Like a simple sketch for a fairy tale, there’s a castle that we always glimpse driving down towards Villalonga. It is a plain pale-coloured rectangle. No whimsical turrets mar its stark geometry. An equally pale winding road leads up to it, the edges sharply defined against the dark green mountain side as if drawn by hand. It is in a dramatic setting — atop a low green mountain, in the midst of taller ones rising in gradual slopes a good distance from it, as in an ampitheatre. Beyond the castle itself, from our viewpoint, is a vast open space extending far out to the distant sea. And the vapour that rises from the surrounding pine and oak forests often casts a misty blue haze, flattening all depth and definition between the castle and a viewer from afar, so that it all looks rather unreal — like a gigantic billboard illustrated with a simple castle and its winding road.
Every time we see it, M says, I really want to climb up and see that castle. As a matter of fact, every castle we see — and just about every strategically sited mountain peak in southern Valencia has one — tempts M to scale it. I am just as enchanted with these medieval castles, mostly in ruins, but I am not tempted to clamber up rocks over prickly cactus- and bramble-overgrown slopes to see them up close. It’s become quite an obsession with M, climbing these romantic castles. I am content admiring them from afar.
We discover that this one is called Castell Forna. It’s walkable from Villalonga, M says. Ah, I say, but how high up is it? (I am mindful of my right heel which has been bothering me for months and which I’ve been ignoring in the hope that the pain will go away of its own accord. It’s rather like the needles that the little mermaid walks on.)
It’s not that high, he says. It’s just a tallish hill. (It is not. It’s a proper mountain.) We can take the dogs with us. It looks nice and lush, he continues. Not rocky or cactus-strewn at all.
We’ve only ever seen it from afar and often shimmering with a misty haze, so it’s hard to tell. Hunter, perhaps, but Lady Brown and I? We’re not quite up to it. Lady B could barely run when we took her in. Years of living rough, all exposed to the cold and wet have made her quite arthritic. She could hardly climb up the steps of the veranda at first. Perhaps we can drive up there, I say wistfully. I’m a romantic but not that romantic.
Just after Christmas we go for a drive through the stunning Vall de Gallinera and its countless cherry trees, some of them surprisingly still holding on to their coppery leaves. On the way home we come upon the turn-off to Castell Forna. Shall we take it, M asks. We’ve passed it several times before. This time we take it. Nothing prepares us for the unexpected beauty of the secret valley that gradually unfolds before our eyes.
We take the winding road and it leads straight to a car park just below the castle. There’s a paved path up to the entrance. From there, I manage to make my way up the remaining few meters along a gravel path to the castle gate. There are helpful metal rails to hold on to beside the few broad steps carved from rock as you climb up. And M lends his arm where there are none. The paved path is wheelchair-friendly. The rocky steps are not, however.
Up close, the castle walls are darker than when viewed from afar. To M’s disappointment, it is closed until October. But the unobstructed view from the castle grounds — all the way to the azure blue sea on one side and inland to neatly terraced orange groves on dark green mountain slopes on the other — is so satisfying and so splendid, that I do not feel in any way deprived. Through the cracks in the wooden castle gate, if you wish, it is possible to peep through to catch a glimpse of the interior courtyard.
The town below, called Adsubia-Forna (from the union of the two towns of Adsubia and Forna) is exceedingly charming, with narrow streets and well-preserved traditional houses with whitewashed walls and red tiled roofs. It looks a lovely place to explore on foot, with several cafes and restaurants, as well as inns (casas rurales).
We ask at the diner called Xiringuito de Forna (pronounced ‘Chiringito’) below the castle if there’s a direct road back to Villalonga. Only a footpath, one of the diners replies helpfully. If you’re driving, you’ll have to take the road back to Oliva, he continues. (By the way, the Xiringuito is reputed to serve good food.) We make our leisurely way home through lush orange groves, their ripening fruit set aglow by the low winter sun.
Adsubia-Forna is certainly one of Alicante province’s hidden treasures. It has the magical air of having been frozen in time, and it is all the more enchanting to us, who discovered it quite unwittingly. I would like to return and savour it slowly. I am even tempted to hike all the way there from Villalonga. Lady B and I can bring up the rear, pacing ourselves gently. Did I just say I wasn’t that romantic? I take it all back.