tomato topping usually spread on toast or bread.
A farewell hug from our lovely hostess and we were off . She had recommended a small village not too far off our route, Villanueva de la Jara, as being worthy of a short visit and how right she was. It was a delightful, sleepy place with some stunning architecture , not least the cathedral surrounded by ancient walls. A very enjoyable half hour or so, not another tourist in sight, before we made for the World Heritage city of Cuenca (46 miles away, 1hr 25).
We had visited it before years ago but it had made such an impression, we wanted to see it again as it was only 90 minutes away. Got there mid day just as the rain came on with a vengeance! The steep cobbled streets were incredibly slippy but it really is a beauty of a place but certainly very well known with plenty of visitors.
Parked at the top of the town and wandered down to the main Plaza but we were getting soaked. Unfortunately the rubbish weather had forced everyone indoors and there wasn’t a seat or space to be had in any of the small bars or cafes. A quick return to the car and off we headed to the Parador on the other side of the river below the town, hoping for a coffee or lunch.Foiled again – it was hosting a huge wedding! Security guys on the car park!
Nothing else to do but carry on driving to Albarracin (67 miles, 2hrs 20). We were already over 3,000 feet up here, no wonder it felt cold! Cuenca is high on the Spanish Plain (the rhyme, ‘the rain on Spain falls mainly on the plain’ came to mind) so we were now driving on mountain roads. In fact, it was already turning to sleet and the forecast suggested snow on the highest roads across the Serrania de Cuenca. Not much snow fell as it turned out, but it was a pleasant drive through rocky gorges and hills with one minor stop at a waterfall.
But the highlight of the day – one of the trip highlights – was Albarracin itself.
A medieval town, it sits high above the Guadalaviar river on a cliff, surrounded by limestone crags. The impressive ramparts above the town were built by the Moors in the 10th century and give the whole place a fantastic, ancient appearance.
Unfortunately it was still raining cats and dogs, the cobbled streets running with water as we got our overnight case sorted out and with waterproofs on and hoods up, scuttled uphill to find our apartment. Half an hour and a drenching later – and Chris now decidedly narky – we realised our accommodation was on the opposite side of the town, split in half by the river and gorge. Oops, I didn’t work that out on the directions I’d downloaded. Back to the car, gear unloaded again and off we set , luckily finding much easier parking on the far side of the gorge, just a stone’s throw from La Casona de Ajimez.
What a gem that little place was! Exquisite. Great location on the edge of town, yet only a 10 min walk through meandering, tiny streets and wynds to some of the restaurants and main Plaza. Not a route the car could take however! We celebrated with a glass of vino (Cava for me) toasting our arriving at what was already a stunner of a location, even in the gloom.
We wandered out to a small restaurant later on, recommended by our hostess, Rincon del Chorra and had a nice meal in it. Not fantastic but reasonable enough. Then a wander back through the almost deserted, damp streets on cobbles still shiny from the rain. A magical place, though I suspect in peak season, chock a block with tourists.
Day 3 Albarracin to Valencia via Teruel (108 miles, 2hrs 40)
No breakfast at the Casona, so stopped off at a small café on the edge of town first, partiy to re-park the car in a handier spot for a stroll up onto the old walls, partly to find somewhere open this early for breakfast.Found an unpretentious (usually the best) little place, a bar, with old photos on the walls, Spanish TV news in the background and a few locals chatting with the elderly owner. I think it was called El Penon. Had an excellent breakfast of good coffee and toast and what was becoming my favourite, Pan con Tomate, a great start to the day. Very Spanish. Then off to the Moorish 10th walls (restored by the Christians in the 14th) A good track took us dramatically above the town, with some wonderful views. I really do think these old walls are things of beauty. Unfortunately the ramparts were pretty crumbly and exposed and we couldn’t get up onto them properly. But a fine spot and well worth the minor effort.
We’d set off early that morning so it was bye bye Albarracin as we headed for Teruel, around 50 mins drive away.
