I'd pretty much given up using the word "beauty" because it has so many beastly associations: Teenaged girls starving themselves for fashion on their Instagram posts, bedizened plutocrats, plastic-faced movie stars, hotel-room landscapes. In any case, social scientists chalk up visual pleasure to evolution and social conditioning. Beauty is a sweet old-fashioned notion.
Then I came to this town called Javea, with counts of about 33,000 year-round citizens, strewn along a wide bay on the southeast coast of mainland Spain, and I was compelled to think again. The sun hits the mountain at a certain point of the day and, if it were an old-fashioned religious movie, you would hear trumpets and angel choirs; a green parakeet perches on the flowered branch of an almond tree, as if it's posing for a Japanese ink drawing. At night, the moon paints a glittery path over the ocean. Yes, there's the odd trash-filled field or crumbling apartment building or a mangy cat skulking around the café tables. Yet, three or four times a day, you see something so insistently lovely that you are brought to a halt.
The town of Javea, which generally earns little more than a "worth a visit" paragraph from travel books, is neither exotic nor remote. It's just more than an hour's drive from two different international airports in Alicante and Valencia. The temperature is mild, averaging 26 C in August to 12 C in January. Neither a hotspot nor off-the-beaten track, Javea is at the north end of a 200-kilometre resort strip of coastal towns and cities, collectively known as the Costa Blanca. The name Costa Blanca or "white coast" was invented by a British airline company in the 1950s to promote working-class holidays to Spain.
Since the 1950s, the centre of the Spanish package tour business is the town of Benidorm, a freak forest of high-rise hotels and rental units, just about a 40-minute drive to the south of Javea. Benidorm, a town of about 70,000 residents, with theme parks, night-club shows and short-term holidays, is a fast-food experience of tourism.
Javea is the anti-Benidorm.
As you drive north on the Costa Blanca, the foliage becomes greener, the air cooler and more tourists tend to rent villas rather than hotels. In the 1960s, when Franco officials and rich tourists from Madrid and Valencia began summering in Javea, the city imposed building restrictions: nothing taller than a palm tree goes the local story, although a few buildings violate the rule. The population, which has more than tripled since the 1970s, has grown out rather than up.
The newcomers wanted to keep their paradise intact. In the town plan, words such as "sustainability" and "environment" figure prominently. There are spas, hiking and biking trails, and a vast natural park of more than 2,100 hectares on the mountain. The city has identified a series of 15 miradors, or lookouts, where you are encouraged to simply stand and ogle the landscape.
The sense of Javea as a protected space is intrinsic to its geography. To the north, looming over the town, is the emblematic elephant-shaped mountain of Montgo rising dramatically 753 metres in the air. If there was a casting call for resident nature deity, Montgo would be a shoo-in for the role (and it played the volcanic mountain in the 1968 disaster flick, Krakatoa: East of Java). Around its slopes and fissures, there are prehistoric cave paintings and burial chambers, Phoenician amphoras and remnants of ancient Iberian inhabitants. Along the coast to the south stretches a horseshoe-shaped bay, pocketed by coves, caves, cliffs and beaches, pebbled and sandy, built for long exploratory walks to discover what so many have discovered before: Around Javea, beauty still rules.
While there are a string of pleasant beach towns along the Costa Blanca, what makes Javea special is its dramatic variety: It's really three towns in one, each with its own kind of beauty. The beauty of age is found in the town centre, which dates back to the late 14th century, about a kilometre up the slope of Montgo from the beach (safe from marauding pirates of yore). A maze of pedestrian streets lead to a central square and the fortress church of San Bartolome, pocked with bullet-holes from the Civil War, but still standing strong. At night, when the church bell rings, and the amber lights reflect off the white-washed walls and honey-coloured tosca sandstone buildings, it feels as though you've time-travelled back to a torch-lit world of several centuries ago.
Gins Romero/Gins Romero
Directly east of the Old Town is the port, where I find the beauty of working community, set along the ever-changing sea against the rocky wall of Cabo de San Antonio (the long end of the Montgo elephant's trunk). Here, you'll find a marina with its pleasure and fishing boats that is also a fish market selling the daily catch to restaurants overlooking a pebble beach, where you can simultaneously listen to the breakers and music from a piano bar. Amid the low-rise apartments and shops, look for the exuberantly modernist fisherman's church, the Church of Our Lady of Loreto. This architectural gem, built in the mid-1960s, is shaped like a sailing boat surrounded by concrete ribs and nodding palm trees.
