The Ice Man Cometh
Area: Inland towns of the Sierra Mariola, Alicante province.
Route: Cocentaina – Agres – Bocairent – Alcoi – Cocentaina
Distance: 66 kilometres
Drive through glorious countryside and discover two medieval gems on a trip that’s short on kilometres but long on history.
Cocentaina, where this excursion begins, is a small town five kilometres north of Alcoi (Alcoy on some maps). To get to it coming from the south on the A7 motorway, take exit 67 (just after San Juan) on to the N340 and follow the signs for Xixona and Alcoi. From the north take the N340 at Xàtiva.
At first glance Cocentaina looks like little more than an industrial estate and rarely gets a mention in a tourist guide but, like many other small mountain towns in these parts, an historic heart beats behind all those factories producing textiles and furniture.
Towards the end of the 11th century, Cocentaina was the capital of a large Islamic region that covered the entire northern part of present-day Alicante province. Around the mid-12th century the Christians began their conquest of the town, and in 1258 Jaime I raised his standard as its saviour. Less than 50 years later, in 1304, the Moors of Granada attacked and burned the town, earning the locals the soubriquet of socarrats, the scorched ones.
The historic part of Cocentaina is divided into two zones: El Raval, the ancient Moorish neighbourhood whose streets rise in terraces up the hill towards the Ermita Santa Bárbara, and La Vila, the Christian part that contains most of the town’s architectural and historical points of interest.
The epicentre of Cocentaina was the Palau Comtal, historic home of the Corella family, whose crest features a woman’s head atop the body of a serpent. When the Countess Corella took over the building in the 15th century, she wasn’t happy with the 13th-century Gothic appearance and turned it into a Renaissance palace with lots of painted and carved ceilings, ornate tiled floors and columned arches. And she did a good job.
The Sala de los Embajadores, (d’Ambaixadors in Valenciano) now a museum of Gothic art, has stunning ceramic tiles and carved paneled ceiling, and the Sala Dorada has an impressive painted ceiling. Panels depicting the kings of Navarra (the Countess’s family) are surrounded by scenes of the battles between Moors and Christians, notably that of Jaime I sitting on a hilltop prior to his successful invasion of Valencia city.
Adjoining the Palau, the church of Virgen del Milagro convent and monastery is a haven of ornate intimacy, where the locals pop in and out while doing their morning shopping. The decoration and artistic embellishment is worthy of a cathedral, in a structure that, when packed, could hardly accommodate more than a couple of hundred souls. Elaborate paintwork covers large areas of the walls and huge sections are painted to imitate irregular stone blocks, the overall effect being of a slightly kitsch rustic church with a nod in the direction of decadence.
While Cocentaina has a number of splendid edifices, it also has tiny, twisting streets with magnificent charm. Sneaky little alleyways lead to dead ends and worn narrow flights of steps lure you on Alice-in-Wonderland style.
The streets are decorated with beautifully painted plaques depicting the lives of saints and religious goings-on. Just around the corner from the Santa María church, stone steps lead up to the street Mare de Déu del Miracle. If you turn left here you will come across the oldest ceramic panels in Cocentaina. They date from the mid-18th century and represent the suffering of the Virgin, giving their name to the street in which they are located.
Keeping a watchful eye over the town is the recently restored castle. More tower than castle, this emblem of Cocentaina was built in Gothic military style during the 13th and 14th centuries. You can reach it by car, but it’s a steep climb and the view is marred somewhat by the industrial buildings spread out below. Alternatively, enjoy the vista from the picnic area around the chapel of San Cristóbal, where you can sit on stone blocks (it’s advisable to take a cushion) with a huge stone slab as a table and with the aroma of rosemary in the air.
Continue your trip by returning to the N340 and taking the direction to Valencia on a dual carriageway. After three kilometres take the exit for the C3311 to Muro de Alcoi and Agres (it’s the second exit for Muro). At the roundabout at the end of the slip road turn left onto the CV700 signposted Agres where it goes under the N340.
