The route connecting the castles of Vinalopó draws a line through the history of the Valencian Community. If pay close attention to the painting, we’ll begin to hear the heart of Alicante beating to the sound of ancient battles, fiefs, and legends. The river Vinalopó crosses the lands of a few regions in Alicante, always flanked by fresh, long vineyards. It goes on and on from Banyeres to Villena, passing through Aspe and Elche, until it reaches the seaside city of Santa Pola.
The stream works as an index where every fortress constitutes a chapter with its own title and narrative. Novels of chivalric romance, jousting, and conquest are only footnotes in the history of these stone giants. Thus, fantasy and reality are intertwined in the novelesque journey we’re about to embark in. This is a walk through the Arab past of the region, in the border line between the crowns of Castile and Aragon. It’s also an invitation to return to our adventure books, grab an old comic book, and envision ourselves comfortably sitting in a movie theatre, watching the lights slowly fade…
Here, in the north-west of Alicante, time doesn’t seem to pass, but to fly among clouds made of ink and paper. Just as history does, the river goes by endlessly across centuries. One can only run after the stream and hope to hear the story whispered by its waters.
Travelling up and down green hills, we’ll see enchanted fortresses rising in the distance, keeping watch on the valley for many a time. Our journey begins in Banyeres de Mariola, a city in the sky, more than 800 metres above sea level. There is an Almohad castle there, right in the main street, dating back to the time period between the 12th and 13th centuries. The castle is surrounded by a fairy-tale landscape, and it holds a museum about the Moros y Cristianos festivals —which commemorate the struggle between the Muslim people and the Christians. The pages of Banyeres are written by mills, fountains and the music of the streams.
Our next stop is the castle of Villena, in the mount of San Cristóbal. It shares the high spot with the castle of Salvatierra, used as a watchtower since the 10th century. This bastion originally built and owned by Arab people was acquired by the Christians in 1240, after Aragonese troops besieged them. It’s already been ten centuries since the castle contemplates its own reflection in the river, like a delicate yet immortal stone daffodil. The outer walls are crowned by twelve majestic towers whose silhouettes stand solemnly on the horizon, saying farewell to the traveller headed to Biar, nine kilometres away.
Before we reach our next stop, we’ll see in the distance an almost 20-metres-high keep. Only the birds of prey flying over the valley reach that point, circling the tower like the true monarchs they are. The building’s particular architectural style, featuring an Almohad rib vault, links it to the castle of Villena. Our path follows the final promise of the Mediterranean Sea, but before that, we’ll make a stop to fall in love with the views from the Ojival aqueduct, with the bells of the church of Asunción chiming in the background.
The Grossa Tower welcomes us to the town of Castalla. There is a faint scent of ocean in the air, and sometimes, one can even smell the powder of the cannons of ancient African pirates. The grounds of the fortress are rooted in Neolithic remnants, along with Roman and medieval stories. We leave behind Ermita de la Sangre, the convent of the Franciscans, and the nature of Xorret de Catí. Before we continue, it would be nice to take a break and enjoy one of the gastronomical wonders of the town: Castalla’s own gazpacho. After that we’ll probably feel recharged and full of energy for the second part of the journey.
When we arrive at Sax, we’ll find a rocky watchtower of irregular shape reigning over Upper Vinalopó. This mountain is full of legends and it’s also home to settlements dating back to the Bronze Age. The castle of Sax, from the 14th century, was built over an Almohad fortress from the 12th century —in the same way that the shrine of Saint Blaise was built over an old mosque. The sound of striking steel and shattered helmets make up the soundtrack of this city in Alicante that was besieged by the viscount of Cardona. From those days remain the Moros y Cristianos festivals and all the uncertainties and mysteries that walk beside the traveller to their next stop: Elda.
In Elda, the traces of the old Islamic citadel stand by the river and seem to keep protecting us. The remains of the Christian past —ruins of an old castle, palace and citadel— gather around it, and this majestic view attracts all eyes. If we leave Elda behind, our encounter with the river Vinalopó in the natural landscape of El Pantano will lead us to the next castle.
We’ll find the castle of Islamic origin in the east of Petrer. We can go inside and visit the caves in the fortified walls. The sombre inside in inhabited by the spectres of the family of the counts of Coloma and Elda, and the quiet shrines encourage retreat, while the wind moving swiftly through the archways of San Rafael hums melodies from the past —perhaps a chanson de geste about the following fortress: the castle of Mola.
Only 13 kilometres away from Peterer, this modernist building in Novelda stands out for its location near the sanctuary of Santa María Magdalena. It was designed with a defensive purpose, just like the other castles we have encountered. It’s also an important example of civil-military architecture. In the past, they used the 17-metres high triangular tower to communicate with other nearby fortresses through visual signals. Before we leave, we should pay a visit to the Museum of History and Art and uncover some of the castle’s mysteries.
We are now reaching the end of this journey. The Mediterranean Sea feels more present in the air, even in our own skin. We only have a couple of stops left, beginning with the Castillo del Río, also called the castle of the Moor. After passing through Monforte del Cid, where the parish church has substituted the old fortified building, we will arrive at Aspe. We’ll have to leave behind the city to reach these ancient remains, standing slightly far away; it’s said that an old walled town used to there. Near the river Tarafa we’ll find the ruins of the castle of Aljau, which was used after they abandoned the Castillo del Río. If we need to rest, we shall lie under the shadows of the trees in the park Doctor Calatayud and then depart for Elche.
The Palmeral of Elche, declared a World Heritage Site in 2000, is a reflection of Al-Andalus in this city by the Mediterranean coast. The palace of Altamira stands in this beautiful scenery, next to the bank of the Vinalopó river. It was built over the remains of an Almohad walled construction used for defence. Nowadays, it hosts the Elche Museum of History and Architecture. Palm trees stand vigilant, in case Barbary pirates decide to land in Santa Pola.
The route of the Vinalopó ends in Azerbe del Dalt, where El Hondo Natural Park and the salt evaporation pond of Santa Pola meet. From there, the stream flows towards the sea swaying in the sands of the Gola beach. This sea extends in all directions, from the former Roman harbour to the surroundings of the fortress, currently holding the aquarium and the Sea Museum. It’s the most recent castle we have seen so far, built in the 16th century over the remains of the old port tower. The castle is located in the square of Glorieta, and its Renaissance architectural style is worth mentioning. In the inside we can find the chapel of the city’s patron saint, the Virgin of Loreto.
The sun sets on the islet of Tabarca, and this way our adventures with the Vinalopó and its enchanting fortresses come to an end. This journey of more than 80 kilometres encompasses tales about knights, sieges, armies, victories and defeats. The river is sailed by legends, kings and queens, and pirate treasures, in an exciting voyage that never ends. We all write a different story: a book that changes with every traveller.