Castellón lies on the Mediterranean coast and is the northernmost of the provinces that form the Comunity of Valencia.
The Costa del Azahar is an area of great contrasts, as any traveller who heads there in search of something more than the typical geographic phenomena. May notice, although the capital of the province is known as Castellón de la Plana, the province as a whole is more mountainous than flat. In addition, as opposed to the coastline, which takes the form of an endless carpet of greenery with orange plantations interwined, the inland landscape is of a more rugged and wild nature.
The province of Castellón-Costa del Azahar has a fine hotel infrastructure as well as camp-sites, apartments and villas which can be rented. Most hotels and camp-sites are located at Peñíscola, Benicasim, Castellón and Oropesa, and there is also a Parador at Benicarló. Any travel agency or tourist information centre will be able to provide specific details on accommodation availability. Naturally enough, at the height of the season (July-August) it is a good idea to check on one´s booking beforehand so as to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
The capital of the province and of the Costa del Azahar is Castellón de la Plana, a commercial and cultural town and, consequently, another important place to visit. As far as monuments are concerned, one should see the arcaded Town Hall, built between 1689 and 1716 and of the Tuscan order. Opposite the Town Hall in the Plaza Mayor, the heart of the town, stands the reconstructed Concathedral of Santa María (the original was a fine example of Valencian-Gothic). Close-by in the same square, we find the splendid bell-tower known as "del Fadrí". This octagonally-shaped tower was built between 1591 and 1604, except for the lantern-like structure which crowns it and is of the later date. Eight kilometres outside Castellón de la Plana there is La Magdalena hill, where one can find the Hermitage of the same name as well as the ruins of Castell Vell (the old castle), the origin of the name Castellón. Inside a mansion house in Caballeros street there is the Provincial Museum which exhibits many important works of art, and in Núñez de Arce street in the Capuchin Convent there are ten paintings of Zurbarán. The Avenida de Lledó takes one to the 18th century basilica where the image of the town patron saint is revered, whereas the Hermitage of San Jaime de Fadrell is the location of the Municipal Ethnological Museum. Other hermitages in the locality include san Isidro, which is in the hands of the local agricultural organisations, and San Francisco, situated in the neighbourhood of El Molí de la Font (Molino de la Fuente), a place that has always had mythological links.
The maritime district of El Grao, with its fishing and commercial ports, is just 4km away from Castellón. In fact, the seafaring tradition of El Grao goes back to the 13th century. The Castellón fishing fleet is the most important of its kind on the Costa del Azahar, and this fact enables the town´s restaurants to provide a most substancial variety of exquisite dishes, thanks to the daily catches of fresh fish.
If the coastline of the Costa del Azahar overwhelms the visitor, then the inland areas will most certainly surprise him, too. Every village, be it large or small, has its own particular charm. Sometimes it will be a church, others a monument of architectural interest or perhaps a beauty spot.
As the province of Castellón is fortunate enough in having an excellent network of main and local roads, then travelling to even the most far-flung village proves to be of no problem whatsoever. Nevertheless, we shall endeavour to group together the towns and villages according to their regions or to simple tourist itineraries so as to make for a clean understanding on the part of the reader.
Going inside these walls is like travelling back to medieval times. Being in Morella is like going back into the past but without excluding all the present-day conveniences. The town preserves its centuries-old architectural construction, both in the layout of its streets as in the aristocratic buildings which once lorded over the capital of Els Ports. Examples include the Gothic Royal Convent of San Francisco; the Basílica of Santa María la Mayor, which is in the Roman-Gothic style and is very well preserved: the building which houses the Town Hall: and the Houses of Los Piquer, Los Ciurana and Cardenal Ram (the later having been converted into a kind of lodging house by the Provincial Goverment of Castellón). When travelling along the N-232 (Vinarós-Vitoria) main road towards Morella, the sight of the town rising in a series of steps up as far as the castle ruins is a most unforgettable experience. The castle itself has borne witness to many historic battles and today serves as the finishing touch to the urban geography of the town. The Shrine of La Virgen de Vallivana stands at the site of the N-232 and serves as an excellent visiting card for what Morella has to offer later on within its remarkable walled perimeter. One inside Morella the visitor will have to forget all about dishes based on seafood and fish in favour of the local cooking that uses truffles and is as rich as the very character of its people. And one should not leave the town without discovering its craftsmanship in textiles which the people from Morella have been making to perfection for many centuries. Some of the old looms are still in working order, and, despite the fact that they are really museum pieces, go to show how clothmaking has nothing to do with the fast-moving industrialisation of today.
