Sitting in a disused mill, sipping muscatel and listening to Amarble, the owner, tells us about his garden, it’s difficult to believe we’re only 15km from the beats and booze resort of Benidorm. Outside it’s pitch black and the only noise aside from the soft voice of our host is the gurgle of the former mill stream as it skirts the wall of the house.
If you want foam parties and alcopops, then inland Costa Blanca is not your place (good luck hailing a taxi to the coast). In the midst of the mountain range of Aitana a Spain of local traditions and beguiling eccentricities must suffice, and if it takes you long to find these much more than sufficient you’re being very stubborn.
Village to Village, a tour that aims to introduce newcomers to hidden Spain while on the move, takes you round the peaks and valleys of the area, over windswept ridges and through rustic villages. Our guide, Jonathan Neill, welcomes us with the news that integrating with village life is just as important as walking on this trip.
It’s an active holiday with good food, local hospitality and tradition. You’ll get to see how the locals live,” he promises . “We’ll visit my friend the crazy miller. In winter, he’s impeccably dressed and in summer, he’s in underpants.” It’s spring, so Amarble is neither, but as his talk turns to firing gunshots over the heads of juvenile asparagus thieves, the crazy part starts to ring true.
Originally from South Africa, Neill now counts as a local in the village of Sella. He moved here three years ago with his Spanish wife, to El Mirador, the farmhouse where she grew up. Recently converted into a guesthouse, we spend two of the seven nights of the tour here, waking each morning to a view of the surrounding mountains. The lower hills nearby are covered in olive groves and fruit trees that are harvested for the jam and olive oil we eat at breakfast.
One night, before Neill’s father-in-law brings out his collection of musical instruments for a low-key jamming session, he shows us a video of the family processing the olive oil. It’s an annual occasion and the generations are gathered to quaff wine and swap gossip in between crushing and sifting the bitter, shrivelled olives into a smooth golden liquid. Sipping water drawn from El Mirador’s own well while watching this, it’s hard not to consider relocating.
Despite a Belgian gentleman constructing a monstrous villa overlooking Sella (which locals have nicknamed the prison), the village remains idyllic. Set into the hillside, winding narrow roads weave steeply between houses where washing hangs from lines strung up between brightly painted shutters.
It’s a lived-in, organic sort of idyll, in contrast to the nearby village of Guadalest. Here, just a short distance from the coast, sunburnt holidaymakers pour from coaches in their thousands to marvel at what’s been declared a ‘monument of historical and artistic value’.
Dating back to AD715 the town is of Islamic origin and was a centrepiece of the Moors’ bid for control of the region. Part of the village is surrounded by high walls and can only be reached via a natural tunnel. You can see the attraction – the neighbouring dam, the lush vegetation and the Castillo de San José which still guards from on high – but it’s a doctored pretty of immaculate streets and shops catering unashamedly for the day-trippers. Not only is it the most visited town in Spain per capita, it also, strangely, has the most museums of miniatures. According to Neill, a German (what is it with these northern Europeans?) opened one and it proved so successful that everyone else followed.
Not our miller though. He’s quite content to preserve the 400-year-old mill of his childhood, dousing the ancient machinery in diesel once a year to prevent wood worm. As we tour his abode, he points out the mill wheel he slept by as a kid and the rooms he plans to open to tourists.
On our way back to Neill’s farmhouse, the only light is the wayward beam of Amarble’s torch as he leads us up the steep, overgrown ascent. While those at the front are regaled with stories of his life as a former bra salesman, the stragglers are left to stumble off the path into the wilderness, clutching jars of homemade honey and stomachs of Spanish wine. Luckily, they turn back before they reach Benidorm.”