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Santa Barbara Castle map
Santa Barbara Castle map
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

During an Oceania Insignia shore excursion, we discovered what makes Alicante such a popular Costa Brava resort. Located on the east coast of Spain, south of Valencia, Alicante is only 2 1/2 hours from Madrid by high speed train (a distance of 420 kilometers or 263 miles).

Its warm climate, less than 30 days of rain per year and seven Mediterranean Sea beaches draw millions of visitors every year, even though the population of the city of Alicante is only 150,000.

Castillo de Santa Barbara

It's impossible to miss Alicante's main attraction, Castillo de Santa Barbara. Dominating the city from the top of the 166-meter (545-foot) Mount Benacantil, it is one of the largest medieval castles in Spain.

How big is the castle? It's 40,000 square meters (430,556 square feet) in size.

Admission to Santa Barbara Castle is free, but there is a small charge to take the elevator up from Juan Bautista La Fora street. There is no charge for the elevator between the first and second levels of the castle.

Walking tour

From the pier, the ship's shore excursion bus drove up to the castle parking lot in 15 minutes. Like most attractions and stores in Alicante, Santa Barbara Castle opens at 10 am. You can tour the castle in about one hour.

Former drawbridge in Santa Barbara Castle
Former drawbridge in Santa Barbara Castle
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The castle received its name on December 4, 1248, the feast day of St. Barbara, when Alfonso of Castile (King Alfonse the Wise) recaptured the castle from the Moors who had dominated Alicante since 713.

"Santa Barbara Castle has three levels," explained José Maria, our guide. "The ancient part, built by the Moors in the 9th century, is at the top. You can see remnants from the 11th to 13th centuries, such as the Governor's House and the Bell Tower, at the top macho level."

Alicante's main tourist attraction

The middle level dates back to the 16th century, while the lowest level, where we began our tour, was added in the 18th century. The main square has a cafeteria and washrooms.

We climbed up a ramp past cacti, flowers and fragrant lavender to a bridge, which used to be one of three drawbridges that made it difficult for enemies to enter.

"Santa Barbara Castle was not a royal residence, but a military fortress until 1893, when it was abandoned," said José Maria. "In 1960, it was restored and opened for visitors."

Nowadays, the castle is a venue for receptions, dinners and free Castle Evening concerts on summer weekends, as well a tourist attraction. Lights illuminate the castle at night.

Panoramic views

We found reminders of the past at every level, from black cannons pointing out toward the Mediterranean Sea, to a replica of a soldier in medieval armor, pointing his crossbow out over Alicante.

Alicante viewed from castle
Alicante viewed from castle
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Wherever we looked, the views over the ramparts were spectacular. In one direction, we could see the city with its backdrop of rocky peaks, including the highest mountain in Alicante, Sierra de Aitana, which is 1,558 meters (5,112 feet) high.

Other views encompassed Alicante Airport, one of the five most important in Spain, the university (with more than 40,000 students) and the now-closed quarries. Thousands of donkeys hauled limestone from them to build the medieval Santa Barbara fortress.

Yachts, marina and port viewed from lookout
Yachts, marina and port viewed from lookout
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Volvo Ocean Race

Our favorite view was looking out through the cannon embrasures in the meter-thick parapets to the blue Mediterranean Sea. We could see ferries bringing visitors on half-hour rides to Tabarca Island, a marine reserve.

White yachts glimmered in the marina below us, next to the cruise port where our ship, the Oceania Insignia, had docked for the day. Every three years, Alicante is the starting point for a nine-month around-the-world sailing competition, the Volvo Ocean Race.

How Alicante got its name

Below the viewpoint is a rocky outcrop engraved with what the locals call "the face of the Moor." José Maria told us the legend about a medieval Moorish king who lived in the castle with his beautiful daughter, Princess Cantara.

Alicante coat of arms
Alicante coat of arms
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The sultan challenged her two suitors, Prince Almanzor and Prince Ali, with tasks to win her hand in marriage. Almanzor brought back spices from India as the king requested. Ali forgot about his task to develop canals for irrigating the farmlands, and instead courted Cantara.

Face of the Moor

When the king gave Almanzor permission to marry his daughter, Cantara threw herself down from Mt. Benacantil and Ali followed because he couldn't live without her.

Their falls changed the profile of the mountain to the face of Ali, the Moor, (best seen from Postiguet beach). From that day on, the names of Ali and Cantara were combined to name the city Alicante.

Town Hall tour

We rode the tour bus down the road behind the castle to the Old Town, encountering several visitors walking up. You can also walk down from Santa Barbara Castle on two hiking trails.

Dali sculpture and zero sea-level marker in Alicante Town Hall
Dali sculpture and zero sea-level marker in Alicante Town Hall
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A highlight of our walking tour of the Old Quarter (also called El Barrio), was the 18th-century City Hall in Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

Inside the Baroque building, we viewed Alicante's coat of arms. It depicts Santa Barbara Castle on Benacantil Mountain, engraved with the face of Ali, the Moor, surrounded by the Chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Dali sculpture

Alicante's town hall is, however, best known for its sculpture of St. John the Baptist, designed by Salvador Dali in 1973. The gold-covered bronze statue weighs more than 1,000 kilos (2,200 pounds).

Next to Dali's sculpture, on the lowest step of the 300-year-old Alicante red marble staircase, we spotted a brass marker called the Cota Cero. It is the reference point for measuring sea-level heights for all Spanish cities.

Esplanada de España

Exiting City Hall below its clock tower, we passed Alicante's oldest church, the Basilica of Santa Maria and the domed Concathedral of San Nicolás (Saint Nicholas) of Bari. Our Old Quarter walking tour ended at Alicante's most popular promenade.

The Esplanada de España begins one kilometer (0.6 miles) north of Alicante's cruise terminal.

Paseo de La Explanada is a broad walkway, paved with 6.6 million red, black and cream marble tiles. Arranged in wave patterns to imitate the Mediterranean Sea, they cover the esplanade from the marina and Postiguet Beach to Canalejas Park.

Esplanada de España
Esplanada de España
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Date tapas

Four rows of tall date palms shade pedestrians, handicraft stands and outdoor cafés offering drinks and tapas. "There are 2,800 varieties of palm, but only this species (Phoenix dactylifera) produces dates," explained José Maria. Elche, 24 kilometers (15 miles) southwest of Alicante, is known for its groves of 200,000 date palm trees.

Replica of Santisima Trinidad in Alicante Harbor
Replica of Santisima Trinidad in Alicante Harbor
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"We make ice cream, liqueurs and tapas with the dates," said our guide. Our mouths watered as he described a delicious appetizer of dates stuffed with toasted almonds and then wrapped with bacon and grilled.

After the tour, we lingered on Esplanada de España until it was time to board the Insignia to cruise to Almeria.

On our way back to the pier, we were surprised to see an 18th-century Spanish galleon ship docked in Alicante's harbor.

18th-century galleon

Santisima Trinidad participated in the 1779 American War of Independence and the Battle of Trafalgar. It sunk as the British attempted to bring it to Gibraltar.

The replica of Santisima Trinidad houses a restaurant and a museum. Its location was perfect because behind it we could see the walls that climbed Mt. Benacantil to Santa Barbara Castle as they did in the 18th century.


Tourist Office of Spain

Oceania Cruises

More things to see & do in Spain:

Valle Gran Rey Walking Tour - La Gomera, Canary Islands

Lanzarote, Canary Islands - Wine, Volcanoes and Cesar Manrique's Home

Las Palmas Gran Canaria Tour to Teror and Santa Brigida

Fuerteventura, Canary Islands - Beaches, Surf, Dunes and Aloe Vera