Leaving our comfortable apartment back in Torre Pacheco, we drove along the coastal road heading north east. Around Alicante we cut left and headed directly north into the mountains, spending a night in the town of Ibi. From here we drove slowly along the quiet winding mountainous roads of the Serra D’Aitana range, through the pretty villages clinging to the slopes. We stopped off just south of the town of Alcoleja and parked by the side of the road, to undertake a hike to the range’s highest peak. We walked up easy gravel paths, through the low forests with views to our left across the valley we recently drove through.
There was low cloud rolling in quickly, and the top peaks were rarely visible, so we always expected this would remain a low level walk, without a summit. After 8km we stopped at a fork in the path for a bite of lunch, then instead of continuing upwards into the cloud, we made the sensible decision to retreat by the same route. The actual highest peak is a military installation with no public access, so we had seen all that we could on this day.
We returned to Benny and drove on to the next large town, at Castell de Guadalest, where we planned to spend the night. We arrived at the central car park and the delightfully helpful assistant, who was also in charge of the Tourist Office, let us in for free, said we could park in the larger bus spaces at the rear and gave us the password to the Tourist Office staff private wifi – very generous of him and an auspicious start to our short visit.
We later walked around the town as dusk was approaching, with little expectations but to stretch our legs, but were pleasantly surprised by what we found. Along with the dominant eponymous castle, the town was a veritable goldmine of interesting titbits and quirky, eccentric displays. It had a number of interesting museums packed with curiosities, such as the museum of micro-miniatures, with tiny models of famous landmarks set on pin heads or within the eye of a needle. Another housed replicas of Goya paintings dotted on a fly’s wing.
There were many local craft shops and neat, twee stores to satisfy the tourist hordes. The views over the azure lakes behind from the mirador Penya del Cullerot, the main cobbled plaza, were quite spectacular. It was the sort of quaint place that my mum would love to spend time in, browsing shops and exploring niches , and whilst not exactly to our tastes we could definitely see the appeal as a day trip to the constant busloads of tourists arriving early the next morning.
We drove south, in the direction of Benidorm. We had considered another walk, to summit Puig Campana, but the low cloud still lingered here, so we didn’t. We passed through Benidorm and along the coast before we stopped for a break in the seaside town of Carp. We walked along the beachfront and around town, enjoying the December sunshine, the first real sunny spell we’d had for a few weeks. The large prominent rock at the end of the headland somehow added grandeur to the built-up frontage, lifting what could otherwise be a generic stretch of Spanish coast to something just a little bit more enticing and special.
After changing our minds on where to stop, we skipped away from the coast again in favour of the small town of Simat de la Valldigna, with our only expectation being to use a free aire there for a simple one night stopover. The aire, although nicely positioned near to the town, was a sandy piece of waste ground surrounded by a wire mesh fence that looked tatty with puddles and tiny rivulets as it had been raining hard as we arrived. We parked up adjacent to an orange orchard and settled in for the night, without taking a proper glance at the town itself.
Simat de la Valldigna
But after the grimy first impressions formed in the dull weather and late afternoon drizzle, the town quickly won us over with its beautiful setting, and we decided to stay longer. The town sits in a bowl surrounded with neat, cultivated slopes blanketed with hundreds of hectares of orange orchards. The small tourist office was very helpful and had lovely maps of local walks and cycle routes, so we decided to complete a few of these before moving on.
We walked to a ruined castle on the hillside, passing through the vast extent of orange orchards in full fruit. The Castell d’Alfandec was our target, a short walk and climb up a small hill set around 4km from the village. First we decided to pass through the main attraction in the village – the Monestir de Santa Maria de la Valldigna.
The Monastery, founded in 1297 CE, was a surprise and delight that we returned to several times. A small private church with an archway formed the entrance, through which the bell tower and the main domed monastery building could be viewed. A beautiful new visitor centre with detailed information, drawings and models of the complex had been installed within the stone walls of a previous ruined building, with only a new roof structure added to protect the exhibition.
There were orange trees planted in the courtyard gardens in neat rows, heavily laden with fruit. The interior of the monastery was vast, and exceptionally ornate, with acanthus leaf scroll mouldings and ceiling murals of cherubs or angels giving an almost excessively garish impression. Externally, the grounds mostly consisted of stone ruins, with portions of stone arches that were previously vaulted roof supports, set between more orange trees; a wonderful space to wander through.
The 1964 movie “Tintín y el misterio de las naranjas azules” was partly filmed at the monastery. Out of curiosity, we later watched it on Youtube (it was terrible) and the improvement works that had occurred since the filming rendered the monastery and overgrown grounds almost unrecognisable to us.
On our walk, there were orange trees everywhere, with many dropping on the ground and rotting in piles, whist the trees continued to struggle under the weight of huge, ripe unpicked fruit. The walk was an easy stroll past a few local landmarks, before a more challenging last kilometre uphill on a stony hairpinned path to the castle ruins. The climb was only to 237m, but still afforded an impressive view across the valley and all the way to the east coast.
The following day we set off on a longer walk to the highest peak in the region, set in the Sierra de Montdúver. Again we passed copious orange trees, then a long and steady climb up through low forests to a locally celebrated Font del Cirer that was no more than a sink and tap.
From here we continued up through scrub on steep and slippy stony expanses, the most difficult part of the climb, to reach the Cova de les Malladetes, at 635m. An easier gravel path led from here around the mountain contours then steadily climbed up to our goal for today. We reached Cim del Penyalba, at 772m, the highest point of the mountain and were rewarded with quite fantastic views over valleys on both sides of the ridge.
We found a lovely personalised metal box positioned on the summit that we assumed was a popular geocache. It housed a notebook and pen that we duly utilised to mark our arrival. A blanket of low cloud moved in quickly from the north, taking away our visibility on one side, so we decided to head down before it settled on the entire summit.
We descended into the village of Les Foies, passing the similarly underwhelming Font Nova, before following the easy path all the way back into Simat. We sang Christmas songs and hymns on the long descent, to try to capture some spirit of the season, but the shorts, sunshine and oranges just made it feel false. We passed the La Xara mosque, reborn as the Saint Ana chapel after the expulsion of Muslims from the region in the 15th century.
We returned later to the monastery with sketchbooks in hand to sit in the pleasant courtyard and draw the bell tower and church, passing a very peaceful hour resting our weary legs. Our practical stopover proved to be a most interesting town with fantastic history and hill walking, so we were very happy to have made its acquaintance.