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Higher Calling: Adventure in Valencia, Spain

Spain's little-known Valencia region beckons the mountain-minded adventurer with dramatic topography, sun-drenched hiking and biking, and sumptuous end-of-day feasts.

I’m standing on a rocky ridgetop amid the crumbling ruins of a castle built by Moors during their seven-century rule over most of Spain. It seems like a safe spot to dig in: Beyond these broken walls, the ground plunges hundreds of feet over cliffs and mostly treeless, 50-degree slopes. Today, though, there’ll be no rain of arrows from attacking marauders–only me and my guide, José Miguel Garcia, hiking through a sea of craggy limestone mountains. Below us, bleached terracotta villages dot the landscape, ensuring that a post-hike feast of paella, tapas, and wine is never hard to find.

It’s the second morning of my five-day trek across a chronically sunny range of mountains so obscure they lack a unifying name. Forming a compact cluster about 30 miles long by 10 miles wide (similar to Wyoming’s Tetons, minus the snow and ice) in the central part of Spain’s east coast, they’re known only informally as the Aitana Mountains, for the area’s highest summit. After the Christian Reconquista drove out the Moors in the late 15th century, this area’s population shrank by two-thirds, and even now, few people travel the highland footpaths.

Located in Spain’s Valencia region, the soaring cliffs and razored ridges of the Aitanas loom within sight of tourist-flooded Mediterranean beaches; from every high point, the shimmering sea fills the southern horizon. But because the peaks reach just 5,000 feet–mere nubbins compared to the Alps and Pyrenees–they remain largely unknown. In fact, their adventure potential has been mined only in recent years by a trickle of hikers and climbers who’ve discovered multisport gold–in the form of mountain biking, climbing, and trekking.

My goal is to sample it all. Over the coming week, I’ll tackle a 60-mile village-to-village trek, then mountain bike to a hidden castle. I’ll scale an iron ladder bolted onto an 800-foot cliff, and scramble along a wildly exposed knife-edge ridge that Euro climbers compare to the headiest traverses in Scotland’s revered Highlands. And in good Old World style, I’ll feast every evening on Spanish delicacies like stuffed aubergines, paella, and olleta de blat (a stew containing various pig parts from ribs to hooves). I’ll wash it all down with enough vino to float a Spanish galleon.

It’ll be a spectacular decathlon of recreational, cultural, and epicurean excess. The only question is what will cause me to drop first: complete physical exhaustion or severe caloric overload.

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