La Vilavella (Villavieja in Spanish and historically, La Vila Vella de Nules) is a municipality in the province of Castellón in the Valencian Community of Spain. It belongs to the county of La Plana Baixa.
The municipality is located in the south-eastern sector of the province of Castellón, at the foot of a spur of the Sierra de Espadán mountain range, whose last elevations appear as if they are embedded into La Plana, which is at its narrowest point here. It is located approximately seven kilometres from the coast.
There is a distinct contrast between the area belonging to La Plana and the mountainous area, which rises sharply behind the town and occupies a large part of its municipal area, covered almost completely by shrub land and a handful of trees.
The municipality gains in altitude from the plain to the old town, which rises up the slopes of the hill that is crowned by the castle.
La Vilavella, the foundational nucleus of the present-day Nules, is of Roman origin. A Hispano-Roman sanctuary, discovered in 1979, can be found at the top of the Santa Bárbara mountain. The origins of the current town, however, date back to the time of the Muslim occupation, when a castle was built to bring together the dispersed population.
La Vilavella’s first charter was written by the Muslim population that settled in the castle, which surrendered to James I of Aragón in the spring of 1238. Puebla Nueva de Nules was founded at the beginning of the 13th century. This was the origin of the town of Nules, whose current municipal borders correspond to those of the old Arab castle, with the old centre continuing to be called La Vila Vella de Nules. The ancient medieval castle of Nules was the centre of a barony that included, besides the current La Vilavella, the farmsteads of Aigües Vives, Mezquita, Rápita or Moncófar, Beniezma, Mascarell, La Pobla, La Seyt, Benicató and La Alcudia. James I of Aragón handed the barony over to William I of Montcada in 1251. Once the lordship of the Montcada family had been extinguished, the fief passed to Gilabert of Centelles in 1314. It was around this date then the present-day town of Nules was formed, with the Moorish population remaining in La Vila Vella de Nules until their expulsion in 1609. Two years later, Cristóbal of Centelles, the Marquis of Nules, repopulated the town with 29 heads of families.
The town had 310 inhabitants in 1715, and its population steadily increased until 1990. However, in the last 20 years, its population has steadily declined due to its ageing population.
LA VILAVELLA CASTLE
The castle, which was built by the Arabs in the 10th century, was conquered by James I of Aragón in 1238. It was passed on to the Montcada family in 1250, before subsequently falling under the control of the Centelles family. An intriguing cistern of Arab origin is preserved in the castle, and fragments of a Manises tile pavement (currently displayed in the History Museum) were also found in the 15th century San Jaime chapel.
Nuestra Señora de Lourdes Grotto
This is a reproduction of the grotto in the French town of the same name, which was built in the 1980s.
San Sebastián Hermitage
The Sant Sebastià Hermitage, which was built in 1934, stands next to the town centre
LA VILAVELLA MUSEUM
The town’s museum was opened in May 1999, built into the chapel of the old Cervelló spa. During 2010 and 2011, the museum was extended into the upper part of the municipal washhouse. The new part, a single-storey, open-plan space with 11 display cases built into the walls, was inaugurated in March 2015.
The museum is split into several sections. There is a chapel, which serves as a reminder of what thermal waters represented for the town of Vilavella. There are five baths – four in white Macael marble and another in pink Buixcarró marble – which came from the demolished La Estrella, Galofre and Cervelló spas. There is also a collection of various 19th century ceramic panels from the aforementioned thermal spas.
The new part begins with a section that focuses on Vilavella’s geology and palaeontology. Six of the display cases are dedicated to archaeology, focusing on: The Bronze Age, the Iberian settlement of La Muntanyeta del Castell, classical culture, the town’s medieval castle and our main attraction: the Risala, a one-of-its kind Arab manuscript in the Valencian Community. The display case focusing on the 17th century exhibits the tabernacle of the ancient church, while two other display cases address the Cases de Senyorets buildings. The final section ends with two display cases dedicated to the Spanish Civil War, which took place between 1936 and 1939.
The town currently has a spa located at Plaça de la Vila, no. 5, which harnesses the curative properties of the water that flows beneath its surface. In the early 19th century, the town had 11 different spas to serve 10,000 people.
The Espadrille Museum, which is located in the old town of Vilavella, is preserved as a model of an early 20th century espadrille-maker’s family home. The lower floor is divided into two sections: the first part shows us what rooms in a house of this era were like; and the Sala Nova houses the exhibition of tools used to make espadrilles. The second floor, built in 1870, was where children would rest, doing so primarily on mattresses made of corn leaves.
LA GLORIETA GARDEN
This garden is home to various elements of interest, such as: La Fuente Calda, a thermal spring which rises at the point where the fountain stands. The medicinal benefits of these waters were already known by the Romans. These waters flow at a pleasant temperature of 27 °C. The enclosure is also home to the Cervelló Building, which houses the Town History Museum and an old public washhouse (a curious ethnological remain).
By walking up the Via Crucis which connects the town to the hermitage, you will find a viewpoint that offers a magnificent panoramic view across the green blanket of orange trees which covers La Plana Baixa.
SAGRADA FAMILIA CHURCH
Dedicated to the Holy Family, this Corinthian-style church was built in 1756 and later restored in 1951.
