Until my recent visit to Castellón, I was clueless about this region of Spain, with broad sandy beaches and mountainous nature reserves that sits between Valencia in the south and Barcelona to the north. While we Brits have been missing out, the Spanish and French visitors are enjoying their sunshine holidays here, but with direct flights from Bristol and Stanstead to the new Castellón airport, there’s really no excuse not to visit! Much of the coastline is well developed with hotels and apartments, but there are also gorgeous medieval hill towns, old farms set in the orange groves and castles featured in the Game of Thrones series, which seems to have filmed practically everywhere I visit these days. Here are the highlights of my few days in Castellón that I highly recommend you visit;
1. Take a boat trip from Peñiscola
It was fun to take a boat trip along the coast from Peñiscola to see the old town peninsula from the sea and get a different perspective on the coastline. We sailed away from the port of Peñiscola on our boat called Three Thursdays and continued along the coastline, getting a great view of the walled old town and castle perched on the top, that we would visit later that afternoon. The boat was decorated with colourful lanterns and cushions for us to relax and take in the views, with cool drinks provided from the fridge.
As we passed the old town peninsula, the hotels and apartment blocks that line the coastline thinned out, as we reached the area of Sierra de Irta Natural Park, which has been protected since 2002. In this beautiful area the mountains run down to the sea and it’s a popular escape for hikers, with great views from the high points of the mountain trails. The plan was to stop the boat for a swim in one of the small unspoiled coves along the coastline, but as the water was a little choppy we decided instead to return to the north beach of Peñiscola near the old town and have to swim there before lunch.
If you go: Our boat trip was arranged through Anavegar who offer excursions for up to 12 people on their boat Three Thursdays for sightseeing and swimming along the coast from Peñiscola. More information on the Anavegar website. Prices for the trip we did from €39 per person.
2. Seafoood lunch by the port of Peñiscola
If you’re on holiday on the coast of Spain, there’s a generally a long, lazy seafood lunch involved. The Spaniards love their seafood with a passion and in the restaurants and chiringuitos around any port or beach you’ll find Spanish families tucking into the freshest seafood, served simply for everyone to share.
We stopped for lunch at Puerto Mar, one of the best seafood restaurants in Peñiscola, which is beside the old town and fish market. Every day at 4pm the fisherman bring their catch to be auctioned at this esplanade, which is a sight worth sticking around for. Seafood restaurants like this are often plain and unassuming, with bare wood tables and simple decor – the spotlight is really on the seafood. We tried a succession of sharing plates, from giant prawns to steamed mussels, grilled sardines and crisply battered octopus rings. The dressings were minimal, perhaps a wedge of lemon or a sprinkling of cayenne pepper on the octopus, with bread to mop up the juices and a green salad. With a glass of chilled local white wine, there’s no finer lunch when you’re by the sea in Castellón!
If you go: Puerto Mar website – They have a hotel that is in a different part of Peñiscola but their cafe and restaurant is beside the port area of Peñiscola old town by the fish market. Example prices per sharing plate: Squid in batter €10, Grilled Shrimps €30, Steamed mussels €8, Grilled Sardines €8, Salad €5, Chips €5
3. A wander around the old town of Peñiscola
After a long lazy lunch and perhaps a siesta, the late afternoon is a good time to visit the old town of Peñiscola. In the past this peninsula was connected to the mainland only by a strip of sand that was covered by the sea on stormy days, making it a natural fortress supplied with fresh water from wells dug deep into underlying rock. The old town was controlled by a succession of conquers who sought to dominate the Mediterranean trading routes, with Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs all playing their part in the town’s history. Walking through the arched gate we could see a tunnel in the rock where the sea could wash in, creating a blowhole called El Bufador which will splash up like a fountain on windy days.
Within the old town walls are only 520 whitewashed houses, packed closely together in narrow streets and in the past the ground floor rooms would have been used to keep animals. These days, you’re more likely to find a stylish bar or souvenir shop and this is the perfect place to come for a relaxed drink in the evening with warm air and sea views – I had my eye on the Blue Dream Cafe, with the most idyllic location on the top of the cliff. On the way up to the castle you’ll pass a maritime museum with information on Peñiscola’s seafaring roots, and a beautiful lighthouse that was built in 1892 with a fire lit in the top to warn sailors. Also look out for the pretty Casa de les petxines, with a facade that was decorated with shells in the 1950s by a local artist.
