By Michael Lanza
I’m standing on a rocky ridgetop amid the crumbling ruins of a castle built by Moors during their seven-century rule over most of Spain. It looks like a good spot to dig in. Beyond these broken walls, the ground plunges hundreds of feet over cliffs and mostly treeless, double-black-diamond slopes of thorny desert scrub. Today, though, there’ll be no rain of arrows from attacking marauders—only me and my guide, José Miguel Garcia, hiking through a sea of craggy limestone mountains. Some 3,000 feet below us, bleached terracotta villages dotting the valley bottom hold out the promise of a post-hike feast of tapas and local wine.
It’s the second morning of my five-day trek across a chronically sunny range of mountains so obscure they lack a unifying name. Forming a compact cluster about 30 miles long by 10 miles wide (imagine Wyoming’s Tetons, but much lower and minus the snow and ice), they’re known informally as the Aitana Mountains, for the area’s highest summit. After the Christian Reconquista drove out the Moors in the late 15th century, this area’s population shrank by two-thirds, and even now, few people travel these highland footpaths.
Rising above Spain’s central east coast in the province of Valencia, the soaring cliffs and razorback ridges loom within sight of tourist-flooded Mediterranean beaches; from every high point, the shimmering sea fills the southern horizon. But because the peaks reach just 5,000 feet, in the eyes of most Euro and American adventurers, they are lost in the shadows of the Alps and Pyrenees—they remain largely unknown. In fact, their adventure potential has been mined only in recent years by a trickle of hikers, climbers, and mountain bikers who’ve discovered multisport gold in these hills.
My goal is to sample it all. Over the coming week, I’ll tackle a 60-mile village-to-village trek, then mountain bike to a hidden castle. I’ll scale an iron ladder bolted onto an 800-foot cliff, and scramble along a wildly exposed knife-edge ridge that Euro climbers compare to the headiest traverses in Scotland’s revered Highlands. And in good Old World style, I’ll feast every evening on Spanish delicacies like stuffed aubergines, paella, and olleta de blat (a stew containing various pig parts from ribs to hooves). I’ll wash it all down with enough vino to float a Spanish galleon.
It’ll be a spectacular decathlon of recreational, cultural, and gastronomic excess. The only question is what will cause me to drop first: complete physical exhaustion or severe caloric overload.
“See that crack in the cliff?” says José, pointing to a barely discernible slot 400 feet above us. “That’s the pass.”
On the third day of my odyssey, José and I are hiking up the area’s highest peak, 5,128-foot Sierra de Aitana. So far, we’ve climbed Sierra d’Aixorta, marched for several hours over Sierra de Serrella, and eaten half our weight in regional delicacies. Today, we’ll traverse Aitana’s long alpine ridge. But to get there we have to access that cleft—and from here, that looks close to impossible.
But a good trail leads us to it, and it’s easier than it looks. We scramble across boulders, airy ledges, and tilted slabs, then step through the shoulder-width mail slot, emerging onto a plateau carpeted with brilliant wildflowers: purple-flowered Cistus albi, wild thyme and rosemary, and the golden, sofa-like cushions José calls “nun’s pillows.” To every horizon stretch white, gold, and gray limestone buttresses rising high above valleys terraced with almond and olive orchards.
As we hike, José points out native vegetation: the bright pink flowers of the cistus albi; the donkey’s ears with their big, floppy leaves that feel like velvet; and a type of sage with a pungent, sweet smell that hits us in the face whenever we pass a patch of it. He also explains how 10 years ago he envisioned a multiday trek across the mountains linking the villages of Castell de Castells, Guadalest, and Sella. And how he used interviews with old sheepherders, as well as GPS and Google Earth, to unearth trails built centuries ago by farmers, traders, hunters, and “nevaters,” who harvested ice blocks from stone wells (still intact today) in the mountains to sell in the coastal towns. Steep, rocky, and largely forgotten, the paths often take the most direct lines over peaks with 3,000 feet of relief. Which explains, at least in part, why we walk for hours without seeing anyone.
The wild boar tracks grab my attention, but José assures me that the 300-pound feral porkers do their rampaging after dark. Then the cliffs come into view, and I forget about kegs of ham with dangerously pointy tusks. On the fourth morning of our trek, crossing the mountains between Guadalest and Sella, we’re approaching the Piña Roc—literally “rock rocky outcrop,” a redundancy that seems appropriate to describe the sea of limestone arrayed before me.
