Altea, a step away from Javea, and a step back in time
The rating of ‘Cultural Capital of the Valencia Region’ may sound a bit pretentious, but it’s fair to say that Altea, a relatively small town on the Costa Blanca about, 40km and 40 mins from Javea, is truly a world away from the crowded bustle of typical tourist beach resorts in the immediate area.
Like most towns and villages on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, Altea’s earliest residents were Iberian tribes who built settlements in the obvious places – where the geography provided fresh water, some shelter from northerly winds, and a living could be made from the sea. Where conditions were ideal for a temperate, inviting climate they were inevitably joined, and sometimes subjugated, by settlers from other shores.
In the case of Altea, the Greeks may have gotten there first, establishing a marketplace they called Althaia, which has been translated to mean ‘ health for all’ or ‘I heal’ or ‘I cure’, and the river nearby was named the Algar, or ‘river of health’. It’s quite clear those settlers appreciated the hospitable climate, though exactly what it healed is not certain.
Over many centuries, other cultures came and went; Romans took over for a while, and there is also evidence of Phoenician occupation before the great influx of Muslims, or Moors, from North Africa and Arabia. Moors basically ruled on the Iberian Peninsula for hundreds of years beginning in the 8th century.
Altea was part of the Taifa (or kingdom) of Denia from the beginning of the 11th century until the armies of Christian king James (Jaime) of Aragon took back control in 1244. At that time protective walls were built around the part of modern-day Altea that’s known as Old Town, but most are long gone and today the N-332 is the main boundary between the old town and the busier marina and beaches.
The ‘Cultural Capital’ name was bestowed at some point in the latter 20th century, mostly due to the high percentage of artists who made the town their home or at least a major point of reference. Writers, painters, sculptors – artists of every description – found inspiration in the lovely old homes, the narrow winding cobblestone streets and the very atmosphere with its enduring aura of a peaceful Spanish village untouched, for the most part, by a rapidly changing world.
That aura still holds Altea in a sort of time-warp, only fifteen minutes but seemingly centuries removed from the bright lights and modern din of Benidorm to the south. In part the lack of major development is due to the lack of broad sandy beaches, since the town sits on steep hillsides well above the shore, which is mostly pebbled.
The town and harbor are in the middle of a wide bay whose waters are exceptionally clear and clean because of the rocky bottom, so they are premium spots for snorkeling and scuba diving. The town actually has eight listed beaches, three of which are designated nudist, so you don’t have to worry about swimming togs – unless you just crave a new a new bikini.
Cap Negret to the north of town has a good sized beach, part sandy and part smooth pebbles and rocks. Toilets and litter bins are available, the beach is very clean and the water is crystal clear. The Cap Negret Hotel stands just above the shore and offers gorgeous views, a huge pool with a waterfall and its own chiringuito. There’s also an excellent restaurant, a barbeque terrace and a bar cafe and the hotel is in easy walking distance of the Old Town.
Cap Blanc/L’Albir, the widest of Altea’s beaches, is similar, with sand and white pebbles; there are good hotels nearby and numerous cafes, shops and restaurants in the immediate vicinity. The same is largely true of all the beaches, and on most you can rent sunbeds and umbrellas.
Cala de la Barra Grande, Mascarat Norte and Solsida are all officially nude beaches. Solsida in particular is isolated, with no easy access but quite beautiful once you’ve found it, with serious waves that make swimming a bit of a challenge and not suitable for young children.
On this craggy coastline most beaches are nestled in secluded coves with spectacular surroundings and little in the way of amenities. However the waterfront around the harbor and marina does feature some fine sand beach areas, backed by a lovely wide promenade lined with shops and restaurants.
Altea boasts a classy Blue Flag marina with berths for 185 boats up to 30 metres, which allows for some impressive yachts but has a casual welcoming atmosphere that matches the delightful climate and makes this a favourite with boaters on the Costa Blanca. To the north of the marina you’ll find a narrow stretch of sandy beach, and there are facilities for kayaking, diving and many other water sports.
