I’ve never been anywhere quite like El Forat de Bernia. It’s an astonishing natural tunnel that takes you right through the top of a mountain, from one valley clean through to another. And the views are something really special – on both sides.
El Forat lies in the mountain chain of the Sierra de Bernia on the Costa Blanca, which runs down to the sea between Altea and Calpe.
So you can start this walk from either the Altea side (the south) or the Calpe side (the north) and do a complete circle. This post covers both start points, beginning with the north.
El Forat from the north
OK, so you’ve decided to start from the Calpe side. Good choice – the views are better! Drive up on the winding CV-749 into the hills beyond the hamlet of Pinos, aiming for Les Casetes de Bernia (close to Restaurante Sierra de Bernia).
Park up there (not in the restaurant car park!) with the majestic cliffs of the Sierra de Bernia looming above you. Head towards the mountain along a good concrete road, turning left on footpath PR-CV 7 towards El Forat. Don’t be deceived by the easy walking on this first section. It gets a lot trickier later on!
The views are beautiful, especially in the cool of an early morning in September. The sea shimmers in the distance and birds of prey ride the updrafts to hunt along the base of the cliffs. It’s so peaceful.
El Font de Bernia
After about 15 minutes, you reach the natural spring of El Font de Bernia. Head up the steps beyond the spring and the work really starts. The path is narrow and it’s easy to slip on the loose stones – good shoes with grip are a must. You really don’t want your fall broken by a prickly gorse bush; there are plenty of those close to the trail!
Offer a quiet word of thanks to the walkers who put the white and yellow dabs of paint on the rocks as trail markers. Without them it would be quite easy to lose the path. Remember – two parallel lines of paint mean you’re on the right track. White and yellow paint in the shape of a cross means ‘don’t go there!’.
You’ll come across a few curiosities on the way, marked by explanatory plaques. Among them, a rocky platform used years ago as a threshing floor where wheat grown on the mountain terraces was separated from the chaff after the harvest. I guess it was easier to do it up here than carry the whole harvest down to the valley below.
The last 15 minutes or so are hard work. There are steep climbs over rocks and around boulders, using your hands to heave yourself upwards – a backpack is a good idea. So is plenty of water!
Going through the tunnel
Finally, you reach El Forat (‘the hole’ in Valenciano).The entrance is quite insignificant on this side – just a small opening in the cliff leading you into a low natural tunnel about 50m long, formed by the action of water on limestone over millennia. The spectacular bit is at the other end!
Shepherds used the tunnel over the centuries to move their flocks from one side of the Sierra Bernia to the other in search of fresh pasture. And the truth is that at its lowest point, the tunnel is pretty much sheep-sized.
You’ll need to take off your backpack and shuffle along in an awkward crouch to avoid bashing your head on the tunnel roof. You can always see daylight at the other end of the tunnel, so it’s not claustrophobic. It can get a little muddy in there after heavy rain though.
As the tunnel begins to open out, you can stand up straight once more – and you realise why you came all the way up here in the first place.
It’s simply magnificent. A huge natural cavern with a jaw-dropping views over the bay of Altea, across to the towers of Benidorm, along the Algar valley and up into the mountains beyond. It’s really quite something – you do feel like the king of the world up here!
The circular route
Don’t be tempted to go back down the same way you came up. I made that mistake the first time I climbed up to El Forat. The descent is hard work and it’s tricky to keep your feet on all the loose stones. The way up is definitely easier!
Much better to keep going forward and do the circular walk clockwise right around the mountain and head back to your car that way. It sounds like a marathon, but believe me, the trail is a fair bit easier.
So from El Forat, head off to your right, following the signpost marked PR-CV7. You’re heading for the Fort de Bernia, which takes about 75 mins from here.
Just off the main path, about 10 minutes from El Forat, are some prehistoric cave paintings; Las Pinturas Rupestres de L’Ermita de Vicari. I didn’t have time to make the detour, but check out this link for some history.
The walk to the Fort is relatively straightforward, though here are some short, steep rocky sections. Parts of the path take you across scree slopes where you need to keep your footing on the loose stones.
The views across the Algar Valley are amazing, but make sure you keep a close eye on those yellow and white paint splashes which keep you on the trail. I managed to miss the path once and it took me a lot of sweating and cursing to find it again!
After about 50 minutes, there’s a T-junction on the path. Continue straight on via the PR-CV7 to the Fort on the circular trail. But coming up from the left is the path from the southern side, bringing hikers from Altea La Vella. More of that later in this post.
