You could say Valencia is a Mediterranean city situated on the banks of the Turia River — and you would be right. Factually. But those geographic truths tell only part of the story.
Yes, Valencia is located on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, but it is possible to visit without ever glimpsing the sea. The city center is a couple of miles inland, and appears largely indifferent to the vast watery expanse on its doorstep.
As for the river, 30 years ago it was diverted south to prevent a recurrence of the catastrophic flood of 1957. The dry riverbed was initially earmarked for a freeway, but that scheme met with vehement opposition. A more visionary plan was hatched, and today the Turia is a 6-mile-long park threaded with paths and cycle routes, and interspersed with iconic architectural projects.
By happy circumstance, one of the world’s superstar architects, Santiago Calatrava, is a native Valencian. In the 1990s, he was commissioned to design the City of Arts and Sciences at the eastern end of the Turia. This cluster of futuristic buildings has redefined Valencia’s identity. Within the space of a decade, the city has morphed from a slightly seedy provincial port into one of the coolest places in Europe.
So here I stand, one sunny morning, in Calatrava’s complex. To my left is the Science Museum, which from one side looks like a huge glass waterfall, and from the other like a bleached skeleton. In front of me is the Hemisferic, a glass-and-steel echo of a human eye, and housing the planetarium and an IMAX theater. To my right is the rounded form of the opera house, with its incredible detached roof, which hovers above the building like a giant feather.
My eyes are taking in a view that is undoubtedly of the 21st century, while my ears are pounded by a sporadic sound that heralds a much older tradition. It could be gunfire, but I know better, and I no longer flinch each time I hear a volley.
Firecrackers. I am here in mid- March, a time of year when Valencia becomes a riot of noise and fire.
They call it “Fallas” (pronounced “Fai-yass”). It is a festival that begins on March 1 and culminates with a spectacular display of pyrotechnics on the night of March 19. For the duration, the city is gripped by collective lunacy. Everyone is caught up in it. Close to the opera house, I watch a young couple help their 3-year-old light a firecracker and toss it at the feet of an unsuspecting passer-by.
During Fallas, the streets of the Barrio del Carmen, the historic old town, are closed to traffic. At many intersections, massive wooden caricatures up to 50 feet tall have been constructed. Some 380 of these statues, known as fallas, are dotted around the city. At midnight on the final night they are burned — a conflagration that symbolically announces the start of spring.
While Fallas is in full swing, sleep is not on the agenda. Festivities start early and go on into the wee hours, with parades, pageants and fireworks displays. Each day at 1 p.m., huge crowds gather in the streets around City Hall for the mascleta, a deafening 6-minute display of “sound fireworks,” which costs around $13,000 to stage each day. The ground shakes, buildings rattle, and I act upon the advice I was given beforehand: “Keep your mouth open to prevent your eardrums from bursting.”
On the final night, I find a high vantage from a top floor balcony to watch the burning of the falla outside City Hall. The air is thick with the smoke of other fires around the city. This one starts with a blizzard of fireworks, then flames begin to lick around the statue’s base. Fire crews dowse the surrounding trees and buildings as the falla is consumed by a column of flame. Even five floors up, I can feel the heat raging against my face.
By morning, the ashes have been swept away, the streets are open to traffic, and Valencia is ba ck to normal. Now I can begin to get a handle on the true nature of Spain’s third largest city. For decades it has been overshadowed by its two larger rivals, Madrid and Barcelona. But that is beginning to change.
Some notable sporting coups have helped to raise Valencia’s international profile. In 2007, the city hosted the America’s Cup, and will do so again in 2009. And from August 2008, it will be the annual venue of Formula 1 Motor Racing’s European Grand Prix, utilizing a street circuit that will run along the seafront. Besides exposing the city to a worldwide television audience, these events have stimulated the renovation of the longneglected shore district.
Yet Valencia’s heart will always be the labyrinthine streets and alleys of the Barrio del Carmen. It is a wonderful place for an aimless stroll, with venerable churches and historic museums around almost every corner. If the weather is hot, there is no better respite than to stop off at a café for a glass of orxata, a refreshing local drink made from tiger nuts, usually served with a long, thin pastry called a farton.
Some of the best of these cafés are located close to the cathedral. On weekends, the plazas around the sprawling Gothic and Baroque edifice are busy with newlyweds posing for their official wedding photographs. Well-wishers cluster nearby, setting off firecrackers.
Valencia is a forward-looking city, but remains proud of its traditions and unique cultural identity. Life here is lived at a comfortable pace, with good humor, a strong sense of community, and more than the occasional celebratory explosion.
