Succulent Fruits and Prize Winning Wines
Area: Vall de Pop, west of Benidorm.
Route: Benidorm – Bolulla –Tàrbena – Alcalalí – Xaló (Jalón) – Fontilles – Pedreguer
Distance: 70 kilometres
Taste Valencia’s succulent fruit, the prize-winning wines of the Jalón valley, spicy sausages made to an historic Mallorcan recipe — and enjoy the tranquillity of Spain’s last sanctuary from a terrible scourge.
From Benidorm take the C3318 to Callosa d’en Sarrià, passing beneath the N332 coastal road, or from the A7 motorway exit at junction 65 to join the N332, travelling in the direction of Alicante, and then take the next exit, following the signs for Callosa, 15 kilometres further on.
When you arrive in the center of Callosa, take the second exit on your right from the roundabout with the new fountain, heading towards Bolulla (5 km away) and Tàrbena on the C3318/CV715.
Passing the Font d’Algar Water Park, the meandering road carries you through orange and níspero groves with the foothills of the Sierra de Xorta to your left and the Sierra de Bernia to your right. As the road straightens out, you see the village of Bolulla, a small huddle of houses tucked into the hillside.Apart from a rumour that Hannibal and his elephants stopped off at Bolulla castle (of which nothing remains) on his ill-fated journey to besiege Rome, Bolulla is of little note historically. Nonetheless it is a pleasant stroll through the narrow streets with nooks and crannies filled with pots of flowers (though, be warned, the streets are so steep they should be fitted with escalators). The alleyway ofCanto de Coca overflows with greenery and during summer months is a riot of floribunda.
The affluence of Bolulla comes in part from the groves of níspero that surround the village. Known as the loquat in English, the níspero is a yellowy-orange fruit about the size of an egg that, when eaten at its prime, is deliciously juicy and sweet. Unfortunately its prime doesn’t last very long, but shops throughout the area sell the fruit preserved in a number of ways. During the picking season from mid-April to early June, as you wander the streets you will see garage and basement doors open to reveal ladies trimming the stalks from the fruit before grading and packing them in boxes, using scissors to snip the stalks being as near to automation as they get.
Return to the main road and continue onward to Tàrbena, the road zig-zagging furiously as you climb. Glance backwards and you see Bolulla sitting like a white pearl set in the deep green of the orange and níspero groves. As you get higher these begin to give way to almond trees that surround a scattering of white, beige and pink houses. One km after you pass a viewing point on your left (four kilometres after Bolulla), you enter Tàrbena. The narrow streets make parking difficult, so it’s best to leave your car on the edge of the village.
After the banishment of the Moors in the 17th century, Tàrbena was repopulated with 17 families from the island of Mallorca. They brought with them recipes for Mallorcan sausages that later brought fame to Tàrbena. The village still has a reputation for its sausages. You can buy them at Embutidos Petito on Parada Font del Botó, where a diminutive grandma sells long chains and fat balls of sobrasada, a slightly spicy sausage with a creamy texture, butifarras, rich black puddings, a mixture of pork, onions and spices, and the rough-textured blanquet. Whenever she plonks a sausage on the scales, she will tell you it is “muy bueno” — and indeed it is.
In the village square, Casa Pinet styles itself as a Bar-Restaurant-Museo, and justifiably so, as it is packed with an eclectic mix of objets d’art, bric-a-brac and memorabilia, much of it related to the Civil War. The restaurant, serving local dishes, is the domain of Jerónimo Pinet, without doubt one of the most colourful characters in the village. For decades the one-handed Jerónimo (the stories as to how he lost his right hand are many and varied) always dressed from head to foot in black, his head topped off with a beret, and his tongue-in-cheek socialist rantings brought in the crowds. They came not only for the museum and his showmanship but also for the country food, which was excellent. And it still is.
The once-infamous Señor Pinet has mellowed greatly and is now a charming host (minus beret) who still puts specially selected herbs into bottles to make the fiery hierba that he offers at the end of the meal, all the while keeping a watchful eye on his museum.
From the Plaça Santa Anna, the small square just above the road that leads to the village cemetery, you get a wonderful view through a cleft in the hillside over the níspero groves to Benidorm and the Mediterranean beyond.
From Tàrbena, you drive uphill in the direction of Pego. You pass through a rugged, rocky mountainscape where tiny roads disappear in all directions. On your left the abandoned and disintegrating terraces look like a giant stairway traversing the side of the sierra, while on your right sinuous terraces of almond and olive groves snake around the lower hills. The views are picture perfect — at least they would be if you could find a place to stop and take a picture along the narrow road that twists and turns relentlessly. Great swathes of vivid yellow gorse and pale, blushing rock roses line the road and the aroma of rosemary and wild mountain thyme perfumes the air.