El Fort de Bernia – a little history
From this T junction on the PR-CV7, it’s about 20 minutes to El Fort, a ruined fortress with commanding views over the valley below.
It was constructed in 1562 on the orders of Philip ll, who built an awful lot of towers, fortresses and castles in his time, especially in this part of the world.
The idea with this one was partly to control the local Muslim population. Thousands of Moriscos (Muslims who had converted to Christianity, at least in name) lived in the Valencia region back then, even after the Christian reconquest.
Philip ll regarded them as potential rebels who needed to be kept under close control. And the soldiers in the fort were also there to keep an eye out for attacks on the coast by corsairs from North Africa.
But El Fort’s usefulness only lasted 50 years; not very much time at all for a castle. Why?
Well, the Moriscos were expelled from Spain in 1609 in a ruthless act of ethnic cleansing, so the danger of revolt pretty much disappeared. The threat from North African corsairs was receding too and besides, keeping a fort supplied 900 metres up on the side of a mountain was hard work. So it was demolished in 1612.
From the Fort ruins, stay on the PR-CV7 path which takes you over the nearby ridge and around the skirts of the Sierra de Bernia, back to Les Casetes de Bernia. That should take an hour or so – and you’re done!
The southern route from Altea la Vella
You can also reach El Forat from the south. If you’re coming from Altea/Villajoyosa/Alicante, it can save you a lot of extra driving.
Head out of the village of Altea La Vella on the CV-755 and after a couple of kilometres you’ll see signs for Serra de Bernia/Fort de Bernia to your right.
Head uphill on Partida Riquet – a good single track road, well signposted but with lots of hairpin bends. In about 15-20 minutes you reach a small hamlet with an informal parking area. It can get a bit crowded here, so it’s a good idea to arrive early.
The tarmac road stops here. Walk up past a deposito de agua water tank, and follow a steep zig-zag path for about 15 minutes, which takes you past El Fuente (the spring) de Runar. It doesn’t look much like a traditional bubbling spring though; it’s shut away behind a blue metal door. A few minutes further uphill and you reach the PR-CV7 circular trail around the mountain.
Left or right?
Here you have a choice – right or left.
Choose right and the path takes you directly to El Forat in about an hour (as described earlier in this post).
It’s a great walk, but you will miss out on the ‘wow’ factor on the northern route of going through a small, narrow tunnel and emerging into a stunning natural amphitheatre. It’s not quite as amazing in the other direction (but give it a go anyway!)
If you do decide to walk up to El Forat this way, I’d suggest you return the way you came and don’t attempt the circular route. Why? Because the route down on the other (north) side is steep and slippery. It’s OK going up, but not much fun going down.
However, if you choose left at the junction at El Fuente de Runar and head for El Fort de Bernia first, you can do the circular walk via El Font and El Forat in about 4-5 hours total. And you get the ‘wow’ factor at the tunnel! Most hikers choose to do the circular walk in a clockwise direction for this reason.
Fort, Font and Forat!
Avoid confusion! There are three key places on the circular route and the names all look similar. El Forat de Bernia is the tunnel through the mountain, El Font de Bernia is the spring and El Fort de Bernia is the ruined fortress. I think there may even be a Font del Fort somewhere, just to add to the confusion!
How to get to El Forat de Bernia
If you are coming from the north – from Calpe/Denia – start the circular walk from Les Cases de Bernia, and follow the circular route via El Font de Bernia, El Forat and then El Fort. Take a look at the map below. Ignore the timing mark – it’s not accurate. The whole circular walk should take about 4-5 hours.
From the south
To get to Aparcamiento Sierra Bernia, drive from Altea La Vella on the CV-755. Turn right on to Partida Riquet and head uphill for about 15-20 mins until you run out of good road. You’ll see a sign directing you right to a car park for area recreativa Font de La Barca, but ignore this. Drive a few metres straight on instead and you’ll see a space to leave your car.
Watch the weather!
In summer, start as early as you can to avoid the heat of the day. In winter, check the weather in advance and don’t go if rain or mist are forecast. You won’t see much and the rocks are slippery.
I went up a few days after stormy weather and there were puddles in the El Forat tunnel. Walkers emerged with muddy hands and knees!
Try these nearby walks
- Climb el Peńon d’Ifach, the Rock of Gibraltar lookalike
- The gorge of El Mascarat, haunt of highwaymen
- Great clifftop views from El Morro de Toix
- The spectacular walkway at the Relleu Dam
- The majestic Tibi Dam, one of the oldest in Spain
- The Faro (lighthouse) de L’Albir – you can see it from El Forat with a pair of binoculars
© Guy Pelham