XATIVA - Town of a thousand fountains
Take the Albacete road out of Valencia (about 60k) and follow in reverse what was once called ‘one of the natural routes into "The Kingdom of Valencia" from the plains to the west and from Murcia or Andalusia to the south’. As you approach, look to Mount Bernisa’s southern slopes and you will see twin hills, each surmounted by a castle. A small taste of what’s to come.
Xátiva is a beautiful walled town on the right bank of the river Albaida. Dominated by its huge and rambling castle, with both Iberian and Roman influences, it’s built on the gentle slopes of the Sierra del Castillo and surrounded by the fertile plains of the district of La Costera. Its people are known as ‘setabenses’ derived from the Latin ‘saetabis’ from Roman times when it was famous for its silk fabrics, mentioned by the poets Ovid and Catullus.
In the 11th century, Europe’s first paper mill was set up here with technology brought in by the Arabs. Made from straw and rice, Xátivi paper is still thriving. A walk through its beautiful, wide avenues shaded by elms and cypresses shows evidence of Roman, Iberian and Moorish occupation, the influences clear in the old quarter (Moncada) with its cobbled streets and the four kilometer-long Alameda. Almost everywhere you look you will find a fountain, the play of water on stone a musical backdrop to Xátiva’s inviting history. Don’t miss La Iglesia de la Seo and the 14th century Santo Domingo Convent.
Apart from two Popes from the Borja dynasty, Callixtus III and Alexander VI (with special celebrations this year, complete with medieval market, travelling shows, music, parades and a splendid renaissance battle re-enactment), Xátiva’s most famous son was the artist and printmaker José Ribera (1591-1652). Trained in Italy he was known by his Roman contemporaries as ‘Lo Spagnoletto’ (The Little Spaniard). Ribera was a leading painter of The Spanish School and, whilst his mature work was all done in Italy, he became a follower of Caravaggio's style, one of the so-called ‘Tenebrosi’, or shadow-painters, owing to the sharp contrasts of light and shade marking their style, he still remained true to his roots. You can see some of his work in the Museu de l’Almodi and be sure to take a look at ‘El Salvador’, which makes clear his gift as a ‘Tenebrist’. The museum itself is housed in an interesting building on Corretgeria and here you will also find work from the sculptor Francisco Bolinches along with some of his paintings and drawings. José and Peppino Benlliure (see my 2009 article on The House of Benlliure) also have exhibits here, together with Sorolla, Joaquín Tudela and many others. But don’t miss the curious sight of Felipe V’s portrait. Fresh from his victory at The Battle of Almansa (April 25, 1707 – probably the only battle in history in which the British forces were commanded by a Frenchman and the French by a Briton), the King ordered the expulsion of its inhabitants and Xátiva to be burned to the ground. From thence onwards, he commanded, it would be known as San Felipe. To this day, in memory of the insult, the portrait hangs upside down.
We had lunch up at the castle with our good friends and guides Manolo and Rosa, with a reasonable menú del dia – although, because Xátiva is Manolo’s home town, he insisted we try some of the local delicacies. A warm and generous couple, we owe them for a sumptuous lunch and two bottles of memorable wine. You can eat al fresco or in the small, but beautiful dining room (usually reserved for local dignitaries) which on Sundays is first come first served.
This is an exceptional day out and do try the local delicacy ‘Arroz del Horno’ (rice baked in the oven).