4. Drink in the views from Peñiscola castle
The views from the top of the Castillo de Peñiscola are stunning and you can see in all directions over the bay with its long sandy beach backed by hotels and apartments blocks, with the Sierra de Irta Natural Park to the south. The fortress as we see it now was built in 1294 by the Knights Templars, a powerful force of warrior monks, who held lands all around the Mediterranean. As you enter the castle you can see the store rooms and stables used by the Templars and watch audio-visual displays about their history.
From 1411 Pope Benedict XIII made the castle his residence at the time of the papal schism – he was known as Papa Luna from his family name and you will see the crescent of the moon in his coat of arms above the gates of the old town. The statue of Pope Benedict XIII overlooks the castle entrance and inside are the rooms and library where he wrote and studied until his death here in 1423. As you walk back down from the castle it’s worth also visiting the beautiful gardens with palm trees in the Artillery Park, and further down the hill the ramp and courtyard that were used in the filming of Game of Thrones Season 6.
If you go: More information about Castillo de Peñiscola on their website Castelldepeniscola.dipcas.es Tickets €5 Adults €3.50 Children. Open Summer 9.30am-9.30pm, Winter 10.30am-5.30pm. Look out for special musical, theatre and cinema events that are held in the castle.
Read more: Discovering Peniscola in Castellon
5. Wander around the medieval hill town of Morella
You’ll spot Morella from a distance long before you reach it, the walled medieval town set high on a hilltop. This was one of my favourite spots from our trip, with the air a few degrees cooler here than on the coast, due to the altitude of nearly 1000 metres. As we arrived the air was close and humid but in the late afternoon a thunderstorm broke and rain poured down until the air cleared and we could see a rainbow from the bedroom window.
The strategic position on the hilltop means that Morella has been a garisson since Roman times, being occupied by the Moors and then by the Christian kings of Aragon. You can walk around the thick walls and through the covered arcades of the old Medieval streets with houses overhanging, creating a sheltered market area that was protected from the heat in summer and cold in winter. These hills are the grazing lands for sheep and wool was an important source of wealth in the past, with colourful striped blankets woven locally from the wool to keep shepherds warm – you’ll see them in restaurant and hotel furnishings. There are a number of small museums including one about the Dinosaurs, since remains of fossils and dinosaur bones are found throughout these hills.
If you go: More information about visiting Morella and things to see on the Morella tourism website
Read more: Discovering Morella in Castellon
6. Discover the artizan foods of Morella
As you wander through the old streets of Morella it’s clear that the town is also a centre for artisan food, since every other shop seemed to be a bakery or deli with dried sausages hanging in the windows. There’s lots of honey produced locally and we popped into the Guimera shop specialising in local produce where we could see the old hives made of cork and buy golden jars of local honey as well as sausages and cheese studded with truffles that are found in the area.
Later we dined at Hotel Cardenal Ram which serves local dishes such as milk fed lamb chops, carpaccio of beef marinaded in nuts and olive oil and crepes filled with mushrooms and foie pâté. Look out for the local flaon pastry in the bakeries, which is filled with curd cheese and almonds, harking back to the Moorish roots of Morella.
If you go: More information about visiting Morella and things to see on the Morella tourism website
7. Visit the market of Castellón de la Plana
I love visiting local markets when I travel, for an insight into the culture of the area through the rose tinted glasses of food. The city of Castellón de la Plana is the capital of this region and as the name suggests is set back from the coast on a fertile plain where orange trees and other crops thrive. It was a delight for the eye to see the stalls in the air conditioned market selling perfectly polished tomatoes, juicy peppers, green beans and mottled purple aubergines mixed in with white salad onions and frilly lettuce.
