What comes to mind when I say “Alicante”? Straw donkeys, strange sticky bottle of green booze left over from a long-forgotten hen weekend? The dubious delights of Benidorm, perhaps?
Forget Benidorm. We were invited to the heart of the Valencian Community, the heartland which includes the Costa Blanca, but also stunning mountain ranges, wild cliffs, groves of almond, orange and loquat, and the most beautiful, gorgeous drives I’ve ever been a passenger for (Me? Drive? On those mountain roads? PLEASE). In terms, Benidorm and all of the stag and hen dos, greasy spoon egg-and-chip cafes and buckets of sangria are very much the exception, rather than the norm.
So, what did we find?
We just happened to hit Valencia for the end of Easter, a magic time for most of Europe. We’ve seen the Fasnacht Bummel, but this is something altogether different. The tradition in this part of Spain is to build the most glorious floats, spectaculars and constructions, and then burn them down. As you do. This is accompanied by fireworks, the most glorious costumes, street parties and marching bands (yes, them again) and the most almighty amount of firecrackers.
While the burnings in Valencia are rightly famous and rather glorious, we stuck to the town of Denia, a gorgeous small old-fashioned town clinging to the coastline looking out to the bluest water you ever saw in your life.
The Costa Blanca is one of the most varied and beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The sandy coves, rocky rugged coast, cliffs and plains, orange and almond groves and terraces have coexisted since Roman times. Dotted around the countryside are the remains of communal ovens, little sheds which look like cowsheds but are in fact communal washing facilities, and beautiful windy roads with cyclists struggling up mountainous roads. It’s history and culture writ large across the countryside, and it’s beautiful.
The undeniable effect of tourism on the coastline is undeniable, with towns like Xabia (Javea in Castilian) exploding outwards with huge amounts of building in the last ten years. Sadly, many of these houses remain unoccupied following the economic crisis. However, the interior retains the character of the older arable landscape, with terraced groves of almonds, tracts of orange and lemon trees and valleys filled with loquats. Walking in the countryside around the house we were staying, we picked freshly-fallen oranges off the ground for a beautiful fresh treat. Apparently you’re allowed two oranges per day in this way. I hope they don’t begrudge us a quick snack.
On the final day, we braved the wiggly mountain roads past Alcalali and Benissa up towards the old Moorish fortress of Guadalest. While it was a horrid day, we made the most of it, seeing the ancient home of one of the oldest Bourbon families in Spain. The name escapes me, and frankly it doesn’t matter. Wandering through rooms of slightly damp-feeling, gloomy looking furniture with beaky inbred glares watching over us, we felt the need to escape back outside into the drizzle, to the gorgeous scenery and the stunning views. It was so incredibly picturesque, and I’m already looking forward to going back. A quick side note – on the road up to Guadalest is a rather beautiful little auto museum, with a handicraft shop selling local honey, chorizo and almond turron, as well as Spanish solid hot chocolate. I couldn’t resist a little cinnamon-scented block which makes sinfully rich and thick chocolate.
In the afternoon we went for a wet and drizzly walk with the dog, only for the cat to attend!
So, I’d spent time in Mallorca but had never gone to mainland Spain. And frankly I really should have gone earlier. Some highlights:
- Delicious tapas by the sea between Denia and Xabia, at Helios cafe, with home-made chorizo, morcilla and fresh sausage.
- A dinner in Denia while waiting for the burnings, a delicious feast of potatoes, little sausages and patron peppers with egg, albondigas (meatballs in sauce), prawns in garlic oil, freshly made bread with garlic mayonnaise and tomato sauce, and the most tender, beautiful iberico ham with manchego cheese.
- An impromptu take-away paella, which I thought was going to come in a little dish, but in fact came in a steaming hot paella pan! (to be returned in the morning, of course). Travelling back to the house in our little hire car, knowing that we were getting a delicious freshly-cooked dish for two for less than the cost of a pizza was very satisfying.
- A trip to the mountains to the tiny village of Masserof, to the restaurant of Casa Susi. A tagging specialist in the heart of the mountains, the restaurant is warm, welcoming and full of music, with a colombian chap playing music to you while you scarf down 24-hour cooked lamb with local almonds and raisins. Starting with hot vegetable lasagne and ending with a beautiful cream catalan, it was one of the most evocative, lovely and warm receptions I’ve had in a restaurant in a long time.