There is life beyond the beach in Spain: leave the bustling resorts of the Costas behind, and head for the rugged hinterland, where virginal mountains and unspoiled villages await
Most people fly into Alicante intent on a week or two relaxing on the Costa Blanca’s famed beaches, enjoying one of Europe’s most agreeable climates and a glass or two of chilled sangria. Few new arrivals realise that in the mountainous hinterland lies one of Spain’s most unspoilt escapes, where eagles soar and wild boar roam in a wildscape where man most definitely still plays second fiddle to nature.
It is possible for experienced walkers to strike out into the wilds of the Sierra de Aitana and Sierra de Serrella on their own, but the best way of discovering the area is on an organised village-to-village walking trip. The idea is wonderfully simple - you start the day with breakfast in one village and then set off on a walk towards the next, or hike and then take a transfer back for another night where you have just slept.
The organised village-to-village trips are led by Jonathon Neill, a rugged South African who fell in love with this region so much that he not only moved here and started an adventure business (Aqua Ventura), but he also married a local girl. His base is a 200-year-old working farm and lodge, Hort de Gloria, in the small settlement of Sella, which is now popular as the hub of the village-to-village adventures.
Having spent more than one beach holiday in the area, I arrived in Alicante not knowing quite what to expect. As soon as I came through the gate there was a sign of things to come, as I was warmly welcomed by the sweeping smile and firm handshake of Neill. Soon we had cleared the city and instead of bulleting up the highway to Benidorm’s beaches, we headed inland.
All thoughts of holiday hotels and water parks went out of the window, to be replaced by swathes of unspoilt scenery, peppered with tiny little villages and hamlets, as the minibus negotiated increasingly winding roads through the rough terrain.
The Sierra de Aitana and Sierra de Serrella area is still not that well-known to most Spaniards, never mind tourists. In winter it is a bleak and inhospitable place and life was hard for its early inhabitants, traces of whom remain in the ‘snow wells’, huge stone pits dug to hold the snow and provide water for the bone-dry summer months.
This is also a region where the Moors spread their influence and, indeed, ruled for the best part of five centuries. In these more peaceful times, the locals like to commemorate this Arabic past with an annual ‘Moors and Christians’ festival, which lights up the local villages. Another legacy is the place names: Beni means ‘son of’ and it is used frequently, with the likes of Beniarda, Benifato and Benimantel.
The trails themselves are generally in good condition and not too strenuous to walk, with only gradual gradients, so no climbing experience or specialist equipment is necessary, though you do need to be reasonably fit and able-bodied, as some days you can be walking for up to seven hours. Aqua Ventura is keen, though, to be as flexible as possible, and for those not wanting to walk every day, there is the option of just wandering around the villages or relaxing back at the lodges.
After a hard day’s walking, drinks and traditional food await, maybe some tortilla, chorizo or a fresh fish paella laden with homemade olive oil, which has been pressed locally by communities in the mountains for centuries. After dinner, as muscle-tired limbs ease, there is the chance to bond with the rest of the group and compare walking stories while a log fire burns in the background.
The lodges themselves are on the comfortable rather than luxurious side, with the highlight staying at Neill’s own farm, where his wife and family still live. If you are lucky, you may just manage to coax Jonathon’s father-in-law into an impromptu performance, as he is an accomplished guitarist, singer, songwriter and recording artist. A decent bottle of single malt whisky has been known to do the trick.
The walks vary in length and level of exertion, with the hardest, but ultimately the most rewarding, being that up to the Puig Campana. This peak strikes up into the clouds a towering 1,410m above sea level, making it higher than Ben Nevis. From up here, on a clear day, you can take in a panoramic sweep of surrounding mountains, the city of Alicante, Benidorm and, somewhat surprisingly, even the outline of the Balearic Islands in the distance across the blue canvas of the Mediterranean.
On the walks there is plenty to keep you occupied apart from the group’s banter and the views, with a wealth of wildlife opening up as you hike along the trails. This is an ornithologist's paradise, with the likes of Bonelli’s eagles, sparrowhawks, falcons, owls, crows and ravens all cruising around the mountains taking advantage of the air currents. On the ground you can look out for roaming wild cats, badgers, genets, weasels and wild boar.
On the last day of the trip we descended, somewhat reluctantly, from our mountain haven. However much time you give to the long-forgotten villages and barren mountains of the Sierra de Aitana and Sierra de Serrella, you will no doubt be dropped off, as I was, at Alicante airport, thoroughly glad that you tried something so thrillingly different to a beach holiday.
Organised village-to-village trips
The trips are available through Aqua Ventura. Even if you are not on an Aqua Ventura trip, they can organise transfers to the start of the walks and pick-ups at the end. Neill can plan all sorts of trips and is happy to discuss possibilities.
Where to stay
Hort de Gloria (Sella): the base for the walking tours is a great walking hub, but you can also book in for a few relaxed nights before or after your hike.
El Mirador (Sella): a cosy guesthouse that sleeps 10 people in five double bedrooms. The house is equipped with a kitchen, lounge, dining room, two bathrooms, inside patio and garden and offers views of the surrounding village and mountains.
AC Alicante (Alicante): perhaps the most stylish hotel in the city, this is an ideal place to base yourself before the walk or afterwards, and is handy for walking day trips and city breaks, with the rooftop pool a highlight.