We were there to see the different vegetables that are used to make a Paella such as green beans and red peppers, with butchery stalls selling the rabbit, chicken and pork that were traditionally used rather than seafood. I also find that markets like this are a great place to buy foodie souvenirs such as local olive oils, biscuits and sweets, which you can often try before you buy.
If you go: More information about visiting Castellón de la Plana and things to see on the Castellón tourism website. If you need a guide in Castellón contact our guide Matteo Ferri through Lasaria.com
Watch this video: How to cook Paella the Spanish way
8. Learn how to make authentic Paella at Mas Doblons
Twenty minutes drive from Castellon de la Plana and we arrived at the farmhouse of Mas Doblons which has been made into a living museum, where we were to learn how to make authentic paella, the best known dish of this region. Mas Doblons is set among the orange groves and before the possibility of flying fruit in from all over the world, this area was the main producer of oranges for the whole of Europe, making the farmers very wealthy. We also had a tour of the farm, seeing how the agricultural tasks of the past were done, with a grinding stone used to pulverise the olives before pressing and a donkey to turn the water wheel.
Soon it was time to get down to the important business of cooking the Paella, a job which normally involves a group of friends chatting for a couple of hours over a beer or glass of wine while the Paella cooks. I sensed that making Paella was a bit of a man’s world, just like the guys love to dominate the BBQ at home! The chef at Mas Doblos had the wood fire burning under the huge metal Paella pan to brown the rabbit, chicken and pork pieces, then added the green beans and red peppers, some white beans and saffron for colour. Once these were cooked he added plenty of water to almost cover everything and then the rice, giving it all a good stir and leaving it to bubble and absorb for around 20 minutes. Meanwhile we had a few glasses of Sangria and some delicious snacks; cubes of tortilla and local jamon and cheeses, until it was time for us to help with a bit of stirring of the Paella and sit down to eat it. That’s my kind of cooking when all the preparation and washing up is done and you just take credit for the delicious food!
If you go: More information on Mas dels Doublons website. Mas dels Doblons is located around 20 minutes by car from Castellón de la Plana and is open by appointment for visits to their living farm museum and gastronomic experiences such as Paella making. Visits can also be arranged by Reser Tours, a travel agency based in Castellon who can arrange group or individual visits to this and other places in the area.
Read More: How to make the best Paella in Castellon
9. Stroll the Ruta de las Villas at Benicàssim
The final stop on our tour of Castellón was the coastal resort of Benicàssim, a popular seaside town which developed in the 1880s when a new railway line was built between Castellón and Taragona, with a station at Benicàssim. The story goes that the railway engineer wanted to find a holiday home for his family so that he could see them while he was building the railway and so he built the first villa (Villa Pilar named after his wife) along the seafront here, close to the railway station. Friends followed suit and built their own individual villas, creating a seafront promenade of belle epoque villas that is now known as the Ruta de las Villas. We took a relaxing evening stroll along the seafront heading towards the part of the seafront known as ‘Hell’ because of the frivolous and noisy parties that took place at the end of the promenade near Hotel Voremar.
As the evening sun turned the beach golden, there were plenty of people out enjoying the warm air or playing a final game of volleyball on the beach. As we passed each of the villas, we could read the signs telling us about the Ruta de las villas and the history of each one. Sadly in the 1970s and 80s many of the villas were demolished to make way for multi-story apartment blocks, but now the villas are protected and much sought after – something of a millionnaire’s row.
If you go: More information for visiting Benicàssim and the Ruta de las Villas on the Benicàssim tourism website.
10. Cava and dinner at Club Palasiet as the sun goes down
The final stop of the evening in Benicàssim was at the furthest end of the beach when we stopped for drinks and dinner at a gorgeous new restaurant called Club Palasiet overlooking the beach. In front of the restaurant and around the headland runs the Greenway or Via Verde, a path used by cyclists and walkers that runs for 5.5km along the old railway line to Orpesa.
We enjoyed the beachside view and stylish ambiance of Club Palasiet, where we tried a selection of dishes from the a la carte menu – I loved our starters of Ensaladilla Casamayor, a kind of Russian salad and the squid presented in elegant curls on a long plate. The lamb was served with a fruity sauce of apricot and we finished with a desert of syrup soaked sponge with a green tea ice cream. This is the perfect location for an elegant dinner or drinks overlooking the ocean as the sun goes down and a perfect end to our visit to Castellón that had given us all a great taste of how much this region of Spain has to offer.