With necks craned skyward, we walk below a series of vertical walls and amazingly thin fins, some 400 feet or taller. Their chalky faces spring from a lush carpet of low trees and bushes. José, a longtime climber, gets a beatific expression and looks for a moment like he might break out in song. I make a mental note to return again with my climbing gear and devote some days to just exploring these crags.
Several hours and many miles later, I’m walking by myself through Sella, a medieval village of stucco homes so tightly packed together that from a distance the town looks like a frozen cascade flowing down the mountainside it’s built upon. Cobblestone alleys, most too narrow even for the smallest, bug-like European cars, wind maze-like among the houses and few businesses. Local men and women hold loud, animated conversations in Spanish outside doorways and at outdoor café tables. Come Sunday morning, the bells of the old church in the village center will peel over the clay tile roofs and echo through the streets as they have for centuries, calling everyone to mass. Nobody appears to be in a hurry here. The place has an Old-World charm that’s immediately endearing.
I meet up with José at Isa & Toni’s, a tiny restaurant that’s a favorite of his, and he’s greeted warmly by several people when we walk in. We clink our first glasses of vino and tuck into fistfuls of highly addictive Marcona almonds, and then binge on a dinner of steak and potatoes in a Roquefort-and-pepper sauce served on a platter with the diameter of a California redwood.
Afterward, I’m too full to stand up and too buzzed to remember how many miles or vertical feet we’ve logged so far this week. But one thought burns through my brain fog: This was one of the most gorgeous treks I’ve ever taken—and I still have a few days of climbing and biking ahead of me.
“Up, up, up,” Toni Serrano Ortuño says, emphatically repeating one of the few English words he knows. The morning after ending my trek in Sella, I’m back in Guadalest, mountain biking with Toni, owner of Cases Noves B&B. An avid rider with legs like poplars, Toni is training for his local club’s annual 50-mile, 7,000-foot-uphill ride through the mountains. As a gesture of cross-cultural solidarity—or maybe just to put a hurt on the Yankee—he’s invited me on a ride onto the flanks of Sierra de Aitana.
We grind up steep gravel roads devoid of cars, rolling past medieval farmhouses, then turn onto singletrack and climb steadily higher. At a pass 2,000 feet above Guadalest, we leave the bikes and hike in our cleated shoes up a rocky footpath so steep we have to grab handholds. I’m following Toni without any clear idea of our destination—until it comes into view high above us: the ruins of a castle perched atop the narrow crest of this ridge.
Panting, we walk amid the remains of decaying walls constructed ages ago atop cliffs, and a turret overlooking Aitana’s miles-long ramparts. The Guadalest Valley’s terraces of neatly pruned almond and olive trees fall away far below, and the castle in the center of Guadalest village catches rays of sunlight piercing through clouds. I’ve done hard, beautiful rides all over the States—but never one that ended at a mountaintop fortress, with a view that I imagine looks no different than when Moorish soldiers stood on these same stones.
Our light-speed descent drops us through endless bends on narrow mountain roads. We fly back to Guadalest, where—as if there was no conceivable alternative—Toni and his wife Sofía take me to a small restaurant in the town’s historic and well-preserved castle, where our late lunch morphs into something like an afternoon-long impromptu festival. Toni and Sofía know everyone in the restaurant—staff and diners alike—and gesticulate wildly as they banter in rapid-fire Spanish. The courses keep coming one after another, capped off with a delicious chicken-and-garlic dish, while Sofía keeps refilling my wine glass.
When I think the onslaught of irresistible food has ended, I lean back in a creaky wooden chair, contemplating whether my health insurance will cover stomach pumping. And Sofía turns to me and declares more than asks, “You will have dessert, yes?”
The ladder of iron rungs appears to rise endlessly into the sky, but José insists it climbs just 800 feet up this cliff above us.
The morning after my bike ride, we’re standing at the base of a peak named Ponoch to climb a via ferrata—Italian for “iron road.” Like its counterparts in the Dolomites, where the first vie ferrate were built to help move troops through the mountains during World War I, this one has a steel cable bolted into the rock, paralleling the rungs. Wearing climbing harnesses, we clip into the cable with a tethered carabiner for safety.
Unlike with rock climbing, there’s no time spent figuring out moves and fussing with gear, so we move quickly, pausing only to snap photos of massive cliffs against a vast blue Mediterranean backdrop. I’ve climbed for almost 20 years, many times on bigger walls than this—and without a ladder. Yet for the entire two hours we spend aloft, I feel the familiar tongue-swallowing exhilaration of being high up a cliff. This is no amusement-park thrill ride. Dead-vertical to overhanging in places, Ponoch’s via ferrata is extravagantly exposed.
