Northern Valencia Spain, One Destination at a Time

A view from the top of 13th century Peñíscola Castle that is surrounded almost entirely by the Mediterranean Sea. Photo by Olivia Gilmore
A view from the top of 13th-century Peñíscola Castle that is surrounded almost entirely by the Mediterranean Sea. Photo by Olivia Gilmore

Nestled into the southeastern coast of Spain is home to little medieval villages mixed alongside ultra-modern niche cities that any bike riding, paella-eating, travel enthusiast can’t help but love.

By Olivia Gilmore

A small lookout in Vilafamés Castle where visitors are transported back in time to the Muslim Age. Photo by Olivia Gilmore.
A small lookout in Vilafamés Castle where visitors are transported back in time to the Muslim Age. Photo by Olivia Gilmore.

There’s no doubt that Valencia’s capital city is a delectable place for any foodie or monument seeker…but what you may not know is that Valencia is an autonomous region with a plethora of culturally diverse and uncharted towns, cities, and ancient villages that are yearning to be explored.

Forget the hustle and bustle of Barcelona and Madrid. Why not break out of the typical tourist mold and explore what Spain really has to offer? I mean REALLY dive deep into the culture that only the locals know about?

I am preempting your next question...well, what are these magical places? Before you open your flight search, allow me to guide you through a quick insiders tour through Northern Valencia.

“The Large Rock” of Vilafamés

In the province of Castellón, this Renaissance-style village still has its Muslim origins visible through its archaic towers, secret winding streets, and ancient tales that are told through its surrounding castle walls.

Legend has it that the town’s infamous 2,163 ton red sedimentary rock was feared by the townspeople who thought it would roll from its perilous spot on the hillside and crush any victims in its path.

A picture of the famous "Roca Grossa" in Vilafamés. Photo by Tourist Info of Vilafamés.

Therefore, this concern was combated by tying a rope around the rock, utterly failing to move it, and consequently having the rope snap causing all the participants to dirty their bottoms in the red sediment below.

Hence the locals of Vilafamés nickname, the “red bottoms.”

A tower that stands tall in Vilafamés Castle, where guards used to peer out the "windows" in search of oncoming enemies. Photo by Olivia Gilmore.
A tower that stands tall in Vilafamés Castle, where guards used to peer out the "windows" in search of oncoming enemies.

Jokes aside, this town is an inspiration for artists and tourists alike primarily because of the El Museu d’Art Contemporani, which is an art museum that requires artists to purchase property in the village before they're allowed to display their work in the museum.

The gothic-style museum, devised by art critic Vicente Aguilera Cerní, exists as a cultural hub that helps preserve Vilafamés' history and artistic legacy.

As I meandered alongside the outside of the Museum admiring the old palace arches and simplistic style, I could vaguely see in the distance a group of old men quickly making their way towards our group, pointing and shouting.

The streets of Vilafamés were empty except for the group of us obvious tourists. Not knowing what to expect, I looked to our tour guide for translation assistance, as the men were now standing with big-toothed smiles and their arms extended out on either side.

She chuckled softly, explaining that the men were so ecstatic to have heard that "people from across the world," were visiting their very own little village. They just wanted hugs.

Wandering the streets you’ll likely also spot Vilafamés Castle with its cylindrical central tower situated on top of the towns highest point. A short hike to the top allows for an astonishing birds-eye view of rustic architecture below.

You may even be able to spot Vilafamés Parish Church of the Assumption and Church of La Sangre, which date back to as early as the 13th century.

Vilafamés was officially listed as one of Spain’s Most Beautiful Towns in 2015.

Biking through Valencia City

With its authentic cultural flair and world-renowned architecture, Valencia city attracts innovation from all angles with it’s cutting-edge City of Arts and Sciences to its quiet historic neighborhood enclosed with orange trees.

The impressive architecture outside one of the oldest markets still used in Europe, Mercat Central in Valencia City. Photo by Olivia Gilmore.
The impressive architecture outside one of the oldest markets still used in Europe, Mercat Central in Valencia City. Photo by Olivia Gilmore.

Every day except Sunday, locals and tourists alike can be seen flooding to Valencia’s staple market, Mercat Central.

One of the oldest and largest in Spain, this market is best experienced by wandering between the individual food stalls, taking in the scent of vibrant spices, and grabbing a fresh glass of Horchata.

"Señora, Señora! Please, will you try this?" can be heard from eager vendors holding out pieces of sliced fruit and handfuls of chufa.

The market's popularity stems from its diverse selection of high-quality local products, colorful Art Nouveau architecture, and it’s old-world feel. When the sunlight shines in from the mosaic skylights above, there's not a dreary soul in the building.

Located next door to the Mercat Central is the UNESCO World Heritage Site and true Gothic masterpiece, Lonja de la Seda (Silk Market). Despite being aesthetically pleasing, the 15th-century structure first served as an oil exchange center and later expanded into a silk exchange, forging the city into a commercial superpower.

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia is Valencia's opera house and a place of cultural expression. Photo by Olivia Gilmore.
Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia is Valencia's opera house and a place of cultural expression. Photo by Olivia Gilmore.

“It's a UNESCO site because it's considered the best example in Europe of gothic style, it shows very well the richness and the power of Valencia in the 15th century,” said our Turiart tour guide.

