With a privileged location along the Mediterranean Sea, the third-largest city in Spain can boast itself as one charming place. Filled with designer shops, fabulous museums and a delicious cuisine it calls its own, Valencia, Spain is also a tale of two cities. This mixture creates just the right environment for a perfect break no matter the season.
Compared by many as a smaller version of Barcelona, I included; I thought I would re-visit this Mediterranean city by the sea during the holiday season to compare the old and new.
It has been several years since my last visit, which at that time was filled with construction to create a newer Valencia. After all the America´s Cup and Grand Prix were coming to town.
This time the trip lasted a mere two days, but I certainly packed the time well in the ever evolving rapidly urban center.
If you love old towns, then there is nothing like a walk through Valencia´s original quarter. The area actually dates back to the Romans, who dominated the economic, cultural and religious life in the entire city and region.
As you walk, you will find this area overflowing with churches, such as the Cathedral, that are crafted in a blend of Gothic, Baroque and Romanesque design. During the holiday season, the nativity scene is a huge draw.
However, the Cathedral is noted for one of the most celebrated gold and agate chalice. The church and residents will argue intensely that this cup is the one used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. To them, it is the Holy Grail and the City of Valencia is blessed to have it in their possession. No one will ever sway a Valenciano away from this belief.
The entire district is in the holiday mood, with its narrow streets decorated with blue and white lights for Christmas and Three Kings Day.
Originally, the entire city was encased by a great wall surrounding it with some buildings still intact. The remaining structured walls only contain the twin towers with a rook-like appearance as the entrance into the old city and a portion of the wall on the city´s western boundaries.
Exclusive to Valencia as the festivals of all festivals, Las Fallas; the place to stop off on a short hop holiday is the Museo de las Fallas (Fallas History Museum). I find I can appreciate this city´s culture as well as to learn more about this ritual.
Las Fallas is a celebration of fireworks, parades and something that is totally Valenciano, the ninots. Costing upwards from hundreds and thousands of dollars, the ninots takes a year to construct, and are made of huge cardboard, wood and plaster and crafted into satirical works of art.
On the last night, the ninots are consumed by flames. Some are salvaged, and along with costumes and photographs, they are donated to the museum.
Hotel reservations are difficult to obtain during Las Fallas, and securing one a year ahead is not unheard of. This fiesta never seems to coincide with my schedule, and a visit to this museum suffices as a delightful alternate.
The Central Market in Valencia is adorned with ceramics and mosaics, and was constructed in 1914. It is located near the area known as the Lonja de la Seda (the Silk Exchange).
The market is one of the oldest in Europe and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was recently given a facelift, and stalls selling fruits to nuts and everything else in-between that is edible can be found here. I like to purchase the fresh bread (barrio rustico), Serrano ham and assorted cheeses from the different vendors to eat on the go.
The trail outside the old city is a sharp contrast of the contemporary 21st century architects. The best example of this is a complex dedicated to the arts and sciences, applicably called La Cuidad de las Artes y Las Ciencias.
With an interesting laid out park-like site created in the old Turia River bed, it is vast. It´s futuristic buildings include the Hemisferic IMAX theatre, the Oceanografico (aquarium) and hands-on science museum, known as the Museo de las Ciencias.
Although surrounded by the bustle of some very busy streets and roundabouts, the outdoor areas are calm with the only sounds being the murmur of water flowing.
The Science Museum has special exhibits on loan from other locations. I was fortunate on a previous visit to Valencia to see the traveling exhibition of China’s Terra Cotta Warriors.
On this trip, I opted for the Parque Oceanografico. I have to admit that after seeing countless aquariums from San Diego to Coney Island, I can be somewhat jaded towards them.
I can happily report way this one was laid out was spacious. Each exhibit is placed in a separate building and submerged underground. To get from one edifice to another you need to walk through a structured park-like setting filled with flora and fauna.
Designed by Valencia’s most famous architect, Santiago Calatrava, I took a walk over his crafted and unique Calatrava Bridge, aka Assut
This architect was behind the designs of the City of Arts and Sciences, as well as noted bridges in Venice, Calgary and Dallas. Use is not restricted to autos and bikes, as pedestrians can walk across this expansion featured as a sail boat between the traffic in its center.
Chocolate is decadent, but I am never without a tiny piece daily. One chocolate shop that is the place offers an impressive array of chocolates, truffles, almond cakes and cookies with the locals pouring in. Centered on a side street at Journalist Azzati, 5 (near El Corte Ingles at the City of Arts and Sciences), El Leon Dulce (Sweet Lion) is my personal favorite to have a coffee and chocolate. The interior is just as impressive with its modernistic black Plexiglas counter along with bright lime green cushion seating.
Of course, the most popular native dish that reigns in Valencia is paella. The name has nothing to do with its recipe, and is actually derived from the Latin word “patella” meaning flat pan. The paella pan was originally used was cooking rice alone. Eventually, whatever was available and in season in ancient households was thrown in with the rice. It was only natural that being on the Mediterranean bountiful fruits of the sea was used, and Valencian Paella was born.
Valencia is famous for yet another item a cocktail called “Aqua de Valencia” (water of Valencia). This drink has nothing to do with water except maybe for the ice cubes.
The history behind this potent beverage begins with the “Brewery of Madrid” in Valencia. The bartender and proprietor, Gil Constant Rodriguez, was chided by some Basque visitors who claimed that their “Water of Bilbao” was the best cocktail on the planet. With much pride, he made up his own drink with Valencia oranges, white wine, gin and vodka mixed together. On the spot, he fittingly called this creation “Aqua de Valencia and even the Basques admitted that Gil´s drink was the better tasting.
Everything in Valencia has a story behind it, and that is what makes Valencia stand out. It always strives to be the best it can be and appears to be winning as a world class and cosmopolitan city with much history behind her.