Gaudí-inspired architecture, red marble and exotic, heady spices….no, this is not a Lebanese restaurant in the centre of Barcelona, but Novelda - just half-an-hour’s drive from Alicante airport and sandwiched between three mountain ranges, it is the gateway to the coast from the dry, scorched plains of Castilla-La Mancha and home to more than twenty thousand inhabitants.
Located on the right bank of the Vinalopó river at 250 metres above sea level – that’s a third of the Montgó, for readers living in the Marina Alta – Novelda is highly fertile despite its unusually-low rainfall and has been a hive of industrial activity since caveman times - arrowheads, remnants of tools and ceramics dating back to the third millennium BC have been found in what is now Calle Sidera. The caves of Serreta Llarga and Els Calderons in the nearby mountains show that Novelda has long been a destination of choice for roaming settlers, long before the Iberians, Romans and Moors passed through. Although in the twenty-first century it is relatively unmarked by foreign footsteps, largely due to its inland location and lack of fame as a tourist destination, traces of its multi-racial history are scattered all over the municipality. Despite this, and the numerous centuries-old artefacts that have been gradually uncovered and are now on display in the municipal museums, Novelda is a minefield of completely untouched archaeological digs. It is fair to say that, although Novelda as we know it is a magnet for the culture-hungry, most of its history remains underground.
A bit of history
Back in the thirteenth century Novelda belonged to the Kingdom of Murcia and passed to what is now the Comunidad Valenciana after the southern territory was conquered. Until then it was a Moorish settlement, although once the Arabs were expelled from the peninsula, Novelda was taken over by a Christian tribe known as La Mola, which ruled the roost in most of the Vinalopó valley for centuries and made themselves wealthy thanks to the ideal agricultural conditions that allowed cereals, fruit and vegetables to grow in abundance. Despite a blip in the nineteenth century when yellow plague, floods, epidemics and international wars caused a crisis in the farming industry, the mainstay of Novelda’s economy has been and continues to be arable farming, vineyards, olives, almonds and figs. At this time, nine mills and eight rum factories, plus a well-developed international trade meant that the town grew rapidly and became vibrant, affluent and modern. Little has changed since then except that the production of marble – particularly the famous rojo alicante variety – granite and chalk has rocketed and Novelda’s exports reach as far afield as India, Japan, the USA and Canada, as well as France and Italy.
Bouncing back from the agricultural crisis, Novelda inhabitants decided to spice up their lives towards the end of the nineteenth century. The mills that had been used since time immemorial were now redeployed for making condiments, particularly saffron and pepper, which were bottled up and sold all over the world. There are currently twenty-six companies in Novelda dedicated to spice production, and their wares are bought up enthusiastically by the Brits, the Swiss, the French and the North Americans. Additionally, Novelda’s condiments do a roaring trade in Algeria and the Middle East with Saudi, Kuwait and Oman some of its principal importers. Although this may seem an odd market to target – rather like selling Feta cheese to the Greeks – the town brings in a significant income from trading its spices in the Arab world.
What to see
Keen walkers and nature-lovers can take in the dramatic, chalky mountains and the fertile river basin with its spectacular views over nearby municipalities such as Aspe, Orito, Monforte del Cid and Monóvar. Amateur historians will be interested to know that part of the famous Vía Augusta – the M1 of the Roman times and the longest road in the peninsula that runs from Cádiz to the Pyrenées – passes through the Vinalopó valley close to Novelda.
The town itself is an attractive collection of historical buildings that fuse Islamic, Baroque and Modern influences, interspersed with parks and plazas. Not to be missed is the truly spectacular Mola castle, a few kilometres outside the town centre in a north-westerly direction. A building that is utterly beautiful and an architectural masterpiece, Castillo de la Mola was built by the Moors in the 12th century and reformed by the Mediaeval Christians, who built a triangular tower onto it, two hundred years later. Unsurprisingly, the castle was declared a Monument of National Historic and Artistic Interest 75 years ago and remains so today, a magnet for visitors to the town who come to admire the intricate skill and artwork that was involved in its creation across three centuries by two cultures on opposite sides of the fence. As the Spanish would say, ¡eso Mola! (‘that’s fantastic!’)
Moving swiftly on to the twentieth century, the Sanctuary of Santa María Magdelena is a must-see for any day-tripper. Designed by Novelda-born engineer José Sala Sala on his return from Barcelona, the Catalán Modernist influence is striking and the building has been likened to Gaudí’s world-renowned Sagrada Familia cathedral in the capital of Catalunya. Two towers that culminate in a cross mark the façade and the domed roof of this popular attraction that took nearly thirty years to build after the first stone was laid in 1918.
Grim memories of plague and pestilence have not been wiped out in the town, and visitors to San Roque church will notice that the home for the elderly annexed to it used to be a hospital, built in 1668 in response to the epidemic that was then sweeping the Vinalopó valley, almost coinciding with the infamous Black Death that made it to English history books.
Novelda is literally awash with churches that reflect numerous periods in history, from Mediaeval to Baroque, but it is the homes of ordinary people that tell the true story of the town’s past life. That of Francisco Mira Abad, a well-known producer of wine and olive oil, is one of the best-preserved in Novelda and carries on the Gaudí-esque architectural theme that is seen throughout the municipality. The old home of Luis Navarro Navarro, a successful local businessman, is more impressive inside than out – wrought-iron columns, exquisite carpentry and an oval staircase are just some of the unusual but tasteful elements that were added to the property by Navarro Navarro’s daughter in 1902. Both houses have been acquired by the council and are now open to the public.
With a buoyant international trade and some of the most impressive architecture in the province, it should come as no surprise to learn that, despite being a relatively small town in terms of its headcount, Novelda has its own unique culinary tradition. Aside from rice dishes, gazpacho (cold soup) and puchero (typical Valencian stew), Novelda’s two main specialities are ajos con giraboix – a casserole of oxtail and chicken liver with chick peas, garlic and potatoes served with all i oli, and Moje Noveldero, a vegetable dish similar to the more widely-known espencat and made with ripe tomatoes, aubergines, red pepper, onions, garlic, black olives and anchovies. To make your own, roast all bar the latter two ingredients, and when completed, leave to go cold and peel before chopping into small pieces and garnishing with the olives and anchovies.
Sadly, we have missed the local fiesta in honour of the patron saint, Mary Magdelene, which combines with the Moors and Christians, given that this takes place between 19-25 July, although the last week in February sees the carnival with its renowned 48-hour parade. The only one of its kind in the country, permission to hold it was first granted by Pope Leo XIII in 1897 as compensation for yet another plague that threatened to wipe out the population and, come rain or shine, the procession continues to take to the streets for two solid days to avoid losing this hundred-year-old privilege. Later on in the year, between May and September, each and every neighbourhood in the town has its own fiesta with street dances, costumed parades and live music – yet another unconventional feature of life in the town that puts the ‘novel’ in ‘Novelda’.
Useful telephone numbers:
Tourist Information centre 965 60 92 28
Health Centre 965 627 800
Town Hall 965 60 91 83
Leave the AP-7 at Elche and follow the signs for Aspe (along the CV-84). After a few kilometres this changes to the N-325, at the end of which is Novelda - the castle, however, is a further 4km on.