Going underground: the Moorish caves of Bocairent

Bocairent is everyone’s idea of a pretty hilltop village. In the shadow of the Sierra Mariola and about an hour’s drive inland from Alicante, its houses are crammed together in a maze of narrow cobbled streets, topped off by an elegant 16th century belltower.

But the thing that makes this place different from all the other picture postcard pueblos hereabouts is the remarkable Covetes dels Moros – the Caves of the Moors -a centuries-old cave complex facing the village.

Bocairent – a view made for a postcard
Les Covetes dels Moros – the Caves of the Moors – cut into the rock just outside the village. The staircase on the right takes you inside the cliff face.

There are about 50 of these cave ‘windows’, hacked into the rock overlooking the gorge of the little river Clariano. And the great thing is you can climb inside the cliff face, scramble through the labyrinth of chambers (and I do mean scramble), and pop out at the other end. How often do you get to crawl about inside a mountain?

Each cave is interconnected via a narrow passage to the next one along

As you shuffle along on your backside or lever yourself up through narrow openings, you also get a running commentary from the guide, who’ll tell you a little of the history.

They were created back in the 10th and 11th century by the Berber people who occupied Bukayran, the original Arabic name for Bocairent. For years, experts argued about what they were for. Pretty much everyone agreed that no-one lived in the caves – they’re tiny, and would have been spectacularly uncomfortable as living space. The most likely explanation is they were secure storage for food, especially grain, for the villagers on the hilltop.

Getting around the cave complex is a bit of a scramble. Those are my feet in shot!

When they were first dug out of the mountain, each of these caves was individual, probably belonging to one family. The connections between caves were cut sometime later and are worn shiny with the passage of countless hands, knees and backsides.

Each ‘window’ in the cliff face would have had its own door and food would have been raised or lowered on ropes. A lot of work, whichever way you look at it – but I guess those were dangerous times and keeping their food supply safe must have been important to these people.

The caves are far too small to have been used as homes. The theory is that each cave would have been used as a secure storehouse.

It helped that the rock face is chalky limestone, which was relatively easy to hack into and the caves stayed dry even in the wet winters they experience here. The Berber people would have known all about using caves for storage or even living space – there’s plenty of evidence of similar complexes in North Africa where they came from originally.

The Ermita de Santo Cristo framed in one of the ‘windows’ of the Covetes dels Moros.

If you’re reasonably physically fit, don’t mind scrambling around on your hands and knees in a fairly undignified fashion and are definitely not claustrophobic, this is a unique experience. Tickets are just €3 and tours run at 1100/1200/1300 during the week and also afternoons at the weekend. 

Try also the Nevero (the Cava or snow cave) of San Blas for an extra €2 – the entrance is right next to where you buy tickets for the Covetes dels Moros. You head down a short staircase through a very low entrance, follow a narrow, dimly lit tunnel through the rock for a few metres, emerging into a massive 13 metre (42 feet) high cavern where they stored ice back in the day.

The ice cave of San Blas – ice was tipped into through the hole in the top until the cave was full

Essentially, they tipped snow from the surrounding mountains into the top of the cave in winter and it solidified into ice, which was extremely valuable in the heat of summer. Not just for cooling food or drink, but also for medicine – cooling fevers, for example.

Mind your head – the low entrance to the ice cave.

You’d think the ice would melt really quickly as soon as it was taken out of the cave into the heat of a Spanish summer, but packed properly and carried on mule trains or carts, it would last a fair old time. Long enough anyway to be the basis of a thriving trade in ice all over the area.

Once you emerge blinking into the sunlight, head down the hill on Carrer Mossén Hilario to the 15th century Darrere La Vila bridge where you’ll get the best views of  Bocairent (better still, head up the hill towards the cemetery for an even more impressive panorama).

The Darrere La Vila bridge over the Rio Clariano – come here for the best views of Bocairent

Walk back towards the village centre by taking the Ruta Magica path, which leads along the river at the foot of the hillside. It’s a little stony and uneven but there are great views of the houses clinging to the steep slopes above you.

The Ruta Magica path along the river valley, with the tightly-packed houses of Bocairent towering above you.

As you climb back into the village, you’ll pass a couple of abandoned factories, relics of the textile trade that was Bocairent’s main way of making a living until the late 20th century. Wool blankets (mantas) were a speciality, but competition from abroad and cheaper fabrics meant the industry has gone now and the village – unsurprisingly – makes its money from tourism.

Once back in the centre there’s plenty of gentle exploring to be done in the narrow lanes and twisty passages of the old village, with unexpected little squares with views over the Sierra Mariola.

Looking through the arch of the Agost gate to the Sierra Mariola beyond

You’ll see rows of peppers drying on balconies in the sun – they’re used for the local delicacy of Pericana…a flavouring or spread made from peppers (obviously!), garlic and little pieces of dried cod.

Head up to the highest point of the town and the sixteenth century church with its imposing belltower (you’ll notice they do like to ring church bells a lot in Bocairent), built on the site of the former Moorish castle.

The church tower at the highest point of Bocairent, on the site of the Moorish castle.

Wander down to the main town square, overlooked by eight-storey houses which look impossibly high until you realise that they’re actually divided in two and set into the hillside – the upper storeys are a different house with access from the street behind. Many of them still have cellars dug into the rock. Some of the older places even have rooms in the rock.

The main square of Bocairent flanked by multi-storey houses built into the hillside.

Take a look also at the little bullring. It’s the oldest in the Valencian Community and it’s set – you guessed it – into the rock.

Bocairent’s stone bullring.

On the hill opposite the village, you can see the zig zag path leading up to the Ermita de Santo Cristo. The Cristo – the image of Christ – has apparently only been taken out of the Ermita five times. Once to defeat a drought (it worked, apparently) and once during a cholera epidemic (no result recorded). There’s talk of taking out once again for Covid-19. Let’s see if it does the trick.

The Ermita de Santo Cristo and its zig-zag path dominate the hillside opposite Bocairent.

© Guy Pelham Dec 2020

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