Ignore the first sign for Agres. After the km8 marker turn left by a sign bearing the Costa Blanca logo with tourism symbols and “Agres” in large letters. Follow the road straight up the hill (it bears left after 200 metres or so but keep straight ahead) and as you top the rise alongside a pillared handrail in front of the glass bus stop, turn hard left. This brings you into a small square beside the Restaurant Pensión Mariola.
Agres is one of those delightful mountain villages of narrow twisting streets, bougainvillea-covered cottages, ornate tiled plaques and fountains gushing sparkling mountain water. The latter come together particularly well at the fountain on Calle Mayor, and there’s even a route map to guide you around the loveliest of the fountains.
To get to the Santuario at the top of the village by car, take the first right after the Restaurant Mariola on to Calle Mayor, a very narrow road despite its grand name. When you reach the first square, the Plaza de España, turn right again and immediately turn left after the church. This leads you directly to the Santuario.
The Santuario is dedicated to the Mare de Déu de Agres (Mother of God of Agres) and commemorates a 15th-century miracle. On the night of August 31, 1484, the church of Santa María in Alicante was destroyed by fire. The statue of the Mare de Déu was seen to disappear into the sky. The following day she was discovered near Agres castle by a disabled shepherd, who instantly and miraculously was cured. The Mare de Déu de Agres, now kept in the Franciscan monastery, became the destination for a major pilgrimage, and on September 1 each year her discovery is re-enacted by villagers, the texts handed down from father to son. At other times it is a delightfully peaceful place to sit and ponder awhile.
The Sierra Mariola is rich in flora. Thyme, rosemary, lavender, sage, all make walking in these mountains an aromatic delight to complement the visual pleasures of rockroses and orchids. There are numerous walks around Agres.
Scattered throughout the area are the ancient neveras, snow caves, where compacted snow would be stored that, once it had turned to ice, would be taken to the major cities in the region. One of the most beautiful is the Cava de Agres (also known as the Cava Arqueda), a beautiful 16th-century construction, which still has the six arched spines that formed the original roof. It was last used in 1926. Unfortunately, it can no longer be approached by foot, but if you have the time (about two-and-a-half hours) and the inclination (it’s a pretty steep walk), you will be rewarded by some of the most beautiful views in the area. When you leave the car park in front of the monastery, instead of taking the right fork back down through the village, take the left and follow the sign that directs you to the Area Creativa Molí Mató for about one kilometre and then take the sharp left uphill.) If you are one of the faint-hearted, you can see a model of the nevera in the Restaurant Mariola.
From the Santuario, retrace your route to the CV700 and, turning left at the bottom of the village, head in the direction of Alfafara and Ontinyent. A short, pleasant ride takes you to the T-junction of the Ontinyent-Villena road (CV 81). Turn left and a couple of minutes later you see the tiered houses of Bocairent on your right, clinging to the side of the hill for dear life.
Bocairent is a weird and wonderful mixture of architectural styles. In the centre of the roundabout at the entrance to the town is a monument with apparently no official title but referred to locally as “the monument to the blanket”. It depicts an angular figure of a man with a heavy plaid blanket draped over his shoulders, a reference to the town’s leading handicraft, although now sadly in decline.
Cross the Pont Nou, the bridge that connects the town with the main road, and you soon pass a number of good examples of the wrought ironwork and curved stylism of the modernista (Art Nouveau) period. Unfortunately you also pass a number of 1960s excrescences. Eventually, passing under an arch called the Portal de l’Arc de L’Aigua, that looks convincingly Moorish but was built recently, you arrive in the Plaça del Mercat, also known as the Plaça de l’Ajuntament.
Around the square are old houses towering up to eight storeys, like medieval high-rises. It used to be said that in Bocairent the donkeys leaned out of the windows — meander up the steep, narrow cobbled streets from the square and you will see why. What appear from the square to be eight-storey houses are four two-storey houses, one on top of the other. The animals would be kept on the ground floor. Thus a donkey on the ground floor of the top house could poke its head out of what seemed below to be a seventh-storey window. It seems a pity there are no more donkeys left in this part of town to resurrect this bizarre vision.
