By Linda Heslegrave
Peñíscola, on Spain’s Costa del Azahar, is more than a beach destination. What could be better than spending a day on sandy Mediterranean beach? Peñíscola is close enough to Barcelona to draw locals and big enough to accommodate the many international tourists who come here for the sea, the sand, the food and the history. It is one of the most popular tourist resorts in the province of Castellón in Valencia.
Like many towns along Spain’s coasts, Peñíscola is two towns – modern and very, very old. The north beach extends for miles from modern Peñíscola. It’s a pedestrian friendly stretch with paths for walkers and cyclists set off from the road. The hotels and condos are set back too, giving the beach area a leisurely atmosphere. The south beach overlooks the harbour and is dotted with craggy coves and caverns. With a seemingly endless supply of restaurants, it’s easy to make a number of stops throughout the day for breakfast, morning café con leche, lunch, late afternoon tapas and three course dinners. Shops along the tree lined north beach promenade offer beach wear, umbrellas, lounging chairs and umbrellas, along with suntan lotions and sun visors. It’s possible to travel here without a packed suitcase and find everything you need for a beach vacation. But you may need to buy a suitcase just to bring home the local ceramics on offer in the shops!
But it’s the old town of Peñíscola that entices visitors to climb the steep streets to the top of the promontory overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. If you’ve seen El Cid, Charleston Heston’s starring screen role as the 11th century Spanish hero who fought the Moors, you’ll recognize the high walls and the castle inside. The film’s battle scenes were shot here and walking along the beach it’s easy to imagine the horsemen riding and soldiers marching toward the hillside fortifications to storm the castle.
“Old” Peñíscola is known as the Gibraltar of Valencia. It juts out to the sea from a rocky headland and is a fortified seaport. It’s joined to the mainland by a narrow peninsula, hence its name. It’s a very old town, like many of the ports along this coast. Originally settled by the Iberians, the town has seen much history. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians were here. Legend tells us that this is the place where Hamilcar Barca made his son Hannibal swear an oath that he would never be a friend of Rome!
The castle dominates the headland and is a reminder of Spain’s past when knights and battlements were scattered along the coast. It was built in the late 13th century by the Knights Templar on the foundations of the Arab fortress. By the early 15th century it had reverted to the Crown of Aragon and from 1415 to 1423 housed its most famous guest, Pope Benedict XIII (known locally as Pedro de Luna) when he was deposed from the papacy. Throughout Peñíscola, he is remembered in hotel, street and restaurant names. From the Bufador del Papa Luna, a cavern with a landward entrance, seawater escapes in clouds of spray.
The castle was restored in 1960 for the filming of El Cid and more recent upgrades to its walls and paths make it an important attraction. The parade grounds and castle keep within the walls offer panoramic views of the Mediterranean. The annual comedy film festival of Peñíscola is held in the old town as is the Baroque music festival. Re-use of the old buildings is de rigueur here where locals live in ancient buildings within the old town walls. Whether it’s a quick bite with a glass of wine, a pizza or a full three course Spanish-themed meal, you’ll be able to satisfy your tastes in one of the dozens of restaurants in the old town where patrons sit at tables that spill out onto the narrow, hilly streets. El Cid may be a long-ago memory but old town Peñíscola is a constant reminder of Spain’s glorious past.
Where to stay
There are hundreds of hotels, apartments and condominium residences in both parts of town. We stayed at Hotel Bodegon, a family run hotel at the edge of the north beach area. Built on the site of the family’s original beach taverna, the second generation now operates the hotel and dining room. Christian, our affable host, speaks four languages and is a wealth of information about the town and the area. He enhanced our enjoyment of the town with his attention to detail on what to see and where to walk, and made some excellent menu recommendations for dinner, especially ones on the local wines.
Peñíscola is a 2 ½ hour drive south of Barcelona. The bus terminal offers service from Barcelona to Peñíscola, about a 3 hour ride. Peñíscola hosts its annual comedy film festival in June on the castle grounds. If you’re planning to visit then, be sure to reserve a hotel room. Hotel Bodegon is a leisurely 25 minute walk from the castle, along the north beach route. Room rates for two people range from 50 euros (low season) to 99 euros (high season) and include a full buffet breakfast. The restaurant also serves lunch and dinner. Online bookings include free hotel parking. Tip: Ask for an upgrade to a sea view room with a balcony. http://www.hotelbodegon.com
Photo credits: Dan McCaughey, Toronto, Canada