As you cross over the Coll de Rates at 780 metres above sea level (eight kilometres after Tàrbena), you see the village of Parcent and the scattered urbanisations of the Jalón valley laid out before you, with orange groves separating the developed areas as they spread down to the sea. As the road descends towards Parcent, it takes you into the Val de Pop.
It was from the rough landscape surrounding the Coll de Rates that, during the last quarter of the 19th century, the bandits El Tona, El Durá, El Mixana and El Sabateret rode out to terrorise the surrounding areas. The story goes that the last outlaw in the nearby Sierra Bernia was caught in the 1950s. He was not your typical bandit of old who robbed stagecoaches. He would stop a car and force one of the male occupants to exchange clothes with him, and would not be seen again until his “new” outfit had worn out. He was eventually caught but, unfortunately, nothing is recorded of his name or what happened to him after his capture.
The writer Gabril Miró lived in Parcent and his home is to be turned into a museum celebrating his work, but for the moment there isn’t a great deal to see in the village, so when the road levels just before Parcent take the first right to Pedreguer and Alcalalí. Shortly after this it joins another road where again you go right. Just after this junction you see Bodegas Parcent on your right, a privately owned bodega that produces a small range of excellent wines.
After two kilometres you reach Alcalalí where, just as you enter the village, you will see a small sign for the centre of town (centro urbano) to your right (opposite the larger sign to Orba on your left). Just as you turn off the main road you will see parking spaces.
As Alcalalí is a rural wining and dining centre for coastal dwellers, there is no shortage of good restaurants in the area. Even though the development of rural tourism has brought a building boom to the region, Alcalalí itself still feels like a small Spanish town.
The central square, the Plaça de l’Ajuntament, is entered by a low arch that gives it a nice historic feel, even though it wasn’t built until 1984. A large tiled plaque to the side of the 18th-century Natividad parish church in the Plaça de l’Ajuntament tells the history of Alcalalí in a dozen lines. The church itself houses the Museo Parroquial San Juan de Ribera.
The restoration of the 15th-century tower opposite the church, all that is left of a baronial palace, aroused mixed feelings amongst the locals. Some thought putting a modern, dark-glazed cupola on top of a medieval stone tower was cultural vandalism while others considered it a tasteful mix of the old and the new.
The tower now houses the municipal archives on the second floor, while the third and fourth floors are home to the Museo de la Pansa (Raisin Museum). This may sound like the ultimate joke museum, but the economic value of the dried grape to the Marina Alta, the region in which the Vall del Pop sits, was massive from Moorish times up to the mid-1900s. In the latter years, ships laden with Valencia raisins would sail from the port of Denia to London and Liverpool and the good old British Co-op had an enormous warehouse in Denia that, while no longer storing raisins, still exists. The fifth floor of the tower, protected from the elements by its new roof, is poetically called the “Mirador de la Vall del Pop” (Lookout Point of the Vall del Pop), recreating its original role as a watchtower. On this floor is displayed a model of a riu-rau, one of the ancient barns typical to this area that comprised a small room where the farmer would sleep during harvest time and a series of open-arched storerooms where grain would be left to dry.
Returning to the main road (CV720), turn right for Pedreguer and 200 metres later you take another right to Xaló (usually referred to as Jalón). After a short narrow bridge you bear left and enter Xaló/Jalón (some two kilometres from Alcalalí) and see on your left the tourist office that serves the Vall del Pop. There’s parking space here.
Xaló, a sleepy little pueblo a couple of decades ago, was the first village in the area to be encroached upon when residents, both foreign and Spanish, began the drift away from the coastline.
Nevertheless, there are still a number of good reasons to visit Xaló. Historically speaking, there’s little to see except the attractive hexagonal church tower in the village square, but most visitors don’t come for history. They come to find a bargain at the Saturday antiques market or to stock up on the local wines that can be bought at excellent prices from one of the numerous bodegas along the road in front of the tourist office.
The Denominación de Origen Vall de Xaló is famous for its mistela (a sweet muscatel), rosé and full-bodied reds. If you wish, you can sample the wines the Spanish way by drinking from a porrón, the glass vessel with a long spout that you hold high in the air to aim an arc of wine into your mouth — or down the front of your shirt if you lack expertise.
