The brilliantly colourful fishermen’s houses on the seafront are the iconic image of the old town of Villajoyosa (known locally as La Vila Joiosa). 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.
Casas pintadas – painted houses
The casas pintadas got their bright colours, so the story goes, so local fishermen could see their houses clearly from out at sea. That tradition is still maintained today, even though the fishermen themselves are long gone. Owners have to 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, it 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.
The character of the old town has changed a lot in the last 25 years or so. Back then it was run down and neglected with a dodgy reputation. But then people – many of them incomers – started buying the old houses and renovating them. Some were for living in permanently, some for tourist lets. The streets are now largely traffic free, and it’s definitely a much nicer place to be (click through the slide show below).
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.
Walk up the river valley park
The river valley itself is now a pleasant linear park, with trees, shrubs and places for children to play (shame about the graffiti though).
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 this part 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 town walls
The impressive 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 church, built into the town walls, was designed to double up as a fortress in case of attack.
The old castle mirador
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 the Spanish Succession. 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 watchtowers against the menace of the corsairs. Torre El Xarco is a few kilometres south of La Vila and to the north, there’s Torre del Aguiló near Benidorm – both are worth a visit.
Miracles and fiestas
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 in the last week of July. Unfortunately, the unsporting Moors came back for a return fixture in 1543 and destroyed the town walls – the hefty fortifications you see today were built to replace them.
But Santa Marta wasn’t finished with La Vila. 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.
Miracle number two is celebrated every May in the Fiesta de las Lagrimas de Santa Marta (the tears of Santa Marta). Check out my blog on the Relleu dam and its spectacular walkway here.
Climb the church tower!
To see Santa Marta in her natural environment, head for the church. Walk up Carrer Major to the top of the old town and into the Plaza Iglesia. The church itself was built for strength rather than elegance; it was an integral part of the fortifications of the old town.
It opens to visitors once a week (Wednesdays, 1100-1300). The best bit is you get to climb the tower in return for a €2 donation. You won’t get a better view of the old town of Villajoyosa than from up here.
Look to your left when you enter the church and you’ll see a low door in the corner – let yourself through. It’s 80 steps to the top and a fair bit of pigeon poo when you get there, but the panorama over the old town of Villajoyosa is well worth it.
As you leave the church, turn left and head down Carrer Pou, where you’ll see a plaque on the wall (see pic below). 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. 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.
Stroll back down Carrer Major and through the archway of the town hall (Ajuntament)
Just off to your right across the pretty Placeta del Metge square is the old Hospital de Pobres (Poor Hospital).
El Camino de Santiago
The plaque outside tells how it looked after pilgrims who landed here in La Vila port. Their destination –the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, 1,128 km away on the Camino de Santiago. 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.
A little further down Carrer Major, you’ll find Carrer Travesseret. Before the rather elegant road bridge over the river was built in the 1860s, believe it or not, this narrow street was the main route in and out of the old town.
By the early 19th century, people in La Vila had felt safe enough to make a gap in the town walls for easier access. So travellers going south towards Alicante would have headed along Carrer Travesseret, through the walls, down into the river valley, crossed a ford and climbed up the other side.
Walk further downhill to Carrer Santa Marta, where you’ll find some rather cool street art; images of the casas pintadas juxtaposed just below the real thing. But the thing about street art is you have give it some TLC from time to time or it looks tatty quite quickly. Which is how these murals now look – paint peeling, chunks of plaster falling off and a pile of rubble dumped in the corner.
Looking in rather better shape is a striking image by local artist Felix Gordero, which dominates the nearby Placa de Sant Cristòfol, covering the entire end wall of a house.
Ropes and nets
Just a few metres away is Carrer de Pal (below). 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 here 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.
My 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.
Old town of Villajoyosa – suggested route
1. Carrer Arsenal + casas pintadas 2. Plaza San Pedro (Sant Pere) + fountain 3. River Amadorio + hanging houses 4. Site of old castle (El Castell) 5. Placa Iglesia + church of Nuestra Señora del Asunción 6. Ajuntament (town hall) 7. Hospital de Pobres 8. Street art on Carrer Santa Marta. 10. Carrer de Pal 11. Return to Carrer Arsenal
Want to know more about La Vila? Check out these posts:
- The Romans in Villajoyosa
- The coast walk to from the port to Malladeta
- Playa de Torres clifftop walk to (almost) Benidorm
© Guy Pelham. Additional pictures © Paddy McCullough