The old Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale about the ugly duckling that turned into a swan could be said to apply to Valencia, Spain's third largest city of almost a million population. The city has had an ugly duckling makeover and is on the tourist map.
|Cheap flights and excellent rail connections to the north and an improved road system have made Valencia's attractions more accessible. The city hosted the 2007 America's Cup and is on the Formula One auto racing circuit. The once rundown port area has gone upmarket. Add the City of Arts and Sciences, an active restaurant and club scene and you can easily have a great visit.|
| The city, founded in 137 B.C. is on the Mediterranean coast south of Barcelona. Half way down the east coast of Spain, Valencia combines northern pragmatism with southern openness and hospitality. The name is from the Latin Valentia meaning strength or courage. It enjoys a mild climate, never as cold as Madrid in the winter and never as hot as Seville in the summer. It had always been a commercial area: silk, citrus, rice and pottery.
Valencia still lives on commerce. Its port is one of the largest for containerized freight on the Mediterranean. The ceramic industry has grown from simple clay cookware and decorative pottery to a huge industry producing ceramic material for industry and construction. Over the centuries, it saw Romans, Napoleon and Hannibal's armies as well as the Moors and El Cid come to the city, but not exactly as tourists.
But Valencia has long attracted tourists for Fallas, the weeklong celebration of dance, parades, and religious events. But on the 19th of March, the feast of St Joseph, hundreds of metres high effigies are set alight all over the city. It is always a fun packed Mardi Gras type celebration.
|The city sprawls to three points of the compass. But the center, with its 2,000 years of history, is where it's at. The old fishermen areas of Malvarossa and Cabanyal are all easy to get to. Tourist offices are at the airport, train station and the nearby Plaza de Ayuntamiento, City Hall Plaza.
Like most big cities near the sea, it was built a bit inland along the now rerouted Turia River. The sea front used to be a separate town filled with old 2 story side by side houses, oxen pulling fishing boats up onto the sand to be unloaded with a bustling fresh fish market.
In more recent times, the area became more varied, even dangerous. As recently as 20 years ago, gypsy families would be living in chabolas or make shift shacks with a burro tied at the side and naked children playing in the dirt. Drugs and violence were common. The seaside paseo was charming but with a rough edge.
Most of that is gone now and some even miss it. But there are still some narrow streets where you don’t want to go wandering around in the evening.
The old city and main sites are clustered south of the now dry bed of the River Turia. The Plaza de la Reina just up from the town hall plaza is good point of reference to visit Valencia whether for a weekend stay or longer.
The center and port area offer accommodations for all tastes and pockets. Some fine old family manses are now multi-starred hotels. New hotels have sprung up near the Ciudad de las Artes de las Ciencies or City of Arts and Sciences and in the rejuvenated port area. But the city is its old center.
A good pair of walking shoes and a sense of direction are helpful in the center. The tourist office offers fine maps to guide you. The city has jewels of buildings in the center dating from the middle ages. The Romans and Moors have left their mark.
|The Towers of Serranos, built in the Gothic style in 1394, is one of only two of the fortified gates still standing that once surrounded the walled city. Napoleon’s troops attacked the city in 1808. Until a recent restoration, you could see the impact craters from the cannon balls on the other gate, The Towers of Quart. The huge studded wooden doors that protected the entrance to the old city are as thick as a concrete block.
The Lonja de la Seda (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is the old silk market. It's certainly worth a visit. The interior is one of the most stunning and best preserved examples of Late Gothic architecture in all Europe. And Sunday mornings, an active stamp market crowds the sidewalk.
Across from the Lonja is the large tiled and stained glass Central Market. Locals meet here to mix and choose the makings for a meal.
|A short walk away is the Cathedral with its famous Micalet or 'Little Michael' named for the largest tower bell. Two euros lets you to hike the 206 steps to the top.
A short walk to the east is The National Ceramic Museum. It was originally El Palacio de Marqués de Dos Aguas and what a palace it was. The inside gives a fascinating glimpse inside the life of the very rich from the 15th century. The entrance way is a huge wall of sculpted alabaster with a scene that might be from Dante's Inferno.
