Benifallet Spain Travel Guide
Guest post by our Benifallet Ambassador, writer, personalised travel guide & self-help development author, Jane Clements
Benifallet is one of those quintessential dusty Spanish villages, all faded terracotta and peeling paint. The village nestles on the banks of the River Ebro and the houses sprawl all higgledy-piggledy up the mountain side as far as is physically possible to build them. I have been visiting friends who live in the little Catalan village of Benifallet for nine years but I had never visited the caves….up until this year!! More about that shortly as you follow me around Benifallet Spain.
Benifallet Spain: boat trips, fiestas & close to Tortosa
Just twenty minutes drive from the town of Tortosa in Catalunya the River Ebro is wide and clear. Both above and below the village, the river cuts through steep rocky gorges but here at Benifallet it is lined by trees, grass and fruit orchards. The space next to the river is the perfect venue for the many fiestas which are held throughout the year underneath the shady canopy of trees. Long trestle tables covered with white paper cloths, fairy lights in the trees and of course the stage for whatever band is playing; and this is as good as any night club or dance hall. There is also a little jetty where the cute little village boat leaves for trips up and down the river.
Steeped in history & authentic local culture
Benifallet is steeped in history. Some of the residents who are alive today and living here actually hid and lived in the caves high up in the surrounding mountains during the dark days of the civil war. Ancient stone terraces can be seen everywhere on impossibly steep land and date back, some say, to the Moors and even the Romans. The gnarled olive trees with their cracked bark and twisted branches are testament to times past.
As you drive into the village past the little roundabout and a fountain (which may or may not be working), and the statues of a man and a woman dancing the jota (the local folk dance), a big signpost welcomes you and recommends that you visit the caves.
La Cueva de la Maravillas – the Cave of Marvels
During my visits of the previous nine years I have toured much of the surrounding countryside and coastline, but despite every resident encouraging me to visit the local cave complex I had always found a reason not to go.
I couldn’t imagine that a cave in this small village with just over seven hundred residents could hold a candle to some of the impressive cave complexes that I have seen around the world. I just imagined a couple of dark interlinking tunnels with maybe the odd stalactite hanging down and bats flying around. However I was eventually persuaded by my Catalan friend – who was so obviously very proud of his local caves where he used to play as a boy – to pay a visit with him; so I paid my money and I took the tour.
Wow! I hadn’t expected much but I got wonderland!
Cueva de la Maravillas translates as the Cave of Marvels and they are not exaggerating! I am no expert but the caves are absolutely jam-packed with everything cavey. Our guide pointed out the usual stalactites and stalagmites but also columns, flags and loads of other stuff. It was like a fairyland Victorian parlour full of knicknacks and oh, so beautiful.
I am now a convert and I would recommend that any visitor to this area of Catalunya takes some time to visit the caves. I have to confess that I haven’t been on the village boat trip either so maybe I should also do that sooner rather than later in case I am missing out on something there too!
The lifeblood of the village
With the powerful green/blue river in front and the craggy mountain peaks behind, Benifallet possibly has one of the most perfect settings of a village. Orchards of fruit trees add splashes of fresh green among the drab olive trees and always there is a buzz about the place. Tractors and vans deliver fruit, almonds and olives to the various cooperatives and huge articulated lorries bundle along the main street and take the produce up to the cities of Barcelona and Tarragona.
This village is very much a working village with a strong farming heritage. If you happen to wander along the main street at seven thirty in the morning you will have to dodge the tractors and the four-by-fours as the men park up and stop for a strong fortifying coffee and a gossip in the bars before they head off into the ‘campo’ and their work for the day.
In the evenings during the summer the village really comes alive. Residents drag chairs outside their front doors and sit and chat late into the night. As the bars fill up, the tables spill over into the actual road. Waiters hover on the pedestrian crossing over to the beer terrace opposite, holding trays of drinks and tapas up high whilst cars slow down in order to negotiate the obstructions.
The bars are the heart of the village with many people gathering to meet friends and chat and drink until the early hours; and then at midnight there is often a flurry of activity as people jump into cars and drive to fiestas in other villages or to dance the night away down on the coastal towns.
Every afternoon you can find groups of old men playing cards or sitting with their newspaper inside the bars and when the football team from Barcelona is playing it can be standing room only on front of the televisions.
Behind the main street
The church built from warm sandy coloured stone is buried in the little maze of houses and it fronts onto a quiet little square while narrow streets shoot off in all directions. Stone steps climb high up to the view point at the top of the town and some streets are totally inaccessible by car.
