Turning his back on beachside hotels, Chris Court heads inland to find the delights of rural Spain.
The natural cave that bored straight through the soaring 1,000-metre high, four-kilometre long limestone wall of the Berniere Ridge on Spain’s Costa Blanca was only 20 metres long.
But a crouching, crawling passage through its narrow, bumpy length led me from the heights of the rugged, rural Spain I had come to visit to a bird’s-eye view of the beaches and the glittering azure sea that draws millions of visitors every year.
Benidorm’s ranks of tourist hotel towers were visible in the brilliant sunshine just a few kilometres away from my towering, rocky vantage point.
I had emerged from the “other Spain” - a spectacularly wild landscape of steep gorges, forbidding peaks and ridges, sweeping hillsides dotted with remote dwellings and hamlets, serried ranks of stone terraces of almond and cherry trees, vistas of valley lands of orange and lemon groves, and acres of grape vines.
The Ridge, patrolled from the air by wheeling choughs and a kestrel, and approached by a sometimes steep, twisting ascent from the blossom trees and grape vines, was the culmination of a week-long Vistas of Valencia guided walking trip with Headwater Holidays.
My aim was to explore the many delights of rural Spain - tantalisingly close to the beach culture of the coast that attracts visitors by the planeload - still so untouched by popular tourism that there remain areas where you can walk all day yet meet no one.
Once through the cave, I picnicked under a blue sky among the ruins of a 16th century Moorish fortress high on the ridge overlooking the coast (a reminder of Spain’s sometimes turbulent past) as a herd of goats, bells clanking, foraged on the scree far above me.
As I returned to my circular walk’s starting point, further inland, I walked past the yawning chasm of Echo Gorge, deep in which a herd of fighting bulls could be heard exercising.
My holiday base was the 17th century, traditionally decorated Casa Carrascal hotel tucked away along a narrow, colourful street in the tiny hilltop village of Parcent, overlooking the orange groves, almond trees and grape vines of the Jalon Valley, in the Marina Alta region of Valencia, just over an hour’s drive from Alicante Airport.
Returning there from an early exploration of the maze of Parcent’s steep streets and squares, I had to take cover in a doorway as a pelota ball whizzed by.
The street outside the hotel doubles as an occasional court for the traditional handball game, with street lighting guarded by wire cages, and players in long white trousers.
The Casa Carrascal has been owned and run for a number of years by David and Sue Eaton, from Oxford, who exchanged the long hours and stress of jobs in the UK to successfully fulfill their vision of a new life running walking holidays in Spain.
“It was a gamble, but we enjoy the quality of life which is quite special. We love the people, the mountains and being out and about,” says David, who does all the cooking, with menus - including traditional paella and tapas - featuring local, fish, meat, vegetables and fruit.
The couple also guide the walks and are knowledgeable about the area’s history, traditions and nature, pointing out bird life along the way, including eagles and other birds of prey, and some of the hundreds of varieties of flower and plants, which are popular with visiting botanists.
Tiny Parcent, population just 1,000, is ideally situated as a centre for walking holidays, with some routes starting from the village itself. Indeed anyone who thinks the planned day may be too challenging can be advised on easier strolls in the vicinity.
The village is surrounded by mountain ranges, and safety conscious David and Sue pick their circular treks from 32 routes they have researched, though there are nearly 70 more in the area.
One of my walks onto the spectacular Caballo Verde Ridge - high above the village - was the site of a battle between the Moors and the Christians in the early 17th century, and a dramatic memorial cross now sits high above on the skyline.
And there were other reminders that this wild and peaceful landscape was not always so, with its commanding views of the coast giving it an historic strategic importance.
Some of the trails I followed were forged by Arab traders centuries ago, and one walk finished with a muscle-burning zig-zag trek up 2,000 steps cut into a steep hillside.
Another day I picnicked in the ruins of an old farmhouse, within sight of a now ruined 15th century castle built, somehow, on top of a virtually vertical peak overlooking the sea. And wandering stony mountainside paths flanked by fragrant growths of rosemary and thyme, and wild asparagus, there was evidence of settlers from long ago battling to make a living among the rocky landscape.
The hillsides are dotted with ancient ruins of now deserted dwellings, farmhouses and inns, and the steep slopes are stepped with centuries old, and now disused, stone terraces. Elsewhere, though, groves of almond, cherry and vines still flourish on parcels of cultivated land.
More than anything else, it was the simple, natural beauty of this wild landscape that took my breath away - especially features like the twin limestone arches high on the mountainside up a steep icy path, created by the weather which will ultimately send them crashing down.
Hunters still roam the hills for targets including wild boar (I saw ground churned up by their search for food) and tiny square notices on poles dot the trails to warn there could be gunfire.
As I climbed on another trek from Parcent, through orange groves, up the steep Barranco Negro gorge to the Coll de Rates towering over the village, those warning signs dotted the rocky slopes.
The winding road to the top of the Coll is part of the Tour of Spain cycle race - and I spotted painted names of stars including the UK’s Mark Cavendish still visible on the road surface near the top of the long, curving climb from the valley floor.
With the sea within such easy reach, it is easy to see why parts of the coast near Parcent were the haunt of contraband runners.
Tiny, cliff-ringed Smugglers Cove (near the pretty resort of Moraira) was so notorious for the illegal trade that until recent years the local police force manned a tiny watch post on the pebble beach where it joined the mainland via a steep, rocky gorge.
As a complete change, I spent one day exploring the sights of the buzzy, architecturally elegant city of Valencia - with its Cathedral, bull ring, world heritage site silk market and street cafes.
But it was the mountains that thrilled me the most, and being able to come down to the valley floor, footsore and tired after a long day, look up at their looming presence and to say with satisfaction: “I was up there.”
As for Parcent itself, it lived up to its description by a local resident and writer as “a paradise between the hills”.
Key facts: walking in Spain
:: Best for: The peace and quiet of the spectacular mountain trails, and amazing views.
:: Time to go: Around March for wild flowers, September for bird life.
:: Don’t miss: The local red and white wine.
:: Need to know: Take footwear with ankle support, those mountain tracks are uneven and can be loose underfoot.
:: Don’t forget: Sun block, plenty of water and a sun hat on walks as temperatures begin to rise.
Chris Court was a guest of Headwater, which offer the eight-day Vistas of Valencia full-board guided walking holiday from £1,058, including flights. Visit www.headwater.com or call 01606 720 199 for more information.
:: Additional images are available from Suzanne Seyghal at TUI Travel on 020 8971 2967, or email email@example.com