After topping out, we follow a rough climbers’ path down into a valley splashed with the bright greens of May. Higher up the valley, more limestone crags lord over the bucolic scene. A snaking mountain road leaves only a faint fingerprint of civilization.
Bernia Ridge looks like it was ripped out of the Dolomites and planted on this hilltop above Spain’s coast. A jagged scrawl of razor-sharp limestone juts up to 400 feet high and stretches for nearly three miles. On my final day in Spain, José and I are joined by his climbing buddies, Laszlo, a Hungarian Frank Zappa lookalike with the body fat of a cloud, and Czechs David and Jan. When I ask whether I could compensate them with beer later for volunteering to be my photo models, Jan deadpans: “We are Czech. We always drink beer.” We’ve come to make the technical traverse of Bernia, a full-day adventure that’s a rite of passage for locals.
We follow José uphill along a zigzagging goat path that he clearly knows well. At the ridge’s base, a cave entrance, largely hidden from view until we’re nearly upon it, reveals the most unlikely karst formation I’ve ever seen: A tunnel three feet in diameter bores about 100 feet straight through the ridge to its other side. Crab-walking, we inch toward a tiny circle of daylight at the far end, at times contorting our bodies to avoid dunking our hands into the shallow puddles littered with sheep dung.
We scramble onto the narrow ridge, then walk and crawl for the next four hours along its undulating, fractured spine. On the steepest sections, we rappel down short cliffs; at the crux, we belay each other across a 30-foot tightrope walk along a frightfully exposed stone fin barely wider than my shoe.
Standing atop Bernia, with the Ponoch, Puig Campana, Sierra de Aitana, and other now-familiar peaks visible in the distance, I’m awed yet again—both by the world-class scenery and adventure potential here, and the incredible fact that this place is unknown back home. And I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m already scheming a return visit to investigate the hundreds of rock-climbing and canyoning routes, not to mention an out-of-the-way restaurant where—José assures me—the food is to die for. As if it could be anything else.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Backpacker Magazine.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR any moderately fit hiker capable of walking 10 or more miles per day on the trek across the Aitana Mountains from Castell de Castells to Sella. The Ponoch via ferrata is a half-day outing with considerable exposure. The scramble of Bernia Ridge takes a full day, involves serious exposure and requires basic rock climbing and rappelling skills.
Make It Happen
Season The hiking season runs for about 10 months (the region gets 300 sunny days annually), from September through June, with July and August being too hot. But fall and spring are best. In early winter, days are short and sometimes below freezing, and snow occasionally dusts the mountains. The Mediterranean receives a fair bit of rain, but it’s concentrated in short periods of time, consistently late September into mid-October, as well as late March and early April. Mountain wildflowers bloom spectacularly in May. From mid-February to March, the Guadalest Valley turns pink with the blossoms from the almond trees. Hiker traffic is low.
The Itinerary The 60-mile trek from Castell de Castells to Guadalest to Sella is marked with white and yellow signs, though parts of it are not well-marked. Bring trekking poles for the steep trails and scree, and light pants or zip-offs for the thorny vegetation. Backcountry camping is permitted, but the rocky terrain and thorny vegetation can make sites very difficult to find. The Bernia Ridge traverse is well-marked with red blazes and arrows; plan on a full day. A 40-meter rope is required for the rappels (from bolt anchors) and about 50 feet of bolted 5.7 climbing. Beginners may want a belay on the Ponoch via ferrata.
Getting There Iberia (Iberia.com) and other airlines fly to Valencia via Madrid, which can be reached on direct flights from numerous major U.S. airports. From Valencia, it’s less than two hours’ drive to Castell de Castells and other towns in the area of the Aitana mountains.
Map Terra Ferma (see below) sells a pair of overlapping maps of the area that are good for trekking and exploring the mountains. The “Marina Baixa” map covers the trek and other areas described in this story, and the “Marina Alta” map covers adjoining mountain areas.
Guidebook Costa Blanca Walks, Vol. 1 West, by Bob Stansfield, 12 Euros, Cicerone Press, cicerone.co.uk.
Guide Terra Ferma (José’s outfit), terraferma.net.
Cases Noves B&B in Guadalest
Hotel Serrella in Castell de Castells
Restaurante la Montaña in Benimantell
Bar Paco and Isa & Toni’s in Sella
Learn more about area lodging at muntanyadalacant.com.
Resources Tourist Offices of Spain (in U.S.), spain.info. Costa Blanca Mountain Friends, costablancamountainfriends.com. Costa Blanca Climbing, costablancaclimbing.com. Ryan Glass Mountaineering, ryanglass-mountaineering.co.uk.