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Calpe Guide: History, Map, Day Trips & Things to do

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The Forgotten Historic Calpe

The historic center of Calpe is so engulfed by hotels and second apartment houses that it is very easy to miss it entirely. It took me a couple of years to find it – the old town hides much further from Penon de Ifach and the main beaches. At some point, it felt even absolutely unnoticed by the crowds, and thank God. It is a true break from the noisy promenades and touristic restaurants. A small corner where the locals can still enjoy their typical Spanish life on Costa Blanca and I have to say with a style. The touristic cow is bringing a lot of milk to Calpe, the streets and houses of the historic center are more colourful than an average town in Spain. Though perfect for Instagram pictures, it is not everything Calpe has to offer, the town has a long history which now is now literally lost between the hotels.

Calpe city from Penon de Ifach. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Calpe Details

Map of Calpe

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Calpe is located at one of the most beautiful geographical places in Costa Blanca. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Calpe’s Origins

Thanks to the graceful rock known as Penon de Ifach (Spanish peñón de translates to the “rock of”, and Libo-Phoenician Ifac to “of the north”), this area has been known at least since the times when the first Phoenicians have been exploring the Iberian shores about 3,000 years ago. These ancient but great navigators referred to Gibraltar and Penon de Ifach as the south and the north rocks, respectively. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if they have settled in the area of the current day Calpe. Especially, given that they were the first historical settlers near the rock of Gibraltar, which back then was known as Mons Calpe (Phoenician the “hollowed mountain”). The archaeological data shows Phoenician presence since 950 BC. Gibraltar was by far not the only Phoenician settlement in the Iberian peninsula, therefore it is a plausible thesis for them to have settled in a town with the same name as Mons Calpe by a similar graceful rock. 

The Greeks knew even more Calpes. In 401 BC, after the battle of Cunaxa, a Greek philosopher Xenophon found himself as the leader of 10,000 fleeing men through an unknown country. In his diary, the Greek speaks of Calpe – a large rock on the shores of the Black Sea. It is hard to say if it was the name of a settlement or simply the name for such geological formations. Either way, Calpe was clearly mentioned in that name several times in Xenophon’s diary and in some ancient Greek maps. Today that settlement is probably known as Kerpe.

Translated from Greek, Calpe means something similar to urn or round-vessel. The word might have been used to describe large stand-alone rocks like Gibraltar and Penon de Ifach are. Given that the ancient Greeks already knew how to process fish, could it be that Baños de la Reina salting factory was founded much earlier than we imagine? Maybe, Greek sailors colonized the area before the Romans? That remains only a thesis for now.

Today, the Roman settlement in Calpe is known as Baños de la Reina. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

The Roman Calpe

During the Roman times, Calpe was nothing but a small enclave, dependant on the nearby Dianium (Today’s Denia). Despite its size, this ancient site holds many wonders of its own. The Roman settlement had a hydraulic system, which has provided water to its inhabitants. Also, because of its well-preserved mosaics, Calpe is counted as one of the most important Roman heritage sites in the province of Alicante. Today, it lies almost unnoticed between Penon de Ifach and the city center. Ironically, the first hotels of Calpe arose just next to the ancient settlement in the early 20s.

One thing I’m sure of the Spanish ancestors is that they appreciated natural beauty as much as modern humans do, and possibly even more. The Roman baths and fishery pools, known as Baños de la Reina, in Calpe were built close-by Penon de Ifach, just at the right distance to appreciate its magnificence the most. While the site was most likely used mainly for the fish farming and salinating needs of the nearby city Dianium, the scenery must have been taken into the account for the location of the settlement. One could argue that the desire of modern people to move to Calpe was inherited from the Romans or the people who have been doing the same process even before.