On the whole, Altea is not the place to go if you’re into frenetic nightlife, sandy boardwalks and lots of sun-struck bodies covering the beach. The real attraction for many is the absolutely charming old town, but be sure you’re prepared to do some walking; many of the streets are not traversable by bus or car. Besides, this is a town where you’ll want to stroll, not drive.
The old town sits high above the beachfront, climbing up a 600 metre hill so that on just about any street you’ll see glimpses and often panoramas of the glittering blue Mediterranean. Overhanging whitewashed houses line the winding streets, balconies overflow with flowers and quite often half the street is blocked by cafe tables with their colorful umbrellas and tantalizing aromas.
The views are worth a few more words, though words are really inadequate and even pictures seldom do justice to the town. Sheltered and framed as it is by the Pinon de Ifach on the north and the Helade mountain range on the south, Altea seems to bask in the sunlit ambiance of a peaceful world that’s getting harder and harder to find – but here it is.
Exploring on foot is really the best (and often the only) way to go here, and by far the most rewarding, so do wear your walking shoes, and take your time. You won’t need a tour guide; just wander along from the Plaza del Convento, more or less at the bottom of the hill, and if you take the Pont de Moncau it will lead you to what’s known as the Vellaguarda district, which is where you’ll really be glad for those comfy walking shoes.
Because of the large percentage of artists in the population, you’ll find a wonderland of small shops, studios and boutiques featuring arts and crafts of all sorts, and little family-owned restaurants offering traditional Spanish dishes. What you won’t find are fast-food chain restaurants, malls or traffic.
You’ll come across some of the grand old buildings that played various roles in the town’s history. There are several mansions that were built for important landowners in the 19th century, and remains of the protective walls that were built in the 13th century are visible, along with those spectacular views over the coast and the sea.
There are 255 wide, shallow steps made of dark brown wood leading uphill towards the main square, steps dedicated to Francisco Perez Devesa, a composer and musician who directed acclaimed bands in Altea and other towns in the vicinity. Alteans are art and music lovers, and this is even more evident with the opening of an impressive cultural centre called the Palua Altea which hosts musical and theatre productions and other events.
If you keep heading upward you’ll wind up eventually in an exceptionally lovely town square, the Plaza de la Iglesia. The Plaza itself is a delight, with shops, bars, restaurants and cafes beckoning from all sides. Relax in the sun or the shade, rest your feet as you sip a Sangria or munch a snack, listen to a street musician or browse the wares of different artisans.
Your gaze will inevitably be drawn upward to the magnificent blue and white mosaic of the spires on Nuestra Senora del Consuelo (Our Lady of Solace),
the beautiful church that presides over the square and the town. Many call this the heart of Altea, and indeed the church, built more than 100 years ago, is one of the Costa Blanca’s most iconic landmarks.
Coming back down and into the 21st century again, the Avenida del Rey Jaime I is the main commercial street of Altea. This is the newer and busier part of the town, with dozens of shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and other businesses. There is a lovely wide palm-tree-lined promenade in front; over the past couple of years work has been in progress to extend it south to Albir and Cap Blanc.
If you love to walk, not only the Old Town will beckon, but you’ve also got the Sierra de Bernia mountains overlooking and sheltering Altea Bay from the north. This range offers some of the most interesting and challenging trails on the entire coast, with many miles of scenic trails.
There is an ancient fort, built in the reign of Philip 11 (a powerful Roman Catholic ruler in the 16th century) to exert control over the Moors who were still occupying parts of the region. It should be noted that many of the trails require as much scrambling as walking – not for amateurs – but the scramble and the views are well worth the trek if you’re an experienced mountain walker.
For those of a marine persuasion (boaters, divers etc.) note that Altea actually has two marinas, one the old fishing port and the other a newer addition where you’ll find the fancy yachts and services. In case you didn’t bring your yacht, you can charter one – or a houseboat, or a small motor-sailor, with or without an accompanying skipper and/or crew.
