The scent of the Mediterranean Sea mingles with the warm air, carrying whispers of salt and nostalgia—today’s stage 8 of the Vuelta a España starts in Dénia, a small Mediterranean seaside city, tucked away behind Montgó Mountain, and coincidentally the hometown of my grandparents. Growing up, I had the honour of spending many of my summers here, and while I can’t be there today, I want to take you on a virtual journey of a place close to my heart.

Thinking of Dénia, the memories that come to mind are those of summers spent at my grandparents' home—woven beaded curtains tinkling at their front door, braided by my restless young fingers. Those were the days of roasted pimientos with rough salt and simple joy, of siestas at the beach with a book in one hand and the soft hum of waves in the background.

Dénia has its own tempo, one that seems in sync with the natural rhythms of life. It is part of the province of Alicante on the Costa Blanca, and the local language is the Llengua valenciana. It lies halfway between Valencia and Alicante and has a rich history; not just of Iberian tradition. It is rather a mosaic of Iberian, Roman, Islamic and Christian influences—a place where you breathe in history with every step you take, while entertaining modern life at the same time.

So, lean back, put on Paco de Lucía, and let me tell you about the place of my childhood.

My grandparents have lived in their little casa for more than 30 years now, and for the past 20 years, I have been visiting them at least once every summer, often times in the spring and autumn as well. Over the years, we have watched Dénia evolve. I remember about a decade ago, the sleepy little harbour suddenly transformed into a bustling marina, with gorgeous yachts and ferries from Mallorca now docking. It's become a lively center of culture and activity. One of my favourite places in the harbour is a swimming cocktail bar; a platform docked just like a boat, on which you will be served anything your heart desires.

Venture beyond the harbour and you'll find an array of experiences to be had. One must-visit is the Mercat de la Riurau, where you will find local produce. On the first Sunday of every month, it becomes an antique market—a hidden gem in a town replete with secrets. Kayaking, snorkeling, and catamaran rides offer maritime thrills, while the Parque Natural del Montgó promises serene hikes through Mediterranean flora. Whenever we would eat in the Montgó restaurant, my grandpa would point in the distance, and show us "his" tree: I believe it is an Iberian holm oak, standing alone in its unique solitude. One day, long before I was born, he put his hand on this tree while hiking up Montgó, and said "this is my tree now". At least half a century later, it is still standing, overlooking the city and the Mediterranean sea beyond it, keeping a silent watch.

What really sets Dénia apart is its history, which deserves more than just a cursory mention. It has been molded by Roman, Islamic, and Christian influences, making it a tapestry of cultural and historical diversity.

Before becoming part of Muslim-ruled Spain, the area around Dénia was under Roman control, originally called Dianium, an homage to the Goddess Diana. After the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, Dénia fell under Muslim rule. It was initially part of the Emirate, then Caliphate, of Córdoba. Later, it became the seat of its own Taifa kingdom under Mujahid al-Amiri, who turned Dénia into a significant naval power. In the 13th century, Dénia was recaptured by Christian forces under King James I of Aragon, becoming part of the Kingdom of Aragon. As Spain unified under the monarchy, Dénia became part of the larger Spanish kingdom.

Skipping forward to modern times, since the restoration of democracy in Spain post-Civil War in the 1930s and Franco's dictatorial regime which lasted until 1975, Dénia has been part of the autonomous community of Valencia.

Dénia, like many other Mediterranean coastal towns, was historically subject to pirate attacks, particularly frequent between the 14th and 17th centuries. Though records are not complete, it is known that such attacks were a significant concern for the inhabitants of Dénia. It was a common occurrence that was part of the broader historical context of the Mediterranean—a sea that was a crossroads of various cultures, but also a battleground for control and influence. This history has left an indelible mark on the culture and architecture of Dénia: Watchtowers and fortifications were built along the coast in response to the threats. The Castle of Dénia itself served a dual purpose, both as a royal residence and a defensive fortress against pirate incursions.

The town’s defining landmark, El Castillo de Dénia, the Castle of Dénia, is a splendid fortress that has stood since the 11th century. Originally built by the Almoravids, a Muslim dynasty from North Africa, it was later expanded upon by Christians. The castle isn't just an architectural marvel; it’s a gateway into Dénia’s multifaceted past. The structure itself blends Islamic and Christian architectural elements. The Archaeological Museum within its walls tells the tale of civilizations past, where artifacts from the Roman era are displayed, and a walk through the castle offers a panoramic view of the harbour and town below.

Two of the most significant festivals celebrated in Dénia are Las Fallas and Bous a la Mar.

Traditionally held between February and March, Las Fallas is a celebration rooted in the commemoration of Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.

The festival involves the creation of large wooden structures, or fallas, that are intricately designed and often satirical in nature. These fallas are then displayed around town for both locals and tourists to admire. The culmination of the festival is the cremà, where these fallas are set ablaze in a grand spectacle, symbolizing the destruction of the old to make way for the new and the ushering in of spring.

Beyond the spectacle, Las Fallasis a cultural event that serves as a collective expression of creativity, critique, and community. The satire often extends to political figures and contemporary issues, making it a relevant and ever-changing tradition.

Originating as a tradition from the region's bull-running culture, Bous a la Mar is unique in that it involves bulls being released into a controlled area that leads to the sea. Young men and women attempt to lure the bulls towards the water, often taking daring leaps into the sea to escape the charging animals. The bulls are then rescued and brought back to land.

While the spectacle draws large crowds and has been declared a festival of National Tourist Interest, it remains a subject of ethical debate. For many, the festival is seen as an integral part of Dénia's cultural identity, rooted in history and tradition. It is a symbol of the bravery and agility of the participants, and for some, it's an event that's eagerly awaited all year.

A not-so-hidden gem of Dénia is chef Quique Dacosta. He owns a three-Michelin-starred restaurant named after himself, Quique Dacosta Restaurante, located in Dénia. He is celebrated for his innovative approach to traditional Valencian and Mediterranean cuisine, fusing traditional elements with modern techniques. His menu changes annually, often focused on a specific theme, allowing him to explore various aspects of food and culture deeply. Dacosta's dedication to local and seasonal products and his avant-garde techniques have made him a major figure in contemporary Spanish gastronomy. Oftentimes I have watched fishermen bring him their early catch on my morning walks. For locals like my grandparents, the fact that a chef of Quique Dacosta's caliber has chosen to stay in the region, rather than moving to a bigger city, is a source of great pride.

To finally get into the cycling part of it all: The region in and around Dénia offers some pretty nice cycling routes. You can regularly spot the pros of our sport uploading winter training rides from this area on Strava. Last winter, my grandma called me, to let me know that „a guy wearing blue just rode past their house really fast.“ I checked on Strava—it was Mathieu van der Poel.

If you want to go cycling here yourself, I can only recommend you check out Komoot's top 20 cycling routes around Dénia.

After having written all this, I have made myself miss this gorgeous little town significantly, and I regret that my cousin, a fellow cycling enthusiast, and I will miss today’s Vuelta start. We will visit our grandparents in late September to celebrate my grandpa's birthday though—and return with a spring in our step, our skin tanned by the warming sun, our hair salty.

It is the simple yet rich experiences, like feeding milk to street cats or late-night dinners and shopping, that have etched Dénia into the fabric of my life. Whether you find yourself around here for the history, the pulsating excitement of the Vuelta, or the tranquil respite it offers, this coastal town is a multi-layered tapestry that will lure you back, time and time again, to discover something wonderfully new yet endearingly familiar.

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