VILLENA: AN INTRODUCTION
Villena lies some 45 kilometres inland from Alicante in the region of Alto Vinalopó, a natural frontier between the Castilian plateau and the Levante coast and part of the renowned Alicante Wine Route. It has long been an important crossroads linking the Comunidad Valenciana, the Region de Murcía, and Castilla-La Mancha and an important transport junction.
Villena is perhaps most famous for its treasure which dates back to the Bronze Age and is considered one of the important finds of prehistoric gold in Europe, and it can be viewed in the municipal museum. The town is dominated by a splendid castle, once an important stronghold on the northern frontier of Islamic Iberia before falling into the hands of the Christians after the Reconquest; a guided tour is a must. The church of Santiago Apóstol has some fascinating twisted columns and worth spending some time exploring, whilst the Fiesta Museum opposite tells the story of the town’s Moros i Cristianos festival, which is one of the oldest in Spain and has more than 12,000 participants each September.
How to get to Villena
Villena is about a 90-minute drive from Xàbia, using the AP-7 south towards Alicante, then taking the “new” AP-7 to junction 704 to join the A-31 towards Albacete and Madrid. Continue to junction 185 Villena (Sur) and pass through the industrial estate, following signs to “Centro Historico”. After passing under the motorway and joining a roundabout, take the third exit towards A-31 Alicante and, after just 60m, turn right and follow the road for about 250m to a couple of rough plots which are used as parking zones. Parking is very limited in the centre of town and these plots are just 5-10 minutes’ walk to the heart of the historic centre.
OPTIONAL STOP: On the way to Villena, it’s worth stopping off at Novelda – Junction 213 on the A-31 – to visit the remarkable Santuari de Santa Maria Magdalena, which has clearly taken inspiration from Barcelona’s Basílica de la Sagrada Família.
WHERE WE STAYED
La Casa de los Aromas
We chose this modest guesthouse in the Moorish old quarter of the town due to its central position, just a five minute climb to the castle, a couple of minutes to the main square, and a few minutes’ to the livelier part of town for the bars and restaurants.
Our modest room was quite comfortable with a decent-sized bed, a good en-suite bathroom, TV and free Wi-Fi. The guesthouse has a communal lounge and kitchen; there’s also an adjoining café serving tea, coffee and snacks.
WHAT WE SAW
Tuesday – Saturday: 10.00am to 2.00pm / 4.00pm to 5.00pm
Sunday and Bank Holidays: 10.00am to 2.00pm
Mondays, December 25th, January 1st, January 6th
Afternoons on December 24th, December 31st, January 5th
10.30am, 11.30am, 12:30pm, 4.30pm – prior reservation required
3 euros; free for under 7s.
Tickets available from the Tourist Information Office next to the castle and from the Tourist Information Office in the Plaza de Santiago.
The castle was built at the end of the 12th century by the Almohads to provide a safe refuge for the Muslim population since the town found itself on the northern frontier of the Arabic lands of Iberia. It was taken by the forces of Jaime I in 1240 and by the 15th century it had become the property of the powerful Pacheco family who added two floors to the tower and built the second wall. In 1476 the Catholic Monarchs laid siege to the castle and finally wrestled it from the family. Over the next few centuries, it was involved in many scuffles, including the War of Spanish Succession and the War of Spanish Independence, after which it was abandoned. Restoration was carried out in 1958 and the castle is now the centre-piece of the annual Moors & Christians celebrations.
We opted for a guided tour of the castle which have to be booked at the Tourist Information Office. It was a perfect way to discover the castle and its long history for the guide was able to point out features that we might have otherwise missed, whilst it also allowed us to access areas that are not normally available to general admission.
The tour also took us to the top of the high tower for some great views across the town and beyond. We do advise that this climb up a series of narrow stairways makes the tour quite difficult for those with mobility problems and those with young children and buggys.
Monday-Thursday: 11.00am to 12.00pm
Tuesday – Thursday, Bank Holidays: 12.00pm to 2.00pm
Friday: 1.00pm to 2.00pm
Saturday: 11.00am to 2.00pm
December 25th, January 1st and January 6th
ADMISSION PRICE (Guided Tour)
Considered one of the most important Gothic-Renaissance churches in the Valencian region, it was built between the 14th and 15th centuries and features twelve fabulous spiral columns, one of just a handful of examples in a church in Spain. At the end of the 15th century, the church was renovated and the limestone font was added. In 1931 it was declared a national historic-artistic monument.
