European giants from a tiny town built by tiles

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

The modest community of Vila-real, close to the provincial capital of Castellón de la Plana, would have remained an unnoticed dot on the map but for two things: ceramic tiles and local football club Villarreal CF.

Almost twice the population of Vila-real, a non-descript town of grid-patterned streets and mini-roundabouts, could fit inside the Nou Camp or Bernabéu. Villarreal CF hit the big time in the early 2000s when they came within a whisker of making the Champions League final, drawing with Manchester United, Rangers and Arsenal, and putting out Everton.

Diving into the Segunda for one season in 2011-12, ‘The Yellow Submarine’ resurfaced to finish in Spain’s top six five seasons running,  win the Europa League in 2021, then beat Bayern Munich before taking on Liverpool in the semi-final of the Champions League in 2022.

Behind the phenomenal rise of its football club since the late 1990s has been ceramics tycoon Fernando Roig, club president and major shareholder. The players he hired to elevate Villarreal onto the international stage would have graced almost any team in Europe: Diego Forlán, Juan Riquelme, Sonny Anderson, Pepe Reina, Robert Pirès, to name but five. Stalwart Marcos Senna, a Euro 2008 winner with Spain, made 300 appearances for the club before his 2013 move to New York Cosmos.

As if to underline Roig’s contribution, the club’s yellow-coloured stadium in the centre of town, El Madrigal, changed its name to the Estadio de la Cerámica in 2017.

In principle if not in modern-day practice, Villarreal’s local rivals are CD Castellón. Castellón actually opened El Madrigal in 1923 with a game against their own town rivals Cervantes.  

Though the rivalry remains, Villarreal and CD Castellón last locked horns in the league in the Segunda of 1993-94, finishing within two points of each other, enough to see Castellón relegated. Villarreal stayed up, going on to challenge the best in Europe. Castellón have been locked in the lower flights ever since. Their only opportunity for revenge has been a two-legged cup tie in the autumn of 2006, easily won by Villarreal.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

The nearest airport to Vila-real is controversial Castellón, 40km (29 miles) away in the middle of nowhere. Currently it welcomes two budget services from London. 

A bus service (€12) links with Castellón de la Plana (journey time 30-40mins), timed around specific flights and booked online. Buses come into and leave from Platform 11 at Castellón bus station, by the train station in the centre of town.

Regional trains leave for Vila-real (€1.55) around every hour, journey time 10mins. A local taxi parked outside the airport terminal has a fixed daytime price of €58, €68 evenings and weekends, to Vila-real.

The nearest major international airport to Vila-real is Valencia, 60km (37 miles) away. It’s 8km (5 miles) west of the city centre, in Zone B of the Valencia metro network, served by lines 3 and 5. Allow 20mins to Xàtiva (single €2.10), the nearest station to Estació del Nord. From there, take the cercanía regional train to Vila-real (every 30mins, 1hr journey time, €5).

Direct Taxis Valencia (+34 96 007 7705) can be booked online. The journey from airport to Xàtiva should cost around €16 plus a €3.50 airport supplement.

Vila-real station is south-west of town, the stadium right across the other side north-west, but so small is the centre in between, it’s barely 15-20min walk from the train to the ground. The only local bus service, Furió Línia Onda does an hourly circuit outside the city centre. Walking is the quickest and easy way to cover the short distances around town. 

Taxis Domingo Castellón, based in Vila-real, can be called on +34 640 66 51 03. 

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Bars and restaurants dot little Vila-real, most bearing yellow-and-blue iconography, but for a half-decent night out, you should head to Castellón and the bars along Calles Lagasca and Tenerías, and the Tascas tapas bars next to Plaza Santa Clara.

Back in Vila-real, terrace venues face each other around Plaça de la Vila, such as popular Les Porches, alongside traditional El Miso, with its paella set menus and Villarreal CF memorabilia. Tiled La Vila is another option alongside, while El Casino lends a buzzy, modern touch.

Don’t visit Vila-real without nipping into Cristal, ostensibly a pizzeria at the corner of the main streets of Carrer Major Sant Jaume and Plaça Bayarri, in truth a wonderful Uruguayan football bar, inspired by Diego Forlán. Its façade and terrace done out with images of the former VCF striker, and flags of Uruguay, Spain and Villarreal, Cristal comprises a small bar interior done out with match scarves and press photo vests from key European games played here, and an upstairs space backdropped by a mural of Uruguayan football badges. Affordable beer and quality pizzas make it even harder to leave.

There’s a cluster of livelier, later-opening spots near Plaça Bayarri, including trendier Pub La Casa Encantada (Carrer Sant Miquel 7). By Plaça Aliaga, the Cervecería Bocatería El Chufy (Av Pius XII 34) serves a range of beers and decent €10 lunches on a sun-catching terrace while Meeting Point Beer University (Carrer Hospital 11) forms part of a local beer-focused chain. 

Done out with Villarreal CF flags and showing match action, La Moderna by the roundabout at Avinguda Francesc Tàrrega/Carrer Pere Gil offers plenty of scope to imbibe, dine and view, both in terms of the range of food and drink (including breakfast) and its large interior.

Off Av Pius XII at Carrer València 56, away from the city centre but reasonably close to the station, Vila-Beer Irish Pub provides plenty of draught options and scheduled TV football.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the stadium and town centre

Vila-real City Hall has little tourist information.

Pick of the bunch is the four-star Vila-real Palace, south of town where Av Arcadi Garcia Sanz and Carrer Matilde Salvador meet, with a spa, pool and gym. Further towards the stadium at Av Italia 50, simple, family-run La Masía offers affordable and convenient lodgings, as well as local cuisine including paella for two.

Similar in offer, just other side of Plaça Llaurador from the stadium at Carrer Vicente Sanchiz 51, the Pensión Cortés (+34 665 93 17 16) is known more for its kitchen than its modest rooms.

Easily the best of the budgets is the Hostal Sant Joan, 300 metres from the stadium at Carrer Joan Baptista Llorena 16, its seven rooms and restaurant given a contemporary overhaul and now very smart, indeed.