Not far from Morella is Forcall, where there is a restaurant located within the walls, and by continuing along the same road we reach Zorita, a small village that is famous for its Shrine of La Virgen de la Balma. This shrine is set into the rocks of the mountain and is a place of pilgrimage. In bygone times travellers who thought to be possessed of the devil would come here from distant lands in search of a cure for their illness. Nowadays, all that remains of those poor souls is their memory which has now become a legend. The people who come to visit it now are perfectly normal and cannot hide their emotion when entering the shrine.
On the way to Morella or when returning form the areas of Els Ports, the traveller should stop off at the ancient Gothic village of Catí. Here there is an abundance of buildings with pointed arches, and the visitor will be amazed by the number and great quality of its monuments. The 13th century church, for example, has a Romanesque portal. Just 4 km outside the village and up in the mountains is the Hermitage of Nuestra Señora de L´Avellá, built in the 16th century and improved in the 18th century. L´Avellá is a well-known spa throughout the region and its waters are particularly recommended for those suffering from skin complaints. The water from L´Avellá is bottled and sold by the Village Council of Catí. In addition, the village is famed for its cheeses. There are restaurants offering fine local cooking, and the traveller would do well to try the local dishes after spending some time visiting the monuments.
Albocácer belongs to the same area and is some 35 km from Castellón. Its church was built in 1704, but the church of San Juan is even older (13th-c). A visit should be paid to the Shrine of San Pablo which dates back to 1590. It stands 3 km form Albocácer in a beautiful location sorrounded by enormous trees that are very old. There are also many prehistoric sites to be found around Albocácer, including those at La Valltorta Gorge. The traveller would do well to visit this area on foots as the landscape is rocky and hard. However, the examples of prehistoric rock paintings to be found make the visit more than worthwhile.
Travelling by car just a short distance we come to yet another interesting town, this time in the area of El Alto Maestrazgo. From a tourist point of view, this town has the best to offer as regards hotels, boarding houses and holiday flats of all the inland towns and villages on the Costa de Azahar, mainly concentrated around the Fuente En Segures spa. The old town still preserves its towers and parts of the old walls, not to mention "La Porta de la Mola" -one of the few examples of Arab architecture in existence in the area.
Continuing in the direction of Teruel the next stop after Benasal, its spa and El Rivet nature park, is Villafranca del Cid, a town with a flourishing industry in stockings and fine lingerie. Villafranca is a town that surprises for its great vitality. Sant Mateu, in the area of El Bajo Maestrazgo, is another inland town with many fine monuments. The Archpriest´s Church of San Mateu dates from 1350 and is the site of a small but interesting museum.
There are discotheques and night clubs throughout the province, and at Benicasim during the summer there are flamenco shows. For those people who enjoy classical music there is the "Francisco Tárrega" International Guitar Contest, held at Benicasim at the end of Summer. Every summer Peñíscola offers several musical events at the Castle of El Papa Luna.
Any tourist coming to the Costa del Azahar is guaranteed to have a good time. Not only are there excellent beaches for sunbathing and swimming but also a wide range of facilities and establishments where both young and old can enjoy themselves.
On all the beaches on the Costa del Azahar one can hire small boats for the practice of all kinds of water sports. It should also be stressed that the entire coastline is very safe. There is a Sailing School at Benicasim wich is run by the Department of Culture, Education and Science. Albergue Argentina. Avenida Ferrandis Salvador s/n.
The most important aspect of the local cooking from the province of Castellón is the fact that it all stems from home-produced natural products. There is no one typical style or dish since the differences between the dishes from the coastal and inland towns and villages obviously vary a great deal.
Naturally enough, on the coast there is a great use of fish, shellfish and vegetables, since these are the products yielded from the sea and the land in that area.