Walk south a couple of kilometres along the beach promenade and you come to the third part of Javea, or the Arenal (Spanish for sand), the beach and centre of the August tourism boom, when Javea's population can triple. I think of this as the place of beauty of play: In July and August, northern European families in the thousands flock here. There are kids on the beach, busy diving schools, and even busier bars and tour groups visiting the local Roman ruins. The people watching is first-class, though the environment is less so: With so many beige apartment complexes built around communal pools, this part of Javea resembles a Florida beach development. Still, there must be something compelling: When I visited Javea, I kept meeting waiters and other service-industry types who came here on vacation, then returned to sell their homes and move here for good. That seemed wildly impulsive; then I decided to become one of them.
About half the permanent population is foreign, mostly from Britain, but from across northern Europe as well (the newsstands are polyglot). Even the Spanish who have moved in from less temperate parts of the country have outsider status: The local language is Valencian, a variety of Catalan. The resilient local culture is on display through church events, elaborate fiestas, schools, sports teams, and dozens of small bars and cafés, but they now depend on the tourists and retirees the way they once depended on the orchards and the sea.
While the British media frequently sniff about Spain's ex-pat ghettos full of weather refugees, history tells us that beautiful places can change lives. In 1876, a 32-year-old Friedrich Nietzsche travelled to Sorrento, a beautiful Mediterranean town in Italy. It marked the beginning of his transformation from philology professor to philosopher: "When for the first time I saw the evening rise with its red and grey softened in the Naples sky," Nietzsche wrote, "it was like a shiver, as though pitying myself for starting my life by being old, and the tears came to me and the feeling of having been saved at the very last second." (I can sympathize: When I visited Sorrento 14 years ago, it made me cry, too.)
There's a similar tone of astonishment in the telegram and letters the Spanish impressionist painter Joaquin Sorolla wrote to his wife when he visited Javea 20 years later. "I fall silent from the emotion that still grips me …" he wrote. And: "This is the place I've always dreamt about, Sea and Mountains, but what a sea!" Sorolla returned to Javea three more times, painting more than a dozen major works here.
Beauty, which is impermanent but recurrent, compels you to pay attention to the world and care more about it. In his 1989 book, Love and Beauty, American philosopher Guy Sircello argued for the restoration of beauty at the centre of philosophy: "Without the love of even the slightest kind of beauty, we are less happy and less good than we otherwise might be, and of nothing other than beauty can this be said. Loving beauty is therefore of the utmost importance."
Sometimes, when the Montgo mountain is wearing a beret of clouds around its dome, or the sea is rolling with white-capped emerald waves, I want to say: "Enough already. You're gorgeous. Don't oversell it!" Mostly, though, I'm trying to control my grin of gratitude.
IF YOU GO
Javea is almost equidistant between two airports, Alicante (100 kilometres) and Valencia in Manises (113 km). Bus and train service are available, but it's much faster to drive to Javea, along the AP-7, the toll road that runs along the Spanish Mediterranean coast.
Avoid Javea in late summer – especially the first couple of weeks of August – when car rentals and rooms are scarce as up to 60,000 European holidaymakers descend on the town, tripling its off-season population. Otherwise, Javea is mostly quiet (except for the numerous fiesta days)making it a good base for excursions.
Where to stay
The Parador Hotel: opened up Javea to tourism in the 1960s and this tall white building on the Arenal beach remains one of its landmarks. Come here for balcony views of the ocean, a pool and even a small dock for guests' boats, all next door to the public beach. Rates start at $139 (off-season) to $427 (peak-season) for a double with breakfast. paradores-spain.com
Set in the central square of the Old Town, Hotel Triskel is steps from the old church, an indoor market, a small archeological museum and numerous good restaurants and artisanal shops. There's a friendly lounge-bar with a good wine cellar downstairs and live music on weekends. Rates from $105 to $155 a night. hotel-triskel.com
Where to eat
Bon Amb, which earned a Michelin star in 2014, uses local foods presented with a Japanese delicacy and a nouvelle-cuisine focus on textures and contrasts. Tasting menus range from around $100 to $160 a person, and diners can choose to sit in an elegant, outdoor garden. 100 Carretera Benitachell Rd.; bonamb.com
La Calima: The food is hearty, – baby squid with beans and garlic, the ever-popular Iberian ham, baked eggplant with nuts – but the real prize of this port-based restaurant is the scenery. Across the promenade, where tourists and local families take a stroll, is the wide-screen view of the ocean and the rocky beach. Prices range from $18 to $26 for menus of the day, tapas menus or dinner menus with three courses with wine or beer. 14 Avenida de la Marina; restaurante-calima.com