Benissa has a wealth of monuments; its historic old quarter is an open-air museum. Strolling through its streets and squares, admiring its white houses with their tuff stone lintels, is to experience its history for yourself.
Different discoveries suggest that there was prehistoric activity in Benissa, as evidenced by the three cave paintings in Pinos district. And old coins and amphorae indicate that the Romans too passed through this region. The origin of the place name Benissa, ‘Beni-Issa’
, is considered to be the Arabic for “sons of Issa”,
the name of a tribe. The names of many of the districts in the municipality are also of Arabic origin: La Alfama
, la Rápita
, el Rafalet
. This confirms the historical thesis that there was a major Moorish population settled here in the past.
Along with Altea, Calpe and Teulada, it formed part of an estate, one of whose lords was Roger de Lauria. Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries there were numerous raids by Barbary pirates. The population was still Moorish but mostly in the rural areas, whilst in the town itself was populated by Christians. When the Moors were expelled in 1609 the population converted to Christianity, and those who refused to do so were expelled. The area was subsequently repopulated by people from the Pyrenees, Catalonia and Aragon.
So Benissa has a rich legacy of monuments. A landscape full of contrasts, an atmosphere imbued with history. Walking through the old quarter of Benissa, perfectly preserved, is to discover a life-sized museum – cobbled streets, walls built hundreds of years ago and manor houses transport us back to medieval times.
Monuments in Benissa:
- ‘La Lonja de Contratación’ former guildhall: from the 15th century, a three storey building with a three arch arcade on its ground floor, in olden times the centre of commercial activity. It is the oldest monument in the town. It is currently used for touring exhibitions with great artistic and cultural value.
- Benissa Town Hall: this building is situated in Plaza del Portal, in the old municipal hospital founded in 1790. For many years it was used as a shelter for the needy and to care for people with contagious diseases.
- Plaza de la Iglesia Vieja: here was where the church-fortress of St Peter was located, built in the 14th century. It was refurbished in the 16th century and remained standing until the 1950s when it was destroyed. It is now a small, tucked away square used for different cultural activities.
- University Seat: ancestral homes and small palaces from the 18th century that today form part of a large education campus, part of the University of Alicante, offering a wide variety of study disciplines.
- Ribereño: the ‘riberero’ is a symbolic figure representing the Benissa locals who emigrated twice yearly to the Valencian paddy fields to plant and harvest rice. This figure is in the praying position, because traditionally the locals would pray before the holy stone before setting off on their journey. The figure of the ‘riberero’ is honoured on one day of the Benissa Saint’s Day fiestas.
- Cultural Centre: Torres-Ordiñia family palace, currently houses the library, an exhibition hall, lecture rooms and a function room where various events take place.
- House of Juan Vives: it is said that the owners of this house gave accommodation to two pilgrims, who as a token of their gratitude on leaving, gave the owners a holy image of the ‘Puríssima Xiqueta’, the Patron Saint of Benissa.
- Casal dels Jovens: this building was used for trading activities. The weekly market was held on its ground floor. The town council was in this building until it moved to its current location. Today it houses the youth information centre and an exhibition hall.
- Franciscan Monastery: dates from 1645. Its facade reveals the defensive purpose for which it was built. It has impressive cloisters and a single-nave church.
- Franciscan Seminary: this was a very important building, training a great many young men from all over Spain who came here to become Franciscans. Today it is home to ‘CREAMA’, a consortium to promote the economic recovery of the Marina Alta area, and ‘AFIC’, a network to help modernise small businesses.
- Puríssima Xiqueta Church: built in the Neo-gothic style. It is also known as the ‘Marina Alta Cathedral’ due to its size. Its construction was completed in 1929 with the efforts and assistance of all Benissa’s residents.