Getting from Alicante up the Costa Blanca to Dénia is dead easy – just over an hour in the car on the autopista and you’re there.
But if you’re not in a hurry, there’s a much nicer way of doing it. And you get wonderful coastal views thrown in; the kind you just don’t get from the road. I’m talking about the tram. Or to be precise, the tranvía.
In reality, it’s less of a tram and more a light railway. The line was actually built more than a century ago, back in the days when steam engines did all the work.
A little history
It must have been quite a construction feat back then. You’ve probably noticed that this northern bit of the Costa Blanca isn’t exactly short of mountains, many of them coming right down to the sea. Not ideal for building railways.
So to get even a single track, narrow gauge line through to Dénia meant blasting 14 separate tunnels, including one that runs under most of the town of Altea.
There were also seven big viaducts – most of which look as if they were built with a giant Meccano set – plus 17 smaller bridges. That is a serious amount of engineering. But those early 20th century navvies left us some spectacular views to enjoy.
And in recent years, there’s been a substantial amount of money invested in the line. Shiny and silent electric trams now run over much of the route, although there’s still a diesel-powered section in the middle. Fares are cheap too. So sit back and enjoy the ride! Map at the end of this post or jump to it here.
So what’s to see?
Slight confession here – we didn’t do Alicante to Dénia in one go (it takes a bit over three hours from start to finish).
We started in the middle, in Villajoyosa, and did the trip in two halves. The first was southwards to Alicante, and the second, up the coast to Dénia.
Alicante to Villajoyosa
The line starts at the underground station in Plaza de los Luceros, an elegant square in central Alicante, bedecked with palm trees and fountains. You can connect here with four other tram lines which take you all over the city and surrounding area.
But here’s the slightly bonkers thing. Luceros is only 250 metres from the mainline RENFE station, with connections to Madrid and all over Spain. Yet the tram stops short and doesn’t connect with the RENFE station. You have to walk it.
OK, so it only takes a few minutes. And there are long-overdue plans to run the tramline into the mainline RENFE. If all goes well, it should be open by 2027.
TIP: The good thing is if you do arrive in Alicante on a mainline train, you can travel for free on the tram for up to three hours afterwards.
From Luceros, you want tram L1 to Benidorm – sit on the right hand side for the best views.
Stations in Alicante
There are a couple of underground stations to begin with. First, Mercado for the rather fine Central Market (amazing food!) and then Marq-Castillo for the MARQ archaeology museum (some cool stuff here too, including Chinese terracotta warriors till Jan 2024).
You can also get a minibus from here up to the Castillo de Santa Barbara (definitely worth a visit). Though I think it’s easier and quicker to ride up on the lift from Playa Postiguet.
The tram eventually emerges from the tunnels and into the sunlight, and trundles along the coast to Albufereta, a medium-sized sandy beach completely overwhelmed by high-rise tourist blocks. Get used to it – there are quite a lot of them between here and Dénia!
If you fancy a stroll along the seafront here, get off at La Isleta stop. But I’d save your energy for some much better beaches further up the line.
Start by the seafront!
Alternatively, you can start your journey down on Alicante’s rather splendid waterfront. Jump on line 5 at Porta del Mar for a picturesque ride along the golden sands of Playa del Postiguet, the city’s main beach.
At the end of the beach you go through La Marina, which used to be the main terminus for the line (below). Then you’ll need to change to tram L1 to Benidorm at any stop between Sangueta and Lucentum.
If you fancy a spot of history (I generally do!) get off at Lucentum – the Roman Alicante – and take the short stroll to see the ruins of the Roman town. Take a guided tour – they’re really good – or see my post here. A fair few finds from Lucentum are in the MARQ museum I mentioned earlier.
Playa San Juan
Line L1 then takes you along the huge Playa San Juan, a three kilometre long beach backed by a solid line of tourist high-rises. The tracks run right along the beachfront, so you get great views, but the L1 doesn’t stop here, so you can’t get off for a quick dip.
If you do want spend more time in Playa San Juan, go a little further on to El Campello, change, and get the tram 3 back to Carrabiners or Costa Blanca stops. Or take Tram 3 from Luceros in the first place – it stops at all stations. You can then pick up tram L1 to Benidorm at El Campello when you’re done. Confused? See the tram map at the end of this post.
