Valencia’s myriad attractions are no secret, and the Costa Blanca is never short on visitors; but you don’t hear a great deal about the province of Castellón, to the north of the Valencia region. This might all be set to change, however, after the long-awaited opening of the region’s airport, so there’s never been a better time to explore its Mediterranean beaches, mountains and medieval hilltop villages.
The fragrant Costa del Azahar
The 700-year Moorish invasion had a profound effect on the shaping of Spain, and nowhere more so than in this region, where ancient Arab methods of irrigation are still used in the fertile groves of orange, lemon, cherry and almond tree. ‘Azahar’ means ‘orange blossom’, which gives not only its name, but – in spring – its scent to this part of the world.
The Costa, like most Spanish coastlines, is a mix of quiet coves and built-up resorts, at its best just before or just after the peak months of July and August. It’s not all sandy beaches, however, and there’s plenty to see off-season, such as medieval Peñíscola, the more workaday fishing port of Vinarós or the town of Benicàssim, now a lively resort famous for its festival, but once the summer retreat of the urban elite, whose houses can still be seen along the seafront.
Peñíscola: from the retreat of an antipope to Hollywood film set
Dominating the northern stretch of coast, Peñíscola is a handsome medieval walled town sitting high on a rocky isthmus. Its crowning glory is its 14th-century castle, which was built by the Knights Templar on the remains of an Arab fortress. The castle would later become the home of ‘Papa Luna’, as the Spanish know deposed Pope Benedict XIII, and you will see his name all over town.
Peñíscola’s other great claim to fame (in addition to its more recent portrayal as the city of Meereen in Season 6 of Game of Thrones) is as the setting for parts of El Cid, and the highest of its walls are, in fact, nothing but a film set. They only add to the atmosphere of the picturesque old town, however, whose winding cobbled streets are undeniably touristy, but is still a charming place to while away an afternoon, particularly in the winter months. For a spot of towel space on the beach, you’ll need to walk north away from the town, or otherwise there are a couple of rocky coves to explore to the south.
The craggy mountains and hilltop towns of the Maestrazgo
A world apart from the frenetic coastal strip of the Castellón region, the Maestrazgo (not to be confused with the adjacent Aragonese county of the same name) is a vast and sparsely inhabited region of low mountains and hilltop villages, grazed by Merino sheep – another legacy of the Moorish invasion. The Arabs, too, were responsible for the terracing of foothills, meaning that crops could be grown on this inhospitable soil.
Another distinctive feature of the landscape are the long threads of dry-stone walling, a local craft so prized that a group of Maestrazgo villages have applied to Unesco for Intangible Cultural Heritage status, and the town of Vilafranca has an entire (and surprisingly interesting) museum dedicated to it, the Museo de Pedra en Sec.
It’s a popular place for adventure sports, from mountain biking to canyoning and spelunking, and the area holds some splendid hiking and driving: as well as Vilafranca, towns to look out for include Morella and north of it, Ares del Maestre, a peaceful place with a huddle of medieval buildings and some prehistoric cave paintings. South of Morella is Sant Mateu, a lively town of grand buildings and tourist-free restaurants.
Benicàssim’s world-famous festival
The coastal town of Benicàssim erupts every July for one of Spain’s biggest music festivals, the Festival Internacional de Benicàssim (FIB). Its most loyal fans (or ‘Fibers’, as they call themselves), are the British, who descend in their tens of thousands for a line-up that in 2017 includes the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kasabian, Foals, The Weeknd and Deadmau5, as well Spanish favourites Los Planetas and Love of Lesbian.
It’s not hard to see what lies at the heart of its popularity with young foreigners more accustomed to UK prices and Glastonbury mud, and what it lacks in rolling meadows FIB makes up for with the nearby beach, which is where exhausted party people sleep off the excesses of the night before. Be sure to bring plenty of suncream, a hat and comfortable trainers (you’ll be four days walking on concrete), and if you can, it’s worth shelling out for a VIP ticket or glamping, since the campsites can get absolutely rammed.
In August, the site hosts a reggae festival, Rototom Sunsplash, which pulls in some of the best-known names from dub, reggae and African music. In 2017 Youssou N’Dour, The Wailers, Toots and the Maytals and Mad Professor head a star-studded bill.
Morella’s hilltop charm
Much has been written about the approach to Morella, which rises from the landscape like the fortress of an evil cartoon king, the serfs’ houses huddled at the foot of its rather gloomy castle. It is an undeniably spectacular sight from afar, and is no less atmospheric (just a little less intimidating) within. The city walls – an impressive two kilometres long – are still intact, and punctuated with six gateways and 14 towers, some of which have been turned into quirky museums charting aspects of the town’s history.
You could spend a day just wandering its narrow streets and sampling the local delicacies – sheep’s milk cheese, truffles in season, artisanal honey – or shopping for textiles (blanket- and rug-weaving is a local speciality), and it’s worth factoring in time for lunch. For a small place, Morella has a good selection of restaurants, where you can try the locally produced lamb and charcuterie, as well as the paella and rice dishes more typical of the Castellón coast.
The town has no shortage of sights, either: its castle is in ruins, but it’s worth the climb for the view alone, which is spectacular; below it is the Convento de San Francisco, which houses a set of macabre 16th-century paintings; and nearby is the Gothic basilica of Santa María la Mayor.