Guadalest Castle one hour, and a world away from Javea
Visitors to the Costa Blanca, especially those from Northern Europe, tend to head straight for the sun, sand, and sea on the Mediterranean coast. This is entirely understandable and certainly not to be missed, but so many of those sun-and-fun-loving voyagers do miss a vital part of the area’s attractions. Just a little way inland from the coast lies some of Spain’s most stunning scenery and fascinating history.
High in the mountains about 60 kilometres and one hour from Javea, the town of Guadalest boasts a permanent population of approximately just 200 souls, far fewer than in its heyday, but not surprising since the only reason for its existence today is tourism. Back in the 12th and 13th centuries it was a major fortification and stronghold, virtually impregnable in its remote and craggy fastness.
Apparently this site was first located and put to use by the Moors during their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. During the 12th century that occupation was becoming very precarious as the tide had turned against the occupying army. The Moors were being forced from many of their strongholds further inland, which is undoubtedly why the castle at Guadalest was built.
Records indicate that this Eagle’s Nest or Hanging Castle, as it has come to be known, has changed hands many times over the centuries. After the Christians in the 13th century had re-conquered most of the territory taken over by Muslims, Guadalest was still largely populated by Muslims, though under the rule of various Spanish noblemen.
For the next three hundred years or so, the castle and its environs were held by a succession of dukes and earls and other nobles, until at the beginning of the 17th century (officially 1609) the Moors were finally expelled from the country. After that the estates of the current Marquis of Gaudalest were almost uninhabited.
Two earthquakes in 1644 destroyed much of the castle and the town of Guadalest, and by the early 20th century there were no more heirs to the castle and estates. In 1949 the premises were included under a new Protection Law for Spanish castles, and in 1974 the town and castle were bestowed with the tile of an Historic-Artistic site; the rest is no longer ancient history but modern history – and tourism.
On your way up the mountain towards the town there are some splendid views of the Bay and the mountains themselves are starkly beautiful. You’ll also want to stop at the Museum of Historical Vehicles, which is located in the Guadalest Valley before you reach the town. Along with more than 100 perfectly restored motorcycles and small cars (a VW Bug among them) there’s very nice garden – and plenty of parking space.
Here there’s a restaurant called El Rui that is part of the whole package, so on your way to or coming back from Guadalest you can visit the museum and have some wood-fire barbequed rabbit (or pork, beef, chicken, vegetables and more) as you take in the view from this little plateau over the Guadalest River below.
A caveat to our opening paragraph is a note that Guadalest has become a very popular tourist destination, so during the peak summer season you’ll want to get there as early in the morning as possible to miss the tour bus crowds. Be prepared to walk and climb a bit; make sure you’ve got sturdy, comfortable shoes and outerwear.
At an elevation of 600 metres, the town of Gaudalest sits on top of a mountain in its own carved shallow valley, with gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and the deep blue reservoir that was formed by damming the Guadalest River (in the 1960s) and supplies water to many villages and towns, including Benidorm. The best view of the lake is from the castle, and we’ll get up there presently.
The only entrance into Guadalest’s old town is a deep portal carved out of solid stone. The tunnel is 15 metres long and it’s very easy to imagine the difficulty any unwanted intruders would have in getting out the other side. However these days no one is guarding or repelling, so you can just stroll on in.
Whether you arrive early or not, you might want to stop at Bar Mora (near the entrance) and sip a coffee or cold drink, maybe have a snack or a meal – the food is good and surprisingly reasonable, and the only risk is a stiff neck from craning to look way up at the massive rocks formations and the remains of San Jose (aka Guadalest) Castle far above you.
The village, though tiny, has a lot of little shops and several restaurants, but of greatest note are its museums – not one, or two, but eight – and all of considerable interest. If you have a couple hours to spend you’ll be glad you did, since they are all unique and quite delightful in their own specialized ways.
The Dolls House Museum contains works of art in the form of scale-model houses, churches and landscapes, some carved into the natural rock face. The detail is incredible and it’s well worth the three euro cost.
Even more amazing is the Museo Microgigante or Micro-Gigantic Museum. Some of its sculptures and paintings require a microscope to see whilst others are hugely over-sized sculptures of tiny creatures. Check out the microscopic ant playing a fiddle, or a bullring etched on a pinhead amongst many others There are actually two different micro-museums and both are utterly amazing.
For the morbidly inclined, don’t miss the Torture Museum with its display of tortuous devices from the Middle Ages through the present. Some are non-lethal (at least in theory) but all of them would make a person think twice before committing whatever crime the instrument was meant to punish.
