Scotland on Sunday
Where’s the beach? High up in the mountains of Quatretondeta you can enjoy the views and not even catch a glimpse of Benidorm
Think of Benidorm and you think of all that is worst about the British on holiday – shouting, scrapping and sunburn. But as one author from Spain’s Muntanya d’Alacant nearby once wrote, when you are among the peaks, “Benidorm is 50 kilometres and 50 years away”.
Certainly in the mountainous region north west of Alicante you seem to be in another world from the Costa Blanca. There are 300 hotel beds for tourists in the mountains, compared with 50,000 in the town of Benidorm alone- and that is before you even start counting villas and apartments. Things will not get any less crowded when the resort finishes constructing Spain’s largest hotel (with more than 1000 rooms) and a huge theme park to rival Eurodisney.
The Alicantinas mountains would not be the area to visit if you like “abroard” to remain as British as possible – wall-to-wall Sky TV football and fish suppers. Locals sigh that on the coast you are no longer in Spain at all. They have got a point; English signs and brand names proliferate, servicing the half a million British ex-pats who live there permanently.
But you will not hear many British voices in the mountains. Amazingly, the Alicantinas range is not mentioned in any of the major English-language guide books to the area, so great is the pull of the beach. A staggering 99% of British visitors to the region stay in the coastal resorts. So what bliss to be among the other 1%.
Our hotel, the Els Frares in Quatretondeta, deep in Spain’s most mountainous province, is an hour and a half of winding road away from the Britified coast and half an hour’s drive from the nearest hotel of any description. This is the land that tourism forgot. Don’t even think of going into the mountains if you like thudding Eurobeat discos and karaoke bars. In Quatretondeta you are more likely to hear birdsong than “The Birdy Song”.
But if the thought of hearty walking by day and even heartier eating by night appeals, then you are in the right place. You might not immediately think of coming to Spain to walk – for most, it is more a land of sand and sea – but it is in fact the second most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland.
Els Frares is run by an energetic British couple, Brian and Pat Fagg, a well-practised double act. He is in charge outdoors, she indoors. Put another way, he wears you out and then she restores you again.
(NOTE: Pat and Brian are no longer involved with Hotel Els Frares, and now run mountainWALKS from their well restored village houses/cottages in Quatretondeta, and you are still able to enjoy Pat’s fantastic meals in the evening.)
But they are wonderful surroundings to be worn out in. The village of Quatretondeta, situated at the base of the spectacular Sierra de Serrella, 1,359m high peak, is charmingly unaffected by the outside world. No-one retires around here; one working farmer, whom we saw chugging round the back streets on his tractor, is 89 years old. He pulled over to tell us the history of a 1,000 year-old tree we were admiring.
The village is not short of trees being surrounded by 80,000 olive trees, producing oil good enough to consume neat, poured straight onto bread. But don’t feast on olives from the trees, as they are emetically sour until they have been soaked in brine for at least a year.
On the first morning, Brian took us straight up the face of the Sierra de Serrella to Els Frares, an extraordinary set of a dozen pointy crags, which resemble the hooded, penitent friars they are named after. One even appears to have an eye and a nose. Near them is a striking configuration of rocks nicknamed – for reasons I cannot possibly elaborate on in a family newspaper – the “Lewinsky’s”. President Clinton is represented here in stone long before he is ever likely to appear on Mount Rushmore!
We went on to have a picnic lunch facing what Brian called Africa, a huge rock with a gap in the middle shaped remarkably like the continent. We were joined there by a wheeling pair of Golden eagles which were nesting nearby. We arrived back at the hotel breathless and blistered but glowing with that sense of slightly smug satisfaction that only genuine exertion can bring. After a well-deserved bath, we perked up at the sight of the beautiful supper Pat had prepared. Although some guests at Els Frares complain of leaving fatter than when they arrive, there is no sign of the heart attack-inducing Great British fry-up beloved of the caffs on the Costa Blanca.
Pat has picked local brains for inspiration in the kitchen and come up with such unusual dishes as chicken with orange and mint sauce and roast quail with sultanas and pine nuts. It is all washed down with an all-too-drinkable house Rioja. If you are feeling really bold , you can round off the evening with a “Mentira” ( meaning “a lie”). Local lore has it that if you drink enough of these potent coffee liqueurs, you will no longer be able to tell a lie.
The following day Brian said he would treat us more kindly and subject us to just the 12 miles. We took a path down the stunning limestome gorge of Raco del Duc, through which the snaking Rio Serpis flows. All the way, your eye is caught by the dramatic ruined Moorish castles that dot the hillsides. (Brian’s note: this is writer’s poetic licence; there is only 1 castle although it is dramatic). They were abandoned when the Moors were thrown out of Spain by the Christians in 1610. This is just one of 40 walks Brian uses regularly.
It should be pointed out that walking around Quatretondeta is not for the faint-hearted – it is more hiking than strolling. Temperatures can reach 40 degrees in the summer (when nothing more exerting than lifting an ice-cream is recommended). Sturdy boots are essential – the limestone paths really take their toll on the ankles – and some training beforehand would not go amiss. One of our party came along armed with only a flimsy pair of trainers and ended the long weekend with her feet swathed in bandages.
Brian also warns that he can take you what he terms “brown trouser routes”, and we scrambled up several scree slopes worthy of an SAS training course. Just as boxers say that after a tough bout they know they have been in a fight, so walkers in the company of Brian Fagg will know they have on a hike. (Brian’s note: I think the writer is exaggerating here). The views, however, make it worthwhile. The peaks are enlivened by dramatic, apparently random spikes of rock and effulgent bursts of wild flowers – cistus, alpine narcissus and orchids. Everywhere you go, you are assailed by the aromas of parsley (Brian’s note: I think the writer means thyme) sage and rosemary. Peach, cherry, and almond trees bloom on every mountainside. Twitchers will also be delighted by the kestrels and shrikes that circle overhead.
( Brian’s note: Never seen shrikes circling overhead but they are to be seen furtively dashing between trees, along with Golden Orioles, Black Wheatears and many other species).
But perhaps the most pleasing aspect of walking in the Muntanya d’Alacant is its lack of other walkers. In parts of the Highlands, the Lake District or the Picos de Europa in northern Spain, you can sometimes feel like you are walking down a busy Glasgow shopping street. But we walked for 25 miles and 12 hours over two days in the Alicantinas without seeing a single other person. It could have been eerie, but coming from a heaving city I found it gloriously refreshing.
And there is one other thing about this trip. Brian guarantees that wherever he takes you in these breathtaking peaks, you will never once catch a glimpse of Benidorm.
James Rampton travelled to Quatretondeta with Waymark Holidays. Read about Waymark Holidays.
|Read another article…||Walking Abroad|