Secret Costa Blanca

This article first appeared in the Fellrunner Magazine in 2014. It described the joy of running in a relatively undiscovered area of Europe.

Fell running is a great way to travel through any landscape, but if you are not careful you can get stuck in a groove repeating the same routes time after time. It's good to get of the beaten track, and over the last year I have been fortunate to spend quite a few weeks running and exploring the paths, tracks and mountain ridges in the Spanish Costa Blanca. Linking old footpaths, forgotten mule tracks and ancient trading routes amidst spectacular scenery, and of course without mud or rain! Besides getting fitter I have also learnt about an extraordinary landscape (so different from the UK), the diverse and exotic wildlife and plant life, and some fascinating history. 

It's possible to run at any time of year. Despite what you might think about long distance running in Spain in August I did a week of it last year in preparation for the UTMB, and with pre dawn starts it was surprisingly pleasant.

The Guadalest Valley is the area I run in, and it is just 15 miles inland from Benidorm, in fact you can see the "high rise hell" on the coast quite clearly from the summits, but it may as well be a million miles away as you rarely see another soul in this rugged terrain. The mountains are all limestone, and this means that even without any glaciation ever occurring here the erosion from wind, frost and soil has carved away at the rock to expose amazing ridges, pinnacles and cliff faces of massive proportions. The paths and trails navigate their way through this landscape via high passes, rock staircases and even notches, caves and slots in the sheer rock faces.

Without the great maps we have in the UK you just have to get out and explore! There are different maps available, but they all show a different selections of tracks and trails, some of which may not even exist. You can't just take a line on a map either and run direct either as much of the vegetation is completely impenetrable. There are abandoned settlements that are slowly disintegrating and dense forest have reclaimed many slopes over the last 60 years since people gave up on what was a very tough existence in these hills, and higher up the mountains a combination of gorse, dwarf oak and other "spiky" Mediterranean shrubs is equally unfriendly. It's only on the very highest ridges that the vegetation is stripped back by wild and herded goats.

Sierra Aitana - The highest peak in Valencia Provence

This run starts at an altitude of 600 metres in the village of Abdet, but still has nearly 1,000 metres to climb to gain the the summit of Aitana. In Spring the Almond blossom lights up the terraces and the heady perfume is almost intoxicating. Summertime means early pre-dawn starts and running into a Mediterranean sunrise is a real treat, the sun climbs very quickly and it's dazzling light soon illuminates the many overhanging orange rock faces between you and the summit.

You have to squeeze through a slot in the rocks to gain access to an area of massive crevasses on the summit plateau of Sierra Aitana which are testament to some huge earthquakes. 100 metre plus deep they have released massive blocks which are now tilted like giant seracs on the mountain edge. Next this route follows the edge of the huge cliffs with dramatic views over the valley below, then a choice of scree or track marks the start of the long descent down through olive and almond terraces and a possible visit to one of the valleys amazing ruined Moorish castles which perches on a pinnacled outcrop. Once the Moors had been ejected from the area the king of Spain decided these castles were too much of a liability and so blew them up with gunpowder. Quite a lot of the walls remain however and  the cleverly constructed water tanks which were of course vital to survival under siege still hold water hundreds of years later.

In summer the temperature will start to climb rapidly and by 11am I always aim to be heading back downhill, perhaps stopping at one of the "Fuentes" to refill my bottles with refreshing cold spring water or soaking my cap to keep a bit cooler. There are a few "secret" rock canyons with crystal clear water where you can really cool down after your run if you do overheat. The cold water will take your breath away!

Monte Ponoche - The Sleeping Lion

The profile of this peak gives it it's nickname - the sleeping lion, the colossal 2,000 foot overhanging rock walls tower above you on the relentless climb at the start of this circular route. The reward is a great traverse and then a climb through a rock notch to access the hidden valleys that are the location for a Buddhist community. This is a really varied run with some fast sections of vehicle track but also footpaths which twist and turn and will have you whooping with joy! More impressive rock walls mark the finish and you may spot climbers high up above you.

