Travel

By Linda Heslegrave

Ever wondered where Sultana raisins come from? Find out in Spain’s Val de Pop

The renowned Spanish writer, Gabriel Miro, described Parcent as “paradise between two mountains” when he stayed here to write his first novella “Del vivir” at the start of the 20th century. It’s still true today and that makes it a perfect spot for travellers to enjoy the countryside in Spain. So, after a busy week in Madrid we set out to explore this rural paradise and the story of the Sultanas.

Casa Miro

Casa Miro

Set in the agricultural Val de Pop (also known as the Jamon Valley) in the Alicante region, Parcent pueblo (village) is a 45 minute drive from the crowded towns of the Costa Blanca and an easy day trip from the ancient Phoenician port town of Denia. Staying in Benidorm and want to escape the tourist frenzy? It’s less than an hour drive away.

Val de Pop

Val de Pop

A pueblo in the mountains
We used Parcent as a base to explore the region’s back roads through valleys lush with vineyards, citrus fields and olive groves, and to drive steep, zig zag mountain roads in search of great views and the perfect restaurant for a long and leisurely lunch.

Parcent is quiet and unassuming with a tree-lined main street leading to the square where the Church of the Holy Virgin dominates from a high point in the village. Its spire and clock are lit up at night. Its bells sound throughout the day. Once mainly a farming community, today village artisans continue local craft traditions – wrought iron balconies and hand crafted wooden doors. The two village wineries use local moscatel grapes to produce red and white wines. Visitors with aspirations to be a ‘royal’ can try a bottle from Bodegas Gutierrez de la Vega. Spain’s royal family sip it. The dessert wine for the 2004 wedding of Crown Prince Filipe in came from this bodega.

Walking through the valley history was everywhere beneath our feet. Roman retaining walls are still in use around the farms, more than 2000 years after they were built. We drove on Roman built roads, updated for modern use. Evidence of the Moors is all around too, in town names like Alcali. The Moors ruled much of Spain until 1492 and introduced terraced farming to the area. Though most were driven out in the 15th century, some converted to Christianity and stayed behind to farm. In the 17th century, when the Spanish King ordered the last of the Moors expelled, the nearby village of Murla was the sight of the last battle between Moors and Christians.

Parcent on the Hill

Parcent on the Hill

But we’d heard that there was another strong reminder of the Moors’ time here – Sultana raisins. The moscatel grape was grown primarily to produce dried raisins though some were used to produce Moscatel wine (called Mistella in Valencian, a variety of the Catalan language) and for which the valley is best known. The name Sultana was a sign of quality and each bag exported carried a picture of a Sultana, a Sultan’s wife. The raisins in our school lunchboxes have a long and proud history. Check out a package the next time you buy them and look for the picture of the lady – the Sultana!

Then it was time for our mountain drive up and over the Col de Rates, the mountain peak that towers over Parcent, on one of those Roman roads. Not for the faint of heart, we slowly climbed up to enjoy magnificent views of the region. Here is where professional cyclists sometimes train for the big road races. We were told that the champion Spanish rider, Miguel Indurrain, had trained here back in the 1990s when he won five Tour de France crowns. On our day up the mountain, there were plenty of cyclists, trudging silently upward, occasionally stopping for a short break.

Col de Rates

Col de Rates

Finca La Asmoladora
Once at the top, the view was breathtaking – valley villages and pueblos perched on the sides of the mountains. Terra cotta roofs of magnificent fincas – Spanish farm estates – many now owned by expatriates from other European countries, dotted the valley. Our challenge was to spot ‘our’ finca, La Asmoladora, situated on 15 terraced acres planted with groves of almonds, olives, oranges, lemons and grape vines.

Parcent in the Valley

Parcent in the Valley

This was our home for a week. Owned and operated by Pam and Derek, a relocated British couple who live onsite, we lived a ‘local’ life as we walked the fields, explored the caminos (country roads), picked oranges from the property’s trees and attended annual festivities in the nearby town of Jalon. On the day we walked into Parcent to explore the town before settling down for lunch, we clamboured over the property’s restored Roman walls and explored the old drying barns still in use today for the area grapes. Outside our front door was a tree laden with ripe nispero, a fruit originally from Asia and introduced to Spain about two thousand years ago by sailors arriving in ports of the Valencia region.

Inside Casa Andraga, our rented three-bedroom unit, we enjoyed all the modern conveniences. In a nod to the agricultural tradition of this region, our ceiling was lined with woven cane pallets formerly used to dry the raisins (there they are again). At the end of our days of exploration and discoveries, and cool dips in the Mediterranean at the beach in Denia, we relaxed on our veranda overlooking the valley to watch the sunset, listen to the birds settle in for the night and sip our Moscatel.

Time to eat
It’s always market day somewhere in the area so it was easy to buy local produce to make dinner back at the finca. But one of the joys of travelling is dining out and Spanish cuisine in the area is top notch. Lunch is an important, and very big, meal in Spain. Our stop at Verd I Vent, a converted barn perched on the side of the mountain road between Bernia and Jalon, was our opportunity to enjoy the national custom of a long, leisurely mid day meal. Open only during the day (there’s no electricity), we sat down at 2:00 p.m., and waited for the food to arrive. There’s no menu here so we simply enjoyed the delicious offerings from the kitchen accompanied by jugs of wine. Lingering at our table at 5:00 p.m. we knew we’d settled in to dining the Spanish way but it was time to return to the finca for a glass of Moscatel on our veranda.

Verd-i-Vent Restaurant

Verd-i-Vent Restaurant

Practicalities
International travellers can fly into Madrid (five hour drive to Parcent), Barcelona (two hour drive) or Alicante (one hour drive). Spanish roads are well maintained. The Autopista is a toll road for much of the drive. The autovia has no tolls. Finca La Asmoladora is owned and operated by Pam and Derek Cornthwaite and open all year round. http://www.ownersdirect.co.uk/accommodation/p8002140
Contact: dcornth@attglobal.net Verd I Vent offers a five course lunch every day. Cost per person is 18 euros. Call ahead for reservations (620 550 833).

Photo credits: Dan McCaughey, Toronto, Canada

Originally published July 2014
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