The Ice Man Cometh

 Area: Inland towns of the Sierra Mariola, Alicante province. Route: Cocentaina – Agres – Bocairent – Alcoi – Cocentaina. Distance: 66 kilometres. Drive through glorious countryside and discover two medieval gems on a trip that’s short on kilometres but long on history.

Cocentaina, where this excursion begins, is a small town five kilometres north of Alcoi (Alcoy on some maps). To get to it coming from the south on the A7 motorway, take exit 67 (just after San Juan) on to the N340 and follow the signs for Xixona and Alcoi. From the north take the N340 at Xàtiva.

At first glance Cocentaina looks like little more than an industrial estate and rarely gets a mention in a tourist guide but, like many other small mountain towns in these parts, an historic heart beats behind all those factories producing textiles and furniture.

Towards the end of the 11th century, Cocentaina was the capital of a large Islamic region that covered the entire northern part of present-day Alicante province. Around the mid-12th century the Christians began their conquest of the town, and in 1258 Jaime I raised his standard as its saviour. Less than 50 years later, in 1304, the Moors of Granada attacked and burned the town, earning the locals the soubriquet of socarrats, the scorched ones.

The historic part of Cocentaina is divided into two zones: El Raval, the ancient Moorish neighbourhood whose streets rise in terraces up the hill towards the Ermita Santa Bárbara, and La Vila, the Christian part that contains most of the town’s architectural and historical points of interest.

The epicentre of Cocentaina was the Palau Comtal, historic home of the Corella family, whose crest features a woman’s head atop the body of a serpent. When the Countess Corella took over the building in the 15th century, she wasn’t happy with the 13th-century Gothic appearance and turned it into a Renaissance palace with lots of painted and carved ceilings, ornate tiled floors and columned arches.

(For an extended article about the town, read A Stroll Around Cocentaina, below.)

Continue your trip by returning to the N340 and taking the direction to Valencia on a dual carriageway. After three kilometres take the exit for the C3311 to Muro de Alcoi and Agres (it’s the second exit for Muro). At the roundabout at the end of the slip road turn left onto the CV700 signposted Agres where it goes over the N340.

Ignore the first sign for Agres. After the km8 marker turn left by a sign bearing the Costa Blanca logo with tourism symbols and `Agres’ in large letters. Follow the road straight up the hill (it bears left after 200 metres or so but keep straight ahead) and as you top the rise alongside a pillared handrail (just after a row of green rubbish bins) turn hard left. This brings you into a small square beside the Restaurant Pensión Mariola.

Agres is one of those delightful mountain villages of narrow twisting streets, bougainvillea-covered cottages and fountains gushing sparkling mountain water. To get to the Santuario at the top of the village by car, take the first right after the Restaurant Mariola on to Calle Mayor, a very narrow road despite its grand name. When you reach the first square, the Plaza de España, turn right again and immediately turn left after the church. This leads you directly to the Santuario.

The Santuario is dedicated to the Mare de Déu de Agres (Mother of God of Agres) and commemorates a 15th-century miracle. On the night of August 31, 1484, the church of Santa María in Alicante was destroyed by fire. The statue of the Mare de Déu was seen to disappear into the sky. The following day she was discovered near Agres castle by a disabled shepherd, who was instantly and miraculously cured. The Mare de Déu de Agres, now kept in the Franciscan monastery, became the destination for a major pilgrimage, and on September 1 each year her discovery is re-enacted by villagers, the texts handed down from father to son. At other times it is a delightfully peaceful place to sit and ponder awhile.

The Sierra Mariola is rich in flora. Thyme, rosemary, lavender, sage, all make walking in these mountains an aromatic delight to complement the visual pleasures of rockroses and orchids. There are numerous walks around Agres.

If you have time and fell like a bit of a strenuous walk, you can visit one of the most interesting neveras (snow caves) in the region.