Monks Towers, Stupendous Scree, Sun and Shade, Ancient Trades

On the other side of the valley the long complex Sierra Serrella holds many running possibilities. A visit to the Monks Towers (Agulles Frares) is certainly worth it. The mountainside has eroded to leave a forest of bizarrely shaped pinnacles and fins of rock, a great trail runs right the way through the middle ot them, although the escape route does involve a bit of easy scrambling.  This can be linked in with the exhilarating seemingly never ending 850 foot scree run further along the ridge, and then a stiff climb under rock walls colonised by mountain chuffs which dive and swoop in the thermals. This leads to the summit of Pla de la Casa, the location for an incredible 50 foot deep snow hole which is one of many in the area, and all that remains from a once thriving industry that provided ice for the villages and towns and even exported it abroad! Mule trains heavily laden with blocks of ice would descend in the night with their valuable cargo which before the invention of mechanical refrigeration was of course a luxury item. It was also used to ease the suffering of victims of malaria. Leaving the mountain via a goat herders counting notch (Contadores Pass) you can then choose the sunny or shady side of the next valley, Sombria Solaro, depending on the temperature or time of day. It returns to the village past the many irrigation channels that are centuries old and an old ruined mill that is more recent, a relic from the last century when wheat was quite a common crop.

Through the Mountain

The Bernia ridge dominates the view out to the coast with its Matterhorn shaped profile. In reality is is a long thin rib of limestone that invites exploration. It is quite popular with walkers but makes a great short mountain circumnavigation, although on your return you actually make use of a natural cave that pierces right through the ridge. I remember one New Years day emerging from the cave blinking in the sunlight with stunning views over a sea of cloud. It's a joy to rest at such vantage points and take it all in. On my last visit a couple of golden eagles landed quite close and eyed us up before soaring back into to air. In summer the bee eaters are a delight with their porcelain like wings and vivid colours. Red squirrels have made a return to the area in recent years and they always entertain with their acrobatic displays.

Night Running

A night run high in the mountains under a starlit sky is something special, there is virtually no light pollution to spoil the skies here. If there is a full moon then you won't even need a torch. In mid August the Perseid meteor shower may well accompany you on your way. You may also come across some of the valleys rather shy wildlife, a few times I have seen groups of wild boar that plough up the land in search of food. Hefty males can way 100's of Kilos, and they do their dirty work between dusk and dawn!

Eat and Run!

Throughout the year different treats are available. In Spring there are oranges and almonds still on the trees. Actually almonds stay on the trees all year if not picked, but they are quite time consuming to deal with! Many trees are abandoned the fruit not picked, so as long as you are not greedy taking a few is no problem, it's common practice. Early summer brings an incredible harvest of cherries in the orchards on the higher terraces, and also the local speciality the nispero or loquat is very energising, it has a flavour is a mix of peach, citrus and mild mango. Late summer is fig season, and you can fuel a long run with their energy! Self seeded grapes can also be found. Don't be tempted to try the olives though, without processing they are completely inedible.

Gear

You can get away with minimal kit most of the year round. Well cushioned shoes are a wise choice as it is very rocky and hard packed. Most runs have mountain springs so you can refill your bottles so you don't have to carry large volumes of water. The humidity is generally low so you may not get as sweaty as you might imagine, even so it's well worth starting each run well hydrated. It can be windy, so a pertext type gilet or windproof is a good idea in winter, along with a buff and thin gloves perhaps if it is overcast. Of course the sun can be fierce in the summer months, so suncream, hat and sunglasses are vital most of the time.

Getting There

Flights to Alicante are good value, £100 return being an average price. Car hire is required to get into the hills, but again that is very good value. It's worth staying up the the mountain villages so you can start most of your runs without driving anywhere.

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