Valencia is Spain's third largest city and is located on the Mediterranean about 200 miles south of Barcelona. Perfectly positioned on the Costa Blanca, it has long been a favourite holiday destination for the Spanish, but only in the last decade or so has this trickled over to the International set. Valencia may be known as The City of La Marcha (Going Out) but it has been modest about getting the word out on its many attractions to outsiders. Even when Calatrava (Spain's most famous architect) unveiled his astonishing and colossal landmark buildings between 2000 and 2005, it caused barely a ripple of international attention. I got the feeling that Valencians have no problem with this. All the locals we spoke to were very proud of their city and its remarkable recent additions, but seemed happy to have it to themselves. By contrast, the tourists we spoke to that had made the trek were overwhelmed by the beauty and vibrancy of Valencia, and were gushing to tell their friends all about it. The four of us were firmly in this category.
Like Seville and so many other European cities, Valencia was founded by the Romans. Wa'lentia (meaning Valour) was founded in 138BC. The area fit the bill for a typical Roman city set up: namely, a strategic position on a river that ran into the Mediterranean Sea that could be easily guarded. In 714AD the invading Moors turned the churches into mosques and the region enjoyed booming trade in paper, silk, leather and ceramics. A Spanish nobleman known as El Cid besieged the city in 1092 and with his victory, the Catholic church was resurrected. In 1492 Columbus ushered in The Golden Age with his voyage to the New World, and along with Seville, Valencia's fortunes flourished. Valencian bankers funded the wildly successful enterprise, and the money came rolling back in. With the boom came architectural and cultural developments, and some of the most emblematic buildings in the city were built during these years. In the 19th Century, Napoleon invaded Valencia and briefly set up a court for his brother to reign. Just six months later in 1813, Valencia was freed from the unwelcome French occupation. By the 20th Century Valencia was an industrialized city leading the country in banking and metal
production, and was exporting substantial quantities of citrus, including the delicious oranges that carry the cities name.
A tragic event in 1957 completely changed the city for the better. A great flood caused the Turia River to overflow its banks and the entire city was swimming in two meters of water. Officially there were eighty one deaths recorded, but the real figure was certainly much higher. A massive public works project diverted the river to a new course that skirted the city, and the dry river bed was made into a long, winding park that provides much needed green space. It snakes through the Old Town for four miles, all the way down to the harbour, giving Valencia a beautiful focal point
for all kinds of outdoor activities.
Our drive up to Valencia brought us past the notoriously brash beach cities of Alicante and Benedorm. It's best to give these concrete jungles a wide berth unless you are from the North of England and want your Spanish experience to have all the charm and authenticity of a Fish-N-Chip shop by the sea. Approaching Valencia, we passed miles and miles of industrialized agriculture churning out billions of oranges, and then the groves gave way to an ugly assortment of faceless tower blocks. One doesn't fall in love with Valencia at first sight! But gradually the wide boulevards became more handsome, and the buildings became more interesting. By the time we arrived in the city centre, we were overwhelmed with its beauty and grandness. Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings vie for attention next to ornamental baroque facades with
fountains and statues. Palm trees, marble sidewalks and delightful outdoor cafes are dotted around inviting plazas.
Our hotel was in one of these lovely buildings perfectly positioned on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento positively dripping in ambience. The inside of the Melia Plaza hotel was more run of the mill, but it fit our needs just fine, and it was an excellent value at just 80 euros a night. My only complaint was that Maria went on a cleaning rampage every morning long before we were ready to get up. As we arrived in the evening, we could not wait to get out and see The City of Going Out, and we didn't have to go far before we established ourselves in a local outdoor bar and restaurant called La Cata. With the parade of people going past us, we quickly realized that the boys are the stars in this town. The young men of Valencia are groomed and preened and show off their fit bodies in tight shirts and shorts. They shave their legs and pluck their brows. Their sideburns are carefully manscaped into sharp points. The girls are more low key and soft spoken. They group together to watch the boys strut their stuff like peahens taking in the parade of peacocks. Once the crowd has filled up on tapas and paella, the hipsters head to the district of Bario Del Carmen which is positively screaming with energy all through the night. Bar
hoping is the way to go...we just followed the crowds from one to the next.
The next morning we (somehow) pulled ourselves together and went out to explore the city by daylight albeit wearing the darkest shades we could find. The Old Town is small and easy to get around on foot, and all roads lead to the Cathedral de Valencia. The ancient stone church is a hotch potch of styles and houses a couple of works by Goya, and a series of extraordinary life-size figures of Christ on the Cross. After begging forgiveness for the night before, we dragged ourselves up the winding stairs of the bell tower known as El Miguelete for a sweeping view of the city. We made a very fast exit when the bells began to ring. The next stop was the Mercado de Colon. A huge sprawling market built in 1914 with impressive iron columns and ceramic murals depicting the riches of the farmland. We spent a couple of hours tasting cherries, cheese, jamon
and anything else that struck our fancy, however we passed on the 'salted shark' counter.
When in Valencia, one must eat like a Valencian. The signature dish of the region is paella, and we set out to find the best one in town. There is a huge fresh water lake near Valencia and rice has been grown in the surrounding wetlands for centuries. It's not hard to figure out how Valencians invented this popular dish by cooking rice from their fields and mixing it with fish from their sea. Not surprisingly the locals are very proud of their
paellas and there are dozens of varieties to try all over town. But nowhere can beat La Pepica overlooking the Malvarossa Beach in the harbour. It opened in 1898 and it was Hemmingway's favourite haunt. Black & white photos of dead celebrities line the walls, and an army of waiters in livery whisk giant pans of fragrant paella out to the hungry patrons. We enjoyed two varieties and a couple of bottles of Rose to wash it down, and then went for a walk down the beach to clear our heads.
Having taken our fill of traditional Valencia, we took a cab over to park that was
formerly the river bed and is now the home of the City of Arts and Sciences. Santiago Calatrava was born in Valencia and spent 16 years planning his masterpiece that was finished in 2005. There are three main buildings in the complex: The Palace of the Arts shaped like a Martian helmet, the Imax theatre resembling a giant space turtle, and the Science Museum structure that looks like the rib cage of a fantastical dragon. The buildings are set in shallow pools of water with interlocking walkways and a bridge like a giant harp. I felt like I had just beamed down to the Vulcan home world. We spent the whole afternoon walking around these epic structures clad in reflective steal and white mosaic tiles. It's as if HG Wells met with HR Giger and they let their imaginations run wild. There is simply nothing like it on Earth.
By this point in our travels, we had been in Spain for ten days and we had firmly adopted the Spanish rhythm of life. There is so much to enjoy in Valencia, and none of it can be rushed. Every day we got up late, went out to take in some sights and some shopping, and then followed this with a lazy late lunch and a siesta. At 10:00 it was time to go out to over indulge until the wee hours. It's hard to imagine this lifestyle working anywhere else in the world, but here in Spain it is completely natural. Even with the credit crisis that has gripped Europe, the Spanish still enjoy themselves more than anyone else. They have the highest unemployment in Europe, they drink and smoke more than any of their European counterparts, and yet they have the highest life expectancy on the continent. How can this be? The secret lies in a recent pole where the Spanish, more than anyone else, overwhelmingly describe themselves as 'happy'. And happily for us, we still had another four days to go and Barcelona was the next stop.