The brilliantly colourful fishermen’s houses on the seafront are the iconic image of Villajoyosa (aka La Vila Joiosa). But there’s much more to the old town than just the seafront. Take a stroll through the narrow streets and pretty squares to sample the atmosphere of the ‘casco antiguo‘ and absorb a little of its history.
Start exploring down by the beach on Carrer Arsenal; the name comes from the time when they built warships at a shipyard near the river mouth. There’s now a wide, modern esplanade, where locals and tourists alike come for the traditional evening stroll (paseo) once the heat of the day has subsided.
The casas pintadas got their bright colours, so the story goes, so local fishermen could see their home port clearly from out at sea. That tradition is still maintained today, even though the fishermen themselves are long gone; owners must keep their homes painted and they can’t change the colour either.
In the Plaza San Pedro (Sant Pere in Valenciano dialect), you’ll see the 18th century fountain (below), now restored, which doubled up as a public washplace and source of fresh water for nearby houses. During the fiesta de San Pedro, the water was dyed red and local boys would fish for coins in it.
Then wander up into the old town behind the seafront. The narrow streets here are mostly pedestrian, shady and tranquil, with unexpected little squares dotted here and there where a visitor can sit and watch the world go by. The houses are tightly packed together; tall and narrow with steep internal staircases. Some have been spruced up and converted for tourist use, others are still lived in by local people.
Some casas colgadas (hanging houses) perch on the town walls overlooking the river Amadorio; you can see them best by walking up the river from the sea to the main road bridge.
The river valley itself is now a pleasant linear park, with trees, shrubs and places for children to play (shame about the rubbish in the river itself, even though residents from the casco antiguo organise regular clean-up sessions).
The old town goes back a long way; the Roman settlement of Allon was built here. The current town of La Vila was founded in the 1300s as Christian armies pushed down from the north, forcing out the Moors who had occupied most of Spain for the best part of 500 years.
Apparently the crafty Christian admiral, Bernat d’en Sarria, had the place christened La Vila Joiosa (literally “happy town” in Valenciano) to convince his fellow Catalans to move down and settle here. A neat bit of salesmanship; he’d have made a great estate agent.
The impressive town walls, which you can see if you walk down Carrer Costera del Mar from the main street towards the sea, were built in the 16th century to protect the town from pirates.
These Barbary corsairs from north Africa had a nasty habit of attacking settlements along the Costa Blanca, stealing everything they could lay their hands on and enslaving any local people they could catch.
Even the town church, built into the city walls, was designed to double up as a fortress in case of attack (Iglesia-fortaleza de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción). There was also once a castle on the other side of the old town, dominating the high ground above the river Amadorio; the area where it stood is now a public open space off Carrer Vallet (the word Vallet means moat).
Walk up there to take in the beautiful views over the river and down to the sea. You’ll also notice random stones scattered about the gardens; these were originally from the Roman baths complex in La Vila and were used to build the castle.
The castle itself is long gone; destroyed in the early 1700s in the War of Succession, but you can see a metal scale model showing how the fortified town of La Vila might have looked.
In its heyday, the castle was the key strongpoint in a chain of defences against the menace of the corsairs. A string of watch towers was built by King Philip ll to give early warning of their approach, so the local militias were ready and waiting when the Berbers landed. It was a pretty smart tactic and the corsairs – who’d had things pretty much their own way until then – suddenly found themselves up against a disciplined force.
To the south of La Vila, you can still see the watchtower of El Xarco and to the north, Torre del Aguiló near Benidorm – both are worth a visit.
Those pesky pirates are also the inspiration behind La Vila’s biggest party of the year, the Fiesta de Santa Marta. It commemorates an attack in 1538, which, according to legend, was driven off thanks to the miraculous intervention of Santa Marta, patron saint of La Vila. The Moros y Cristianos festival re-enacts the landings on the town beach every July.