LAS ARENAS BALNEARIO RESORT
With this recently opened 5-star beach hotel, Valencia is going back to the future. Black-and-white photographs in the lobby show the old spa resort that occupied this site at the turn of the 20th century. The new hotel is designed in deliberate homage to its forerunner, complete with two Greek-style classical pavilions on the grounds. The neighborhood is a little shabby (though in the process of renovation) and the location is a 10-minute ride from downtown, but the beach is superb, and you’re within a short walk of a string of fine oceanfront paella restaurants and, beyond them, the America’s Cup Port.$$$$
LAS ARENAS BALNEARIO RESORT
Eugenia Vines 22-24
tel 34 96 312 0600
THE WESTIN VALENCIA
The swanky Baroque exterior, constructed in 1917, was originally a factory. Westin retained the façade, but stripped everything else out, fashioning a deluxe 135-room hotel wrapped around a tranquil central garden. Since opening in 2006, this has become the hotel of choice for visiting celebrities (Michael Jordan, Bruce Springsteen and Kevin Costner are among the recent guests). The location is excellent, a block from the Turia Gardens and a 10-minute walk from the old town. The Caroli Health Club in the basement provides customized training regimes and spa treatments. Michelin-starred chef Oscar Torrijos runs the hotel’s flagship restaurant.$$$$
THE WESTIN VALENCIA
Amadeo de Saboya 16
tel 34 96 362 5900
HOTEL CONFORTEL AQUA 3 & 4
Just across the road from the City of Arts and Sciences, and adjoining a shopping mall, these two funky hotels offer a choice of 3- or 4-star accommodation. Aqua 3 has 135 guestrooms, while the slightly more up-market Aqua 4 has 184 guestrooms, including 16 suites. The 15th floor restaurant — Restaurant Vertical — in the 4-star property provides breathtaking views of Santiago Calatrava’s spectacular buildings. Both hotels boast colorful and innovative décor, and a range of business facilities. There are easy taxi and bus connections to downtown, or you can enjoy a pleasant traffic-free walk along the Turia — the old town is about 30 minutes away on foot.$$-$$$
HOTEL CONFORTEL AQUA 3 & 4
Luis Garcia Berlanga 19-21
tel 34 90 242 4242
You’ll need to take a cab, and be patient if the driver doesn’t find this family-run restaurant immediately. Ca’Sento is tucked away on an unfashionable street in an unfashionable district. It’s not the location you’re here for, but rather the Michelinstarred food. Incorporating the finest, freshest seafood, for years the restaurant served classic cuisine. Then the owners’ son, Raul Aleixand re, became the chef, and things took an avant-garde turn. There are some adventurous choices on the menu — oysters and green apple, for instance — though old favorites such as seafood paella are still offered. The décor is as cutting-edge as Raul’s concoctions, with shag-pile carpet on the ceiling, and an extremely cool restroom (take your cell phone with you — the lock can be temperamental, and you may need rescuing). Advance booking is advised. $$$$
Mendez Nunez 17
tel 34 96 330 1775
BODEGA CASA MONTANA
When a tapas bar has been in situ since 1836, it has to be doing something right. The scene is set when you arrive. If you’ve booked a table, you get to it by ducking under the bar. You then find yourself seated among wine barrels and other paraphernalia harking back to the establishment’s former sideline as a supplier of wine to merchant ships. As you’d expect, the wine list is outstanding (the cellar holds 20,000 bottles). As for the food, there’s a wide selection of beautifully prepared local delicacies. Drink, eat and absorb more than 170 years of atmosphere.$$$
BODEGA CASA MONTANA
Jose Benlliure 69
tel 34 96 367 2314
Okay, so Ernest Hemingway had more favorite bars and restaurants than most of us have had hot dinners. No matter. This beachside restaurant, which was his favorite haunt in Valencia, has many more claims to fame. Of course, Papa’s photograph is on the wall, but so are those of dozens of other celebrities — film stars, matadors, and even the King of Spain himself. The big draw is Valencia’s most famous culinary invention, paella. You have to have it at least once during your stay, and there’s no better venue than this charismatic eatery.$$
Paseo Neptuno 6
tel 34 96 371 0366
If you enjoy jogging, walking or cycling, head for Turia Gardens (http://www.culturia.org), the 6-mile-long park that occupies the former course of the Turia River. At the western end of the park is the city’s latest world-class attraction, Bioparc (http://www.bioparcvalencia.es), a multi-million-dollar zoo that recreates natural habitats. At the opposite end of the Turia is the amazing City of Arts and Sciences (http://www.cac.es). Allow plenty of time for taking snaps — this complex is endlessly photogenic. Of the individual attractions, the displays in the Science Museum can be a bit of a disappointment unless there’s a good temporary exhibition on. The Hemisferic contains an excellent planetarium and an IMAX cinema. The star attraction is the opera house, officially known as Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia (http://www.lesarts.com). The interior is as spectacular as the exterior. Try to attend a performance if possible; tickets for operas and concerts can be bought in advance online.
You’ll want to spend plenty of time in the Barrio del Carmen, the old town. The ancient, chaotic street plan can be confusing, though locals will help out if you get hopelessly lost — the Turia is a good reference point. A logical place to start is Valencia Cathedral, a fascinating building that houses two original works by Goya and an ancient cup that is reputed to be the Holy Grail. Tucked away behind the cathedral is Plaza de la Almoina, where a variety of archaeological remains dating to the Roman, Visigoth and Arab periods have been uncovered. When the archaeological museum is closed, you can see some of the ruins through the remarkable glass-bottomed pool that occupies much of the plaza. A more comprehensive view of Valencia’s past is provided by the Valencia City History Museum (http://www.valencia.es/mhv), which features high-tech multilingual displays. One of the most important historic buildings in the old town is the former silk exchange, La Lonja de la Seda, a UNESCO-listed example of Gothic architecture.
On the opposite bank of the Turia from the old town is the Museum of Fine Arts, Museo de Belles Artes, which houses an interesting collection of religious and Spanish art, including works by Goya and Velazquez. If you need some relaxation between sightseeing, book into Balneario la Alameda (http://www.balneariolaalameda.com), Spain’s only urban thermal spa, located across the road from the Westin hotel. A range of treatments is available, and there is an excellent thermal pool.
INFO TO GO
Domestic and international flights arrive at Aeropuerto de Valencia (VLC), situated five miles west of the city. There are no direct arrivals from the United States, but there are good connections through major hubs in Spain and Europe. A taxi ride into the city should cost $30 to $40. The airport is also served by the city metro (15 minutes to downtown) and shuttle bus services. For more information, visit Spanish Tourism at http://www.spain.info .
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