Making the Most of Town and Country

For years we’ve heard how  local and regionas governmentare pouring money into rural tourism – although dribbling it might be nearer to the point at the moment. What seems to have happened more often than not is that millions of euros of European funding was given over to restoring houses as casas rurales and printing a few leaflets.

Usually, though, it is enterprising people, either individually or in groups, who have promoted rural activity holidays, in the main, walking holidays, which in many cases have done well because the people doing them usually know a great deal about the individual routes and history and nature surrounding them.

But not everyone who enjoys the countryside necessarily wants to walk, and these days people like to get actively involved in doing something, rather than just being guided, either through the countryside or around towns. So along came the name ‘Agritourism or Agrotourism’, which isn’t touring with some miserable old devil walking ahead and shouting for you to keep up, but a way of understanding the region; usually, but not always, the inland region.

Trinidad Reyes studied agricultural techniques all over the world, but when she returned to Valencia she looked at how visitors and residents could get more out of the wonderfully rich opportunities available in the area (during Moorish times, Valencia was the most productive region in the known world) and to get to know more about its land and cultivation. She created Arrels Agroturisme to promote agrotourism in the Valencian Community.

“Agro Tourism is a type of tourism developed in rural areas, and offers the visitor the opportunity to learn, enjoy and participate in agricultural related activities. Sometimes these agricultural operations may offer accommodation, the tasting of typical and tradition food, sell products or organize courses and workshops for young people and adults alike.”

Every day more people are interested in how their food is produced, and want to meet the growers and talk to them about what goes into food production, but it also helps the growers themselves to promote their products – not always easy to get hold of through supermarkets -, the inland regions, and support rural development. We sometimes forget just how important a role farming and rural life plays in our history.

The Serrania de Palancia, the area surrounding Segorbe in Castellón Province, to the north-west of Valencia City, is an interesting example, where local producers of anything from chocolate to olive oil have come together to promote the region, both the rural activities and visits to small towns and villages.

Segorbe was once a bishop’s seat, and is now the regional capital. The name of its principal square, Plaza Agua Limpia (Clean Water Square) symbolises the historical importance of the springs and rivers of the area. Many street names in the old town reflect other elements of the city’s history. Calle Foro Romana, Calle Mezquita and Plaza Almudin are reminders of its Roman and Moorish past, while Calle Los Silleros (Chairmakers Street) recalls the time when each trade could be found in a specific area within the city walls.

The city’s history as a religious centre is reflected in the abundance of  churches,the most prominent of which is the 12th century Catedral-Basilica, whose inherent Gothic style has been considerably modified, as have most of the churches in the Province of Valencia, through various architectural fads and fancies. It houses a small museum of art from the 15th to 18th century, including work by Donattello.

Segorbe’s main fiesta is held during the last week of August and incorporates the Fiestas Patronales held in honour of the city’s patron saint, la Santisima Virgen, and the Semana de Toros (the Week of the Bulls). The high point of the taurine week is the Entrada de Toros y Caballos (Entry of the Bulls and Horses) when horse riders drive bulls down the main street between two densely packed rows of unprotected bystanders who rely on the skill of the horsemen to prevent them from being gored.

Probably the best place to try local food in Segorbe is in the Hospedería el Palen, where most of the dishes are based on produce from around the area. It’s worth visiting just for the decoration, as the owner of the hotel and restaurant has been a lifelong collector of just about everything, and the walls are lined with enough antique armaments to equip a reasonably sized army.

Hand-made chocolate might not usually be thought of as agrotourism, but in nearby Altura, Thierry Puissant brings his years of working in the refined kitchens of Belgium to the Valencian countryside.

A few minutes drive north of Segorbe, the first view you have of Jérica is the Torre de las Campanas, the Mudéjar bell tower, unique in Valencia and forming an unmistakable silhouette as it overlooks the town. Mudejar emerged as an architectural style in the 12th century on the Iberian peninsula as a result of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures living side by side.

With its round Moorish towers, Gothic arches and narrow cobbled streets, Jérica is a little gem of a town and, as in many such pueblos that have little room for gardens, most of the countless balconies and walls are covered with colourful plants, especially off the prettily-named Calle de Pequeño Horno, the Street of the Little Oven, just up from the Iglesia del Cristo de la Sangre on calle Historiador Vayo. During winter the plants glisten with greenery but they must be a sight to behold in summer.

In nearby Viver, the Cooperativa Oleícola Serrana del Palancia gathers together olives from surrounding growers to produce high quality, extra virgin, first cold pressing olive oil, marketed under the title ‘Sabor del Territorio’. Their top oil is called, ‘Lagrimas’, Tears, because of the slow and careful way in which the oil is extracted. Locally grown almonds and walnuts can also be bought from the small shop at the cooperative.

Olivares de Seltierra is another olive oil producer, but still using many of the old traditions, including two great conical stone cones to crush the grapes. At their Finca Masia Marín they also produce their own wine, ‘Calderona’, and both the olives and grapes are grown on their own estates.

Many of the small towns and villages of the Valencian region hold delights visitors wouldn’t necessarily come across on their own. People also tend to be in a bit too much of a rush to experience everything that they often experience very little. Like the walking holidays run by knowledgeable experts that have become so popular over the years, perhaps the new agro tourism groups will open up the pleasures of rustic life.

Further information.

Arrelsagroturisme has tour suggestions of gardens, truffles, wines and other regional produce and agriculture. Can arrange specific tours for groups. Tel. 606 943 070

Hospedería el Palen, C/ Franco Ricart nº 9, Segorbe.

Tel. 964710740

Thierry Puissant, C/ Fuente la Reina nº 29, Polígono Industrial La Olivera, Altura.

Tel. 96 414 68 45. Maître chocolatier; also produces high quality patisserie.

Cooperativa Oleícola Serrana del Palancia, C/ Abadía nº 4, Viver.

Tel. 964141050. Gives guided tours. Must book for English tour.

Finca Masia Marín, Segorbe. Tel. 964710878. Olive oil and wine producer. Book by phone to arrange visit.

Where to stay in Jeríca: Casa Shariqua

Please visit my web site, Spain Uncovered, where new articles and photos are being added regularly.  Valpaparazzi are random notes about life in Spain.

Derek Workman’s books, Inland Trips From the Costa Blanca and Small Hotels and Inns of Eastern Spain are  published by Santana books.

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