Before visiting the town of Xativa, I knew nothing about it. So, approaching from the south, on a road which wound its way up the coastal foothills, I was unprepared for the spectacular sight of a very long, fortified wall snaking along the ridge in front of me. It was a golden colour, lit up by the morning sun, and resembled a serpent stretching out along the rock to bask in the warmth.
The town itself is unusually situated on the northern side of the mountain and the streets are cold in the shadow of its protective mountain walls. Parking is impossible on the main street due to the installation of a festive fairground, so I am forced to park on the outskirts and walk back to the central tourist office.
An enthusiastic young lady provides me with a booklet which includes a detailed map and information on the principle sights and a large number of ancient, ornate fountains dotted around the town. However, as it is a festive weekend, there is more to see than usual. A life size Belen, featuring fresh fruit and vegetables, plus live animals. I can understand the goats and camel. Even the turkeys and guinea fowl have a festive feel, but the two shivering ostriches seem strangely out of place! Additionally, a small medieval market has set up in one of the small squares in the old town, with jewellery, ceramics and food stalls, as well as barbecues, bodegas and more live animals, including hunting hawks.
It’s not expensive to visit Xativa. The Santa Maria Cathedral is free, as is the small Almodi Museum, where you can see local archaeological discoveries and a unique portrait of Philip V, hung upside down because he decreed the burning down of Xativa in 1707. But I don’t want to waste a beautiful sunny day inside and it also costs nothing to walk the paths up to the castle. The route takes me via St Joseph’s Hermitage, where I stop for a cup of coffee in the adjoining bar and to look back down upon the town from the viewpoint. Continuing up, I pass the church of Saint Feliu, the oldest place of worship in the town, built on the site of a Visigoth basilica.
Beyond the church is an ancient ice house. The dome shaped building covers a wide, deep well which would have been filled with snow during the winter and compacted into ice. The ice was then sold in town, well into the next year, being transported overnight to prevent it from melting. There are many such ice houses scattered around the inland hills and mountains. Also along the path are several natural caves with hand carved cisterns inside to collect water.
The castle, though not free, is very extensive and very busy with families who have driven up a narrow, winding road, or arrive on the small tourist train which serves the town. It’s a perfect place for youngsters to run around (unusually safe for a country that regularly ignores health and safety concerns) and to learn about ancient fortifications, weapons and war strategies. Any children that misbehave can be thrown into the dark, dank dungeon, but today, everyone seems happy. Photographs are given an additional focus by a young lady dressed in traditional costume, posing for what may be next year’s tourist brochure.
Much of the existing structure of the castle dates from Moorish times and one of the exhibits explains how the Moors introduced the manufacture of paper to the town. It was made from straw and rice and, even today, is known as xativi paper. The town also has a history with the Borgias, Rodrigo de Borja having been born in Xativa. I feel that I have only just scratched the surface of this interesting place and vow to return, perhaps during one of the many fairs or fiestas held there each year.