In lieu of gardens in this rather unusual pueblo there are countless balconies, steps and low walls festooned with pots of geraniums, cacti, ferns and all manner of greenery. The further you walk down the steeply raked streets, the more tumbledown the buildings become. Nothing moves except scuttling cats shocked from a siesta by the ring of your feet on the cobblestones.
In 1843 the town council decided it wanted a bullring but was short of money and there was no level land on which to build it, so the citizens hacked one out of solid rock — from the tiered seating to the underground bullpens — using only pickaxes and chisels. Big enough for 1000 spectators, this Roman-style amphitheatre is now used for musical and cultural events throughout the year.
At a nearby cliff overlooking the Barranc de Fos, 53 inter-connecting caves have been carved out of the rock. No-one knows when they were built or what they were used for, or even why they are called the Moorish Caves because the Moors had nothing to do with them. Just another Bocairent oddity.
Without doubt, Bocairent’s outstanding monument is the Verge de L’Assumpció(Virgin of the Assumption) parish church. Begun in the 16th century on the site of an Arab castle, the Gothic-style temple was heavily revamped in the 17th century and is today considered one of Valencia’s finest examples of classic baroque.
Return over the Pont Nou to the main road and turn right at the roundabout. At the third roundabout, after two kilometres, reach the Alcoi road by taking the slip road to your right and crossing over the main road. Take the first right and follow it uphill. This route takes you through the picturesque Font Roja, the natural park in the heart of the Sierra Mariola. Rolling pastures, wheat fields and acres of yellow sunflowers make this a delightful ride home in the fading hours of the day.
Keep following the signs for Alcoi. From Alcoi follow the sign for Valencia to go north or Alicante to go south. Both directions are via the N340.
WHAT TO SEE
Palau Comtal, Plaça el Pla. 15th-century palace of the Corella family. Includes the Sala de los Embajadores (d’Ambaixadors), Sala Dorada, private chapel, now deconsecrated, and town library in the beautifully restored Gothic Room. A guide in English and Spanish is available from the Tourist Office. Open by appointment through the Tourist Office or call 686 424 506. Entry €1.50. Wed., Fri., Sat. and Sun., 11.-13.00; Monday and Saturday 17.00-20.00.
Convento y Monasterio de la Virgen del Milagro, Plaça el Pla (next to Palau Comtal). Beautiful 17th-century church built to commemorate a “miracle” in 1520 when an image of the Virgin is said to have cried tears of blood. (The original image is now in the monastery, but a copy can be seen in the chapel of the Palau.) No access to the convent or monastery, but the church is open daily between 07.00 – 12.00.
Dolores de la Verge, Calle Mare de Déu del Miracle. The oldest street ceramic plaques in Cocentaina, part of the circuito urbano de taullels, theroute of tile paintings.
Walks: the tourist office provides a reasonably detailed map and guide to some of the walks in the surrounding hills of Montcabrer. There is a brief guide of routes La Vila and El Raval in English and Spanish.
Santuario Mare de Déu de Agres (also known as Santuario de la Virgen del Castillo de Agres). Small church housing statue of the Virgin next to the monastery (now used only for groups on religious retreats) on the hill above the village. Opening times vary, especially during the annual fiesta celebrating the arrival of the statue, the focal point being September1. There are some pleasant walks and a picnic area around the Santuario.
Cava de Agres (also known as the Cava Arqueda). One of the most beautiful neveras (snow caves) in the region, with fabulous views over the Sierra Mariola and beyond.
Verge de l’Assumpció, off Plaça de l’Ajuntament. Stunning baroque church. Houses museum, containing examples of sacred art, including the Sant Blai altar piece by one of Valencia’s most famous artists, Joaquín Sorolla, and a chalice by the Florentine sculptor and goldsmith, Benvenuto Cellini. Open briefly on Sundays and fiestas at 12.30pm, after mass.
