Built of ancient stone and soaring steel, Valencia combines mediaeval mystery with a cosmopolitan edge, says Arpi Shively
STEERING your car through Valencia’s evening commute provides all the machismo, perspiration and high drama of the bullring, fuelled by big city adrenalin. Multi-lane one-way systems hurry you past magnificent civic buildings and frothy stone fountains. In the gaps between ducal palaces and florid Art Moderne apartments, gleam towers of sheer glass and steel.
Ancient Romans, Visigoths, Moors and anti-Franco Republicans have all helped to shape 21st century Valencia. The futuristic City of Arts and Sciences and Valencia’s current role as host of the 32nd America’s Cup are just the latest influences making Spain’s third largest city first on our list for a weekend break.
Broadly speaking, you can enjoy four distinct faces of the city: Valencia’s old quarter, bounded by the Turia, Calle Xativa and Calle Colon, has the Cathedral, Basilica, traditional markets and other places of interest, plus a wide choice of bars and restaurants – more than enough for a pleasant weekend.
The University campus area also contains the most beautiful gardens and cutting-edge architecture. Cánovas is all bourgeois charm, splendid homes and the most expensive shopping and eating in town. Or there is maritime Valencia: walk along the Avenida del Puerto, lined with traditional seafood restaurants and scan the horizon from three different beaches. With excellent bus and metro systems, reasonably cheap taxis and even a tram service, my partner Fred and I found getting around Valencia easier and more fun without a car.
They eat barnacles, don’t they?
For an exhilarating introduction to the city, you could dive straight in to the Mercat or Mercado Central in the old quarter. With almost 1,000 food stalls covering 8,000 square metres, the Mercado is a grown-up theme park for the senses.
Inma Soriano’s preserved foods stall features a wooden drum framing a perfect sunburst of silver-lilac boquerones, anchovies preserved in vinegar. On the corner stall, Verduras Selectas stars rich purple aubergines and lipstick red peppers piled in shiny heaps. The wily artisan baker at Panaderia Cruz displays miguelitos and susus at eye level, the tiny twisted pastries enameled with sugar and pearly custard.
Drifting past the endless stalls, I wander into an icy kingdom—the seafood market where the city’s fierce-eyed fishwives hold court with tongues as sharp as their flashing knives. There are whole conger eels here, miniature Loch Ness monsters frozen in mid-whiplash and palest pink squid shiny-smooth as bathroom porcelain. And what’s this? Tiny black and red brontosaurus feet? The jewelled toes of an Indian god? The stallholder unmystifies me; they are percebes, or barnacles, “delicious sautéed in a little olive oil.”
My partner and I stagger out to find coffee and spend the next hour excitedly comparing notes.
The Mercat has given us an appetite, so our next mission is to hunt down the best of Valencia’s famous paellas. Some Valencianos (the locals) say you have to head out of the centre to the restaurants along Avenida del Puerto, but if you want to stay central one of the best is self-confessed ‘rice specialist’ El Forcat, north of the Cathedral at number 12, Roteros.
The next morning, a short taxi ride took us far from Valencia’s past into a radical vision of the future. The City of Arts and Sciences is astonishing in its appearance and content and worth spending a whole day to see – if you have the stamina.
Four major attractions go to make up this soaring steel and glass city: L’Oceanographic is Europe’s biggest aquarium; L’Hemisferic, a giant eyeball housing the planetarium and Imax movie screen; the seemingly endless Science Museum, and the almost-completed Palau de les Arts, a concert hall, cinema and opera house complex. You can buy tickets separately for each of the first three centres, or shell out around 30 euros for reduced-price admission to all three (you do not have to go to all of them on the same day).
We visited the Science Museum and spent hours trying out just some of its many hands-on booths and displays. In Life and the Genome, you can stroll in the Chromosome Forest through dozens of experiential displays, stopping to measure your water content (and see it in the measuring tank), test your strength, experience an adrenalin rush and get the shock of your life feeling the velocity of the average sneeze.
L’Hemisfèric, with the Planetarium and IMAX movie screen, is great if you are with the kids. At L’Oceanogràfic, even more fun than the bottlenose dolphins are the panoramic aquariums and 70-metre underwater tunnel recreating underwater and tropical seascapes, where rare species whiz above your head and alongside you as you walk.
Fiestas and religion
Re-enter the real world by walking back to the old city through part of the Turia recreation space. Once the city’s mighty river, a devastating flood in 1957 altered the Turia’s course. The old riverbed was re-engineered as a seemingly endless garden and recreation space, a broad emerald ribbon entwining old and new as it undulates through the city. Its imposing glass-domed concert hall, the Palau de la Música is one of the central sites for the biggest party of all in this acknowledged party town.
The Fallas, celebrated between 15th and 19th of March, is dedicated to St Joseph and presided over by young and old festival queens, or falleras. Like many festivals in Spain ostensibly dedicated to saints, it retains a definite pagan flavour.
The revelry is balanced by religious devotion: at Mass on Sunday morning in the dimly-lit Real Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Desamparados, a flock of startlingly young nuns from Central America swish quietly past us, eyes downcast and hands together in prayer. At their pew, they kneel in tight formation, the stiff folds of their gowns and veils as perfect as a mediaeval painting.
Meanwhile, a few miles and a thousand years away, the new Valencia is showing its pace to hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world for the 32nd America’s Cup and its grandstand final later this year. Valencianos will no doubt absorb this latest invasion with their usual aplomb, blending its innovations effortlessly alongside nearly 2,000 years of existing history. As always, they will do it with style.