Easter Trip to els Ports

The report of our 4 day trip to the region of Els Ports (inland Castellón) where we explored some of the best hiking routes in the area. We have also visited several small, charming villages such as Castellfort and, of course, the capital of the comarca – Morella.

Day 1 – Sierra de Irta

You may say, wait a minute, Sierra de Irta is on the coast, what does it have to do with Els Ports, and you would be right. Since the initial weather forecast was promising us some rain inland, we decided to stay closer to the sea and hike from Peñiscola to the shrine of Sant Antoni in Sierra de Irta. This proved to be a good choice, as the mix of sunshine and gentle sea breezes was perfect weather for hiking. It was great to feel a little bit of Spring warmth, while at the same anticipating a light evening rain, which could already be sensed and smelled in the air.

After a couple of jokes regarding the name of the town, we started the hike. As we were going up, we were able to get better and better views of Peñiscola, and eventually the whole coastline, with Sierra de Montsia marking the border between Comunidad Valenciana and Cataluña in the background. Apparently it was not allowed to touch any cows on this trail, so we made sure not to, although it was very tempting.
Soon it was time to stop for lunch, and we found just the spot for that – a couple of rocks beside a trail where we could observe the Sant Antoni shrine and the coast, while peacefully munching on some snacks brought from home. Right after lunch we stumbled upon a well. We thought about refilling our water bottles from there, since the water appeared to be holy. However, we did not managed to do this, since the bucket turned out to be just a bit too holy. The uneaten banana became our new official guide from that point, as it seemed to be quite useful in showing direction.

We continued the hike after lunch, and appreciated the variety of flowers throughout the hike. Spring is already in full bloom, which makes hiking especially appealing in this season. Sierra de Irta is one of the best areas to go on this type of hike, as the green hills are contrasted with the bright purple of Irises and other flowers. As we were guessing whether the clouds, that started to cover the sky, would bring some water or not, we started our descent. The views here were focused more on the valley.

Soon we got to the shrine, which provided some great photo opportunities (both of the shrine and the views afar).

Right before returning to the starting point we encountered some donkeys, which were quite happy to be fed some grass, generously provided to them by Cate. They even followed us along the fence as long as they could, expecting to get some more.
Finally, we came back and drove to Peñiscola, to have a drink on one of the terraces in the old town and take a stroll through it. The more enthusiastic ones even got to run down (or even roll!) down a huge sand hill. The rain did not really get its way that day, and we were able to enjoy some nice sunset colors, as we drove to our hotel in Portell de Morella. We arrived right in time for dinner, which the hotel was still able to serve to its customers. The only Spanish speaker in our group – Diana (coming from Peru), got some chance to practice her English, while the most English of us – Luke, was able to sharpen his Spanish. It works both ways!
Overall, a good start for our 4-day adventure!

Day 2 – Barranco de los Molinos

As the second day was still promising some precipitation, and more walking was planned for the following days, we opted to do a shorter hike – Camí dels Molins in Ares del Maestre, and explore the villages in our vicinity. After having breakfast in the hotel, we went to explore Portell de Morella a little bit. The town is quite small, but still deserves a visit and it was definitely pleasant to take a morning walk through it. We finished at the only shop/bakery of the town to stock up on some snacks for our hike. Next, we got in the minivan to start our drive to Ares. As we drove along the meandering roads to the start of the hike, the town of Castellfort caught our attention. Its position is quite stunning from afar, overhanging the valley that separates it from Portell, so we decided to stop and take a look around. The town is quite pretty, as are most towns in the region. At one point later in the trip Luke even asked if there are any towns, which are not pretty, in this region. It is a legitimate question, as almost all the villages here do have a touch of their own charm and are well worth a visit.

After a stroll through Castellfort, we continued our journey and arrived in Ares del Maestre to start the hike. The route is not typical, as it goes down to the ravine first, with the main ascent waiting for you at the end of the hike. The descent was very scenic, and we stopped various times to take a photo of imposing Ares above us. It was quite amusing to pass a woman who was accompanied by two cats – one relaxing in a special backpack, and the other hanging on with all his strength, sitting on top of the same backpack.

Soon we came to the first water mill (there are five on the route, hence it’s name) – Molí Sol de Costa, which nowadays is also a guesthouse and the visitor interpretive centre. The mill is located in an idyllic place at the bottom of the valley, wit a small stream running right next to it. It was curios to learn about the works of this somewhat simple machinery and explore it closely, as it is most easily done at this mill. From here on, the route surprised us at every turn, as we were getting new angles on the surroundings, making our way up. Eventually we made a lunch stop at Molino del Salt, which seemed to be the best spot to rest and contemplate the views from above of path we have just taken and the whole valley.

The final part is quite picturesque as well, and it has some peculiar elements. One of them is small wood of pine trees, all of them grouped in one spot. Soon we were back in Ares del Maestre, where we stopped to sit on a terrace right in the center square of the town. Since the energy levels got high again we went for a walk through Ares, aiming to get up to the top of its castle as well. When we did that, it was evident that the rain is finally coming, so we started to make our way back to the car. The rain started surprisingly quickly, but we managed to find shelter below a small roof right next to the castle. By this point the little rain turned to thunderstorm with hail, which was quite exciting, as we already had a place to hide from it. Just a couple of minutes later it weakened though and we got back in the car. After 10 more minutes of driving there was no sign of rain at all – so easily changing is the weather in these mountains.

Since the sun was shining again, we decided to make a stop in Cinctorres – a small town we passed through several times during our trip. If you think about a name for a couple of seconds, you would conclude that the town must have 5 towers, and so did we. Upon closer inspection, we were able to only find 2 towers, with some potential candidates for one more. When the confusion became too strong, we encountered a tourist office, so now they had to resolve our question. It turned out that the name comes from the towers surrounding the town, all a couple of kilometres away in different directions. The only town that was actually in the town (the two towers we had found did not count, as it turned out) could not be visited or seen, since apparently the newer buildings were built around it. Can’t believe every town name, I guess. Not that uncommon though, as Spain has a famous example of a three-lies-villageSantillana del Mar (there is nothing holy in there according to locals, nor is it flat, nor is there a sea).
The town of Cinctorres would become a regular stop for us though. Its main point of interest for us was its bakery – El Pou – and even though the name sounded unfortunate (especially for the Frenchman in our group – Bertrand), we had already learned not to trust names too much. The products of the bakery turned out to be exceptional – each new thing we had tried there seemed to taste better than the previous ones. From sweets, such as cherry clafoutis to more savory things, such as spinach empanadas and “Spanish pizzas” – coca de verduras, every one of those baked goods was highly desired by our group members.

Day 3 – Forcall to Morella

The third day promised us the longest hike of the trip – a 17 kilometer walk from Forcall to Morella. Unlike some other towns, the town name – Forcall is justified indeed. The name comes from the shape of forca (hayfork in Valenciano), created by the rivers Caldés, Cantavieja and Morella, which converge together in Forcall forming the river Bergantes.
The main climb of the day was right at the beginning of the hike, taking us close to the top of Roca del Migdia. When we got there, we took the opportunity to rest a bit and take photos, while vultures were circling above us, giving the beginning of a hike a bit of a dramatic feel.

We continued along a flatter (although not everyone agrees with my definition of flat) trail along Mola de Garumba. The trail is quite peculiar, since you get to walk through the forest on a single track along the mountain side, while observing the valley and the river below. Quite a combination! On top of that, Morella pops up from time to time in the background, getting closer and closer with every step. Eventually we made our way behind the peak and chose this spot to be our lunch stop. It was a good choice, since we were able to enjoy some sun, while observing our destination in the distance.

We could see the entirety of the remaining trail from our lunch spot, and it promised to provide some nice views of Morella. That was exactly the same, and plenty of photo opportunities emerged as we were circling our way around the medieval settlement. Other landscape elements, such as lonely masías, as well as livestock, such as herds of sheep added a special touch to the already picturesque scenery. It was quite amazing to enjoy surprisingly different views from the top of a seemingly even trail on the plateau.

The final part of the trail took us down to the valley and the back up to Morella. Here we could finally finish our longest route and sit down for some refreshing drinks and chocolate.

Day 4 – Culla

It was time to pack our things and head back towards Valencia. But, of course, we still had a hike planned for that day and a visit to Cullla. After another stop in Cinctorres’ bakery, which by now was becoming legendary, we have arrived in the final town of our 4-day itinerary. Culla is a pretty town, and is included in the list of prettiest towns of Spain, but it also tends to get quite crowded, especially during holidays, so we quickly became eager to get out into nature and hike on those remote trails. Font de l’Oli trail provides just that, as only after a mile we were surrounded by gorgeous landscapes and could appreciate the valley of Montlleó river from the top. The presence of livestock farms gave this part of a hike an Alpine feel (says someone who have never been to Alps), which was very enjoyable.

The trail started meandering down from here through the pine forest, regularly interrupted by sunny openings. In the middle of the descent we passed by the spring – Font de l’Oli, which gives the name to the trail. At the end of the descent, the views opened up again and we decided to stop for lunch at one of the abandoned houses, unfortunately common to the area of interior Castellón. The views here are the best we had on this trail: the Montlleó valley below us, a cliff sticking out in the middle of it and the surrounding vastness of open space make this spot very peaceful.

It was time to start our ascent back to the village. Fortunately, the ascent was gradual and went along a gravel road. At some point it even became quite hot, but not for long, as a gentle breeze was bringing us some fresh air from time to time. Here Cate also decided to demonstrate us the importance of having a trekking pole. The advantages are several: you can push yourself forward, spreading the load between the muscles of your legs and arms; you can knock off some high hanging fruit from a tree; you can engage in pole vaulting, climbing up to 5 meter high rocks with ease; and you can even get into a knight battle, if you happen to travel on a horse.

Eventually we were back in Culla. Towards the end of the hike everyone was thinking of ice-cream, but the spacious terrace of the main bar was a bit windy, so we opted for some beverages instead.

This was a great way to conclude our four-day Easter journey! The region of Els Ports is definitely a place I would love to come back to again, as every single corner of its villages and every single turn of its trails provides something special and magical and leave you with a feeling freedom that people inhabiting this area for centuries must have had.

Photos: Catherine Salsbury & Dmitry Blatov

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