As soon as you are off the main street it is like stepping into a film. Sounds are deadened; there are no pavements and most houses stand straight onto the road and washing hangs over the street from the upper windows.
In the summer the heat shimmers and bounces off the tall houses whilst squadrons of swallows screech and skim around at head height. Shutters are tightly closed against the searing heat and at siesta time the whole village seems to go to sleep. The village has an amazing large outdoor pool which is used by everybody during the summer months. There is of course a little bar there and while every child in town is dive-bombing into the water, the older ladies sit in the shallow end and chat, the workers pop in for a refreshing drink on their way home from work and the teenagers sit and chat or play a card game.
In the winter the air in the village has a crisp clean clarity to it. It can be cold but it is rarely damp and the tall town houses filter out much of the wind which sweeps down from the mountains protecting the village from its blast.
This forward thinking village also has a thriving tourist industry. There are the previously mentioned caves and the boat trip, and cat and carp fishing and kayaks on the river. Segway tours, an adventure park, bicycles and of course those fiestas also attract people from far and wide. Benifallet has several excellent quality family-run restaurants, a decent hotel and there are plenty of things to see and do a short drive away.
Unlike many villages in Spain this one is not doing too badly. The school is hanging on in there and many of the younger people choose to remain and to bring up their own families here. Benifallet is renowned for welcoming strangers. I am told that this has its roots in history as the village has always had a large transitory population servicing the farming and the local mining industries. Nowadays there is a sizable community of ex-pats; the majority of whom are welcomed by and who socialise and integrate with the Catalans.
Outside the village
The Via Verde descends from the mountains on the opposite side of the river. The ‘Green Trail’ was once a railway line going far up into the mountains to the old mines but it has since been transformed into a fantastic cycle and walking route.
Just a short way out of Benifallet one of the deserted railway stations on the old line has been converted into a hostel-cum-restaurant-cum-bar-cum-hotel-cum-tourist stop and it’s really popular with the locals and tourists alike. On hot summer Saturday nights the terrace is packed with people dining out under the trees who then at midnight enjoy an eclectic offering of musical performances.
The owners are passionate about supporting the local economy: from the performers that they hire to the food and the wine that they serve. Once a year they host a fiesta of their own at the Old Station laying on a free shuttle bus to and from the village.
It always makes me smile when I remember how we were dancing madly under the stars at four in the morning and a group of cyclists swooped past. (It is so hot here in the summer that this is not unusual to see tours travelling the Via Verde in the dead of night, their way lit by helmet torches). Everybody dancing shouted and waved at them and the cyclists screeched to a stop, dismounted and came and joined in with the fun for while before continuing on their way, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to come across a dance party in the woods in the early hours.
On the same side as the village but high on one of the cliffs that hang over a bend in the river is an ancient Iberic Village.
Pottery from the Phoenicians has been found here and the bottom half of the walls of the buildings have been reconstructed to show you what the settlement looked like. It is a short hike up a hill to the top but you will more than likely have the site to yourself. Entrance is free and you are at liberty to wander around the structures and the information boards.
Historians believe that the site was probably defensive and included a store tower for grains and food at a time when the river was busy with trading vessels which were a target for pirates.
A short drive away
The Roman town of Tortosa is a twenty minute drive away and at every turning and in every direction you can find any number of small villages which are similar to Benifallet with their roots in the rural life and formed of tight-knit communities.
Down on the coast you can find a beach resort to suit any taste – from the buzzing noisy bar-lined resorts to long deserted stretches of golden sand or tiny coves. Water sports, clubs and cocktails can be the order of the day or you can go for picnics and laze around quietly with a book.
There are some stunning natural parks with hiking, cycling, bird-watching and canyoning routes. You can join in with a wine tasting tour at any number of the cellars or go down to the Ebro Delta and see the rice fields and mussel farms.
Have I sold this small village to you? If nothing else, do come visit the caves. I am only sorry that it took me nine years to discover their charm and beauty. Stop for a while for lunch in one of the excellent restaurants and linger over a coffee or a glass of wine or beer outside one of the bars.
And don’t be afraid to speak to the locals either. They speak Catalan but most speak excellent Spanish and a lot of them speak English and other languages.
But be warned. Benifallet can get under your skin. You may just end up staying longer than you intended!
About Jane Clements, the guest author of this article
Jane Clements, writing as Scarlet Jones Travels has been travelling solo for more than three years.
Usually backpacking, often volunteering and always pushing her comfort zone,
You can find out more at her website: www.scarletjonestravels.com