Touring the castles of Vinalopó
On a semi-circular Drivalia car rental drive in rural Alicante you´ll be exploring Spain´s violent past, when this region marked the boundary between the Moors and the Christians, in the legendary days of El Cid. It was here that the country´s future was decided, testified by the numerous fortresses that remain today. Each castle has a different appearance, character and story to tell, and you´ll never have to drive for more than a few minutes to get to the next one on the itinerary.
Elda and Petrer
These towns, right in the centre of the Vinalopó valley, in the shadow of the Serra del Maigmó and Serra del Sit mountain ranges, are a fine place to start the journey. Elda and Petrer are practically conjoined and have been the region´s main hub for shoemaking for 200 years. If you´re interested in the artisan origins of this industry then you can make for the cavernous Museo del Calzado.
Like many of the fortresses in the area, Elda´s castle dates to the late-12th century, when Almohad Caliphate forces needed to shore up their line between the Castilian plateau in the west and the Mediterranean in the east, to fend off the advancing Christians.
It was conquered by the Christians in the mid-13th Century and underwent a host of changes from then on, being converted into a palace for the noble Coloma family and then a jail in the 19th Century. Today it lies in ruins, but large sections of the walls and towers remain. You won´t need much imagination to picture how imposing it was in its heyday.
The fortress in Petrer was built at the same time and is in a better state of preservation, thanks to renovation efforts in the 20th century. The battlements and the central tower are intact; in the tower´s basement you can still see evidence of an Islamic cistern.
Take the CV-833 north to Sax, and from a distance you´ll be able to see this magnificent castle. This one stands proud on a craggy hill-top with large portions of its crenulated defences soaring over the town. The keep and bastion tower are in an excellent state of preservation, and when you get see the wonderful vantage point that the structure enjoys it´s not hard to understand how a fortress has stood at this location since the Bronze Age. Today, Roman, Moorish and Christian elements remain.
After the re-conquest, Sax Castle was a bone of contention between the medieval kingdoms of Castile in the west and Aragon in the north such was its strategic importance. After visiting the castle, head down into the beautiful town to see the Hermitage of San Blas, consecrated in the 1200s and on the site of a former mosque.
Along with Sax and Biar - the next stop on the car hire journey - Villena´s Castle of Atalaya is regarded as one of the three most spectacular in the area. This structure is right out of a fairytale and sits on a rocky spur, dominating the town. It was built in the 1100s by the Moors, and what makes it remarkable is the way the keep towers over the defensive walls. This is the result of modifications made in the 1400s. On the stairs you can see reproductions of Islamic wall-coverings, the originals being housed in Villena´s museum. Like many of the fortresses in the area the Castle of Atalaya is preserved as an Historical-Artistic Monument.
Be sure to head to the museum as, alongside many artefacts recovered from the site of the Castle of Atalaya, it displays the Treasure of Villena, a staggering Bronze Age hoard of 59 gold, silver, amber and iron objects discovered in 1963. There´s almost nothing like it anywhere in the world, and in terms of importance it is only ranked behind the finds at the Royal Graces in Mycenae in Greece.
Just six kilometres east on the CV-799 is another of Vinalopó´s most majestic pieces of medieval heritage. Biar Castle is a formidable building atop a small hillock. It´s a National Monument, and has changed little since it was first erected by the Almohad forces. The undoubted highlight here is the three-storey, 17 metre-high Tower of Homage, because of the numerous Islamic fittings that remain intact. The domed ceiling on the lower floor is one of the oldest to survive in the western Arab world.
From Biar you can explore the rugged beauty of the natural park to your south, home to waterfalls, remote hermitages and canyons, or take in more medieval heritage at ibi and Tibi to the east and southeast.
You can begin this journey within 35 minutes of the Drivalia car rental depot in Alicante.