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Exploring the old town of La Vila

Ask any visitor what they remember best about Villajoyosa, and chances are they’ll mention the brilliantly colourful houses (casas pintadas) in the old town. Or maybe the chocolate. But even a chocoholic might agree that the casas pintadas are what really makes La Vila different.

Tradition has it that the houses were painted in bright colours so the local fishermen could see them clearly from out at sea. Whatever the origin, that tradition is still maintained today; owners must keep their homes painted and they can’t change the colour either.

Casas pintadas on the beach, Villajoyosa

Start exploring the old town down by the beach on Carrer Arsenal; the name comes from the time when they built warships at a shipyard near the river mouth. There’s now a wide, modern esplanade, where locals and tourists alike come for the traditional evening stroll (paseo) once the heat of the day has subsided.

In the Plaza San Pedro (Sant Pere in Valenciano dialect), you’ll see the 18th century fountain (below), now restored, which doubled up as a public washplace and source of fresh water for nearby houses. During the fiesta de San Pedro, the water was dyed red and local boys would fish for coins in it.

Then wander up into the old town behind the seafront. The narrow streets here are mostly pedestrian, shady and tranquil, with unexpected little squares dotted here and there where a visitor can sit and watch the world go by. The houses are tightly packed together; tall and narrow with steep internal staircases. Some have been spruced up and converted for tourist use, others are still lived in by local people.

Some casas colgadas (hanging houses) perch precariously on the town walls overlooking the river Amadorio; you can see them best by walking up the river from the beach to the main road bridge. The river valley itself is now a pleasant linear park, with trees, shrubs and places for children to play (shame about the rubbish in the river itself though).

The old town goes back a long way; the Roman settlement of Allon was built here. The current town of La Vila was founded in the 1300s as Christian armies pushed down from the north, forcing out the Moors who had occupied most of Spain for the best part of 500 years. Apparently the crafty Christian admiral, Bernat d’en Sarria, had the place christened La Vila Joiosa (literally “happy town” in Valenciano) to convince his fellow Catalans to move down and settle here. A neat bit of salesmanship; he’d have made a great estate agent.

The impressive town walls, which you can see if you walk down Carrer Costera del Mar from the main street to the sea, were built in the 16th century to protect the town from pirates (see below).

These Barbary corsairs from north Africa had a nasty habit of attacking settlements along the Costa Blanca, stealing everything they could lay their hands on and enslaving any local people they could catch.

Even the town church, built into the city walls, was designed to double up as a fortress in case of attack (Iglesia-fortaleza de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción). There was also once a castle on the other side of the old town, dominating the high ground above the river Amadorio; the area where it stood is now a public open space off Carrer Vallet (see pic below)

Walk up there to take in the beautiful views over the river and down to the sea. You'll also notice random stones scattered about the gardens; these were originally from the Roman baths complex in La Vila and were used to build the castle.

The castle itself is long gone; destroyed in the early 1700s in the War of Succession, but you can see a metal scale model showing how the fortified town of La Vila might have looked.

In its heyday, the castle was the strongpoint in a chain of defences against the pirate menace. A string of watch towers was built by Philip ll (aka husband to the English Queen Mary, and the fellow who sent the Armada to England) to give early warning of their approach. To the south of La Vila, you can still see the watchtowers of El Xarco and Campello, and to the north, Torre del Aguiló near Cala Finestrat.

Those pesky pirates are also the inspiration behind La Vila’s biggest party of the year, the fiesta de Santa Marta. It commemorates an attack in 1538, which, according to legend, was driven off thanks to the miraculous intervention of Santa Marta, patron saint of La Vila. The Moros y Cristianos festival re-enacts the landings on the town beach every July.

Just below the site of the old castle, on Carrer Santa Marta, you'll find some pretty cool street art; images of the casas pintadas juxtaposed just below the real thing.

Take a walk along Carrer de Pal (below) just off Carrer Costera del Mar. The name "Pal" translates as a place where ropes are repaired; this street and the parallel Callejon de Pal were long and straight and so ideal for the job. Rope and net making was a major industry here in the 19th century; fishing nets and ships' cables made of hemp in La Vila were used throughout Spain. The work was done by fishermens' wives (see pic below R from Vila Museu)

They were making fishing nets in La Vila even in Roman times; remains of a Roman net factory were excavated in 2005 on the outskirts of town. Back then, nets were made from the esparto grass you can see growing wild in the countryside around La Vila. There's still one net factory in La Vila; they've been in business since 1778, though these days, the raw material is synthetic.

Stroll also up Carrer Major to the archway of the town hall (Ajuntament, see pic below). Just off to your left across the pretty Placa Moreres square is the old Hospital de Pobres (Poor Hospital). A plaque outside tells how it looked after pilgrims who landed here in La Vila port before starting the 1,128 kilometre trek (the Camino de Santiago) across Spain to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. It's now restored as a youth centre.

Head through the town hall arch and turn right at the top of Carrer Major into the Placa Iglesia. The church itself was built for strength rather than elegance; it was an integral part of the fortifications of the old town. It's not always open to visitors though (the pictures below show the Easter procession where the Virgin is paraded around the old town on the shoulders of the faithful)

If you walk by the church, past the Civil War memorial on the church wall and head down Carrer Pou, you'll see this house on the corner with a plaque on the wall, recording that the image of Santa Marta (she of the 1538 miracle) was hidden inside during the Spanish Civil War.

The region around La Vila was held by the Republicans for much of the war, and they didn’t have much time for the Catholic church, which fervently supported the rebel Nationalist forces of General Franco.

Apparently the Republican forces used the church of Nuestra Señora to garage their lorries. The church bells were also melted down for more warlike uses.

The final recommendation -- head back down the hill to the seafront on Carrer Arsenal, have an ice cream or a nice cool beer, admire the view and ponder the sometimes violent history of La Vila's old town.

Highlights and suggested tour

1. Carrer Arsenal 2. Plaza San Pedro + fountain 3. River Amadorio + hanging houses 4. Site of old castle (El Castell) 5. Street art on Carrer Santa Marta 6. Ajuntament (town hall) 7. Hospital de Pobres 8. Placa Iglesia + church of Nuestra Señora del Asunción 9. Carrer Costera del Mar and town walls. 10. Carrer de Pal 11. Return to Carrer Arsenal

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