Valencia, the most Mediterranean of Spain’s large cities, is often overlooked by visitors, which is a pity. It has its own culture and feel to it, is very friendly and has the best nightlife in Spain outside Madrid.
Deceptively, much of Valencia looks quite modern, partly as a result of large-scale reconstruction after the heavy damage it suffered in the Spanish Civil War. But Valencia is one of the most historic cities in Spain, it being particularly noteworthy that the Moorish occupation lasted longer here than anywhere else except Granada, leaving deep cultural, though not architectural, traces. El Cid’s liberation of the city was no more than a hiatus in this occupation, but you will find references to him everywhere.
Most of Valencia’s sights are conveniently grouped in or around the centre, which can easily be taken in on foot. It divides conveniently into three areas: from south to north, the Plaza del Ayuntamiento and around, the cathedral area, and the historic Barrio del Carmen, wrapped over its north by the Jardines del Turia, the park which stretches along the former course of the diverted Rio Turia, the old bridges still spanning it giving it a surreal feel.
The city walls no longer exist, but two of the gates do. The Torres de Serranos in the north are imposing, drop-the-portcullis-and-pour-the-boiling-oil affairs, best seen on the approach from the other side of the “river,” The Torres de Quart in the east are just as impressive, but more lugubrious.
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El Miguelete. A good place to start your vist to the centre itself is the cathedral and its belltower, the emblematic Miguelete, Valencia’s most representative landmark. The Museu del Seu, cathedral museum, should not be missed by Indiana Jones fans, Arthurian enthusiasts and other romantics, for it contains a chalice said to be the one used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper: the Holy Grail itself. And if you stop for a drink at one of the pavement cafés in the adjacent Plaza de la Virgen, especially on a summer Saturday, you have a good chance of seeing a Valencian wedding group on its way out, when the more boisterous guests will set off a long chain of firecrackers which they will have strung all the way around the square, to the amusement of most and to the alarm of dogs and unforewarned tourists alike. Every Thursday at noon in this square you can see the eight members of the Tribunal de las Aguas hold court. I mean this literally — this is said to be the oldest legal body in Europe, dating back to the Caliphate of Cordoba. Its function is historic but mundane, to judge complaints made about the irrigation system used in the local huertas, market gardens.
The 16th-century Lonja de la Seda (Silk Exchange) is well worth a visit (weekdays and Sunday mornings only). One of the finest Gothic buildings in Spain, with a gargoyle-studded facade and elegantly columned interior, it evokes images of affluently robed merchants and diligent scribes. Just over the road you will find the fantastic Mercado Central (market), in my opinion one of the most remarkable sights in the whole of Spain, less for its turn-of-the-century ironwork and glass exterior than for inside, where stall after stall displays local market garden produce, fantastic seafood and other delights, especially live eels.
Valencia is well provided with Baroque architecture, both secular and ecclesiastic. Personally, though I recognise the importance of the Museo Nacional de Cerámica(Pottery Museum), I must admit that deep down I can take it or leave it. The building housing it, however, the Palacio del Marqués de Dos Aguas, is a delirious must-see.
Other museums include the Museu de Belles Arts, with interesting works by Bosch, El Greco, Goya and the rest of the gang, the Museu Taurino (Bullfighting Museum) and the awkward-to-get-to Museu Faller, where the best of each year’s ninots (effigies burnt during the Fallas) end up. And the two centres of the IVAM(contemporary art institute) should keep modern art lovers happy.
On the road out to the beach, the tremendously ambitious (but frankly impressive) new Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, City of the Arts and Science, is worth several pages to itself. The enormous complex includes a huge science museum (allow at least two hours, though it is possible to potter quite happily around the lobby for a quarter of an hour or so, and without paying the entrance fee), a planetarium, an unfinished concert hall and the massive L’Oceanografic, oceanarium. This last was scheduled to open in December, 2002, but I have heard nothing about it so I think it must have been put back again.
When to Go/Fiestas
Valencia is as festive a city as any in Spain, which is saying something, lively all year round, with a lull in August which you will not notice unless you can make comparisons. The most important time of year is the Fiesta de las Fallas, March 12-19 (reserve your accommodation well ahead), centred around giant, papier-maché sculptures, fallas. These are beautifully made, satirical effigies which are burnt on bonfires around the city on March 19, beginning at midnight, the best being left for last. During the week, there are also fireworks, concerts and an important bullfighting season.