Reverse the directions to return to Alcalalí. Once more in Alcalalí, turn left on the CV720, following the sign for Fontilles, and after 200 metres, beside a garage opposite the parking place where you parked earlier, turn right for Orba (5km).
The Jalón valley has the reputation of being overbuilt but, as soon as the road begins to rise, you can see that there’s still plenty of greenery, with the Sierra del Carrascal de Parcent creating a backdrop to the white houses. Two kilometres further on, turn right onto the CV715 for Orba and La Val de Laguar (also known as Vall de Laguart). Bypass the entrance to Orba and shortly after, as you descend a low hill, take the left at the large roundabout for Fontilles and Val de Laguar. Two kms later, you arrive at a junction on a bend in a mountain road where you take a left, going uphill.
The road takes you through dramatic cliffs with occasional views of cultivated groves spreading down to the Mediterranean. Look up to your left a few minutes later and you will see a stone wall tracing the contours of the hillside as it surrounds Fontilles, the last remaining leper hospital in Spain.
These days leprosy is easily treated and is usually attended to in a general hospital, but in December, 1901, when a Jesuit priest, Father Carlos Ferris, visited his friend Joaquín Ballester at Tormos, the disease was a scourge that respected neither class nor creed.
Shocked by the living conditions of a leper living nearby, the two friends raised the money to buy the land to create a sanctuary, later to be known as the Sanatorio de San Francisco de Borja-Fontilles. But it wasn’t until January, 1909, that the first six patients entered Fontilles, to be attended by the sisters of the Franciscanas de la Inmaculada and by Jesuits of the Compañía de Jesús, the two religious orders that tend to the needs of the patients to this day. As lepers would usually be simply forgotten by their families (there was no medication available until the 1940s), the priests and sisters tried to create as far as possible a family atmosphere in the sanatorium. Fontilles is still home to 60 people, some of whom have spent most of their lives there.
Within the stone wall that encircled the santorium, the patients learned crafts, and Fontilles became a village in its own right, with a bakery, carpenter’s shop, smithy, printing office, bindery, shoemaker, hairdresser, and gardeners. It even had its own theatre, still in use until the late 1990s. As you walk along the side of the building you can glimpse through the dusty window rails of costumes from productions long since closed, sheeted over, perhaps in the futile hope of some future theatrical revival.
The architecture of Fontilles demonstrates the architectural styles of Spain, from the grand edifices of the modernista period through Art Deco to the ultra-modern design of the Residencia Borja, a recently opened residence for retired people that is bringing new life to Fontilles. But the essence of the Sanatorio is its peacefulness. As you walk the grounds, you can imagine how comforted those afflicted by this terrible disease must have felt when they arrived somewhere where they would no longer be rejected.
Leave Fontilles and continue uphill. As you rise, you pass through the villages of Campell, Fleix and Benimaurell, none with a population of more than 400 souls. Benimaurell appears to be tucked into the side of the sierra, but as you get closer you realise that it is stuck on the top of a hill of its own.
Keep on through the village, following the signs for the Hotel Alahaur. When you reach the hotel you are as high as the road will take you and, from its car park, your steep drive is rewarded by wonderful views over the hills, crags and almond groves down to the glittering Mediterranean 30 kilometres away.
Another reversal of route and you eventually end up back on the outskirts of Orba (7km). Turn left in the direction of Pego and Ondara, turning right moments later when you see a sign for Orba, Ondara and the Cueva de Benidoleig.
Continue through Benidoleig (3km), across the small roundabout in the centre of the village, going in the direction of Pedreguer and the Cuevas de las Calavaras. Just after the km5 mark you see the entrance to the caves on a U-bend (badly signposted, but there is a large sculpture in the car park and a cafeteria to the right of the entrance). The caves lack much of the extravagance found in some others in the Valencia region, but nonetheless still have a charm of their own.
Your footsteps echo off the wooden boardwalk and through the vaulted chasms distorted with rock forms that flow like something designed by Gaudí after a harrowing nightmare. A monstrous stalactite in the Sala de la Campana, that has taken millions of years to form, is now barely 30 centimetres away (i.e. some 2000 years) from the stalagmite growing beneath it. All around, the mottled deep purple and green colouration of the rock gives the impression that prehistoric cavemen have decorated their domain with great pots of paint.
Turn right leaving the Cuevas and 10 minutes later you enter Pedreguer. At the T-junction turn left for Denia and Ondara, and at the next roundabout go straight ahead for Ondara or right for Alicante.Follow the signs for Valencia and Alicante (A7/N332) and when you reach the junction with the N332 turn right for Alicante via the coast road and left for Valencia. If you wish to join the motorway, turn left at this junction and a few minutes later you will see signs for the E15/A7 Autovía to Alicante and Valencia.