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Sierra Gelada and Benidorm Rock from Baños de la Reina. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

The Moorish Calpe

Not that many remain in the historic records of Calpe during the Moorish reign. One possibility is that the invasion of the Muslims into the Iberian Peninsula could have given the name to Calpe even before the conquerors have arrived here. It is well known that in the 8th century, the Berber commander Tariq ibn Ziyad launched his attack from Gibraltar rock, which was known ever since as Jabal Tariq (eng. the mountain of Tariq). This name evolved into modern Gibraltar but the town by the iconic rock was known as Calpe since the prehistoric Phoenician times. you can even find the name “Calpe” is on the coat of arms of Gibraltar. It could be that in the 8th century the settlers of Calpe of the straits have fled as far as possible to Costa Blanca, where they have found a similar rock and named their new settlement in honour of their old home.

After a successful conquest of Marina Alta, the new rulers built their castle further to the South from Calpe, on a mountain, overlooking the Canyon of Mascarat. It was the central administrative and defensive base in the area of Marina Alta to the south of Mount Montgo. The moors remained in control until the region was reconquered by the Christians somewhere in 1240-54.

Mural in Carrer del Mar, Calp. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Despite that, many Moors were allowed to remain in Iberia in their homes. Those who chose this path got to be known as mudéjar (romanized version of Arabic “mudajjan”, meaning tamed, domesticated). In fact, unlike most of the Iberian Peninsula, Muslims greatly outnumbered Christians in the region of Valencia. These demographics combined with the discrimination and violence against Mudéjar people led to several uprisings, known as Al-Azraq revolts in honour of the famous commander who led all of them. Al-Azraq (Arabian the one with blue eyes) had a Muslim father and a Christian mother. Even after these revolts, the local Muslim population was allowed to live in the area including Calpe until 1526, when Islam was banned in the Kingdom of Aragon. Between 1609-1614, even Moriscos (Mudéjars converted to Christianity) were expelled from the country.

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The Christian Calpe

There are speculations that the city walls of the historic Calpe could be dating as far as to Roman times but there is no direct evidence to this thesis. In fact, it was the Christian King Pere IV who ordered the strengthening of the existing walls in 1338 but it was executed only in 1375 under Alfons el Vell who found the money for the job in the budget. It was crucial for the existence of Calpe in these sometimes hostile lands. Soon after, in 1386 the castle of Calpe was divided into towns currently known as Teulada, Benissa, Senija and Calpe. The newly formed units started to shape the area into what we are used to today.

The central walls of the bastion in the middle of Calpe were built somewhere between the 13th and 14th centuries to protect local farmers from Muslim attacks. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Probably the biggest impact to Marina Alta and Calpe during the Christian reign was done with the terrible decree to expel Moriscos from Spain. It was signed by King Felipe III himself, which left the Moors only with three days to reach the closest port to leave the country. Moriscos were allowed to take only what they could carry on their bodies. Everything else was to stay. To make things worse, anyone who found Moorish people after the three days was allowed to take everything from them and even to kill Moriscos if they resisted. This, of course, went wrong in all possible ways, not to mention the fact that the Moors have lived in the Iberian Peninsula for over 800 years at that time. Twice as many as the years have passed since this inhumane event.

At that time, 127,000 Moriscos, who were expelled or killed represented 30% of the Valencian population. The area of Denia and Javea alone lost about 42,000 people and in many cases, they were the most productive people around. Obviously, these events had counter-productive consequences, and the only people to profit were the people in charge, selling the homes and other property of Moriscos. Even so, the profits were only short-term because the lands were left uncultivated, the equilibrium was destroyed. Nothing was left but despair and desolation on the shores of Calpe and Valencia in general. In the 17th century, the town was plagued by Barbary pirates. Calpe was no exception. Most of the coastal areas have experienced the attacks – it was the same Moriscos who have returned to their homeland with rage against Spain. Nevertheless, the population of Calpe kept increasing and the situation of the town finally has consolidated after hundreds of years of hardships. The growth of the town continued towards the direction of provincial powerhouses Alicante and Altea.

Today, Calpe is a very popular vacation destination or a second house choice, once again the city seems to have become the home for many different peoples. Maybe, that is the correct recipe for its success.

Wandering around the streets of the historic center of Calpe is well worth at least 1 – 2 hours of your time. Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Things to do in Calpe

All content and photos by Alis Monte. If you want to collaborate, contact me on info@ctdots.eu Photo by Alis Monte [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

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