Exploring the old town of Villajoyosa

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.

The brightly painted houses on the beach front in Villajoyosa old town

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.

The restored fountain in the Plaza San Pedro (Sant Pere)
Fiesta de San Pedro
Young boys diving for money in the fountain. Source: Vilamuseu

Then wander up into the old town behind the seafront. The narrow streets here are mostly pedestrian, shady and tranquil, opening out into unexpected little squares 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 30 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). 

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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). 

Old town, Villajoyosa
Casas pintadas on the town walls.
Old town Villajoyosa
Casas colgadas (hanging houses) overlooking the Amadorio river valley
View from the Amadorio road bridge; the large grey-coloured building in the centre is the restored Hospital de Pobres.

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. They forced 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.

The old town of Villajoyosa was heavily fortified – these hefty walls on Calle Costera de Mar were built after a Turkish fleet sacked the town in 1543.

These Berber corsairs from north Africa had a nasty habit of attacking settlements along the Costa Blanca. They stole everything they could lay their hands on and enslaved 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 viewpoint

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. 

Old town Villajoyosa
Site of the old castle, now a public open space overlooking the river

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.

This metal model on the site of the old castle shows how the old walled 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 five years later for a return fixture and destroyed the town walls in 1543. The hefty fortifications you see today were built to replace them.

Parade of the Moors, Moros y Cristianos fiesta 2018

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.

Gorgeous traditional costumes in the Fiesta de las Lagrimas de Santa Marta, Villajoyosa May 2022. People take flowers to offer to the saint in gratitude for the miracle of 1653.
The dam at Relleu, the result of a miracle!

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. There’s a chapel inside dedicated to her.

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.

The newly restored church tower, October 2021

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.

Fantastic views over the old town of Villajoyosa from the top of the church tower
A birds-eye view of the Placa Iglesia

The rather austere interior of La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion – it was built as part of the town’s defences.
The image of Santa Marta, patron saint of La Vila, in her chapel just off the main nave of the church.

The old town and the Civil War

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.

Old town Villajoyosa
The plaque says “in this house, the holy image of Santa Marta, patron saint of this town, was saved during the Revolution of 1936-9”. Not really a ‘revolution’ – in reality, a military coup which provoked a bloody civil war, but there you go.

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)

Old town Villajoyosa
The town hall arch (Ajuntament). The balcony above the arch is decorated for Easter.

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.

Old town Villajoyosa
Relax in the peaceful plaza, with the restored Hospital de Pobres in the background.
Old town Villajoyosa
The Hospital de Pobres, which cared for pilgrims heading for Galicia in northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago. It’s now a youth centre.
This stone in the Plaza de la Generalitat marks the start of the Camino de Santiago. Just 1,128 kilometres to go! It’s also the start of the Camí del Peix (Fish Road) to Alcoy. Fish from La Vila went up, and manufactured goods came back down for export.

A little further down Carrer Major, you’ll find Carrer Travesseret.  Believe it or not, this narrow street was once the main route in and out of the old town. 

By early 19th century, the threat of attack from North Africa had faded.  People in La Vila felt safe enough to knock a hole in the town walls and build a road entrance 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. 

In the 1860s, the rather elegant road bridge over the river was built and the Carrer Travesseret entrance became redundant.

Carrer Travesseret
Hard to believe now but this was once the main road in and out of the old town of La Vila before the road bridge was built.
Before the bridge was built, this would have been the main route in and out of the old town – although there would have been a track, rather than the modern steps you see here.
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Built in the 1860s, the bridge over the Amadorio that carries the N332 coast road through La Vila.

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. The murals have been tarted up (2022) – until then they were looking distinctly tatty.

Street art imitating real life in the old town!

Just around the corner is the striking image by local artist Felix Gordero, which dominates the nearby Placa de Sant Cristòfol, covering the entire end wall of a house.

Street art, Villajoyosa
This image of a tattooed sailor dominates Plaça de Sant Cristòfol in the old town.
Mercat Medieval (craft market) in the Plaça Sant Cristòfol, April 2023
A striking newly-restored house on Carrer Sant Josep

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. 

Old town Villajoyosa
Carrer del Pal; long and straight so ideal for making fishing nets and rope, a traditional industry in La Vila back in the day.
Repair work on the old town wall, Carrer de Pal – part of it collapsed in the storms of 2019. Houses above had to be evacuated.
Old town Villajoyosa
Fishermen’s wives making nets in the old town of Villajoyosa 1925. Source: Vilamuseu

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:

© Guy Pelham. Additional pictures © Paddy McCullough

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