How do you decide where to go on day trips? Word of mouth, travel guides, travel blogs, articles, listicles? We’ve done all of these, but lately, it’s involved me simply opening Google maps and clicking on cities and towns around us to see what kinds of photos pop up, then picking the place that literally looks most interesting. And that is how we settled on Guadalest.
As it turns out, that little dot on the map consistently ranks amongst the top tourist attractions in all of Spain. The tiny town of 200 sits at the junction of the Aitana, Serella, and Xorta Mountains at 600 meters above sea level and about 25 km inland from tourist haven Benidorm. The strategic setting dates back to 715 AD during the Moorish occupation of Spain, but El Castell de Guadalest was not built until the 12th Century – originally as the fortress of Alcozaiba. Since then, it has exchanged hands many times, and endured major earthquakes and wars, including a major earthquake in 1644 and the War of Spanish Succession in 1708, which have left only pieces of the original structure intact.
In the 17th Century, the Orduña family began to rise in prominence in Guadalest, building a home adjacent to the castle. The family ruled the region until the last member died in 1934. Since the mid-20th Century, the town has been managed under Spanish protection laws for castles, and Orduña House was eventually converted into a municipal museum with many contents still owned by distant relatives of the reigning Orduñas. Castle tours actually begin in their home, preserved with 1800’s artifacts.
We knew none of this heading into Guadalest yesterday – just that there was the promise of a castle and what looked to be some pretty amazing views of mountains and milky blue water below. There are two routes off of the main freeway into town and I thought I had mapped the shorter but curvier option for getting there, assuming that it would be winding through picturesque hills. Apparently, Google maps had other ideas and took us a roundabout tour through “The Valley”, or at least what looked a heck of a lot like California’s San Fernando Valley, complete with brightly colored strip malls connected by an interminable series of roundabouts – my favorite. There was lots of questioning where we were actually heading.
About two-thirds of the way in, the roundabouts were replaced with switchbacks and we finally felt like we were on track. The sun shone brightly on the verdant hillsides, many of which were dotted with pink cherry blossoms just springing forth. It was stunning. As with most drives in this region, we passed numerous stone houses in various states of crumble, which had led to many debates about why they aren’t removed to make room for new structures or additional farmland. Personally, I think we are skewed by the American ideal of value. Why wouldn’t you preserve this history, even in pieces?
Just as Google said we would, we rounded the corner into Guadalest…and immediately faced three giant tour busses headed straight at us. Our moods deflated until we quickly realized they were headed out of town, not in, which we chose to take as a positive sign. It was not long after that we learned about Guadalest’s tourist prominence…but, also that visitors are encouraged to arrive very early to beat the crowds. Not ones to arrive early very often, it appeared that we were lucking into arriving after everyone who does.
Since it was Monday, and winter, a number of restaurants were closed, including the most highly rated ones. So, we settled into the town square accepting convenience and sunny terrace over quality and interest in food. Our torta lunches were fine. The people- (and cat-) watching was top notch. From there, we began our descent up the cobble streets, the bell tower beckoning us from above.
The climb is not as treacherous and I worried it would be. It’s set in stages with lookouts or attractions that prevent it from seeming like one long hike. We stopped for a good while to enjoy views of the valley out to the sea, then again at the tunnel leading into the castle village. I, of course, hadn’t realized that there would be restaurants and shops within the castle walls. Nothing much to linger over, unless you’re interested in tchotchkes, but a charming scene nonetheless.
We walked through the village and out and around the various lookout points before realizing that the Orduña House was our entree to the castle. So, we headed back to where the tunnel spit us out.
The house was actually quite interesting, a small museum in its own right. There was a gallery at the start displaying contemporary paintings of the region. A section of the home was set as it was lived in back when the Orduña’s were residents, and included sections displaying their family heritage and communications with the Queen.
From the house, you climb further towards new vista points, past painted tile stations of the cross, up to the family cemetery, and finally to the oldest section of the castle.
It would be an injustice to say that it’s not much to see. There is plenty to take in, just not a lot of castle still standing. We climbed around on what their was, viewing it from all side. RF imagined defending it through tiny slits in the stone. We had a laugh over our concerns of having to share the experience with a large group of tourists. We passed just one woman on our way up to this final point, and only a German couple joined us while we were there. Then, with work waiting for us, we made our way back down.
Heading home, we took the curvy route passing through grove after grove of lemon trees, the most we had seen on our trip. Valenciana has, in our experience, been mostly about the oranges. I keep teasing RF about pulling over so he can pick me one. We can’t take back fruit…but maybe we could sneak back some seeds!