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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.

"Up, up, up," Toni Serrano Ortuño says, emphatically repeating one of the few English words he knows. The morning after ending my trek in Sella, I’m back in Guadalest mountain biking with Toni, owner of Cases Noves B&B. An avid rider with legs like poplars, Toni is training for a 50-mile race that climbs 7,000 feet. As a gesture of cross-cultural solidarity–or maybe just to put a hurt on the Yankee–he’s invited me on a ride onto the flanks of Sierra de Aitana.

We grind up steep gravel roads, rolling past medieval farmhouses, then turn onto singletrack and climb steadily higher. At a pass 2,000 feet above Guadalest, we leave the bikes and hike in our cleated shoes up a rocky footpath so steep we have to grab handholds. Our destination: the ruins of a castle perched atop the narrow crest of this ridge. Panting, we enter what remains of it–decaying walls and a turret overlooking Aitana’s miles-long ramparts, with the Guadalest Valley’s terraces of neatly pruned almond and olive trees falling away far below. I’ve done hard, beautiful rides all over the States–but never one that ended at a mountaintop fortress.

Our descent drops us through endless bends on narrow mountain roads. We fly back to Guadalest, where–as if there was no conceivable alternative–Toni and his wife Sofía take me to a small restaurant in the town’s obligatory castle. One of the perks of traveling in such an undiscovered area is that you’re treated more like visiting royalty than a faceless tourist. Eating with Toni and Sofía feels like an impromptu festival. They know everyone in the restaurant–staff and diners alike–and gesticulate wildly as they banter in rapid-fire Spanish. The kitchen produces a delicious chicken-and-garlic dish and Sofía keeps my wine glass full.

Kicking back in a creaky wooden chair, contemplating whether my health insurance will cover stomach pumping, my eyes glaze over when Sofía turns to me and declares more than asks, "You will have dessert, yes?"

The ladder of iron rungs appears to rise endlessly into the sky, but José insists it only climbs 800 feet up this cliff.

The morning after my bike ride, we’re standing at the base of a peak named Ponoch to climb a via ferrata–Italian for "iron road." Like its counterparts in the Dolomites, where the first vie ferrate were built to help move troops through the mountains during World War I, this one has a steel cable bolted into the rock, paralleling the rungs. Wearing climbing harnesses, we clip into the cable with a tethered carabiner for safety.

Unlike with rock climbing, there’s no time spent figuring out moves and fussing with gear, so we move quickly, pausing only to snap photos of massive cliffs against a blue Mediterranean backdrop. I’ve climbed for almost 20 years, often on bigger walls than this–and without a ladder. Yet for the entire two hours we spend aloft, I feel climbing’s familiar tongue-swallowing exhilaration. This is no amusement-park thrill. Dead-vertical to overhanging in places, Ponoch’s via ferrata is extravagantly exposed. After topping out, we descend into a valley splashed with the bright greens of May. A snaking mountain road leaves only a faint fingerprint of civilization.

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