Exploring Xàtiva: home of the Borgias, two Popes, and a great castle

The Borgia family became a byword for ambition and general nastiness in fifteenth century Italy – and their reputation for stop-at-nothing ruthlessness has endured until today.

Everyone thinks they were Italian – but they weren’t. They were Spanish, and they came from Xàtiva (aka Játiva), a picturesque little town just over an hour’s drive from Alicante (less from Valencia). Two of the Borgias became Popes and there can’t be many small towns anywhere – outside Italy anyway – that can boast a brace of Pontiffs.

That’s one reason to visit. The other is that Xàtiva also has a great castle. Spain does spectacular castles better than most, and Xàtiva’s is up there with the best of them.

El Castell de Xàtiva on a ridge high above the town.

More of the castle shortly. First though, the Borgias. Back in the Renaissance period, there wasn’t much the Borgias weren’t accused of. Murder, corruption, sexual immorality on a grand scale…you name it, they did it. At least, so said their enemies, and there was no shortage of those.

Who could fail to be horrified by the…terrible, monstrous acts of lechery that are committed openly in his home, with no respect for God or man”, wrote one scandalized church official of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI.  

But here in Xàtiva, they’re rather proud of the Borgias. The local tourist office has La Ruta Borja, which takes you to the surviving buildings with a family connection. There are statues of both the Borgia Popes (Callixtus lll and Alexander Vl) outside the Basilica, the town’s main church.

Both Xàtiva’s Popes get a statue outside the Basilica

There’s even a craft beer named in honour of Lucrezia Borgia. Everywhere else, she’s damned as sexually depraved and a murderess to boot (her cause wasn’t helped by The Borgias TV series in 2011, which wasn’t exactly kind to her reputation). But here, it’s different. Where else would they name a beer after one of history’s most notorious poisoners? It’s a very nice IPA, by the way.

La Lucre, named after one of history’s most notorious poisoners!

Everybody (including me) assumes the Borgias were Italian because the anglicised spelling of their name looks Italian, and most of the dodgy stuff they got up to happened in Italy. But they were originally Borjas from Aragon, in the north of Spain – in Valenciano, the language around Xàtiva, the name is pronounced the same.

The man who launched the Borgia dynasty – Pope Callixtus lll

Alfons de Borja, who became Pope Callixtus lll in 1455, was the one who really got the family going. He became top adviser, diplomat and general fixer for the King of Aragon, who was carving out a kingdom for himself in southern Italy at the time. Which can’t have done Alfons’s chances of becoming Pope any harm.

The Borgia/Borja coat of arms, featuring the Borgia bull.

But that may actually be the reason why the Borgias have such a terrible reputation. The powerful families in Italy – the Medicis in Florence, the Sforzas from Milan – didn’t think much of these Spanish outsiders taking control of the Papacy, so they set out blacken the Borja reputation. Back then, the Pope wasn’t just head of the church – he ruled a sizeable chunk of Italy as well, and that made him a prime target in the power struggles across the Italian peninsula

Rodrigo, Alfons de Borja’s nephew, became Pope Alexander Vl in 1492. He’s the one played by Jeremy Irons in the TV series, and he got a really bad press. You can see the house where he was born in the Plaça Alexandre Vl. You can also visit the Iglesia de Sant Pere where young Rodrigo was baptised.

The house where Pope Alexander VI was born, Plaça Alexandre VI

Wander also along the Carrer Moncada, the main street in the old town, flanked by imposing houses of Xàtiva’s most important families.

Calle Moncada, the main street in Xàtiva’s old town
The floodlit Basilica looks as if it is floating in mid-air

The Antiguo Hospital Real is impressive, on the outside at least – the once elegant internal patio has been replaced by hideous concrete. The Placa del Mercat (Market Square) is worth a look too.

Plaça del Mercat, Xàtiva
Antiguo Hospital Real – there’s an exhibition on the Borgias inside

Xàtiva Castle

But the real glory of Xàtiva is the castle. It’s built on a ridge high above the town and absolutely dominates the place. The walls are floodlit at night, which looks spectacular.

The floodlit walls of Castillo de Xàtiva at night

The Romans were pretty much everywhere in Spain and Xàtiva castle was a key location for them; it overlooked the Via Augusta, the main road which connected the colony of Hispania with Rome itself.

Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who took on the might of Rome with his elephants, came through here. So did Scipio, the Roman general who finally defeated him. The Romans called the place Saetabis and people from Xàtiva are still known in Spanish as Setabenses. 

Later came the Moors, who settled on the lower slopes of the ridge, well above the modern town of Xàtiva.