This had been on our list of must sees in Spain for some time as we both love Mudejar architecture, which I think is at its finest in Granada’s Alhambra. It was a high point in time for architecture in Spain and it really is quite exquisite. The towers which remain in Teruel have made it a World Heritage Site. The rich mix of architecture, often in the one building, is linked to the fact that Christians, Jews and Muslims all lived peacefully in the town until the 15th century.
Got parked easily in Teruel – an advantage of off season travelling – and wandered up into the older part of town to admire the Torre de San Martin and Torre del Salvador (13th century.) There was some gorgeous architecture dotted around elsewhere too. Beautiful coloured bell towers, a very good local museum housing Roman, Arab and Iberian artefacts; there was a Roman mosaic floor, something I always love to see. I wouldn’t overall say I’d go back to Teruel however, I prefer Granada, Seville or Cordoba in terms of cities but it was good to see it. Perhaps we were still too caught up with the medieval perfection of Albarracin.
Less than 2 hours drive saw us reach the coast as we hurtled towards Valencia. First time visit to this large vibrant city and we reached it slap bang in the middle of a huge festival! Of course, we managed to get lost driving to the hotel and incredibly – horrendously actually – I managed to navigate us through a pedestrian only area, surrounded by literally thousands of people, crowding around the car. Convinced that the Spanish police would soon be on our case with heaven’s knows what consequences, we somehow crawled through the crowds, getting some odd but not too unfriendly looks, finally emerging once more onto a main highway. I was trying to follow a Google map on my phone as well as a printed map but there were major road works as well as various road closures , which was why we couldn’t access the little back street that led to our hotel. Driving in European cities abroad is really no fun at all! We need to start buying Satnav with our hired car to take the strain off (and avoid the inevitable falling out.) The hotel had suggested coming to them first for directions to good parking, so Chris dropped me off and I ran to the hotel while he waited on a side street, hoping the police wouldn’t move him on. The receptionist then directed me to the underground parking we ‘d already spotted, on the endless times we’d circled it, trying to find a way from the main highway through town, into the area where the Ad Hoc Monumental hotel was! Ok, that was a bit of a waste of time, so back to the car at pace. In 10 mins we had , with great relief, abandoned the car in its underground home, 12 euros for 24 hours, better than we’d expected cost wise. Finally, we got checked in to what looked like quite peaceful accommodation.
Very nice big high ceilinged room with some character, front facing, which I hoped would still be quiet given it was on a side street. In fact, from early morning, there was a LOT of traffic noise from the main boulevard, something I really don’t like. I was quite annoyed about that given I’d asked for a quiet room on making the booking. Only gave this place a 7 out of 10 in my booking.com review. Very disinterested staff.
Valencia – Spain’s third largest city – didn’t really appeal to either of us as we thought it might ; it seemed quite dirty and particularly graffiti strewn (an issue in many European cities) probably not done any favours by the festival. But not enough of the architecture was attractive or compared well with what else we’d seen in our travels over the years in Europe. The futuristic park area and ultra modern architecture running alongside the main avenues of the town, wasn’t really to my taste either. The Plaza de la Virgen was nice with some lovely buildings and one or two other buildings were glorious – in particular in the photo below – but overall the sheer clamour , noise and horrendous traffic of the place was off-putting.
I was glad we’d only given an evening to Valencia. Malaga I have always loved, right from the outset and we have enjoyed several breaks in Marbella, but as a coastal city, Valencia left us cold – though not literally, as it was positively balmy here on the coast! Perfect temperature of around high 60s.
Day 4 Valencia to Mutxamel via Altea and La Granadella
The 12th March was our last full day before an early flight home the next morning. Set off early again, eschewing the pricey breakfast in the hotel and making do with fruit, cheese and some good bread we picked up in a small supermarket the night before. We had a table and chairs in our room, plus we always travel with a kettle for boiling up some tea, so easy done. We were now heading for Altea on the sun kissed Costa Blanca. It was a very attractive drive in places, with lush fields of wildflowers and cherry trees in bloom, spring coming much earlier here than at home.
An occasional attractive castle ruin on a very green hillside would sweep by , looking very interesting.
Altea is a small town perched high above the coast with a very pretty centre of whitewashed buildings, old churches , rose coloured roofs and blue tiled domes.
It was a delight to be in, despite it being quite busy; it’s tiny main Plaza had cafes packed with people sitting outside having lunch and coffee. It was a fine little place, well worth visiting.
We had no wish to see Benidorm itself which was too over-developed for our taste, but I’d read about a more remote area called Cabo de la Nao near Javea which sounded delightful and proved another holiday highlight.It was a tortuous winding road to get to the tiny village of La Granadella beside a small beach, the whole surrounded with pine trees.
We were taken immediately with this quiet little place and strolled over the beach towards rocks, just to sit and watch the sun on the turquoise bay, the light dancing on the surf crashing onto the sand. Above us on low cliffs, were some attractive looking villas and off season, this must be rather a nice relaxing place to be.
Had coffee and some pan con tomate on toast (I was hooked on that by now) in the single café which was open. There were several elderly men chatting away and it was all very relaxed. The sun was shining, it was pushing 70 degrees, breezy and the light was great. I could have done with a few days here.
Back up the winding narrow road, past some very lovely villas in a wealthy looking area then we saw the signpost to Cap Nao. Fantastic view from the car park over the cliff-girt headlands.
Then I spied an interesting looking restaurant signposted to the left and we wandered down through the pines to check it out; it was called (what else), Cabo la Nao.What a location! A semi sheltered terrace set on the cliffs, overlooking the deep blue Med and with a small track going off to a lighthouse – we just had to stay for lunch. And a very good lunch it was too, super friendly service, good local dishes. Cold meat platter for Chris and an excellent pear and walnut salad for me with, of all things, a topping of violet ice cream – somehow, it worked! It was bliss being on that sunny terrace and I must say, a lovely contrast to the colder, wetter weather inland. Had a wander around the cliff side afterwards, admiring the sea FAR below. Beautiful spot.We were very pleased at finding it.
The nearby resort of Java looked quite interesting – next time – but our objective now was to get to Mutxamel where our Airbnb apartment, ‘Els Estels’ beckoned.It was about a 20 min drive outside Alicante, perfect for the airport plus we enjoy retreating to somewhere quiet and rural. But as we made our way away from the coast into the hinterland, none of it looked very attractive and Mutxamel itself seemed to be in the middle of scrubby landscape littered with half built houses. My heart sank – another mistake.But when we finally tracked it down and the gates swung open and we were shown into the house, I relaxed. Phillipe was so welcoming and the house was spacious and very charming, with tons of character.And we had our own big terrace for eating out as the sun went down. It was a perfect place to come back to for that last night, so practical given an early afternoon flight next day.Outside there was nothing but low, dry hills and scrubby bushes, almost chaparral or semi desert in appearance. It’s not where I would have wanted to base for a whole holiday but it worked well this time.
We’d stocked up on cold meat (Parma ham), tomatoes, good bread, butter and emmental cheese, plenty to keep us going for our last meal of the holiday.But first, a glass of vino to celebrate an exciting trip, exploring new areas of Spain, a great break all round (sometimes I think we don’t do ‘holidays’ these days but ‘travel experiences.’) When the warm sun went down , we had a huge sitting room with a stove (Chris loves a fire).No need for it in the evening but it was lit for us at breakfast, taking the chill off the room.
Day 5 Alicante and home
Great breakfast next day with freshly squeezed orange juice, good bread, jams and cold meats and cheese; a delightful stay with very nice people.
A short 25 min drive and we were in the very different world of Alicante itself , known by the Greeks as the White Citadel and by the Romans as the City of Light. We had a couple of hours to explore so headed up to the Old Town and the Castillo de Santa Barbara.Dating from the 9th century in Muslim times, the castle was full of interest and gave a fine view over the harbour and Alicante itself. Well worth seeing.The rest of the town was ok, good to see but probably not a priority to return to.
The city’s Explanada de Espana was a very attractive promenade of towering palm trees and marble tiling, beautifully done and led us to one of many small cafes behind Alicante’s extensive golden sands. Time for a half hour just sitting with coffee and people watching, enjoying the warm sunshine before heading for the airport and our afternoon flight back to a much chillier Scotland.Another great if short escape to lovely Spain.