“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” — Mark Twain
On a Thursday afternoon in April, my husband asked whether I wanted to go to Orihuela for the weekend. I was puzzled. “Ora what?” Tom replied, “It’s a little town about a two hour drive southwest of here.” I thought for a minute. Just a few months prior we had moved from Washington, D.C. to Jávea, a little beach town on the Spanish Mediterranean. Now that we were finally feeling settled we were ready to begin exploring beyond the border of our new hometown. Tom continued, “I googled the prettiest towns in Alicante, and this one made the list. Plus, it’s going to be about ten degrees warmer than here.” That was an added incentive. While Jávea weather tends toward lots of sunshine and ocean breezes, the thermometer had been hovering at an unseasonably cool stretch in the mid-60s and I was ready for a few degrees bump up. I said, “Sure. Let’s do it.”
We’re fans of the weekend road trip: the somewhat spur of the moment jaunt to a place within three hours’ drive. There’s something so satisfying about being able to pack a small duffle in about eight minutes, plus a bag with basic Airbnb supplies—in this case, 2/3 bottle of vino tinto that’s been sitting on the kitchen counter for four days, a church key, two Mahou Estrellas, some trail mix, a couple of almost-too-ripe bananas, “Champion of the World” bread from Aldi, and a Leatherman—and hit the highway.
As road-trippers know, half the fun is the time spent in the car. It’s fascinating to see the landscape as it morphs, even over the span of a few hours, particularly when it’s mostly unchartered territory. Road trip conversations tend to cover a wide variety of topics and twist and turn like the highway itself. If you see an interesting detour, whether linguistically or in actuality, you can opt to take it. We put the whole of Tom’s extensive music collection on shuffle, having fun with our own version of Name That Tune in three notes or less and watched as road signs for cities and towns appeared on the horizon and then disappeared in the rearview mirror: Benidorm, Sant Vicente del Raspeig, Elche. Before we knew it, we had reached our destination.
The first designated city in the Alicante province, Orihuela is a town of about 33,000 inhabitants and steeped in history. Originally settled by the Romans who called it Orcelis, it eventually became the capital of the Visigoth province in 576. After the Visigoths the Moors came, establishing a strong presence here as they did in much of southern Spain. The remains of the Moorish Oriheula Castle sit atop the hills surrounding the town. One hill beyond, a large cross dominates and is easily visible from the streets below.
We checked into our Airbnb, then headed out into the warm sunshine to explore. It was indeed toastier than in Jávea. Orihuela is a charming place full of shops, cafes, and churches–many churches. Walkways flank both sides of the Segura River as it flows through town. Most Spanish towns and villages have a medieval city center, and in many, like Orihuela, the old town is solely for pedestrians. The architecture is gorgeous, and the buildings and streets offer fascinating detail.
Since 1996 Orihuela has also been a university town, home to Miguel Hernandez University, named for the poet who rose from poverty and illiteracy, ultimately using his craft in service to the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War. As we strolled along, we walked by one of the main buildings on the urban campus. It was a nice day and students sat outside at little tables drinking café con leches and smoking cigarettes, either absorbed in books or engaged in deep conversations. I think it’s the same in college towns the world over.
In the old town we passed intriguing little shops closed for siesta on our way to the Orihuela Cathedral, a large and magnificent gothic structure built atop an old mosque. The original part took almost 200 years to build, from 1281 to 1413. Subsequent additions include an ornate baroque section from 1733. Walking through the massive space was a lesson in the evolution of the architectural styles.
Wandering around the corner on a beautifully cobbled side street, we found an outside table at a little cafe called Café del Poeta, an homage to Miguel Hernández. The barista/bartender, a friendly efficient guy in his late 20s, came out and took our orders: two beers and a tapa we soon found was common to that part of the world called a “bicicleta” — an eggy potato salad atop a little piece of bread. It was part of a special chalked on a small blackboard: bicicleta y vermouth 2,50 euros. Finishing his beer, Tom tried the vermouth. It came sweet and dark over one large ice cube and garnished with both an olive and an orange slice.
By now the little town was coming back to life after the afternoon siesta so we made our way to a sombrereria called El Gavilán, a family-owned hat shop since 1880. Antonio, the proprietor, was lively, knowledgeable, professional, and one of the most fun and energetic shopkeepers I’ve ever met. Within two minutes he had figured out exactly what we wanted in spite of our broken Spanish and his limited English. The shop was quite small, and he kept dashing outside then suddenly reappearing, his head stacked with six or seven hats from some mysterious stockroom. He’d take them off one by one and put each on Tom in rapid succession, saying emphatically, more to himself than us, “No…no…no” then, all of a sudden “Si, Si!”
Two women had come in during the fitting and waited patiently and with much bemusement during the process. When they saw the final choice they joined in, “Si! Perfecto para tu esposo!” Tom said that the moment the winning hat was placed atop his head he knew instinctively it was the right choice, even before he saw his reflection in the mirror. It just “felt right.” Antonio insisted on getting a photo with us—first putting a hat on my head, then grabbing his good luck mascot from 1929, a little sculpture of a dapper man wearing a fedora. For 70 euros, we got a proper hat and a priceless story.