On a gentler note there’s the Ethnological Museum, giving a fascinating glimpse of the way people of Guadalest lived centuries ago, both at home and in their agricultural pursuits. It shows you how olive oil and wine were made with the machinery and tools of the times, as well as how the locals cooked, dressed and baked their daily bread.
The Museo de Saleros y Pimenteros has a sister museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, no kidding. The Salt and Pepper museum (shakers, that is) is a wonderfully quirky establishment run by a Belgian woman and her son. The museum displays shakers in the shape of just about anything you can imagine – famous sculptures, space ships, crab claws, the Beatles . . . and there are 40,000 pairs to boggle the mind.
Underneath what is now the town hall there is an authentic dungeon carved into the bedrock, dating from the 12th century. Kids will probably love the dungeon, as it’s not so scary when you’re just passing through as a visitor, but it wouldn’t have seemed at all cozy to those who had the misfortune to wind up there back in Medieval times.
The Orduña House Museum is an excellent source of historical information about the town and its most prominent people. The house was built after the earthquake in 1644, and almost 350 years later it was purchased by the Town Hall to be refurbished and turned into a museum. From the back of the grounds is the path to the castle and the views that have made Guadalest famous.
When you walk up that path to the highest point of the village it’s easy to see where the names “Eagle’s Nest” and “Hanging Castle” came from. Since the remains of the castle virtually hang on a cliff, the scene is panoramic and breath-taking no matter what season or time of day you visit. The stand-out landmark, visible from a great distance, is the Guadalest Bell Tower that perches on a pinnacle of rock and shines in the sunlight like a beacon.
All around are more of the towering craggy mountains, while below is a lovely green valley, the sparkling water of the reservoir and the winding road that leads up to the town. On a clear day (most of them are in this region) you can just about see forever, and it’s easy to imagine the days when Guadalest was an impervious fortress.
Since its discovery by the tourist trade, most of Guadalest’s long-term residents have turned their old homes into shops or museums and moved to newer housing farther up the mountainside. Most everyone who lives there depends on the tourist trade, and presumably enjoys modern comforts at home even as they present visitors with visions of the past. The trade-off seems to work well for everyone.
Even though the town has become quite famous as a travel destination, it’s still remote, with no big hotels or golf courses . . . or Burger King or Domino’s Pizza. There are, however, a handful of restaurants, all with glowing reviews, and there are plenty of charming gift shops but no supermarkets.
You may be (pleasantly) surprised at the really excellent options for a meal or just a snack and drink. The offerings at many if not most ‘tourist villages’ seem to be mediocre at best and over-priced as a rule. However this is really not the case here in Guadalest.
A meal at Restaurante Mora is always a real treat; the food is Spanish style, top quality and generous, and you can enjoy it indoors or on a lovely patio shaded by willow trees. Also excellent for lunch or dinner is L’Hort, which serves typical Spanish dishes; the special of the day is always outstanding, and the view is even better.
Just before you reach (or depart from) the castle village, and with perhaps the most stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the valley beneath is another top-notch restaurant, Xorta. What’s more, the food and the service are also of the highest quality but prices are far lower than you’d expect.
You’ll also find a few of the usual tourist traps, but they’re awfully handy if you’re in a hurry and not too picky. Depending on the time of day and the season, a restaurant may or may not be open, so plan and book accordingly if possible.
Guadalest valley and its lake is well worth a tour also, if you have some time to wander. If you turn off on the Embalse de Gaudalest just before you reach the town, you can cross the dam and drive right round the lake, through a couple of small villages. You could take a ride on a solar-powered boat and even go fishing off the dam if you get a license at the local fishing shop.
One more note: if you plan to stay overnight in Guadalest, you’ll need to book well in advance; unless you’re staying with friends there’s only one option, and that’s Casas Noves. The name means ‘new houses’ but this casa rural is new only in the sense that it was one of the first built outside of the old town, in the 1930s. There are only five bedrooms, but each has its own roomy salon (and flat screen TV).
In fact Casas Noves might be a good reason to stay for a night or two or five. The huge old house has been lovingly and expertly refurbished, keeping the best of the original materials such as floor tiles and doors. A sort of luxurious homeyness would be a fair description, and the welcome is warm and genuine.
Whenever you go to Guadalest, plan to take your time and enjoy the village, the dramatic views and the powerful sense of history evoked by this craggily enchanting little town.
All of the wonderful photos above courtesy of Ian Theobald