MARIA FERNANDA MINE
The path leading up to the mine rises from the reservoirs on the Camí La Mina. There are two ways to reach it from the Vilavella town centre:
- Along Carrer del Barranc until you reach the Camí Fonteta d’Oliver. Then, without leaving the tarmacked road and after turning left beneath the Castell de la Vilavella, you will enter the Camí La Mina. You can park your car next to the reservoirs.
- Along Carrer Sant Roc, before turning right onto Carrer de la Muntanyeta. At the end of this street, take a right onto Camí del Barranc Rochet and continue until you reach the entrance to Santa Bárbara. Without going up to the urbanisation, take the Camí de la Mina until you reach the reservoirs at the bottom of the mountain.
To understand why mines were set up in our municipality, you need to consider the societal context of the early 19th century. With the industrial revolution and the improvements in construction materials (iron, glass, etc.), an unprecedented urban development boom took place in Europe. Furthermore, the construction of houses and factories and the creation of new industrial machinery led to an increased demand for iron, as this was a material that offered several significant advantages over other materials: it was strong and resistant yet fairly flexible, guaranteeing durability and making it relatively easy to work with. Based on these qualities, it was particularly suited to the production of beams, pillars, slabs, etc.
To obtain iron, it was first necessary to find the mineral from which it could be extracted, and said mineral was found deep underground. As such, it was necessary to build an entire infrastructure around the mountain galleries that allowed villagers to obtain the ore, separate it, load it and send it to the furnaces. Mines such as the María Fernanda mine in La Vilavella were used to supply the large furnaces that were used to create iron. This was achieved by mixing the iron oxide from the mines (the raw mineral) with coke (a fuel obtained from the dry calcination or distillation of coal) and calcium carbonate. When subjected to high temperatures, iron ore turned into metallic iron.
The mines boosted employment figures and increased economic opportunities for the town’s population, supporting a large number of families in the municipality. Furthermore, they represented a good professional opportunity for individuals who lived outside of the town, who came to La Vilavella with the hope of getting a job in the mine.
While we have no documented proof, it is likely that the first iron mines were opened in La Vilavella in the late 19th century. These mines, of modest size and output, were probably open-cast mines (similar to quarries) in which the ground was broken up and iron ore was extracted, which would then be loaded onto carts for transportation. The first documented references to mines in the town, however, referred to the San José de la Montaña mine (opened in 1907) and the San Antonio Abad and San Sebastián mines (both of which opened in 1910). These mines were operational for several years, although they were abandoned for various reasons prior to the Spanish Civil War. To this day, some of the town’s oldest residents will be able to tell you about when the mines closed.
In the 1950s, with the civil war now over, iron ore extraction started up again in the town. Production increased significantly when the María Fernanda Mine (also known as Mina Vieja, the old mine) came under the ownership of Zaragoza-based company Minas del Mediterráneo, S.A. in 1954, marking the beginning of this mine’s golden age.
Each mine remained operational for as long as iron continued to be extracted. In other words, as soon as the iron ran out, the mines would close. Then, surveys would be carried out to find new mining sites in other parts of the town. This led to new mining permits and new names for the newly opened mines. After the María Fernanda Mine was closed, new mines were opened under the names of Virgen del Pilar (1955), María Fernanda II (also known as the Mina Nueva, the new mine, 1956), María Fernanda III (1957) and Comanisa (1958), some of which were no more than extensions of already closed mines. Work began in these sites with the intention of turning them into huge mines. However, in most cases they didn’t end up being any more than a small pit where, after the galleries were dug deeper into the mountain, they didn’t yield the minimum amount of ore that was required in order for the mine to remain operational. As such, these mines were quickly abandoned.
Despite the efforts of miners, the cutoff grade of Vilavella’s mines (the amount of existing ore compared to the amount of unusable rock) was low, standing at roughly 43%. This, combined with the modest production volume as a result of the small size of the mines, meant that the town’s mines struggled to compete with neighbouring mines, such as the one in Artana. After being deemed unprofitable by the mining companies, the town’s mines were permanently closed down in 1966.
The Plaza dels Espardenyers Square pays homage to the town’s past while representing a nod towards its future. On one hand, it holds a sculpture which pays respect to the town’s long history of espadrille making. On the other hand, it has an urban art mural that was produced by MIAU Fanzara in 2016 which is split into two parts. In the first, the mural depicts the town’s most recognisable landmarks such as the hermitage, the castle and the church. In the other part, meanwhile, it acknowledges its Roman heritage with an almost-seven-metre high reproduction of Apollo’s head topped off with an orange blossom and a Roman coin bearing the image of Iulia Domna, mother of emperor Caracalla, which hints the Baths of Caracalla and the important role that water has played in our town’s history.
Via ferrata La Cantera
The old stone quarry that provided the materials for the construction of Burriana Port is now an adventure sports facility, with a 130-metre route comprising a vertical wall, two bridges, a 25-metre abseil and a spur.
Birdwatching La Vilavella
In the Sierra de Espadán Nature Park, of which La Vilavella is a privileged gateway, you can find more than 100 species of birds belonging to 30 different families. The forests and undergrowths with their rich Mediterranean scrubland, the humid and wild ravines, the drylands and the steep siliceous mountains, make up an ideal mosaic for birds, among which the forest species, and especially the raptors, stand out.