El Campello is the next stop up the line – a nice sandy beach and worth a stroll up to the Torre Illeta watchtower which overlooks the picturesque little port.
From here on, the line runs even closer to the coast, hemmed in by the mountains that come right down to the sea at Coveta Fumá and Venta Lanuza. There’s some expensive real estate along here, which you get to have a peek at as the tram trundles by.
There are great views you just don’t get from the car – from the bridge over the Barranc d’Aigües, for example.
Villajoyosa/La Vila Joiosa
Next stop is our town Villajoyosa (aka La Vila Joiosa, or La Vila for short). La Vila is about an hour from Alicante, and it’s a great place to break your journey, take in the sights and/or get some lunch. Check out my posts here or here for places to eat and things to see.
La Vila has three stops. The first is La Vila Joiosa, where King Alfonso Xlll came by in 1911 to lay the first stone and officially start the construction of the line.
You’ll see some of the original station buildings, a rusty old turntable left over from the days of steam and an original crane for handling goods.
It’s a reminder that before tourists came along in the 1960s, much of the traffic was goods trains, moving raw materials like petrol and fertiliser and shifting agricultural produce for export from Alicante.
Head for La Vila’s old town and beach!
Walk off the platform towards the town centre and stroll over the railway bridge. Don’t worry about the trams – there’s a separate walkway for pedestrians. You get great views over the Rio Amadorio to the casas colgantes (hanging houses) on the walls of La Vila’s old town.
Turn down Carrer Dr Alvaro Esquerdo, cross the main road and head up the ramp into the old town. Wander through the narrow, atmospheric streets to Carrer Arsenal on the beach front, and relax with an ice-cold beer or granizado. La Vila has a wonderful sandy beach if you fancy a dip.
Alternatively, get off at La Creuta stop and wander down to the sea from there. It’s a few minutes quicker, but not so picturesque!
Take a look at this video for some highlights between La Vila and Alicante.
From La Vila, the line runs towards the spectacular tourist towers of Benidorm, where you’ll need to change trains for Dénia.
If you fancy a closeup look at Benidorm’s amazing beach and unique skyline, get off at Benidorm and it’s a 20 minute stroll down to the sea and Benidorm’s small Old Town.
For Playa Levante, get off at Benidorm Intermodal stop – again, it’s a 20 minute walk down hill to the beach and more bars than you can shake a stick at.
Change in Benidorm
From Benidorm or Benidorm Intermodal, you take the L9 line to Dénia. You need to change lines because (as you’ve probably noticed) the route is electrified from Alicante to Benidorm. But no further.
From Benidorm on, it’s a diesel train as far as Teulada. The trains are older and maybe vibrate a little more, but the bonus is there are more seats with a good view.
Tram by night in summer
During July and August the tram runs night services on Fridays, Saturdays and on the night before a public holiday (víspera de festivo). Ideal for fiesta-going and late-night partying. Routes run between Alicante and Benidorm (el TRAMnochador) and from Benidorm to Garganes in Altea (El Mussol de les Marines – the ‘Coast Owl’). More info here.
Ever heard of the Lemon Express? Or rather, the Limón Expres, to give it its proper title? Plenty of people remember it, mostly Brits who came to Benidorm from the 1970s through to the mid-2000s.
The Lemon Express was a tourist train started by a Brit in 1971, who had the bright idea of buying up some old 1920s railway carriages. The ones with an outside platform that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Wayne western.
He restored them and ran trains from Benidorm up the line to Gata de Gorgos, a few stops before Dénia.
There’s something about old trains – especially narrow-gauge ones – that make your average Brit go all nostalgic. Especially men of a certain age! At its peak, trains ran up to 5 days a week from Benidorm, and around 90% of the passengers were from the UK.
Gata wasn’t exactly a tourist hotspot back then, but passengers got to visit a guitar factory and basket shops. I’m betting the free cava on the way back might have been a bigger draw though.
The Lemon Express shut down in the mid 2000s, because the line wasn’t reliable enough and needed major investment.
