A Jewel on the Valencian Coast: Montgó Natural Park
It's a microclimate of tantalizing floral and geological diversity, with wildflowers, limestone caves, rousing views, secluded bays and kooky cottages, just over an hour south of Valencia. Viewed from Xábia, the elegant town on its southern slopes, the natural park of Montgó is often said to resemble the head and trunk of an elephant. The 753 metre-tall mountain which dominates the park - the elephant's head - is a beacon for hikers, but it's the rocky headland of Cape Sant Antoni which makes the park unique. It's a microclimate of tantalizing floral diversity, with wildflowers, limestone caves, rousing views, secluded bays and kooky cottages. The park straddles the Marina Alta, between the handsome towns of Xabia and Denia, just over an hour south of Valencia.
Due to repeated wildfires on the windswept heights of the park, the stone pine forests which once hugged the hillsides of Montgó have been reduced to isolated hamlets. The red clay and white calciferous rocks are open to the elements. Combined with the squat stone and chalkwash dwellings perfectly assimilated into the matoral (scrub) landscape, this gives the Montgó Natural Park a Balearic feel.
The Balearic island of Ibiza is in fact directly east of Montgó by 90 kilometres, and the two share a strikingly similar geology of karstic rocks moulded by water and carbon dioxide into round openings (often sprouting with a hardy wild flower) and jagged pointy edges.
The same rocks which litter the pathways like skulls and skeletons of ancient coral reefs have been used creatively by locals to decorate thier houses and gardens. This is particularly true high on Les Planes de Montgó, on the western edge of the park. Here, along the Cami de la Cova Tallada, one of the many wild and rocky senderos leading down to the coast from the mountain, there are eccentric dwellings built out of the ruins of old mills and watchtowers, and festooned with sculptures and rock gardens full of brilliant colour. Mount Atlas pistachio grows beside Iberia's only native, wild-growing palm, the blue Mediterranean fan palm .
At the end of the Cami de Cova Tallada is the Torre del Gerro, a beautifully-preserved 16th century watch tower, recalling a time when this coast was ravaged by corsairs, and Las Rotas, a series of peaceful bays and grottos, the highlight of which is the Cova Tallada (Carved Cave) itself, a 400-metre wide sea-grotto, sculpted out of the cliffs not only by the tide but also by man's tools. The cave's golden piedra tosca was extracted as a building material for Denia's castle and Sant Bartomeu's church in Xabia.
Montgó is home to 80 rare or endangered plant species and in May the headlands beside the lighthouse at Cape Sant Antoni are decked out in a coarse carpet of thistle and Valencian rock violet, with profuse patches of wild fennel (did you know fennel belongs to the carrot family?) and sempervivum (siempreviva in Spanish) on the slopes of the cliffs.
From here you can see the whole bay of Xabia curving gently towards el Penyon de Ifach and the distant invisible monster that is Benidorm. To the west, just a few kilometres away is the historic town of Denia, with its Moorish fortress overlooking a fine port. Founded by the Romans as a naval base in the 1st Century AD, the town reached its cutural apex during the Moorish occupation and before the arrival of the Almohad dynasty, was the capital of its own taifa. It's now an intoxicating town to spend a weekend in, preserving much of its historic Morisco charm, and an important nautical centre with an exciting gastronomic scene.
The nearby cultural adornments of Denia and Xabia give the national park of Montgó a uniquely seductive pull; it's a botanist's paradise within walking distance of mountains, beaches and the cultural attractions of two handsome historic towns.