It was hard to find many reviews of this hotel, which is on the edge of a beautiful region called “El Alto Maestrazgo” (more of which in another post) north of and inland from Valencia, but we wanted to stay somewhere on our way to the south of Spain from France that didn’t involve that awful brain-numbing journey down the coast road past endless vegetable and fruit processing plants, and that also didn’t involve the road via Zaragoza and Madrid before turning south, which is bearable but which we have done many times.
So we took the coast road south to roughly Vinarós, then struck off into the unknown along totally empty highways running through scrubby desert at first, wondering if any Westerns had been filmed here, then gradually climbing into the hills.
We had a minor concern when we realised that Hercules the Hatchback Skoda, our trusty steed, had nearly an empty tank and after 45 minutes of tense not-quite-recriminations (“I didn’t realise you hadn’t checked the fuel level before we left the motorway”, “I’m sure we can make it, Hercules has never let us down” etc}, plus a fruitless detour into a tiny, apparently mostly uninhabited ‘town’ (the term was an exaggeration) which SURELY was going to have a petrol station but didn’t, at least not one that could be seen amongst the blowing tumbleweed …… after all that, we came to the outskirts of Benasal (spelled Benassal in Valencian), our destination, and the first thing we found was a petrol station.
It was not just a petrol station, but a petrol station where people still come out and serve you, and the most charming chatty lady explained while filling Hercules that we had come to Benasal at JUST the right time because today and tomorrow there was a ‘historical fair’, with people in costume demonstrating local crafts and selling local wares. Had we come from England specially for it? I felt really bad saying no, it was entirely by chance, but immediately felt my insistence that Hercules could make it here on petrol fumes alone (yes, of course that was me) was justified because here we were, about to experience some real Spain.
My new best friend, and her husband with whom I had a further chat at the till inside, approved of our choice of hotel and as we left we agreed to look out for her tomorrow at the fair. Trusty Miss Google guided us to the hotel just outside Benasal, up another hill and in an area called Fuente en Segures (Font d’en Segures in Valencian). This little village, now nearly a suburb of Benasal, is famous for its mineral water taken from a spring on the top of a hill; there is a full-blown spa for taking the waters, but there’s also a bottling plant owned co-operatively by the town of Benasal which sells Benasal still spring water.
Our little hotel, the Hotel Restaurante Novella, was on the edge of the hill, a calm and shady retreat with a fabulous view down into the valley.
You enter through the little garden, up steps to a veranda and on into the old-fashioned bar, dark cool and apparently very well stocked.
The bar, and Reception which is next door, are manned by whoever is on duty. “Whoever is on duty” was clearly no-one when we arrived, in typical charming Spanish laid-back fashion. We dinged the bell a few times and Guillermina, one of the owners, bustled through from the kitchen, wearing full chef’s whites and apologising for the delay. She was a little surprised that I spoke Spanish, and double-checked my nationality (neither my surname nor my accent when I speak Spanish suggest my allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II), then a young man took us to our room. The first sight as you leave the lift is a wall of snakeskin wallpaper, to which the obvious question is just “why?”…
…but then we saw our room, which was huge and – again, this is so typical of rural Spanish hotels – absolutely spotlessly clean, with a large modern bathroom and a view over the valleys we had just driven up.
The area is popular with hikers, so we took a short walk up a hill opposite the hotel, returning to the pretty terrace in time to watch the sun set over the vines and nut trees that filled the slopes heading away from us in all directions.
Dinner was simple but delicious; the choice was small – one meat, one chicken, one fish – which always bodes well because one hopes this is because it is all cooked to order. We were certainly right on this occasion. We both had the chicken, grilled with herbs and served with a really delicious toasted hazelnut sauce.
The chicken actually tasted of something – what a comment on the food we produce today when one is actually surprised to eat meat that has flavour – and was complemented perfectly by the accompaniments. Julia then had the Crema Catalana (crème brûlée), and I had ‘flan’ (crème caramel), which were also homemade and had excellent texture and flavour.
We asked, as we always do, for a bottle of local wine and had a fine red IGP (interesting that Spain has embraced this alternative to Denominación de Origen, just as the French have) Tempranillo/Bonicaire labelled “33 route”, from Les Useres in the province of Castellón. The tempranillo is a well-known Spanish grape variety, but Bonicaire is more unusual. It is specific to this region, is apparently difficult to grow successfully and is usually mixed with another grape. To complete the ‘local’ nature of 33 route, the wine producer also uses cork from sustainable plantations in Castellón. I thoroughly recommend this wine, it was €13 very well spent and it complemented the meal perfectly.
I have only one other small comment about dinner – which, I repeat, we both enjoyed enormously – and that is about the dining room. I suppose we should embrace this as part of the typical Spanish experience, unpolished and un-touristified, but I do wonder why a lovely dining experience in a beautiful area should take place in a sealed room with air conditioning, despite the gorgeous views through the large windows, which surely could have been opened to let in the scents of the trees and plants, and when night falls they turn on the lights which are …. fluorescent, and very bright.
Perhaps the second explains the first – turn on the lights and the bugs fly in. Mmmm. Fly screens?
Next morning as we paid our ENORMOUS (not) bill – before the dinner was added, it was €66 which included a very nice buffet breakfast, including ‘juice your own oranges’ – I did happen to glance sideways and wonder about the mind that would include three shelves of baby dolls painted silver as a decorative feature in a lovely old-fashioned country inn.
But some things are better left unasked, so we paid our economical bill and left, determined to find a reason to return one day.
(The story of the historical fair – where we didn’t, sadly, see my best friend from the petrol station – and the stunning area of Alto Maestrazgo will be in my next post!)