Inland cooking is a much richer affair, relying mainly on lamb and pork, as well as game and that gastronomic delight that is the truffle. The latter are particulary abundant in the area of "El Ports" and Morella has been dubbed the truffle-capital of the province.
If there is one dish linking both coastal and inland areas, not only in the region of the Costa del Azahar but throughout the Community of Valencia, then that is the rice. These dishes come in a great may different varieties, ranging from the universlly known Valencia paella to arroz a banda.
Vinarós, Benicarló, Peñíscola, Alcocéber, Torrenostra, Oropesa, Benicasim, Castellón de la Plana (with El Grao) and Burriana are the main towns where fish dishes are the main types of local cooking, especially those which have ports and a fishing fleet, as is the case of Vinarós, Benicarló, Peñíscola, Castellón and Burriana.
The sea provides some extremely high quality fish and shellfish which, in the hands of experts cooks, is turned into the most original of dishes. There are a whole host of recipes based on king prawns which, in some establishments in Vinarós, Benicarló, Peñíscola and Castellón, come into a world of their own. From the simplest dishes of grilled or perhaps boiled prawns served with a variety of sauces, to more complicated recipes invented by master chefs. When confronted with a dish of king prawns it is quite possible to lose all sense of time and forget about one´s problems.
The Mediterranean coastline also provides other perhaps more reasonably priced fish and shellfish. Examples include exquisite red mullet (which the people from these parts consider to be the only one of their kind in the world and different from those caught else where), sole, sea bass, gilt-head bream, the modest but tasty sardine, fresh anchovies, excellent squid and cuttlefish, baby octopus with onions, razor-shells, date-shells (a very typical shellfish of the area with an excellent taste), as well as eels and elvers.
Every cook has his own particular way of preparing things, so the visitor may choose between the simple or more elaborate dishes. The so-called zarzuela de pescado is a compendium of all the gastronomic wealth provided by the Mediterranean along the Costa del Azahar. On somewhat similar lines is monkfish "a la marinera" or suquet de peix. Gil-head bream and sea bass are generally baked in the oven on a bed of potatoes and onions upon which the fish slowly cooks. The dish is then completed by the addition of aromatic herbs picked from the neighbouring mountains.
One of the most complete dishes to be found on the Costa del Azahar is arroz a banda , which in fact is two dishes and really constitutes a complete meal. On the one hand it is a kind of special paella, since the broth which form sits base is produced from all kinds of fish. The latter appears in another dish but not with the rice itself. The most typical fish used is a good-sized sea bass, although there are many other similar kinds that are also possible. This is then served with potatoes and a apecial sauce known as all-i-oli (garlic and olive oil) which complements the rice dish. It is not a meal for the fainthearted.
Other typical rice dishes include Valencian paella, with chicken, rabbit and plenty of green vegetables (as well as some white snails known locally as "baquetes"); arroz al horno (baked rice), with blood sausage and pieces of pork; and el empedrat. Rice goes well with practically everything, and there is a rice dish with cod which is enough to make anyone´s mouth water. However, the fact is that probably the best rice dish of all must surely be lobster paella, the piece de résistance of only the finest restaurants.
Nevertheless, fish, shellfish and rice are not the only representatives of the local cooking to be found in these parts. In the inland towns and villages, for example, it is meat that plays a vital role. Also of special mention is Morella, the capital of the area of Els Ports, which is noted for its fine quality truffles. One of the more interesting combinations to have been achieved has been truffles lamb.
Generally speaking, any inland town or village, no matter how small it is, can offer the traveller simple but healthy local cooking, consisting of excellent lamb, fine sausage-type products, marinaded or stewed partridge, good hams and smoked meats, local cheeses, and typical stews. Each village makes use of all those ingredients that goes back many centuries to produce simple but at the same time excellent fare.
The area of El Alto Palancia is noted for excellent fruit and vegetables, along with fine quality veal, whereas in Montanejos, the capital of El Alto Mijares, the most typical dish is roast lamb.
The route that runs from Castellón as far as Albocácer is famed for its restaurants specialising in lamb and sausage-type products served a la brasa (grilled over charcoal). This is particularly common around Vall d´ Alba and Los Rosildos.
