Forget Benidorm and the worst excesses of the Costa Blanca; just a short drive from Alicante is the real Spain, a land of hillside villages, almond and orange groves, and religiously-observed siestas
When you hear the phrase ‘Costa Blanca’, do you imagine concrete towers and mass tourism at its worst? If so, think again. The southern end of the Costa, around Benidorm, certainly does send shudders down the spine of anyone who seeks the real Spain. But keep driving and heading north, and within 90 minutes of Alicante you enter a very different scene.
The landscape changes from brown and arid to green and mountainous, high-rise concrete hotels give way to smart villas, and you find yourself in lush valleys of oranges, almonds and lemon groves. There are few places in the world where the northern part of a small coastline contrasts more with the south.
In the northern Costa Blanca you find quaint Spanish villages and life that goes on the way it has for decades, with siestas religiously adhered to, and local customs and culture still very much a part of everyday life. Villages where nothing but Spanish can be heard are commonplace.
This part of Spain is also one of the wealthiest in the country. Tourism earns considerable returns for the locals, and property prices reflect the number of well-heeled northern Europeans who buy a second home in this beautiful area. The weather has a lot to do with this. In the region's main town, Denia, the sun is said to shine 320 days a year.
Denia's skyline is dominated by the 18th-century Castillo de Denia. Not only does a trip to this honey-coloured fortress give you an insight into the region's long history, but the building's grandness offers an excellent opportunity to look around and get your bearings. Twenty miles of Blue Flag beaches extend from Denia to the north; head south and the rocky coves provide excellent scuba sites.
What’s lovely about Denia is that it’s no fake resort; this is still very much a working town. With its pavement cafes, smart shops and bustling indoor market, it feels like a small version of Nice. There's just so much life about the place. Maybe that's why the town celebrates more fiestas than any other in Spain - quite an achievement. The biggest is the Hogueras de San Juan (22-24 June). Similar to the Fallas festival in Valencia, it features hundreds of huge papier-mâché sculptures, representing anything from politicians and celebrities to hot issues of the moment. These are set up in the main streets and squares, only to be set alight in spectacular bonfires on June 24 to celebrate the arrival of summer. The carnival lasts through the night and, although there is no rowdy behaviour or drunkenness, the party atmosphere is electric.
During July the town celebrates ‘Santissima a Sangre’, which honours the town's patron saint. Events include the ‘Toros a la Mar’ bull-running around the seafront, in which, similar to Pamplona's famous event, young men run in front of the bulls before throwing themselves into the sea.
The following month, August 14-16 sees the Moors and Christians fiesta. A Moorish 'invasion' is re-enacted every year, with the accompanying cannon- and musket-fire, and the following day the Christians stage an attack and retake their castle with even more enthusiasm.
Neighbouring Jávea, a portside town of 20,000, doubles in size in the summer. Wander the narrow streets that cluster around the 15th-century Gothic fortress church of San Bartolome, with old houses built from Tosca sandstone. No high-rise buildings are allowed in Jávea which helps it retain its old charm.
Pueblo, the old village of Jávea, has made few concessions to tourism. Whitewashed houses surround the bay, and it's a great place to just sit in one of the outdoor cafes watching the fishermen bring in their fresh catches.
Orba and Jalon Valleys
Among the delights of this area are the scenic Orba and Jalón valleys - a pleasure for walking or touring by car. Running inland from Denia, the Orba Valley is home to the Girona river and charming, atmospheric little villages such as Tormos, Rafol, Benidoleig, Sagra and Pedreguer. These five villages are collectively known as the 'Rectoría'. In them, you’ll see old men sitting in the street playing dominoes (women are conspicuously absent - apart from the industrious ones hanging out their washing on their balconies and spying on the menfolk below). It’s utterly timeless and very charming.
In the Jalón Valley, just to the south, following the Gorgos makes for a lovely walk. The most attractive villages here are Llíber, Alcalalí, Parcent and Gata de Gorgos. Each has its own distinct character and its own unique specialist produce drawn from the surrounding countryside - wine from the vines, baskets from the reeds or honey from the orange blossom.
Where to stay
In Denia itself, the four-star Daniya Denia Spa & Business Hotel is a good medium-grade hotel with impressive leisure facilities, including a sauna, fitness centre, spa & wellness centre, Jacuzzi, Turkish/steam Bath, hammam and outdoor swimming pool.
Personally, I prefer staying in a villa in this part of the world. There are some fabulous ones for rental. A trusted, long-established company to check out is Premier Villas. As part of their Platinum Collection, they offer Los Girasoles in Jalon, which sleeps six in a spacious three-bedroom villa with stunning views of the surrounding countryside and mountains. Outdoor dining on the large terrace is a treat night or day. The beautifully landscaped gardens surround the property with Mediterranean shrubs and trees, and there is a large swimming pool with outdoor shower and substantial terracing for sunbathing. It costs between €800 and €1,100 euros a week, depending on season.
EasyJet fly to Alicante from numerous UK airports.