At surprisingly low prices you can also hire a kayak or a paddle boat, take a scuba diving lesson, go on an excursion or just make your own way along the magnificent coastline and locate some of the greatest snorkeling and diving spots to be found anywhere. Some of Altea’s beaches are far easier to reach by sea than by land, and of course they’re remarkably beautiful.
If you’re taking advantage of all the wonderful places to see and things to do, you’ll be getting hungry quite often. Absolutely no worries; though you won’t find a slew of Domino’s or Burger Kings there are countless cafes and restaurants, many of them small and family-operated, with daily specials and individual specialties. As of last count there were over two hundred quality restaurants from which to choose.
Most of the fancier spots are on the main commercial street, and here you’ll find the greatest influence of “out-of-towners” in the form of more cosmopolitan dining options. Italian, French, Indian, Japanese, Thai, British – almost any particular cuisine you’re partial to is available here, but the emphasis is still (and firmly) on Mediterranean dishes.
Seafood is glorious in its diversity and freshness, and you’ll find it on just about every menu in town. Try some of the many ways in which snails can be presented – they’re also a frequent menu attraction. Don’t stick to the shore here either; in the Old Town you can find memorable dining experiences with accents on French, Italian or other cuisine but almost always featuring fresh local produce and seafood. If you’re really lucky you’ll catch one of the events called Tapas Trails, during which you get to tour a number of participating restaurants and vote on the tastiest Spanish snacks.
Like every other town in the area (and in Spain, really) Altea has a weekly market, in this case on Tuesdays from 8:30 ’til 1:00. The location has changed more than once but at last report it’s in the Old Town and you can catch a bus up there if walking isn’t an option – or if you’re staying somewhere else, buses come from every nearby town. Don’t miss it if you enjoy a good bargain or just browsing for one – and do pick up some of that wonderful fresh fruit and produce.
Festivals are a Spanish mainstay and Altea rocks with the best of them. The festival for San Lorenzo during the first week in August brings spectators from all over Europe. If you love fireworks, time your visit for this festival – but book your accommodations well in advance. It’s a massive, glorious explosion of sound and color, beginning at midnight at the Castell de l’Olla.
The Moors and Christians come to town on the fourth weekend of September, with parades and concerts and battles galore, guns and sabres thundering and rattling and a wonderful time had by both participants and spectators. This festival is celebrated in every Valencian town and indeed most of Spain, but in Altea’s Old Town it has the perfect backdrop.
There is a pork festival in February and a story-telling festival in May. In June they have the celebration of San Antonio, a two-day mini-festival that takes place on the beach and involves a gigantic paella, lots of eating and drinking, ear-splitting fireworks and bands that don’t crank up until 11:00pm and go on until they (and the dancers) drop.
In June Altea celebrates the Feast of San Pedro and La Virgin de Carmen, basically a celebration of the summer solstice, but sort of ‘Christianized’.
Again there will be huge amounts of food and drink consumed, plenty of fireworks, and music and dancing ’til dawn.
Though a lot of tourists just make a day trip to Altea from Benidorm or Calpe or further afield, it seem a shame to cut your visit short when the greatest charms of the town are to be taken at a strolling pace. There’s no shortage of accommodations here; from campsites at Cap Blanc to very low-cost hostels to scrumptious B&Bs to five star hotels and everything in between.
Even better, if you have time to stay a while check out the dazzling variety of weekly or monthly rentals for condos and apartments as well as private villas. You’ll find comprehensive lists and reviews plus all sorts of special offers online, and if you’re planning to be there during a major festival it’s wise to book well ahead.
Even if you have only a day to spend in Altea, you will see and feel the lingering aura of tranquility and timelessness that the town and its lovely surroundings evoke. In fact when you climb into the Old Town, you’ll be forced to slow down and smell the flowers – so be leisurely, and enjoy.
All Photos courtesy of Ian Theobold