Later that evening we meandered through the downtown, killing time before our dinner reservation. A large square dominates this part of town: a big fountain anchoring one end and a substantial playground the other. On this beautiful Friday the space was teeming with people milling around and filling the benches lining the perimeter. Kids ran around laughing loudly, riding scooters, and playing chase or pick-up games of fútbol. Older people, almost all casually but nattily dressed, sat chatting in pairs or groups. Teenagers in jeans and T-shirts, the latter often sporting nonsensical statements in English (“Hollywood Linen Company 100% Guaranteed U.S. State”,”San Diego River Rowing Club Est. 1987″) flirted inexpertly and checked their cell phones. Parents helped their children down the slides or up the monkey bars. Chic grandmothers wearing oversized sunglasses and leather moto jackets kept a sharp but indulgent eye on grandkids. I am a sucker for urban public spaces that are well used by all demographics, and this square seemed almost perfect in that regard. We sat on a bench people-watching and petting the dogs out for walks.
For dinner, we had chosen The Agus Gastrobar, a restaurant that came highly recommended on TripAdvisor and which was an easy walk from our Airbnb. As it was the weekend, Tom had made a reservation. Like many restaurants we’ve come across in Spain, Agus doesn’t reopen after siesta until 8:00pm. Being the Americans we are, we showed up at 8:01 to find we were the first customers of the evening. Although pleasant enough, the maître d’ seemed baffled by our promptness. He had still been sweeping the front stoop when we arrived but gamely led us to our table. The interior was decorated in an Art Deco style with a lot of black and chrome and low, purple lighting. My hunger outweighed my embarrassment at our early arrival faux-pas. But on the plus side, we had about four waiters all to ourselves, hovering by our table and helpfully translating the finer points of the Spanish-only menu.
Famished from walking around all day, we went big: ensalada mixta, poached bacalao, paella, anchovies, a mushroom pasta, and a bottle of vino tinto. Within 30 minutes, the place was filled and bustling. A DJ came in and proceeded to spin a two-hour set revolving around the beat of A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” The clientele was a mix of couples and families, most of them multi-generational, including small children. The wait staff were young and hip yet seemed to genuinely enjoy their clientele, especially the kids, sometimes scooping up a wayward one in their arms and carrying him or her around the restaurant. It was a lot of fun to watch. I have found one of Spain’s most magical and endearing traits is the mixing of generations. Almost every group or party features an age range measured in multiple decades. A middle-aged couple can enter a club or event filled with 20-somethings without feeling self-conscious. Young children are not just tolerated but embraced in chic restaurants. Old people are respected and appreciated for their wisdom; as a result, they seem to retain their sense of purpose and of fun.
Our dinner was delicious but the true pièce de résistance was the paella, which was plated for us table side; the server scraping the “pot sticker” crispy rice at the bottom (my favorite) and squeezing the shrimp heads over the entire plate as one might do with a wedge of lemon. At the end of the meal we split a dessert of a molten chocolate cake filled with a bourbon sauce and which arrived a la mode. I think the entire bill came to just over 60 euros.
The next morning we made a beeline back to Cafe del Poeta for coffee, then set off for a hike up to the Moorish castle. The trail, some parts more clearly marked than others, wound from the city center below to the ruins above. As we trekked upward the church bells rang ten times for the hour and two roosters in the town started to crow, their cockadoodle-dos clearly audible from the summit. (As an aside, I have yet to hear a Spanish rooster crow before 9:15 in the morning.) Far below, the views of the city and surrounding valley were spectacular: ancient church bell towers, densely packed apartments, and the occasional blue-tiled domed roof all sparkled in the sunlight. Beyond the town proper were acres of immaculately gridded farms and groves of lemon, orange, almond, and pomegranate trees. Marveling at the vista below, we realized we had found a gem in little Orihuela. It’s not a place that typically makes any of the Top Ten lists of places to go in Spain, at least by American standards. Even among our new Spanish friends, while some had heard of the town, few had visited. It’s a lesson in stepping off the beaten path every now and then to discover your own destinations without always relying on an established list of “must-sees.”
That evening as we changed for dinner we heard what sounded like a marching band down below in the street. We hurried out before they passed to find the streets filled with spectators cheering on a parade. Twenty or so women in dark clothes and white gloves were carrying a large statue of the Virgin Mary on their shoulders. Just behind, a group of men, again in dark clothing, marched along playing trumpets, trombones, and drums. It could have been a scene straight out of The Godfather Part II. It was mesmerizing. Later, as we walked back to our room, we past the public square and saw that it was densely packed with townspeople. Primarily senior citizens, they were seated in row upon row of folding chairs listening intently to a priest lecturing into a microphone from atop the little pavilion. Around him a dozen other priests were seated, nodding in agreement with his words, the statue of Mary carefully ensconced to one side. All around the perimeter, albeit a bit more quietly and respectfully, the children ran and played, the teenagers flirted, the parents helped the smaller kids on the merry-go-round and the monkey bars, and the grandmothers, chic as ever—perhaps with an ear attuned to the speech nearby—kept watchful eyes on their grandkids.