Then there are typical dishes associated with certain villages. For instance, at Forcall there is sopa forcallana (soup); at Benasal and Useras a dish known as el tombet (lamb stew with white snails); at Catí, its typical desserts, including homemade cuajada (curd) that is difficult to find in other parts.
It would be impossible to mention all the different alternatives available with regard to typical local cooking. Most restaurants offer a wide choice, as well as most national and international dishes. Then there are also the tapas (hors d´oeuvres) on offer in bars and the like. Eating on the basis of small quantities of a variety of foods is easy, quick and convenient. These tapas might well take the form of fried fish, grilled cuttlefish, squid a la romana (fried in an egg and flour), blood sausage, prawns in garlic, grilled sardines, steamed mussels or perhaps in a sauce, snails, Spanish potato omelette, meat balls, tripe, pig´s trotters, fried anchovies in vinegar. This list includes just some of the snacks available at many bars that can help to put one on until the next meal.
The vast majority of the towns and villages on the Costa del Azahar hold some kind of local festivities throughout the year, particularly in the months of July, August and September. In Castellón, the day after the third Sunday in Lent, they celebrate the socalled "Fiestas de la Magdalena", of which the Bull Festival is the highlight, with five bullfights and a Novillada (a bullfight with young bulls and novice bullfighters). The entire festival lasts nine days, during which time the city of Castellón never sleeps. Celebrations take place in the streets around las "gaiatas" (kind of monuments where light is used to give spectacular artistic effects).
Carnivals are becoming more and more popular, being particulary famous at the town of Vinarós where there are parades with people from all the neighbouring provinces.
In March there is the setting-up and subsequent burning of las Fallas (elaborate structures made of papier-mâché representing famous people or scenes) at Burriana, Benicarló and, to a lesser extent, Vall de Uxó (La Vall d´Uixó).
During Holy Week there are processions on the Wednesday and Good Friday at Villarreal, as well as a representation of the Passion of Christ at Borriol with the title "New Jerusalem". It takes place in different parts of the village and the surrounding area.
In the summertime the entire Costa del Azahar becomes a fiesta and it would be almost impossible to mention all the towns and villages that celebrate the popular festivities associated with their patron saints. The visitor who wishes to enjoy himself will be spoilt for choice both at inland towns as well as on the coast. The summer festivities also include exhibitions of vaquillas (amateur bullfights with young bulls) and the classic toro embolado (bou embolat) -another typical speciality of the area.
Mention should also be made of the popular festivities of San Antonio, held in the month of January. These take place in some of the villages in the region of Els Ports (Forcall near Morella and Villafranca del Cid in particular), where the age old customs of paying tribute to fire are still observed: these festivals of Sant Antoni are also important in Benicarló and Benicasim. The "Anunci" and the "Sexeni" of Morella are of great touristic interest.
The Costa del Azahar is particularly renowned for its ceramic and textile production, although other craft industries also include the use of wood, esparto grass, iron and leather.
The towns of Alcora, Ribesalves and Onda go to form the triangle of pottery production par excellence. Here, many craftsmen continue producing pottery in the same way that it was done may centuries ago. With patience and total dedication they produce real works of art in limited series, changing creations of great beauty.
The potters from Onda, Alcora and Ribesalves have a certain skill in combining beauty and usefulness, since a large proportion of their works are decorative and at the same time usable objects in the home. Such is the case of coffee sets, crockery and a variety of receptacles.
The more mundane items of pottery, such as earthenware pitchers, have been produced since time immemorial at the potteries at Traiguera and Segorbe.
Morella and many other towns and villages in the area of Els Ports are all noted for their excellent creations in the field of textiles. In fact, blankets from Morella are famous throughout Europe. However, this is not the only thing that is produced. Nowadays, all kinds of clothes are manufactured, still of course using the old patterns and traditional techniques.
Craftsmen in wood and iron are scattered over a much wider area, but the traveller who wishes to know something about the local craftmenship in general should pay a visit to the Provincial Museum of Local Crafts which was set up by the Castellón Chamber of Commerce to serve as a show case for the work of craftsmen throughout the different regions. The Museu d´Artesanía del la Cambra de Comerç can be found in the Avenida Hermanos Bou, 79.