Plaza de Toros, a 1000-seat bullring carved out of solid rock. Ask at the tourist office for a programme of cultural and musical events. Open daily, noon-2pm and 6pm-7.30pm Entry €1.20.
Covetes dels Moros, just outside village opposite the medieval part. 53 inter-connecting caves. Open daily, 11am-2pm and 5.30-8.30pm. Entry €1.20
La Sària offer a wide range of guide tours throughout the area, including walking, cycling and cultural tours. In English if arranged in advance. Tel. 96 235 0807: Mob 635 120 029. Web. www.lasaria.com.
If you would like to see the Sierra Mariola from the sky, Totglobo offers balloon rides as part of their programme of rural adventures. Tel. 629 611 889. Web page www.totglobo.com
WHERE TO STAY
Nou Hostalet, Avgda Xátiva, 4. Tel. 96 559 10 95. Email: email@example.com Newly opened basic hotel on edge of the old town. €€
Hotel Odón, Avgda País Valencia, 145. Tel. 96 559 12 12. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Charmless businessman’s hotel near town centre (parking €3). €€€
Pensión Mariola, Calle San Antonio, 4. Tel 96 551 00 17. Web Page http://www.restaurant-mariola.es Thirteen ensuite rooms above the restaurant on the edge of the village with superb views over the valley. € (They also have a number of cottages for rent sleeping 2-6. Check for rates.)
Hotel L’Estació, Parc de L’Estacio s/n. Tel. 96 235 00 00. Elegant hotel and restaurant, refurbished in 2006.
Hotel L’Agora, Calle Sor Piedad de la Cruz. Tel. 96 235 50 39. New hotel with rooms themed on China, Pakistan, Thailand and Kenya.
WHERE TO EAT
L’Escaleta, Subida Estación del Norte, 205. Tel. 96 559 21 00. Part of a group of restaurants called Parlant Menjant (Associació Gastronómica Muntanya d’Alacant) with a reputation for good regional cuisine. €€–€€€
El Laurel, Juan M Carbonell, 3. Tel. 96 559 21 00. Part of the same group as above. €€–€€€
Pensión Mariola, Calle San Antonio, 4. Tel 96 551 00 17. Owned by the same family for three generations, highly recommended for excellent country fare at low prices. Big grills, rich stews and home-made desserts. Try the nueces y miel, walnuts dipped in local honey, and sip the restaurant’s own hierba, a liqueur made from fresh herbs from the surrounding hillsides. Reasonably priced with excellent-value lunchtime menu. €–€€
El Riberet, Avinguda Sant Blai, 16. Tel. 96 290 52 11. Creative cuisine. Considered by some to be the best restaurant in the area. €€€
El Cancell, Sor Piedad de la Cruz, 3 (Bajo). Tel. 96 235 50 38. Same owners as El Riberet but here they specialise in local dishes. €€
Hotel L’Estació, Parc de L’Estacio s/n. Tel. 96 235 00 00. Elegant hotel restaurant, specialising in carne de piedra, meat cooked on a hot stone at the table.
Tourist office, in entrance to Palau Comtal, Plaça de Pla. Open daily 10.00- 14.00, 16.30-19.30, closed Saturday afternoon, Monday morning and all day Sunday.(from 15 Jun to15 Sep, 11.00-14.00 and 17.00-20.00). Tel. 96 559 01 59. www.cocentaina.es. If closed you can get information from the town library in the courtyard of the Palau.
Tourist office: Calle Major, below Town Hall on Plaza de España. Open 9.30-14.00.Tel. 96 551 0001. http://www.agres.es
Muro de Alcoi:
Tourist office, Plaza Ramón González, 1. Tel. 96 553 20 71. Open 9.30-14.00 and 17.00-19.30 Mon-Fri, and 11.00-13.30 Sat.
Tourist office, Plaça de l’Ajuntament, 2. Tel 96 290 50 62. Open 10.00-14.00 and 16.00-18.00 Mon-Fri, and 10.00-14.00 Sat and Sun.