Contrary to what coastal dwellers often believe, there is indeed civilisation between the Valldigna and Valencia. Yet, as much of it is overlooked by European tourists and day-trippers from elsewhere in the region, it is easy to forget.
Next time you are on your way to Valencia airport, set off a few hours early and head inland to uncover some of the buried treasures off the beaten track in the province.
In the heart of the Júcar valley and at the end of a disused railtrack that used to run to Dénia in the times of the raisin trade, back in the 19th century, Carcagente – or Carcaixent in Valenciano, its official title – is a picturesque hideaway whose traces of Roman and Mediaeval Islamic civilisation remain intact.
Despite being surrounded by rice-fields, orange groves and mulberry trees and accessible only by a CV-road, Carcaixent is close to the dynamic, modern city of Alzira and has an increasingly cosmopolitan population, as evidenced by the British school on the outskirts, which in fact has pupils of numerous nationalities, given that six per cent of the town’s headcount comprises foreigners.
In fact, Carcaixent has always attracted visitors from afar, as it sits on the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela, known as the Vía Augusta.
A glance at the town itself reveals Moorish houses with blue-tiled domes, typical of the Valencian region, contrasting sharply with the chimneys of silk and linen factories which were set up decades ago but still provide employment for many local people.
Although, like most towns in the province of Valencia, Carcaixent started out life as a Moorish farmstead, Roman remains have been dug up in the area, revealing that its history goes back more than a millennia before the Islamic invaders set up camp.
Nowadays, with two monasteries, a palace, four impressive churches and numerous stately homes dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries, not to mention miles of peaceful, green countryside, Carcaixent – despite being just 30 minutes north of Gandia – is a fascinating hidden corner of the region with more than enough attractions to keep the curious visitor entertained for several days.
As there is no shortage of casas rurales in and around Carcaixent, should you live just a little too far away to get the best out of it in a day, there is no excuse not to escape the crowds of the coast and make a weekend getaway out of it.
WHAT TO SEE
Monasterio de Aigües Vives
Nestling in the centre of the Valle de Aigües Vives, which lies on the edge of the CV-50 (Tavernes- Alzira road), the monastery of the same name (main photo) is a spectacular work of art.
Its magnificence seems incongruous with its location, on the edge of a town of just 21,000 inhabitants. Although the first stone was laid in 13th century, work did not really begin on the monastery for another 300 years and took a further two centuries to complete.
The stunning Baroque complex, with its numerous chapels and adjoining church, was abandoned in 1835 during the period known as the desamortización (during which all land and property considered ‘non-productive’ in an economic sense was auctioned off, amongst other reasons, to settle public debts).
Recently, however, the building has been carefully restored and is now open to the public as a restaurant and hotel.
Carcaixent’s other monastery, the Corpus Christi, was not so fortunate. Of the splendid Baroque-Neoclassic complex, which dates back to the mid-17th century, only the church remains.
Once a playground for the rich and famous, it is no surprise that Carcaixent has plenty of impressive houses that once belonged to members of the aristocracy.
The palace of the Marqués de Montortal, often known as the Palacio de la Marqueseta, was built in 1780 and no detail was spard – elaborate frescoes adorn the walls and ceilings; intricately-designed tiles decorate most of the rooms, particularly the spacious kitchen. Now no longer inhabited, it is used for various public functions.
The Marqueseta who gave the palace its name was the daughter of the Marqués de la Calzada, a well-known local celebrity in 18th-century Carcaixent and owner of one of the many magnificent mansions on C/ Santiago Apóstol, the road that continues to see the passage of pilgrims on the way to Galicia.
Like the others, it is built in a typically-Valencian version of the modernist style and traces of pilgrims’ footsteps remain inside.
Churches and ‘disappearing villages’
From the turn-of-the-century basílica-style church confusingly named El Almacén de Ribera (third photo), to the 15th-century Gothic parish church of the Asunción with its statue of St James the Apostle on horseback – another reminder of the pilgrimage – Carcaixent has numerous places of worship that are worth a visit to appreciate their stunning architecture.
The oldest in the municipality is the chapel of San Roque de Ternils, dating back to the 13th century. Declared a National Artistic Monument by the central government, the Gothic-Romanesque church is located in the now-defunct village of Ternils, which gave the building its name.
During the Middle Ages, what is now Carcaixent was the largest of a group of hamlets bunched together, built by the Moors and with a population that lived off the land. Eventually, these hamlets merged into Carcaixent itself and dropped their names.
Also within the ‘disappearing village’ of Ternils, the Templo de la Asunción, with its multi-coloured tiled dome and rectangular bell-tower, was first constructed in 1434 but was rebuilt 300 years later after it burned down. This explains why the architecture has a heavy Baroque leaning as opposed to the Gothic architecture that one would expect from this era.
Another town that was wiped off the face of the Earth by progress and development was Cogullada, the parish church of which now falls within the boundaries of Carcaixent. Built in the 16th and 17th centuries, it has recently been restored to its former glory.
WHAT TO DO
Join in the party
A good time to visit Carcaixent is on October 16th for the local fiestas in honour of the town’s patron saint, la Mare de Déu de Aigües Vives, who shares her name with the valley and has a chapel dedicated to her in the Asunción temple.
A progressive town in terms of equal opportunities, Carcaixent has both a male and a female patron saint – two days before the Mare de Déu de Aigües Vives festival, the townspeople pay homage to San Bonifacio Mártir.
Explore the countryside
If your feet are not covered in blisters after strolling around Carcaixent’s wealth of monuments and following the fiesta parades, a walk in the Valle de Aigües Vives will blow away the cobwebs.
Sharply-descending ravines, steep rock-faces and towering peaks, the valley is surrounded by pine-covered cliffs that form a boundary wall separating it from the countryside beyond.
For serious hikers, the best route is from the nearby village of Barraca d’Aigües Vives, a quaint mountainside municipality that lives off the citrus trade, following the main road in the direction of the Valldigna with Alzira behind you.
Turn uphill after the first curve and continue along a gravelled path through orange groves on the edge of an abyss, in the folds of the Agulles mountain. Longer still is a footpath from Barraca that starts at the old fountain and takes the walker along a cliff-edge, through scrubland and onto the Montot peak.
Further routes, of differing lengths, start from and finish at the Aigües Vives monastery, meaning that you can sit down for a well-earned slap-up meal after traipsing around the countryside with a backpack and binoculars.
In contrast to much of the remaining countryside on the coast of the province of Valencia, the Valle de Aigües Vives is completely unspoilt, with not a villa in sight but a patchwork of citrus orchards, pine forest and uncultivated heath unfolding before you as far as the eye can see.
Carcaixent and its surroundings remain relatively untouched by the mass-development mania that is slowly eating away at the countryside closer to the sea, so it is easy to forget that it is within easy reach of Alzira and Gandia and just fifteen minutes from Tavernes’ extensive beaches.
Close enough to the action, but far enough away that you can pretend you are in another part of Spain altogether.
Next time there is nothing on TV and you fancy exploring more of the region, put Carcaixent at the top of your list.