East From Madrid #3: Castles from the Sea

Day four

 El Puig

El Puig

The sea would remain our companion for the morning. The big aquamarine slab of glitter that was Valencia’s languid coast. The heat, palpable and clingy, met with the breeze on the hill at the first stop of interest through Valencia’s ugly northern outskirts. The monastery of El Puig - one of the region’s great houses - sat, bursting out of the titular village around it. A rosy pink crenellated slab of old stones surrounded by boxy hodgepodge houses that didn’t hint at luxury. Then rice fields. Then the line of holidays high rises and then the sea. 

The coast was an uninviting series of warm resort-ruined beach towns until at least a pearl gleamed out amid the dirt: Peñiscola. An arresting little place that was lucky to have a tilde. 

 Peñiscola

Peñiscola

It was a town that had long played a part in both film and TV. Its positioning was quite astonishing. A chubby little spit-hill speared out from the coast, long golden beaches on each side. Then, scattered on top of each other and covering every possible inch, bright-white houses, blue window frames and terraces, flower pots and orange-tiled roofs. A place that had drifted away from Greece, missed the boot of Italy and had stuck itself onto Spain.

 Colours of the Med

Colours of the Med

The streets all met at the top, where the prim and well-kept castle jostled for place and importance next to her sturdy little church. The views from the top were unfair in their loveliness. Britain couldn’t dream of matching the colour or scope of the sea-town views even on a good day. Spain’s sea-based calling card was writ in blue, green, white and gold.

 Old sea ladies and old sea nets

Old sea ladies and old sea nets

The little harbour was a personal bonus; I so loved shrunken fishing boats bobbing with their tyre rings and armies of noisy gulls. Out on the hot concrete that stunk pleasingly of dried fish and sea-plants, old ladies repaired nets as the men no doubt took carajillos and hard wine in the local bars. 

 Morella

Morella

A farewell was handed to the sea as we took route northwest back into the hills. Before leaving Valencia once more for Aragon, lunch was had at a most impressive hilltop town: Morella. An absurd place built spiralling upwards on a lonely mount and that ended at an castle-topped outcrop popping up above everything. 

 Overstuffed hill

Overstuffed hill

No space was left on the hill. All was cobbles and houses. Archways bounced down medieval alleys and again the world was quiet but for old men and the odd local or passing Spaniard having lunch. There was nothing in this place but sweetness and photogenic corners. As was tradition, the already attractive lanes, that often ended at a surprisingly grand church - but where was that from the road!? - were brightened by flora; carnations and purple-pink wildflowers, and stopped to give the walker views out to the world. 

 Fórnoles

Fórnoles

The overt spring green of this part of Spain then petered out into some dry hills and plains, they looked hot and harsh, with lonely villages like Fórnoles, La Portellada, Valjunquera as the only blips of humanity amid the nothing.

We ended in and old ancient place that was now Spain’s fifth city: Zaragoza. Old Caesaraugusta, Roman city and later Taifa kingdom. The sightseeing would have to wait however, as the sun had fallen away. Soft bocadillos of beef and cabrales and of tuna and vegetables were taken by a busy intersection and served with tough cheap local wine and alcoholic-strength gin and tonics.