Having frequented this area often over the past four years, I was not sure how excited I was to revisit. I have always enjoyed the food, wine, and natural beauty of the Marina Alta region, but much of what is good there is somewhat overshadowed by the aesthetically displeasing and culturally numbing development that compromised much of the coastal regions of Spain leading up to the 2008 housing crash.
Regardless, I was determined to experience the region with a fresh set of eyes. So, I flew to Barcelona from Warsaw, took the train to Valencia, and borrowed a car to house sit for a friend in the quaint town of L’Atzúbia, next to Pego, Alicante. In the week that followed, I revisited one of my favorite restaurants in the region, was recommended an excellent restaurant for lunch, found a surprisingly good bar in a small town, rediscovered one of my favorite wines, and partook in three beautiful hikes, all in a 30 minute radius by car.
Hiking in the region is challenging but incredibly rewarding. The trails are steep, rocky, and typically involve some serious elevation gain (even if you are generally starting from around sea level). However, particularly in the fall and winter when the weather can be clear and cool, hiking this region involves seeing some interesting and surprising sights: from ancient cave paintings to Moorish structures (steps, terraces, fortresses, and corrals).
My first hike started straight from the door of my friend’s house and involved a 10k round-trip almost directly south and straight up the mountain from the town of L’Atzúbia. The hike was definitely a challenge but the views were spectacular, and as we rounded out the end of the hike towards the barely visible Castell de Gallinera, the effort was well worth it.
Cave Paintings of Benialí
The Vall de Gallinera is a beautiful, rural valley west of L’Atzúbia. A short drive up a very windy road leads to a series of eight villages flanked by rising peaks on both sides. In the second village, a short, pleasant hike starts directly in the town and leads to a cave with 7000 year old cave paintings from some of the first inhabitants of the valley. Only about a 5 km hike and taking roughly two hours, the trail follows a lovely terraced dry creek and plateaus at an old mill circle. As you wind back down the trail, you will see Moorish corrals.
La Penya Foradada
The final hike was the most spectacular. From the next town up the valley, La Penya Foradad is a moderately difficult hike that, at one point, follows a dramatic ledge leading up to the arch. Once you reach the arch, the views up and down the valley are stunning. From there, the round-trip trail takes you across the ridge where, looking east, you will spot an impressive Cova Obrada del Moro (Moorish cave fort) nestled into mountain. Follow the ridge and a hiker is rewarded by a walled entrance into the cave that, for me, was a great surprise in its simple authenticity. The cave truly has not changed since the Moors left over 400 years ago.
Spain, overall, is my favorite wine destination for its combination of price, unique vintages, and wineries that remain quite humble (save, of course, Rioja). Heading further up the Vall de Gallinera in the town Muro de Alcoy, Celler la Muntanya produces two white wines that I find to be some of the best in the region: Beni and Albir. Focused on small vineyards, hand-cultivated harvesting, and minimum intervention in the wine-making process, the wines have a natural, raw quality. This doesn’t mean they are unrefined. Both wines are quite bold for Spanish whites but remain light in providing citrus notes and a smooth finish.
Two of these three restaurants are truly “off-the-beaten-path” but all three provide innovative dining in unique settings.
Un Cuiner a L’escoleta de Sagra
A restaurant that truly remains “underground” is one of the best. Situated next to the Sagra community pool, this restaurant could almost be mistaken for a snack bar. But don’t let the unassuming structure fool you: the food is spectacular, the wine list is curated to perfection, and they even have a nice selection of craft beers.
Taking traditional combinations of the area and offering them with a modern vibe, the chefs at Un Cuiner a L’escoleta de Sagra put together some amazing tapas-style dishes as well as a full set -menu. Once you sit and order, your aperitivo will likely be a traditional “pa i calentet” (toasted aioli on bread). If not, make sure ask for it and the friendly waitstaff is certain to accommodate you. The grilled octopus with asparagus (Polp a la Brasa) is one of my favorites, and I have always enjoyed the fish specials that come from the local markets of the area. Always fresh, innovative, and charming, I never miss a chance to have a lunch or dinner at Un Cuiner a L’escoleta de Sagra.
Ca Natxo Bar de tapes
A recent addition to the lovely little town Sanet y Negrals, the modest Ca Natxo Bar de tapes was the surprise dining option of the week. The menu of the day features one of the more unique starters I have tried: berengena con rulo y turrón. For those unfamiliar, turrón is a sweet of the region made from honey or sugar, egg whites and almonds. Combined with the sour saltiness of the goat cheese, this is an incredibly balanced dish that pushes your palette and is worth the trip to Sanet in and of itself. However, the fideuá was also excellent and served in a more traditional, soupy fashion. This restaurant could easily be overlooked but with such imaginative twists on traditional dishes, Ca Natxo will hopefully continue to draw customers from the area.
Volta I Volta
We were recommended to go to this restaurant by the amazing bakers at Obrador la Sana (another great place to visit but make sure you order bread ahead of time!) because they feature their traditional sourdough breads. Set in the historic district of Xàbia, Volta I Volta prides itself on crafting dishes that combine Mediterranean flavors with fresh produce and ingredients sourced as locally as possible. A quick perusal of the menu illustrates imaginative takes on a variety of dishes with the menu of the day an excellent choice for a daytime three course meal. The Cod Brandade with Aioli foam is an amazingly flavorful starter and opting for the Sea Bream with a Mushroom crust was an excellent choice as a second course. Volta I Volta’s local wine list rounds out this tastefully decorated, modern restaurant with great service and wonderfully prepared food. Highly recommended.