Remains of the Moorish settlement below Xàtiva castle

You can easily spend most of the day looking at the castle. We did and it’s great.

Try walking up from the town – although the route looks impossibly steep, it’s actually quite do-able. There’s plenty to see on the way and the views are terrific. Our route was suggested by the place where we stayed (Casa Aldomar in the old town, near Pope Alexandre’s birthplace).

Start in Calle San Pascual, head up the street and round to the right. There’s a gap between the houses next to number 48, which takes you up a stony path by the medieval walls which once ringed the whole of Xàtiva.

Head uphill by the medieval city walls

It’s a bit steep and uneven to start with, but it soon gets easier. Follow the path until you reach the Ermita de San Jose…it’s seen better days, but there’s an archway (now blocked up) through which the Christian King Jaume 1 marched in 1244 after defeating the Moors, who’d occupied Xàtiva for centuries.

At the nearby Mirador del Bellveret, there’s an eccentric but striking statue of two giant hands, one clutching a ball – it’s a tribute to the local sport of pelota valenciana, a variety of handball.

Pelota statue, Mirador de Bellveret

Keep following the path past the little church of Sant Feliu (St Felix) and on to the Nevera – a giant ice house cut into the rock, where precious ice was stored in winter and then used to cool things down in summer.

The ice house or nevera on the way up to Xàtiva castle.

Keep heading westwards to the Murallas de Poniente (the western part of the city walls) and then uphill to the impressive natural cave Cova dels Coloms, where there’s an altar to the Virgin Mary.

The altar in the natural Cova Colom

Retrace your route eastwards, past the Nevera once again, and head uphill off to the right, passing the Cova de les Gotetes – the Cave of Raindrops, which functioned as a water reservoir. Keep following the path uphill until you reach the Cova dels Lleons, on the final curve of the tarmac road that leads up from Xàtiva town. According to legend, Saint Felix (aka Sant Feliu) was thrown to the lions here by the Romans – but miraculously the lions refused to eat him.

Cova dels Lleons, just below the castle entrance.

Then a short stroll up the tarmac road, and you’re in the castle itself. Which is spectacular.

Looking along the ridge to the Castell Menor from the Castell Major

It’s divided into two – to your left is the Castell Menor, the smaller, but older part. According to legend, Princess Himlice, wife of Hannibal, bore him a son here – there’s a balcony named after her. Allow about half an hour to tour the Castell Menor

Balcon de Himlice – the balcony named after the wife of Hannibal
View from the ramparts of the Castell Menor

The much bigger and more recent Castell Major rises up the ridge from the Plaza de Armas. Views from up here are astonishing; on a clear day, you can see down to the sea at Gandia.

The Castell Major climbs up the ridge from the Plaza de Armas

Head out of the Puerta de Socorro (the escape route from the castle if things went wrong militarily) to admire the views over the Bixquert valley behind the castle.

View from the Puerto del Socorro, the escape route from the castle.

There’s a nod to the Moorish occupation of the castle in the recently built garden of Ibn Hazm, a famed Islamic scholar who lived in Xàtiva. Keep heading up the hill to the prison, which held a succession of nobles who’d managed to offend the King of Aragon.

Looking out from the grim and gloomy prison.

The rebel Comte d’Urgell was held for years here – the story goes that when he was finally released from his dark and gloomy cell, he was struck blind by the sunlight, and dropped dead. Which seems rather unfair.

Keep climbing right to the highest point of the castle and marvel at the views.

View from the highest point of the Castell Major

The castle used to be even more impressive, but it never really recovered from a huge earthquake in 1748, which caused massive damage. You could say the 18th century wasn’t a fun time for Xàtiva in general – in 1707, the town was besieged and burned during the War of the Spanish Succession (Xàtiva had picked the losing side).

Apparently, there were 800 English soldiers in the castle garrison when the town surrendered. What on earth were they doing there?

England had got involved in the war to prevent Spain and France becoming united under one king, which would have made the joint kingdom the most powerful alliance in Europe and a direct threat to English interests. When the fighting finally stopped in 1713, four years after the siege of Xàtiva, Britain and her allies were pretty much on top – and the Brits walked off with the bonus prize of Gibraltar. Which has been a bit of a sore point ever since. 

An archers eye view of the modern town of Xàtiva from the Castell Major

Retrace your steps to the Plaza de Armas, where there’s a bar and terrace with great views. Head back down to Xàtiva via the road – or there’s a tourist train if you’re feeling lazy/knackered.

TIP: eat at El Tunel, a cool restaurant in Calle Portal Valencia in the old town.

© Guy Pelham 2020

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