If you go: More information on the Club Palasiet website. Terrace open for drinks from 8.30am, restaurant for lunch and dinner. Set menus €25 and €35 per person as well as a la carte dishes.
Visitor information for Castellón
For more information to plan your holiday in Castellón, visit the Turismo de Castellón website and follow them on Twitter | Facebook | Instagram – for holidays in Spain visit the Spain Tourism website.
Getting to Castellón
There are direct flights with Ryanair to Castellón Airport from Bristol (twice a week Wednesday and Sunday) and Stanstead (3 times a week on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday) and from there you can easily hire a car or get a bus transfer to the places mentioned. Alternative airports are Valencia to the south (50 mins), Alicante (2 hrs 30 mins) and Barcelona to the north (2 hrs 30 mins).
Where we stayed in Peñiscola
At Peniscola we stayed at Gran Hotel Peñiscola, set right on the seafront promenade in front of a broad sandy beach that stretches right up to the old town peninsula which you can see in the distance and is 15 minutes drive away. My room overlooked the sea and pool area which had a paved sunbathing area and a second pool within a glass covered area which would be ideal outside the hot summer months. My bedroom was comfortable with a balcony and breakfast was served buffet style in the large ground floor restaurant with plenty of choice for different tastes. This is a large 437 room holiday hotel with a full animation programme of activities for all ages and is especially popular with families in the summer.
Read this review of Gran Hotel Peniscola from Traveltorecovery
Where we stayed in Morella
In Morella we stayed at Hotel Rey Don Jaume, a rustic 3 star hotel with 44 rooms in the heart of the walled town, full of authentic Spanish character. My room was charmingly decorated with colourful walls and traditional handwoven throws in a style that is typical of Morella, the striped woollen textiles being originally used as blankets to keep shepherds warm at night in the mountains. I had a fabulous view overlooking the rooftops of Morella and the surrounding countryside and even saw a rainbow when the sun returned after a late afternoon thunderstorm. Since the hotel is set into the hillside, there are quite a lot of stairs to reach the different levels including the breakfast served on a lower ground floor, but there is a lift for full accessibility. If you are touring by car you can’t park outside the hotel, as is the case everywhere in the walled town, but you can drop off luggage and then leave your car nearby in one of the car parks outside the town walls.
Read this review of Hotel Rey don Jaume from Traveltorecovery
Another great hotel option in Morella is Hotel Cardenal Ram, set in a 16th century Renaissance palace that was the home of a cardinal of the same name. Rooms are elegantly furnished with antique furniture, some with views over the countryside and there’s a lovely restaurant serving local specialities where we ate.
Where we stayed in Benicàssim
In Benicàssim we stayed at Hotel Intur Orange, a large 4 star hotel with 413 rooms and nicely landscaped gardens and pool area. The hotel is the ideal choice if you are going to the FIB Benicàssim festival in July as it’s just 10 minutes walk away and it’s also a 10 minute walk from Benicàssim’s broad, sandy beach. This is a busy holiday hotel with lots of entertainment laid on by the enthusiastic young Animation team and will suit families, couples and groups of friends who want a fun holiday in the sun, with easy access to the beach. My room on one of the upper floors had a clean, modern style in simple white decor and wood-look floor and a balcony overlooking the well kept pool area. Breakfast was served in the 1st floor restaurant overlooking the pool and there were a wide range of options to suit all tastes from the buffet stations.
For those looking for an elegant spa hotel I’d suggest Termas Marinas El Palasiet Hotel which is set on higher ground with views of the beach, or for a smaller hotel with prime beach location look at Hotel Voramar, which also has a popular beach restaurant. (Note: we visited or passed by both hotels although I did not stay there)
Thanks to Castellón Tourism for hosting this trip with a group from Bristol Bloggers and Influencers. Some of the experiences described were provided on a complimentary basis.