If anyone fancies reviving it, the original carriages are still around, parked rather forlornly in a siding at the main tram depot in El Campello, a target for the local graffiti artists.
Four stops from Benidorm lies the picturesque hilltop town of Altea. Plenty of folk get off here and climb the steep and narrow streets lined with white-painted houses up to the Plaza de la Iglesia. There you get stunning views over the bay and across to the cliffs of the Sierra Helada.
After Altea, the train plunges into a tunnel which takes you under the town. You emerge to cross the Rio Algar bridge and start the climb up towards one of the highlights of the line, the pass of El Mascarat.
The coastal views are seriously good along the way. Look out for the onion spires of the Russian Orthodox church tucked in among the trees next to the line at Altea Hills, home to a big Russian community.
Then look down on Marina Greenwich, a yacht harbour with some seriously expensive boats sitting in the dock. It’s called Greenwich because – you guessed it – the marina is right on the Greenwich Meridian at 0.0 degrees longitude.
The Mascarat pass
The canyon of Mascarat must have given those early 20th century railway builders a few sleepless nights. It’s narrow and steep and hemmed in by some forbidding cliff faces.
The pass had been a real obstacle to travellers for centuries. There wasn’t even a proper road bridge here until the late 19th century, just 30 years before the railway arrived.
The tram crosses a few metres higher up the canyon than the road, passing first through a short tunnel and then crossing the gorge on a rather flimsy looking metal bridge.
Make sure you’re ready for an all-too-brief glimpse of the main coast road and the canyon beneath. After a few seconds, you’re back in a tunnel again!
TIP: if you fancy a short but spectacular walk, you can hike the Mascarat canyon and gaze up at the bridges high above your head. See my post here.
Next stop is Calp. Not the most beautiful town on the Costa Blanca for my money, but it does have the amazing Peñon d’Ifach, which absolutely dominates the landscape for miles around. Rising more than 1,000 feet sheer from the sea, it’s a Rock of Gibraltar lookalike.
It looks unclimbable, but you can walk up it – see my post here for more. The tram stops on the outskirts of town, but there’s a bus to run you down to the centre, which seems to connect neatly with the tram timetable.
After Calpe, the line then swerves inland towards Benissa and Teulada. Clearly those early 20th century railway builders didn’t fancy following the coast round to Jávea, which would have meant tackling the massive Sierra Montgó. They were clearly up for a challenge, but there is a limit!
Even so, there’s still some difficult terrain to cross. The Quisi viaduct near Benissa must have been quite something back in its day, standing 50 metres above the valley floor and more than 150 metres long.
They’re currently building a new concrete bridge alongside the old one as part of a major upgrade of the line. It should be done by summer 2024.
You have to get off here to change trains once more for the final run into Dénia. So you could take the time for a wander up into the pleasant little old town for a stroll around, get a beer and catch the next train down to the coast.
From Teulada into Dénia, the train is an electric tram once again, just like the first leg from Alicante to Benidorm.
As you head towards the next stop at Gata, you’ll see a huge limestone quarry dominating the valley to your right.
Once you go past Gata itself – the end of the line for the old Lemon Express – the landscape starts to soften. Gone are the twisty turny tunnels of the mountain section. There’s a golf course next to the line and then plenty of small fertile plots of vines and fruit trees.
The tram then picks up speed and runs through the Dénia suburbs to the terminus, a few hundred metres from the port.
You’ve arrived at the end of the line! Congratulations on your stamina!
But for years, no trains ran in or out of Dénia station because of engineering works that seemed to take forever. Passengers had to take a bus from Gata or Teulada. But that all changed in spring 2023 when the work was finally finished.
Dénia is a very pleasant town to spend a few hours. From the station, wander down to the port a few minutes walk away, where ferries leave for the Balearic islands of Mallorca, Ibiza and Formentera.
TIP: if you fancy a good place to eat, away from the standard tourist fare around the seafront, head for the Carrer de Lareto and take your pick. The street is lined with restaurants, so you’re spoilt for choice!
Check out video highlights of the Altea-Dénia section of the line below.
Alicante tram network
Fancy another narrow gauge train ride?
Check out my post on the Palma to Sóller vintage line in Mallorca.
© Guy Pelham