Easter is important, as it is everywhere in Spain.
Valencia’s Feria de Julio sees the themes of fireworks, bullfights and music repeated, with a “battle of the flowers” thrown in.
Eating and Drinking
The Moors are supposed to have introduced the cultivation of rice in Valencia, which may or may not be true, but it is undeniable that Arab irrigation methods are still the foundation on which the local market garden system is based. Valencia is famous as being the home of the paella, and it would be a shame not to try one here, or better still head out to the beach or to the village of El Palmar in the Albufera Nature Reserve. Pundits often proclaim that “real” paella does not contain seafood, which is an exaggeration if not a misconception – in Spanish, paella is only a kind of rice dish, and paella de… is usually synonymous with arroz con… However, it is true that paella valenciana is made with rice, rabbit, chicken, snails (yes, snails) and vegetables. If you want a seafood paella you will have to order paella de mariscos, and for the paella commonly seen outside Spain, the term is paella mixta (don’t worry, no-one will look down their nose at you for ordering it). There are many other rice dishes worth trying (my favourite is arroz negro, rice cooked in squid’s ink, while arroz al horno, oven-baked rice, tends to remind Valencians of home cooking). Fideua, thick noodles cooked in the same way as paella, is at least interesting, though not to everyone’s taste (mine for example). And Valencia’s other great contribution to Spanish cuisine is all i oli, a garlic sauce. It is not, as it is often described, a mayonnaise: real all i oli is made from garlic and olive oil only, no eggs, and is much milder than you would expect.
Even quite ordinary restaurants in Valencia often serve a menú de degustación, a set menu with a lot of different dishes for “tasting,” which is a good way of getting to know the local gastronomy quickly. For cheap eating, stick to the Barrio del Carmen. Going more upmarket, you have plenty of choice. For example, El Romeral (62, Gran Vía Marqués del Turia, tel. 96 395 15 17) is described as a “classic in the city” by the Michelin guide, and Valencia’s highest Michelin-rated restaurant is Torrijos (4, Dr. Sumsi, tel. 96 373 29 49).
In terms of drink, Valencia’s most famous product is horchata, a soft drink made from the chufa, which the dictionary says is “tiger nut” in English (I have never seen an English tiger nut but I have seen chufas and they look like squashed yellow kidney beans). Horchata is served cold as a refreshing summer drink.
D.O. Valencia wine is very acceptable, but not especially noteworthy. Agua de Valencia is a cocktail of cava (the Spanish version of champagne) with freshly squeezed orange juice and is great in summer.
Valencia’s nightlife is one of the liveliest in Spain. The Barrio del Carmen has enough bars and pubs (late-night bars with music) to keep most visitors amused, especially if you intend to get up in the morning. Other areas are around the Plaza Cánovas Castillo, across the Turia, around the university and, in the summer, down on the beach. The weekly supplement El País de las Tentaciones recently (January 2003) carried this list of trendy pubs and discos: Platinum (4, Arquitecto Alfraro), Le Club du Pop (Carretera d’En Corts), G-4 (23, Alberich. Metro: Avenida de El Cid), Giorgio et Enrico (Plaza de Canónigo, Benimamet. Metro: Palacio de Congresos), La Indiana (95, San Vicente Mártir. Metro: Játiva), El Tornillo (45, Campoamor). It also recommended two places specifically in the Barrio del Carmen: Radio City (19, Santa Teresa), and La Lluna Roja (30, Calle Alta).
Of less interest to most visitors, but of anthropological importance is the fact that Valencia is the centre of the Ruta del Bakalao, a kind of network of discotheques where Spanish techno music is played and which Spanish youths spend all night or days at a time driving between, often drinking only suspiciously large amounts of water when they get there. Evidently, drugs, especially ecstasy, are an important part of this experience. Visitors are unlikely to find it unless they go and look for it.
Valencia’s town beach is a bus ride away from the centre, and is quite fine if you don’t mind being overlooked by the port. It has an reputation for being dirty, largely unjustified, though it is sensible not to stay too close to the port. Valencians refer to it as Malvarrosa, which is strictly speaking the northern beach, farthest away from the port, while the one next to it is Playa Levante.