Across from the Palace on Poeta Querol street are the most expensive shops: beautiful Lladró Pottery, Louise Vuetton, Mont Blanc, Bulgari and more.
|If you’re hungry at midday remember that Spaniards do lunch like they live, long and leisurely. It's a large, relaxed meal taken at 2:00 enjoyed with family and friends with a paseo afterwards. It's as much a part of the Mediterranean diet as olive oil and veggies.
You can pick up the makings for a sidewalk lunch at the Market, pay a good price for an excellent sit down or watch where the locals head. Paella is always on offer and Valencia does it well . But don't be fooled by the sign out front "Hay Paella". It's not a new take on a meat free diet. It's Spanish for "there is paella".
The city can thank the Moors for bringing rice, palm trees and irrigation to the area. Because of that,Valencia is also known as the market garden of the coast and you can even find vegetarian paella now.
After a coffee or a chocolate with churros in the Plaza de la Reina, mingle in the siedwalk market centerd on it. (But do watch your wallet. The area is infamous for pickpockets.) Much of the handicrafts are based on decorative ceramics, old tiles and the typical brown ceramic cookware. Much of the early wealth of the area came from silk. One might still find a silk shawl or a fine fan in one of the many stores around the plaza.
Behind the Cathedral is another plaza, Plaza de la Virgin. Most weekends it’s a center of street musicians, protests, children feeding pigeons and choral Music. The Baroque Basilica de la Virgin takes up one side of the plaza and holds the image of the patroness of Valencia. Most Saturdays at noon, the resident boys' choir sings at the mass. They aren't the Vienna Choir but don't tell that to the doting mothers and aunts filling the front pews
It's not all walking. Public transport is cheap, good and convenient. Busses (19 from the Plaza de Ayuntamiento) will get you from the center to the port area. But destination names will be in Valenciano, the local dialect, and Castilian Spanish. The tram is also convenient to the beach.
You have your pick of night life from a very active disco scene in Barrio Carmen to an excellent choice of restaurants: Spanish, Argentinean, fusion foods. But it'll be a late meal. Don't even think of sitting down until about 9:00.
|An early Sunday morning coffee can be had at Café Beral, open at 8:00. The earliest mass and cup of coffee are both at the Plaza de la Reina. You'll have the plaza to yourself for the most except for the maintenance crews hosing the sidewalks down after a typical Saturday night in the city.
The masses in the Gothic Cathedral start at about 8 also and they are on the hour in the chapel of the Holy Grail to the right of the entrance. It’s a fine old box-like place smelling of incense, wax and age. The small agate cup at the center of the alter is supposed to be the one used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Its existence has been documented in Spain back to the 10th century so who knows. The center is spoiled for old churches; wander about and relax.
Sunday morning is a good time to enjoy more sidewalk buying and selling. One of the most delightful min-markets is the one dealing with football trading cards. Spain is football mad. A stretch of a side street is given over to the young and young at heart looking for the one card to finish the complete set of this team of that for that year or this.
For brunch, try something different, walk to Segurdi Euskai Taberno, San Vicenti Martin 6, and choose Basque influenced pinchos (tapas)with a glass of cider. Tapiando or going from café to café is a great way to enjoy the excellent and varied tapas the city has to offer. But you will be charged for them.
|Children? Forget the art and take the Nº 19 bus to the City of Arts and Sciences. Not free but inside its futuristic group of buildings (more like space stations) where young and old can enjoy one of the biggest aquariums in Europe, an IMAX, a planetarium and the excellent science museum. The Museum of Science is all hands on and interactive but there will be lines.
|Much of the historical and architectural culture is found on the streets of the city. But the Fine Arts Museum San Pio V is in a 17th century Baroque palace on the north of the Turia. It’s free all week, open from 10 to 8, closed on Mondays. Enjoy the Velazquez self portrait and the large oils of turn of the century Valencia by Sorolla, a native son. The temporary exhibits are well mounted and offer beautiful images of Spanish art and history.
Also free on Sundays is the Museum of Modern Art. Free might be the best price to pay. The temporary exhibits can be very vanguard.
One of the nicest ways to relax and end a day is sitting in the centuries-old Horchateria Santa Catalina opposite Santa Catalina church. Horchata is a cold refreshing tiger nut and milk drink. The marble topped tables, glazed tiles all around, checkerboard floor and smiling waitresses will remind you of the best of Valencia: its culture, the food, nightlife, the weather and its genuine and unpretentious people.
|© 2010 ROMAR TRAVEL GUIDES|