WHAT TO SEE
Restaurante/Museo Casa Pinet, Plaça Mayor. Tel. 96 588 42 29. Open daily from 9am-5pm. Closed Wed. Unusual cafeteria/restaurant packed with objets d’art, bric-a-brac and memorabilia of the Civil War. You are not obliged to eat a meal to view the displays covering the restaurant walls, but you would be well advised to do so.
Bodegas Parcent, Avda. Denia 15. Open Mon-Fri 16.30-19.00, Saturdays and wine tastings by arrangement only. Closed Sundays. Tel 636 536 693 www.bodegasparcent.com
Torre Museo (Museo de la Pansa), Calle Mayor, 1. Collect key from Ayuntamiento during office hours.
Museo Parroquial, housed in the parish church inPlaça de l’Ajuntament. Open during mass times.
Saturday market. Open market held every Saturday morning (approx 9am-2pm) near tourist office on edge of the village. A mixture of antiques and bric-a-brac.
Bodegas. The Cooperativa Valenciana Virgen Pobre de Xaló is the main bodega in Xaló. It only sells wines made by the cooperative, with bulk wines selling from around €1 a litre. Open summer Mon-Fri 9.30am-1.30pm, 4-8pm, Sat 9.30am-2pm, 4-7.30pm, Sun 9.30am-1.30pm; winter Mon-Fri 9.30am-1.30pm, 3-7pm, Sat 9.30am-2pm, 3-6.30pm, Sun 9.30am-1.30pm. http://www.bodegasxalo.com/en/
Sanatorio de San Francisco de Borja-Fontilles. Open daily. Visitors are welcome to visit the sanatorium grounds. No entrance fee but the sanatorium is grateful for any donations.
Cueva de las Calaveras, Ctra. Benidoleig-Pedreguer. Tel. 96 640 42 35. The caves have complex opening hours depending on time of year, weather etc. but are usually: summer 9am-8 pm and winter 9am-6pm. Entry €3.50.
WHERE TO STAY
Finca Tossal: Partida la Foya 5. Tel 96 597 2183/686 584 890. A splendidly idiosyncratic hotel, full of colour and imagination. Not only the hotel, but most of the furnishings were hand made by the owners. Dinner served to residents only. €39.50-€44.50 per person, depending on season. Includes breakfast and VAT. www.finca-el-tossal.com
Hotel Alahuar. Tel 96 558 33 97. Newly built rustic-style hill-top hotel with stunning views. Also has small cottages to rent as suites. €36.50-€76 per person including breakfast and VAT.
WHERE TO EAT.
Casa Pinet Plaça Mayor. Tel 96 588 42 29. Open daily for lunch, closed Wed. Fixed daily menu that includes local sausages, paella, fiduea (similar to paella but made with pasta) lamb and pork chops, and rabbit. Good country food. If you want to try the roast suckling pig or special roast lamb you need to order in advance. Highly recommended.
Sa Cantrella, Partida Foya Ganach, s/n. Tel. 96 588 41 54. Open 10am-10pm daily June, July, Aug, Sep, other months same hours but closed Sat. Specialising in wild boar, venison, duck, rabbit, quail, pheasant, turkey and partridge. You can sample their home-made sausages and fruit and veg from their own organic kitchen garden. You can dine on the large terrace with panoramic views of the mountains (free use of swimming pool if you are dining, €3 otherwise). The large, open restaurant interior is decked out with baskets, dried gourds, pots and grinning boars’ heads to remind you of what’s on the menu.
Casa Carrascal, Carrer D’Alt, 14. Tel. 679 043 130. An excellent fixed price menu is top value for both quality and choice at €19.50 per person, including wine. Highly recommended. Open dinner only. www.casacarrascal.com
Pepe Casa Jaume, Partida la Solana, Ctra. Alcalalí-Pedreguer. Tel. 96 648 24 56. Open daily for lunch and dinner, closed Sun night and all day Mon. Excellent value rustic-type restaurant serving man-sized portions. Try filloas rellenas, stuffed pancakes crammed with seafood and oven baked, or the pierna de cordero, leg of lamb baked in a faintly curryish sauce.
Hotel Restaurant Alahuar, in town. Tel. 96 558 33 97. Attractive modern restaurant with superb views over the surrounding countryside. Excellent rustic food and local cuisine. Recommended. €20-€30 including wine.