Guided tours can be booked at one of the Tourist Information Offices, one of which is just 20 metres from the main door of the church. The church is normally locked so if you are the only takers for a tour, you’ll have it to yourself. The guide will show you the main sights inside the temple and then leave you for a few minutes to walk around on your own and explore. At just 1 euro, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Thursday to Sunday, 11.00am – 2.00pm
In 2020, the museum is being relocated so our experiences will no longer be up-to-date but whenever it opens, it’s certainly worth a visit for there is a fine collection showcasing the grand history of the town over the past 50,000 years, the most valuable of which – quite literally – is the famous Treasure of Villena.
Discovered in 1963, the Treasure was hidden some 3,000 years earlier and is now considered the most important prehistoric treasure in Europe. It’s not generally on show but stored inside a locked cabinet. After watching a video about the treasure and its discovery – available in English on request – the cabinet is opened and you can view this very special collection, which includes 10kg of gold, for a few minutes before the curator secures it behind closed doors once again.
The Fiesta Museum
Tuesday – Sunday, Bank Holidays: 11.00am to 2.00pm
Mondays, December 25th, January 1st and January 6th.
The fiesta museum is located in a former 19th century bourgeois palace in the main square, opposite the church and next to the town hall. The interior is a fine example of Valencian modernism and now houses a collection of costumes and objects, photos and posters, relating to the town’s famous Moors & Christians fiesta which dates back to the late 15th century and now features more than 12,000 participants.
Booking a guided tour is the best way to get the most of a visit to this museum in which you get right up close and personal with some of the colourful costumes that have been worn in the parades, some of which last more than eight hours.
WHERE WE REPLENISHED
Rodeo Diner & Burger
Ideal for: lunch
This American-style diner boasts that it serves “the best burger in town”. It probably doesn’t but what it does do is serve some decent grub which is perfect for lunch. Nothing special but enough to fill a hole after a morning exploring the town.
LINK: Rodeo Diner & Burguer (External Link)
Restaurante Di Trevi
Ideal for: lunch
This is an excellent option for lunch but very popular so reservation is absolutely essential. We really enjoyed a very fine entrecôte steak and baby lamb, served with a friendly smile and definitelty recommended.
LINK: Di Trevi Restaurante (External Link)
Ideal for: drinks
This a great place for a drink or two and very popular with the locals. There are a few tables outside next to the main road, or inside where there is a long bar and comfortable tables plus some sofas at the back. We watched El Clásico here; it was a great occasion.
LINK: CAFE PUB J.J. (External Link)
Ideal for: pre-dinner drinks.
This a little hidden gem in a small square down a narrow street just 50m from the town hall square, a small and rather unassuming bar painted a light shade of blue that is very popular and gets busy in the evenings with a great vibe.
LINK: Quitapesares Bar (External Link)
Restaurante Pizzeria Damiano
Ideal for: dinner
This is a really nice pizzeria located next to the Santa María church and another very popular restaurant so booking is essential to avoid disappointment. The pizzas are very tasty, something confirmed by the constant stream of clients for takeaway.
LINK: Restaurante Pizzería Damiano (External Link)
Ideal for: dinner
Visiting Villena just before Christmas, the town was buzzing and having forgotten to book anywhere, we weren’t very hopeful. We’d heard great things about DondeDiego and passed by to find the shutters midway down the door. We popped our head inside and asked if there was a chance to grab an early dinner. No problem. Such an accommodating place, they even apologized that the kitchen wasn’t quite ready but we were quite happy that we’d managed to secure somewhere to eat. And it was so worth the wait. We had their take on Kentucky fried chicken which was served with chips which we shared since there was more than enough. Our mains were Sliced Secreto Pork and a quite excellent Ox Burger, both served with adequate sides. Everything served with a smile. Absolutely worth a visit – but remember to book!
LINK: Dondediego Gastrobar (Facebook)
WHAT WE THOUGHT OF VILLENA
We stayed two nights in Villena, arriving on Friday early afternoon after visiting the fantastic Santuari de Santa Maria Magdalena in Novelda and the castles in Petrer and Sax. We loved the feel of Villena, the obvious history seeping out of its narrow streets and steep stairs.