Practically every one-horse village in Spain has a castle – Xativa’s, with its thirty towers and four gates, is one of the loveliest in Valencia.
There’s no shortage of castles in Spain for history buffs – practically every one-horse village has one in various states of disintegration – and the new fangled ‘cultural tourism’ is a peg that many tourist organisations are hanging their sombreros on. Fortunately, for those with less crenulated vision there is still plenty to see in Valencia’s country towns.
Xativa castle, with its thirty towers and four fortified gateways, must rate as one of the loveliest in the Valencian region, not only because of its historic value but also because a lot of thought and work has gone into restoring it and its surroundings. Tinkling fountains, small orange groves, herb gardens that perfume the air, give you a sense of what life must have been like in an important garrison town. (The fountains and gardens aren’t just modern titivations but were an important part of the Moorish culture.) What is equally impressive is that, standing on the high tower at either end of the long, thin castle, you become aware of just how massive an undertaking it was to build such a structure in such an inaccessible place.
The town below the glowering castle walls is equally steeped in history. It was the birthplace of two popes of the Borgia clan (in those days it was spelt “Borja”). They were Calixtus III and Alexander XI, whose family virtually controlled the papal power for almost two hundred years and sired the infamous Lucretia. It was the first town in Europe to manufacture paper, during the time of the Moorish occupation, and even today in Morocco paper is still known as xativi.
Not to be missed is the Royal Fountain of the Twenty Five Spouts, built in the late 18th century, and the Mueseu de L’Almodi, where the portrait of King Philip the Fifth is hung upside down in retribution for his sacking of the city in 1707.
The streets themselves are like a splendid public gallery requiring no entrance fee. Mounted high on almost every wall of the old town, family names linger on in tiled plaques celebrating the lives of the saints.
In the Plaça de la Seu, where the Iglesia Colegial Basílica de Santa Mariá stands opposite the 16th century Hóspital Real, whose gloriously ornate facade of cream stone is inscribed with centuries old graffiti, is a beautiful tiled plaque dedicated to Sant Feliu Martir, the patron saint of Xativa, and paid for by the Soler-Girenes family. Next to it is an even more elaborate confection, this one dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Seu, Patrona de Xativa, and financed by the Rus family.
For the apotheosis of ceramic art, you must saunter around the corner to Calle Noguera. The Botica Central on Calle Noguera was once a pharmacy, and some wise person has retained the beautiful Victorian woodwork and glass cupboards full of ornately lettered dispensing bottles. Nowadays it serves as the office for OMIC, the Consumer Protection Office.
Alongside the shop front, a three-metre high, gorgeously ornate tiled plaque with an inscription ending with the words “Festa Ciudad, Gloria y esplendor del Mundo.” Unfortunately the craftsman doing the lettering ran out of space and the “do” of the final word “Mundo” hovers over the top of “Mun”. Glorious still in its imperfection.
In your meanderings, seek out the Plaça del Mercat, a square at the cusp of moving from semi-tumbledown to modern and suffused with a cockeyed, cobbled Disneyesque charm. Set back in a corner and in the shadow of the Iglesia Colegial is the Posada del Pescado, it’s name spelled out in intricate shell-like patterning with a fat fish dangling from a chain clenched in a lions mouth. For years it stood empty and neglected but has now been faithfully restored. Just to the right of the Posada, under the colonnade, is the family-run restaurant Casa Floro, a throw-back to decades ago, with its red gingham tablecloths and tiled walls.
At the opposite end of the square, the restored pedestrian street, aptly named Carrer de las Botigues (Calle de Tiendas, Street of Shops, in its pre-Valenciano days) reveals pockets of individuality. La Barraca, Fabricacio de Valencians, displays rolls of the gorgeously rich fabrics used in the making of Fallas costumes. In the upper balconied floor, señoras toil over private commissions, hidden from public gaze. A few steps further on, Sobreros Matoses reveals that the trilby is alive and well, while almost next door El Barato Setabenses which, given the confusing Spanish grammatical structure, is either saying that they sell very well priced goods for the people of Xàtiva (Setabenses) or that everyone in the city are cheapskates!
Pick up a guide book or leaflet from the tourist office and you will be informed about the city’s wealth of historic monuments. What none of them will mention is the semi-ruinous state of many of the buildings in the old town, which, far from giving an air of dilapidation, actually add great charm to one of the oldest cities in the Communidad de Valencia. Every twist of the cobbled streets of the casc antic reveals eat-your-heart out casas and palacios, just crying out for benign restoration.