When you leave the car park in front of the monastery, instead of taking the right fork back down through the village, take the left and follow the sign that says “Pujada al refugi i caves”, quickly turning left again and up a steep slope. When you reach the top, you are rewarded with stunning views, some of the best in the whole area. You will also find one of the most beautiful neveras in the Valencia region, the Cava de Agres (also known as the Cava Arqueda). These snow caves were used to store compacted snow that would later be taken, when it had turned to ice, to the major cities throughout the area.

This beautiful 16th-century construction, which still has the six arched spines that formed the original roof, was last used in 1926. If you are one of the faint-hearted and don’t fancy the walk, you can see a model of the nevera in the Restaurant Mariola.

From the Santuario, retrace your route to the CV700 and, turning left at the bottom of the village, head in the direction of Alfafara and Ontinyent. When you get to the T-junction of the Ontinyent-Villena road (CV 81), turn left and a couple of minutes later you see the tiered houses of Bocairent on your right, clinging to the side of the hill for dear life. 

 Bocairent is a weird and wonderful mixture of architectural styles. In the centre of the roundabout at the entrance to the town is a monument with apparently no official title but referred to locally as “the monument to the blanket”. It depicts an angular figure of a man with a heavy plaid blanket draped over his shoulders, a reference to the town’s leading handicraft, although now sadly almost extinct.

Cross the Pont Nou, the bridge that connects the town with the main road, and you soon pass a number of good examples of the wrought ironwork and curved stylism of the modernista (Art Nouveau) period. Unfortunately you also pass a number of 1960s excrescences. Eventually, passing under an arch called the Portal de l’Arc de L’Aigua, that looks convincingly Moorish but was built recently, you arrive in the Plaça del Mercat, also known as the Plaça de l’Ajuntament.

Around the square are old houses towering up to eight storeys, like medieval high-rises. It used to be said that in Bocairent the donkeys leaned out of the windows — meander up the steep, narrow cobbled streets from the square and you will see why. What appear from the square to be eight-storey houses are four two-storey houses, one on top of the other. The animals would be kept on the ground floor. Thus a donkey on the ground floor of the top house could poke its head out of what seemed below to be a seventh-storey window. It seems a pity there are no more donkeys left in this part of town to resurrect this bizarre vision.

In lieu of gardens in this rather unusual pueblo there are countless balconies, steps and low walls festooned with pots of geraniums, cacti, ferns and all manner of greenery. The further you walk down the steeply raked streets, the more tumbledown the buildings become. Nothing moves except scuttling cats shocked from a siesta by the ring of your feet on the cobblestones.

In 1843 the town council decided it wanted a bullring but was short of money and there was no level land on which to build it, so the citizens hacked one out of solid rock — from the tiered seating to the underground bullpens — using only pickaxes and chisels. Big enough for 1000 spectators, this Roman-style amphitheatre is now used for musical and cultural events throughout the year.

At a nearby cliff overlooking the Barranc de Fos, 53 inter-connecting caves have been carved out of the rock. No-one knows when they were built or what they were used for, or even why they are called the Moorish Caves because the Moors had nothing to do with them. Just another Bocairent oddity.

Without doubt, Bocairent’s outstanding monument is the Verge de L’Assumpció (Virgin of the Assumption) parish church. Begun in the 16th century on the site of an Arab castle, the Gothic-style temple was heavily revamped in the 17th century and is today considered one of Valencia’s finest examples of classic baroque.

Return over the Pont Nou to the main road and turn right at the roundabout. At the third roundabout, after two kilometres, reach the Alcoi road by taking the slip road to your right and crossing over the main road. Take the first right and follow it uphill. This route takes you through the picturesque Font Roja, the natural park in the heart of the Sierra Mariola. Rolling pastures, wheat fields and acres of yellow sunflowers make this a delightful ride home in the fading hours of the day.

Keep following the signs for Alcoi. From Alcoi follow the sign for Valencia to go north or Alicante to go south. Both directions are via the N340.

For more information on what to see on this excursion, and to enjoy the other four excursions in this eguide, you can purchase your copy of Inland Trips from the Costa Blanca – North Costa Blanca, direct from Amazon for immediate download.