If you prefer your beach closer to nature, catch a bus (ask for a timetable at a tourist office) down to El Saler or Playa la Devesa, both within the La Albufera nature reserve and both highly recommendable.
The most immediate excursion to be made from Valencia is to the nature reserve of La Albufera, a vast, freshwater lagoon only a stone’s throw from the sea. The lagoon has suffered greatly from all kinds of pollution and the eels traditionally caught there have been severely depleted, but it is still one of the most important wetlands in Europe and a great birdwatching centre – it reminds English people of the Norfolk Broads. You can see it from a tourist bus, in which case you will be taken to the lagoon and to the adjacent Devesa, or do it yourself. If you have a car, this is simplicity itself, otherwise you are dependent on buses (not very frequent, ask for a timetable at a tourist office). One good plan is to catch the bus to the village of El Palmar in the morning. There, you can stroll down to the edge of the lagoon, where you should be able to find a boat to take you on a short, twenty-minute ride around it (the water heaves with fish and herons glide around you). Have lunch in the village (there is plenty of choice, though it gets busy at weekends) where you may be torn between the best paella in the region or the more exotic all i pebre, eels with garlic. In the afternoon, catch the bus to the Playa la Devesa, also a protected area, for an hour or two on the beach before returning to Valencia.
El Palmar is the setting for a long, ongoing, bitter soap-opera of a dispute, the kind tabloids describe as “dividing the community.” Licences to fish in the lagoon are, logically, restricted and have been handed down over the centuries from father to son. Since the Spanish transición and the introduction of the constitution with its equal-rights provisions, a group of women in the village, daughters of fishermen, has been fighting a legal battle for the right to fish there. Time and time again, they have won their case in court, only to find that the community combats these legal decisions by simply ignoring them.
Saguntum was the starting point of the Second Punic War when it was taken by Hannibal after a long siege. The hill-top Moorish citadel is the site of ongoing excavations which can be visited, and the Roman amphitheatre has been restored. Twenty-three kilometres north-east of Valencia, Sagunto is a pleasant morning’s excursion (by train or bus) and you can pop down to the beach for the afternoon.
Much of this attractive valley has been flooded to make reservoirs, popular with Valencian weekend picnickers. It is also an important vine-growing area. Follow the Michelin route or ask at a tourist office for information about other routes or bus tours.
Because the centre of Valencia is so accessible on foot, you will probably not need to use the plentiful buses very much, and you may not even have to descend to the nearly new Metro at all, though it can be handy for getting to the beach. Bus number 5 is a convenient circular route around the historic centre, and the 5-B is even better, taking you through it.
Where to Stay
In addition to the four- and five-star hotels currently in the SPV Valencia hotel directory (the Valencia Tourist Board has this, more comprehensive list, but no on-line reservation) there is plenty of lower priced accommodation in Valencia. If you arrive without a booking, there are a good number of cheap places near the station, though the area is not very nice, and in the rest of the old part of the city, while more upmarket places are concentrated on the other side of the Turia Gardens and near the City of the Arts and Science (if you are looking for inexpensive lodgings, I have stayed in the one-star Hotel Alcázar, just off the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, and found it acceptable and nicely located).
From abroad. Valencia has its own airport, of course, though you may find it better value for money to fly to Alicante or even Madrid and catch the train from there. This is especially true coming from the UK, from where easyJet and similar airlines offer frankly rock-bottom prices.
From Madrid. By car: Valencia is now a mere 3 h 18 min from Madrid by the A-3. By train: A very comfortable (usually) three-and-a-half-hour journey, with 13 trains a day, most on the Alaris, the non-high-speed-line version of the high-speed AVE, which is good value for money at 36.50 euros each way. If you prefer you can take the tortuous Regional train, which takes nearly twice as long, but for half the price, but it would be more sensible to get the bus. By bus: Samar used to cover the Madrid-Valencia line, and according to the website of the Estación Sur (Mendez https://web.archive.org/web/20041028131743/http://www.auto-res.net/consulta/consulta_iber.htmÁlvaro, tel 91 468 4200), still does. Auto-Res advertises 15 buses (coaches) a day, taking 4 hours, at a cost of 21.59 euros each way, probably leaving from the bus station in Conde de Casal.