The complex consists of three main buildings, the Sala de Contratación (Contract Hall), Consulado del Mar (Consulate of the Sea), and The Torreón (Great Tower or Donjon).

After absorbing the impeccable Roman busts and intricate spiral columns, guests often spend time reflecting in the edifices orange tree-filled patio.

In contrast to its historic side, Valencia’s futuristic City of Arts and Sciences features six buildings designed by architect Santiago Calatrava on the Turias depleted river bed.

A churrigueresque style golden altarpiece in the Church of Santa Maria la Mayor.
A churrigueresque style golden altarpiece in the Church of Santa Maria la Mayor.

A true Valencian knows that no visit to the city is complete without exploring the Oceanografic - open-air aquarium, Prince Felipe - science museum, L’Hemisfèric - Imax cinema, Palau de les Arts - an opera house and performing arts center, Agora - event space, and Umbracle - garden walkway.

Exploring Valencia is best done on a bike because of the city’s flatness and established bike lanes. An insiders tip would be to rent a bike from Doyoubike, cycle along the magnificent Turia Gardens, then end the day with homemade croquettes at LaLola’s tapas restaurant.

Black Truffles of Morella

Located in the very Northern part of Valencia, in the province of Castellon, is the centuries-old gothic city of Morella with its castle fortress still standing, overlooking the mountainous region below.

Morella is characterized by its resilient castle walls which encapsulate the city, reminding it’s few remaining residents of its war-ravaged history between the Romans, Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Entering through the exterior gates, the cobblestone streets slowly lead directly to the soul of Morella, where golden chapels, local gastronomy, and artisan crafts all exist in unity. However, the most impressive experience was walking into the gothic Church of Santa Maria la Mayor, built in the 13th century.

Religious figures depicted on the spiral stone staircase by artist Antoni Sancho in the Church of Santa Maria la Mayor. Photo by Olivia Gilmore.
Religious figures depicted on the spiral stone staircase by artist Antoni Sancho in the Church of Santa Maria la Mayor.

As a European traveler, it’s quite likely that you’ll encounter dozens of medieval churches, as their nestled into almost every city corner.

However, the architectural complexities of this church are evident in its spiral polychromed staircase, rose stained-glass windows, and an altarpiece covered entirely in gold.

Black truffles are the exquisite epitome of Morella and during the winter months, their aroma drifts throughout the streets, signaling that it’s time to enjoy the traditional delicacy.

At Casa Roque, professional chefs offer cooking courses specifically catered to sharing the gastronomic specialties of Morella, such as local goat and sheep cheese, hand gathered mushrooms and dog-hunted black truffles.

"It's only made with mushrooms, olive oil, lemon juice, and black truffles," our Chef Carlos explained as he handed us the most flavorful yet simple dish.

Chef Carlos Gutierrez Ibáñez of Casa Roque in Morella, smiles while holding a traditional delicacy, fresh picked white mushrooms sprinkled with lemon juice and black truffles.
Chef Carlos Gutierrez Ibáñez of Casa Roque in Morella, smiles while holding a traditional delicacy, fresh picked white mushrooms sprinkled with lemon juice and black truffles.

At nightfall, Castillo de Morella can be seen from miles away illuminating the village below. The very essence of the castle is an embodiment of what the village stands for - resilience, talent, and utter beauty.

Morella made it on the list as one of Spain's Most Beautiful Towns.

The Picturesque Charm of Peñíscola

The filming place of Game of Thrones, Peñíscola is the “City in the Sea” and it’s castle walls are completely surrounded by the Mediterranean, making it a popular beach destination for families.

In the old city center, the 14th century Templar Castle, otherwise known as the Castillo del Papa Luna, towers above the sea allowing for a 360-degree view of the scenic coast below.

The white-washed buildings and their bright blue trimmings offset the city's old stone walls. Packed with history, this is an ideal spot for a family getaway in the sun.

Peñíscola was also listed as one of Spain's Most Beautiful Towns.

Canet Lo Roig

A millennial olive tree with a peculiar shape that was once used as a hideout. Well over a thousand years old, the olives from this tree make their very own extra virgin olive oil.
A millennial olive tree with a peculiar shape that was once used as a hideout. Well over a thousand years old, the olives from this tree make their very own extra virgin olive oil.

About 40 minutes from Peñíscola are the impressive millenary olive groves of Canet Lo Roig. Itinerantur, who call themselves “Landscape Translators” for their sustainable tourism, offer bike tours that weave throughout the 2,000-year-old olive trees along with “Interpretive Hiking.”

Our tour guide and one of Intinerantur's founders, Chema, led us on an expedition throughout the olive groves, which are protected by Valencian Law and produce some of the finest extra-virgin olive oil.

"We love their faces when looking at their first monumental tree, when they discover something they couldn't imagine in their very own country, when they taste exactly the same extra-virgin olive oil that the Iberians, the Romans, the Arabs, the first Christian conquerors had hundreds of years ago...That is something very difficult to explain, you have to live it," said Chema.

A Valencia Road Trip

If you’re beginning to imagine a Valencia road-trip in the near future, and I hope you are, then make sure to first visit Spain’s official tourism website for all the information you could possibly obtain about these lovely destinations.

The author was hosted by the Tourism board of Spain for this story, but the opinions are all her own.