The holiday blind spot – why you should visit Spain’s forgotten east coast

·8 min read
pensicola fortress from above - Victor H. Jimenez Majuelo / EyeEm 
pensicola fortress from above - Victor H. Jimenez Majuelo / EyeEm

This year – as the old song goes – we’re off to sunny Spain. Y viva Espana, and all that.

At least, this is the hopeful headline of the last two days. The words of Fernando Valdés Verelst, the Spanish tourism minister, have become a cause for celebration, ushering in the prospect of imminent holidays in one of Britons’ favourite summer destinations – whether or not you will have been fully vaccinated by the time the hottest months arrive.

“June will be the beginning of the recovery of tourism in Spain,” Mr Valdés Verelst said yesterday. “By then we will have a digital vaccination certificate in place and we will be able to reopen our borders.” He added that talks have been ongoing with the UK Government, and that entry won’t be limited to those who have been twice-jabbed against Covid. Negative tests results will be a way in for those who are yet to feel needle in arm.

This, of course, is splendid news – even with the essential caveat that Westminster is yet to announce whether and where we will all be able to travel this summer. Its “traffic light” system – which will place potential destinations into “green”, “amber” and “red” brackets according to both rates of infection and instances of variants – has been much mentioned but little revealed (the latest murmurings from the transport secretary Grant Shapps suggest an announcement “towards the beginning of May”). For now, we wait.

Still, it looks increasingly likely that the British love affair with the Spanish coastline will continue, and particularly in those parts of it that have long been popular – the Costa del Sol, the Costa Blanca, the south-west corner of Mallorca. This is all well and good. There is much to be said for sticking to what you know, the resorts of these sunshine stretches need the visitors – and the Mediterranean gleams as a backdrop to all of it, whether you are in a cheerfully cheap three-star by the beach or something more salubrious up the hill.

And yet, it is also worth looking to those parts of the Iberian shore that, traditionally, are less known to those flying in from Gatwick and Manchester. To the long shoulder of the north, where Galicia, Asturias and the Basque Country rise up to meet the waves of the Bay of Biscay. And to the uppermost reaches of the Costa Brava, beyond Blanes and Lloret de Mar – where Catalonia starts its conversation with France on the Gulf of Roses.

Then there is that strangely under-applauded portion of the east coast that seems to be a blind-spot for many British travellers; the 300 miles book-ended by Barcelona at the top end, and Denia at the other – just before Cap de Sant Antoni and Cap de la Nau supply their limestone full-stops to the Balearic Sea, and the landmass turns a southwest-bound corner towards Benidorm and Alicante. Here is a slice of the seafront – the Costa Dorada, the Costa del Azahar, the Costa Valenciana – where you hear fewer English voices; where Spain (give or take Catalonia’s big wish to be different) feels, well, a little more Spanish.

Here too is an area which deserves greater exploration – or, if “exploration” sounds too much effort in the heat of July and August, greater appreciation from those coming south. Not least in the following highlights and beauty spots, which all merit closer inspection.

Costa Dorada

City: Tarragona

There is much to be said for Barcelona’s smaller sibling, which lies 60 miles south-west of the Catalan capital, but very much on the same lovely waterline. As it has for the best part of three millennia. It was founded in the 5th century BC, then significantly expanded by Rome, which fortified it as “Tarraco” – a key stop on the “Via Augusta” that traced the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula all the way down to Carthago Novo (modern-day Cartagena). The legacy of that epoch is obvious in Tarragona’s still-gorgeous second century (AD) amphitheatre, which sits just inland from the sandy arc of Playa El Miracle.

Visit Tarragona’s still-gorgeous second century (AD) amphitheatre - Getty
Visit Tarragona’s still-gorgeous second century (AD) amphitheatre - Getty

Beach: Playa de Altafulla

While Playa El Miracle is aptly named – and Playa Gorda, also in Tarragona, is just as attractive – it is worth heading 10 miles back up to the coast to the medieval town of Altafulla, where the beach of the same name is a thing of wonder. Here you find roughly a kilometre of fluffy sand, stretching out extravagantly – this is no underwhelmingly narrow corridor of powder. And yet, in a sight that is rare for Spain’s Mediterranean edge, a lack of development means that farms and fields still flank the beach’s west end. The same cannot be said for the main beach in Cunit, another 12 miles east towards Barcelona – where seven man-made breakwaters, dotted along almost two miles of seafront, create tranquil waters for swimming and family splashing about (but the effect is just as lovely).

