The little community of Finestrat has kind of a split personality. On the one hand, it’s a pretty old town perched on a giant limestone cliff, in the shadow of the Puig Campana mountain and a few kilometres inland from the Costa Blanca.
But at the same time, it’s a beach resort down on the coast, trying to out-Benidorm the next-door megalopolis of Benidorm, with ugly high rise apartments and hotels shoehorned into a tiny little bay.
It’s hard to think of a greater contrast. How did it come about? Well, it all goes back to the sixteenth century. Corsairs, or pirates, from North Africa were a real menace in this part of the world, raiding coastal communities and taking slaves and plunder.
The men of Finestrat, like those of all the surrounding communities, were pressed into service to fight the invaders, even though their own little town lay eight kilometres inland and must have been pretty much impregnable, even to the most determined corsair. As a reward for their help, the mountain town of Finestrat was given access to the sea. Not much of it, you understand – just 267 metres of coastline.
Nowadays, that tiny stretch is Cala de Finestrat. Sadly, it’s as bad an example of over-development as you’re likely to find anywhere on the Costa Blanca – a once picturesque cove entirely swamped by concrete. And the worst of it is the Hotel Atrium Beach, abandoned half-built in 2003, after two construction workers died and the whole project collapsed in a mire of scandal. Fifteen years on, its concrete carcass still disfigures the whole seafront.
The old town of Finestrat couldn’t be more different though. Drive up from the coast on the CV-767 and you can’t miss the hanging houses (casas colgadas) gazing down from the limestone cliff on which the town is built. This lofty perch made for a superb defensive position, especially with the massive bulk of the Puig Campana mountain right behind.
So not surprisingly, settlers were drawn to Finestrat – for at least 20,000 years, according to the archaeologists. The Iberians were here before the Romans came. The Moors settled here too before the Christian armies came down from the north in the 1200s.
There’s a helpful tourist trail that takes you from the centre of Finestrat up through the narrow streets and gardens to the high point of the town, from where Finestrat castle once dominated the valley below.
The fortifications are long gone now – there’s just a white-walled Ermita (chapel) there – but the information plaque tells how, in the thirteenth century, Finestrat was the centre of a major rebellion by the Moors. Any mention of Moorish history is unusual in Alicante province, where you don’t hear much about the Moors at all, even though they ruled here for five centuries.
When you do hear about them, it’s usually a simple story of defeat and expulsion by the Christian monarchs of Castile and Aragon, a tale reinforced every summer by the spectacular Moros y Cristianos fiestas held everywhere in Alicante province.
But the story of Finestrat shows that it was all far from straightforward. The Christian armies marched down from present-day Catalonia, intent on their reconquista, but they didn’t have it all their own way. Even El Cid, the Spanish national hero, fought with the Moorish armies at one time. And the magnificently-named Moorish chieftain Mohammad Abu Abdallah Ben Hudzäil al Sähuir (known as Al Azraq – ‘blue eyes’ – for short) led at least two major revolts against the Christian Jaime I of Aragón (modestly known as the Conqueror) and proved a troublesome foe.
The governor of Finestrat castle seems to have joined enthusiastically in Al Azraq’s rebellions in 1249 and 1276. Of course, it all ended in tears for the Moors eventually: Al Azraq himself was killed while attacking the town of Alcoy, 50 kilometres away, up in the mountains of Alicante province. Alcoy still celebrates his defeat in its Moros y Cristianos fiesta, the most famous in Spain.
But enough history! Finestrat is a very pleasant little town to walk around. Step into the church of San Bartolomé, severely plain on the outside, but lavishly decorated inside. Wander through the tranquil streets, past narrow houses with their wrought-iron balconies and down to the miradors that look over the valley below.
And all the while, there’s the constant brooding presence of the Puig Campana mountain which absolutely dominates the landscape behind the town. With the distinctive cleft in its summit, rather like a gap tooth in a smile, Puig Campana has attracted more than its fair share of myths and legends (read more in my blog here)
Head up the road from Finestrat centre to the Font de Molí spring at the foot of the mountain; it’s about a kilometre of uphill walking, or a short drive. Fifteen pipes disgorge gin-clear mountain water into the spring; you’ll see plenty of people stopping by to fill up their plastic containers. And if you’re feeling seriously energetic, there are plenty of walks up or around the mountain starting from here (for more info, try links here and here).
© Guy Pelham 2018
For more walks and places to explore around Villajoyosa try these blog posts: