A dive into fabled pools and family history in two weeks near Valencia.
By Darya Mead
Water is everywhere in Anna. It pools in the gorges, hides underground, falls from the cliffs, and flows through the town. There’s a water museum and a lovely fountain where generations gathered to wash their laundry.
The name of town translates to “water” in Arabic, but for a San Francisco mom traveling during a 100-degree-plus, unrelenting August heat wave, “Anna” may as well mean “paradise.”
Our Spanish adventure had begun with a few days in Barcelona worshipping soccer and Gaudi. We then spent the next two weeks near Valencia – in the city itself, in the country near Anna, and on the coast in Jávea (or Xàbia in Valencian).
But Anna stole our hearts. The town is a remarkably unique and unexpected Spanish countryside getaway that is becoming more popular, especially with French and Spanish water adventurers and canyoners.
We had come for personal reasons: To meet my husband’s long lost relatives. This adventure was all about reconnecting with long lost family and finding my husband’s roots. But as luck would have it, Anna is a lovely little town with many attractions, roots aside.
My father-in-law had been born in Anna and adopted as a young child by his aunt, who had married an American and settled in Cleveland. My husband had finally visited his Spanish relatives tin 2017 and they all wanted to meet his family from San Francisco. We had even given our sons Spanish family names — Beltran and Sarrion — as middle names so we were beyond excited to meet the Spanish side of the family.
We drove our rental car through a once lush, now dry landscape not unlike Northern California’s. We arrived in Anna at midday to find the town shuttered up to keep the cool in and the heat out. We had reservations at a local restaurant with two of my father-in-law’s eight surviving siblings, his baby sisters who were not even born when he left for America. It was a wonderful meal of traditional fare, beer, wine and conversation, and the reunion was off to the races.
Into the Water
While in town, we visited three gorgos — or gorges — around Anna (see details below). The cool, clear waters were simply magical, as was the scene of locals enjoying a respite from the summer heat.
One day, the extended family gathered near a giant outdoor paella oven at a cousin’s casita, a little cabin on the outskirts of town to celebrate our visit. It could not have been more charming for us Americans; it was much like a scene from a foreign film. A salad of garden tomatoes needed assembling, and I was thrilled to be useful and to be taken under the wings of the women to help prepare the dish.
We ate under the trees with plentiful beer, wine, spirits and animated conversation. I mustered up some Spanish and asked a few relatives about hiking to the nearby waterfall. Despite a robust meal and copious libations, a few strapping relatives agreed to take all four of us and Logan, the dog, to the waterfall that afternoon.
To the Falls
We set out from the parking lot, my husband in flip flops and all four of us unclear on the length and difficulty of the hike. How hard could it be? We hike a lot. The falls were so close to the town, and many relatives said they had been many times. Maybe 2 miles? No problem.
But our guides took us a different way, and we wound up scrambling, wading through waist-deep, mucky water with backpacks overhead. It was dramatic, to say the least, and my husband lost a flip flop in the quicksand-like mud, but we finally reached the waterfall where a group of families had gathered.
Folks were splashing, picnicking, smoking, and clamoring around the cliffs. The sound of the falls was deafening, making conversations challenging but keeping the mood festive. It was quite a scene, one that I won’t soon forget.
Diving into the falls was religious. The water was beyond refreshing and felt like such a reward after the trek. It was surreal to swim and watch rappellers coming down the waterfall one by one.
We didn’t stay long, which was too bad; access to such a fantastic waterfall felt so special that I didn’t want to leave. But the route back was faster and easier, and we were grateful to our sure-footed and good-natured guides. Javier, our 15-year-old old cousin, graciously gave my husband his sneakers and hiked in his socks on the way back.
Back at the casita, there was more family fun and a focaccia-like dish for dinner. It was a fantastically full day. I’m still feeling the love from our Anna family and the waters of their gorgeous gorgos.
The Good Stuff
Anna & Around
The Gorgos We visited three on our trip. First was a cool-pool swim in Albufera de Anna at 10 p.m., still beastly hot and full of bathers. The unusual aqua color of the water and lighting made it a memorable dip.
The next day, Javier, a teenage relative, took us to his favorite Gorgo Catalan. My favorite for actual swimming, it had a rope swing and an area to play soccer– which my boys enjoyed doing with the town’s teen posse. We wanted to let our sons bond with their Spanish cousin and locals, otherwise I could have stayed in this spot all afternoon.
My husband and I headed to the most dramatic spot called Gorgo Escalera (the staircase gorge), and it was everything and more. A beautiful walk took us down a rickety staircase alongside old, growth-gnarled cacti. There were just a few other bathers there and luscious, cooling, waist-deep water to plunge into. We saw a few sets of aquamen-type crews with repelling gear and flippers swim by; canyoning is a big thing.
Each of the three gorgos we visited had these beautiful hand-crafted mosaic signs, small dirt pathways, and spots to lay a towel or picnic. We could hear a waterfall and carefully hiked to the precipice, but my fear of heights, slippery footing, and fatigue from the heat made me fearful of trying to bushwhack down. Hence, my later expedition to the waterfall.
Xàtiva Castle This was a great day trip to a cute town nearby named Xàtiva. The dramatic castle sits atop a hill and overlooks the region, strategically located on the ancient roadway Via Augusta leading from Rome across the Pyrenees and down the Mediterranean coast. We went early to beat the heat and supposed crowds and were virtually alone. My boys loved the visit: walking all around the ramparts, exploring the weaponry, and learning the history of the fortress. I enjoyed the views, fountains, pomegranate trees and relatively un-touristy feel to the visit. As we left, we saw a wedding party organizing which had a fairy tale quality. Wear good walking shoes, and, if there is no parking, use public transport or hike up from the town; it’s well worth the schlep to enjoy a 360 view of the Valencia scenery. The town has a sweet market, loads of cafes, and a shoe shop nearby where I found the best pair of silver sandals (!)
The Palace of the Counts of Cervello Built in the 18th-century over the ruins of Anna Castle, it is located in the center of the town and was at one time a royal residence after the royal palace was demolished. Our visit was exceptional, as we had a private tour with Lionel our British uncle who had married into the family and was involved with the renovations of the palace. It houses a museum, and we found artifacts owned by my husband’s grandma, which brought me to tears. Learning about the history of water in the area was fascinating. The Moorish architecture, elegant rooms, furnishings and fountains did not disappoint. We were especially into the fountains! It costs only a few Euros to visit and is well worth it.
The Costa Blanca at Jávea (Xàbia)
After our family reunion we headed to the Mediterranean coast, to the town of Jávea or Xàbia (Each town in Valencia has two names, one in Spanish and one in Valencian, a dialect of modern Catalan. We dug all the X’s!) The small seaside resort on the Mediterranean — mostly rocky with not much sand — shocked my California boys. The combination of the rocky beaches and warm water was alien to them. We had bought a kadima (beach paddle ball set) in Barcelona and enjoyed playing and acting like porpoises in the beautiful sea together.
My favorite thing in Xàbia was to tour the miradores (scenic viewpoints), each with historic interest and glorious views. Other highpoints included visiting La Plana Windmills and shopping for ceramics. I wish I could have packed a whole suitcase full of the festive bowls and platters. I did carefully transport home some colorful tiny olive dishes — the kind we had on practically every table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
We also had possibly the best meal in a restaurant with cousin Eva and her hip boyfriend Juan: An extraordinary Valencian/Catalan paella dish made with seafood and noodles called fideuà at La Casita de Paco. It was a Sunday afternoon, and it was fun to dine with all the Spanish families.
Day Trips from Jávea/Xàbia
We could have stayed longer at the coast (a theme of our trip–necessitating a repeat); I loved the whole vibe, but we had an itinerary to follow. It was still beastly hot outside, so one day we visited a cave, mostly because we thought it would be cool, and it was, in both temperature and appeal. Cueva las Calaveras (the cave of skulls) was kitschy, but in a totally charming way. The prehistoric history we learned on a little self-guided tour was interesting to all of us. On the way back, we stopped in a small town called Gata de Gorgos, known for its wicker industry. We did quite a bit of shopping, much to the teenagers’ chagrin. I fell in love with the hot plates and baskets and got a great floppy sun hat which I put to good use. The town is an artist spot and boasts a number of cafes as well.
Another evening we headed down the coast to Teulada for a fiesta. It was actually a street fair, but definitely different than what you’d typically find at one. We wandered the narrow old town streets, nibbled on a variety of treats, and mingled with the crowds. A Medieval Festival and Fair: we found a falconer, jugglers and all sorts of games, and costumed folks. Churches were open for visitors and it was a fun-filled local evening. I can’t stress how lovely it was to feel fully immersed in local culture.
We also took a day trip just up the coast to Dénia, another popular Costa Blanca resort town and the home of another cousin (my father-in-law had seven siblings). The coastal drive was stellar and the Moorish castle intriguing. We walked along the port promenade and enjoyed people watching, shopping, and looking out into the sea where ferries to the Balearic Islands were headed. Drinking in a beautiful plaza and eating a tasty Thai meal (which felt almost sacrilegious in Spain) rounded out the evening.
All in all, our time in Xàbia was special, and I often replay many of the views in my mind: The blue sky, the rocky coast, and the beautiful relaxed feel of a European summer resort. Recently I visited Santa Catalina Island off the coast of California, a place that gave me a glimmer of that same feeling, but still with all the American trappings it couldn’t hold a candle to these Mediterranean towns — I will definitely go back.
Our final stop was the city of Valencia. The third largest city in Spain, it’s often bypassed for trips to Madrid and Barcelona. We adored our time in this city about the size of San Francisco. Part of the charm was the adorable attic duplex apartment we rented in the old quarter, also called El Carmen. Overlooking the beautiful rooftops and with a little roof deck, this apartment was just perfect for us, despite the steep narrow climb up the six flights — more on that later.
Valencia is a bustling, art-centric manageable town. It’s very walkable, and murals delighted us everywhere we went. We stumbled upon a few galleries/ museums that were mesmerizing including a contemporary art center in an old convent. The CCCC – The Contemporary Cultural Center of El Carmen is housed in a historic building with a stunning courtyard. The phenomenal exhibits, including this amazing plastic balloon zoo, delighted all four of us. We visited a number of sights including the famed Art Nouveau Mercat Central, a public market and big tourist draw. I loved roaming these markets and taking in the vibrant scene: all the colors, displays, and unique offerings.
One afternoon we headed out to a neighborhood called Benimaclet, a student and immigrant area accessible by the fantastically clean and efficient tram system. It was a sleepy August day, but the murals and diversity did not disappoint, and we enjoyed a yummy Middle Eastern meal.
On the way back, we detoured to the Valencia FC Soccer team’s official store. My boys are both super fans. My 14-year-old son, who had struggled with the heat and jet lag, was so excited. I hadn’t seen him this animated the entire trip! He has spoken often of how exceptional the entire adventure was, but at the time I felt as though we were dragging him around. In hindsight, I think he was processing all the experiences in his own way, and I was just looking for him to be as outwardly smitten with travel as I am.
Our older son stayed an extra day in Valencia, before embarking on a four-week backpacking trip with his buddy through Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Belgium and Holland. He visited the City of Arts and Sciences: a really remarkable entertainment-based cultural and architectural complex that is one of the most important modern attractions in the city. We loved Valencia and I would return in a heartbeat.
Not so Good
The Heat Did I mention it is hot in Spain in August?
Transport Fails We took an overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. I had remembered it to be charming; it wasn’t, and I regretted not springing for a couchette — I misunderstood the ‘reclining seats’ to be more than what they were, and there was no air conditioning. I would have to say that was the one fail of the trip and it was my fault. We also tried to drive into the Old Quarter of Valencia – not easy or advisable.
Good to Know
Eat In and Save Our approach to food when traveling — in general — as a family was to plan one big meal out and, if there is a fridge in the rental, have most breakfasts in. Our first stop, in each town we visited, was a supermarket — one of my favorite things to do. We would buy coffee, bottled water, milk, yogurt, fruit, bread, jam, meats, eggs, and snacks. A few times we got items for light dinners. That way we saved money and didn’t spend all our time eating meals.
That said, it’s one of the great pleasures of travel to linger in cafes and take two-hour meal breaks. This was amplified by our struggles with the heat, which also reduced our appetite. We enjoyed tapas, paella, and the famous bocadillos (sandwiches) which worked for any meal.
On our last night in Valencia, we joined yet other cousin for perhaps our fanciest meal at Lalola restaurant. Recommended by our foodie Millennial lawyer cousin, Lalola did not disappoint. Its outdoor terrace is situated on a cul-de-sac. The restaurant offers a multi-course meal with unique twists on local specialties. We ordered the bounteous full menu and the ingredients and service were impeccable. The restaurant also caters to gluten-free folks (not our issue), but it just demonstrates their hipness and attention to detail.
Accommodations We were lucky on this trip to stay with friends or relatives in 3 of the 5 locations, but for Barcelona and Valencia, Airbnb was great. Our Barcelona apartment was so huge; each son had a room, and it was air conditioned. What it lacked in charm (the apartment itself was well appointed but it was in a big apartment building), it made up for in location and amenities: a great solarium to hang laundry, 2 bathrooms, and a large living room. In Valencia, I can’t say enough about our high-end garret. I won’t soon forget the feeling of the ceiling fans whirling overhead and sounds of church bells tolling as I was lying in the cozy bed in my newly purchased sundress for an afternoon siesta.
Public Transport Spanish public transportation puts America to shame. We rode buses, metros, bikes, trains, taxis, and rental cars with ease. Our older son scootered and biked all over Europe, sans helmet.
Car Rental It was really nice to have a car in Spain, particularly on the coast and in the small country town of Anna. The highways are impeccable (so much better than those in California). Rest areas are magical and not horrendous, with good food, easy parking and clean restrooms, and although there are lots of tolls, highways are pristine. But in big cities, forget the car. It was a nightmare getting our rental car to our AirBnB in Valencia in the old quarter: too many narrow one-way streets and cul-de-sacs.
Airports The Valencia airport was great, I had to change in Madrid and it was a complete beat-the-clock race to get to our second flight. Madrid’s airport is huge and hard to navigate. Spanish airlines feed you a lot, I recall three separate bocadillos on a 12-hour flight as well as a fantastic choice of Spanish films for entertainment!
Packing Tips Don’t forget:
- A fan, seriously, an old lady fan, one that gives you carpal tunnel, just channel your inner Spanish grandma if you are headed to Spain in August.
- Refillable canteen water bottle. These are great for air travel, daily use and can be placed in the freezer or fridge.
- I always travel with a sarong which I use as a beach towel/ cover-up, picnic spread, and as a makeshift shawl for air conditioning. The Spanish metros were surprisingly over air conditioned and shocking to the system in the 100-degree heat. I even used it for a cool down technique, where I would take a cold shower and then lie under the fan draped in my sarong. The sarong was useful and easy to wash too.
- A Swiss Army knife (pack it in checked baggage — we have lost too many to security) for bread and cheese on the go, minor repairs and other sundry needs.
- Books for each family member and encourage reading down time.
- Pack lighter than you would think. I bought a lot of dresses and didn’t need half of my clothes brought from home.
- Blister care — we walked so much we all got blisters!
- Take time to think about what each member will enjoy. I was happy to sit in the air- conditioned soccer megastores as long as they didn’t give me grief over my cortado (small coffee) and sun-dress obsessions.
- When I asked my 14-year-old what he would suggest, he cheekily said wicking clothes. This was a family joke at my expense, because, pre-trip, I was apparently fixated on the idea of cool, sweat resistant clothes. Having traveled in warm climates before, I looked at the weather report and sent many text messages to the teens but tried not to over-helicopter on the packing front. My children of the fog made merciless fun of me, but in the end wished they’d had sports clothes, in particular boxers that ventilated!
- Extra walking shoes said 14-year-old, who wound up wearing the same shoes every day and regretting it.
Great for Teens After towing my cousin’s toddler twins through Thailand, Mexico and Paris, I had been nervous about a big trip with my big boys. But it was all for naught: While there was a huge difference between the 19 year-old and the 14 year-old in terms of feedback and engagement, the trip left a huge impression on both teens. Traveling Spain with my teens was a joy.
Darya Mead – July 2019
Growing up in NYC and attending the UN International School gave Darya a head start as a global citizen. But her extensive travel and media experience now takes a back seat to raising two boys in San Francisco. Darya loves the outdoors, cooking, teaching yoga and the fact that her boys have taught her to be a sports fan. Follow her travels on Triporati.
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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