Beauty spot: Tortosa

You have to drag yourself away from the “Golden Coast” – 10 miles inland from L’Ampolla – to find this riverside town with its visible history. It is worth the journey. It sits in the shadow of the Cardo Massif, but comes to an impressive peak of its own where La Suda crowns its hilltop. This sturdy fortress is another epic relic of the region’s past – it was constructed in the 10th century by the caliph Abd ar-Rahman III, during the time of Moorish rule in Iberia. The river that flows below it, the Ebro, is Spain’s second longest. It reaches the end of its 580-mile odyssey almost immediately beyond Tortosa, flowing into the Mediterranean via the protected wetlands of the Parc Natural del Delta de l’Ebre.

The historic streets of Tortosa - Getty
The historic streets of Tortosa - Getty

Costa Del Azahar

City: Castellón de la Plana

This small city, 175 miles south-west of Barcelona, could never be described as a major population hub. Barely 170,000 souls call it home, and in terms of regional importance, it is eclipsed by Valencia, 45 miles to the south. But it has a visual charm that is perhaps best summed up by the Concatedral de Santa Maria – its 13th century Gothic cathedral which, unusually, has a stand-alone bellower (El Fadri) that draws the camera’s eye. As with many former medieval citadels on the Spanish coast, Castellón is, in fact, not quite coastal, pitched a cautious five miles inland, set back from any threat on the waves. But you can wander down to Playa del Gurugu and watch the locals playing beach volleyball.

Costa del Azahar from above over rooftops - Moment RF
Costa del Azahar from above over rooftops - Moment RF

Beach: Marina d’Or

The little town of Oropesa del Mar, 10 miles up the coast from Castellón de la Plana, is blessed with beaches. The broad arc of Playa de la Concha and the semi-hidden Playa de la Renega are both worth an unhurried afternoon of your time. But it saves its best for Playa Marina d’Or – a thin strip of shore, just north of the centre, where the prettiness of the scene is amplified by the botanical garden of the same name, directly behind the sand.

Playa Marina d’Or is backed by a botanical garden of the same name - Getty
Playa Marina d’Or is backed by a botanical garden of the same name - Getty

Beauty spot: Peniscola

It should be no surprise that, with a name that translates as “Orange Blossom Coast”, the Costa del Azahar is easy on the eye. Peniscola plays Tortosa’s card of looking mighty and medieval, but does so right on the waves, 45 miles north-east of Castellón. Its name is a Spanish evolution of “peninsula” – an appropriate linguistic trick, as the town holds its poise on a rocky bluff, its 13th century castle commanding all it surveys in each direction. It was built by the Knights Templar, who did an excellent job, planting their fortress at an elevation – 210ft (64m) – the brooked few intruders. The view from its ramparts is special.

Peniscola holds its poise on a rocky bluff - Getty
Peniscola holds its poise on a rocky bluff - Getty

Costa Valenciana

City: Valencia

No shock here. Valencia is Spain’s third largest city, and a fabulous choice of location for a long weekend. In some ways, it is all of Spain in one place, flitting between elegant architectural remnants of the Middle Ages (La Lonja de la Seda, its 15th century Unesco-listed “silk hall”; its gorgeous cathedral, with its mish-mash of Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque stylings) to the quirkily modern (the City of Arts and Sciences, whose skeletal white opera house, museums, aquarium and cinema, laid out by Santiago Calatrava, still resemble the future, though the complex was inaugurated in 2005). The tapas bars which dot the labyrinthine streets of Eixample and Russafa offer finger-food feasts late into the night. And there are beaches too – not least Playa de la Malvarrosa, three miles to the east.

The rooftops of sunny Valencia - Sergio Formoso /Moment RF 
The rooftops of sunny Valencia - Sergio Formoso /Moment RF

Beach: Playa San Antonio

Some 25 miles south of Valencia, the resort-town of Cullera is all but one long beach. Playa San Antonio is its main event – a full mile of white sand where the waves seem to tiptoe ashore. But you might just as easily pitch your parasol in Playa Escollera, Playa Marenyet. Playa Dossel or Playa Faro – which, as its name says, comes with a lighthouse.

Cullera is all but one beach - Getty
Cullera is all but one beach - Getty

Beauty spot: Parc Natural de la Serra Calderona

A week on the coast does not have to be all about the sea. Thirty miles north of Valencia, the Parc Natural de la Serra Calderona protects the most picturesque portions of the Calderona mountain range. Here is an area in which to hike meandering trails, safe in the knowledge that the bandits who once made this a place only the reckless dared to tread have now been replaced by park officials – and inevitable views back to the rolling blue.