Santa Marta was quite a lady. Not content with just the one miracle, she pulled off another in 1653, when her image was seen to shed tears for two hours. At the time, La Vila was in the middle of a serious drought. But a few weeks later came news that King Felipe IV had authorised a dam to be built at Relleu in the hills behind La Vila, which would solve the water problem. He’d signed the document on the very same day that the Virgin shed her tears – so she was clearly crying with happiness. At least, that’s the story. Miracle number two is celebrated every year in the Fiesta de las Lagrimas de Santa Marta (the tears of Santa Marta)
Despite Santa Marta’s best efforts, the corsairs came back in 1543 and destroyed the walls; the government of Valencia paid for the rebuilding with a tax on silk. By the 18th century, the Berber threat had gone, so the walls weren’t needed. Enterprising locals built their homes on top, as we see today.
Before the rather elegant road bridge was built in the 1860s, getting into Villajoyosa from Alicante was a bit of a pain, to say the least. The road came through Poble Nou on the opposite bank, dipped down into the Amadorio valley, crossed the river via a ford, and then came up into the old town on Carrer Traveseret.
Mural of the casas pintadas in the old town. Seeing the mural just below the real thing is a little surreal.
Just below the site of the old castle, on Carrer Santa Marta, you’ll find some cool street art; images of the casas pintadas juxtaposed just below the real thing.
Around the corner is a striking image by local artist Felix Gordero, covering the entire end wall of a house and dominating the Placa de Sant Cristòfol.
Take a walk along Carrer de Pal (below) just off Carrer Costera del Mar. The name “Pal” translates as a place where ropes are repaired; this street and the parallel Callejon de Pal were long and straight and so ideal for the job. Rope and net making was a major industry here in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s estimated that 400 families worked in the trade; fishing nets and ships’ cables made from hemp in La Vila were used throughout Spain.
They were making fishing nets in La Vila even in Roman times; remains of a Roman net factory were excavated in 2005 on the outskirts of town. Back then, nets were made from the esparto grass you can see growing wild in the countryside around La Vila. There’s still one net factory left in Villajoyosa; they’ve been in business since 1778, though these days, the raw material is strictly synthetic.
Stroll up Carrer Major to the archway of the town hall (Ajuntament). Just off to your left across the pretty Placa Moreres square is the old Hospital de Pobres (Poor Hospital). The plaque outside tells how it looked after pilgrims who landed here in La Vila port before starting the 1,128 km Camino de Santiago across Spain to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. It’s now restored as a youth centre. Modern-day pilgrims can get their Camino de Santiago “passport” (credencial del peregrino) stamped at La Placeta bar in the Plaza Castelar.
Head through the town hall arch and turn right at the top of Carrer Major into the Placa Iglesia. The church itself was built for strength rather than elegance; it was an integral part of the fortifications of the old town. It’s not always open to visitors though.
If you walk by the church, past the Civil War memorial on the church wall and head down Carrer Pou, you’ll see a house on the corner with a plaque on the wall (see pic). It says that the holy image of Santa Marta (she of the 1538 and 1653 miracles) was hidden inside during the Spanish Civil War.
The region around La Vila was held by the Republicans and they didn’t have much time for the Catholic church, which fervently supported the rebel Nationalist forces of General Franco.
Apparently the Republican forces used the church of Nuestra Señora to garage their lorries. The church bells were also melted down for more warlike uses.
The final recommendation — head back down the hill to the seafront on Carrer Arsenal, have an ice cream or a nice cool beer, admire the view and ponder the sometimes violent history of La Vila’s old town.
Highlights and suggested tour
1. Carrer Arsenal + casas pintadas 2. Plaza San Pedro + fountain 3. River Amadorio + hanging houses 4. Site of old castle (El Castell) 5. Street art on Carrer Santa Marta 6. Ajuntament (town hall) 7. Hospital de Pobres 8. Placa Iglesia + church of Nuestra Señora del Asunción 9. Carrer Costera del Mar and town walls. 10. Carrer de Pal 11. Return to Carrer Arsenal
© Guy Pelham 2017. Additional pictures © Paddy McCullough