Travel Report: Valencia, Spain.
August 2016. I had lots of visitors during my twelve month stay in the city of Malaga. For the first time in years I was just a short flight away from friends and family, many of whom were keen to come and get some Spanish sunshine.
For the most part people were happy to stay in my adopted city and explore. But when my friend Henry came to town, he was in the mood for a trip.
“Where haven’t you been?” he asked, well aware that my travels had already taken me all over Andalusia. Inspired by the thought of going further afield, I found my eyes wandering across a map of Spain. Murcia? Maybe. Alicante? Could work. Valencia? Now we’re talking! “The best paella in Spain apparently!” said Henry and that was that.
I’ll certainly never forget our Valencia lodgings, easily the best place I’ve stayed at in Spain. “Let me take care of the hotel” said Henry. “I’m a funny bastard when it comes to accommodation and… well, let’s just call it my treat”. Renovated from a 19th century stately home, Hotel Hospes Palau de La Mar really was a treat.
In fact, our twin room was more like a small penthouse, while the breakfast was just outstanding. There was cereal, fruit, porridge and a Full English on our first morning. Salmon, scrambled egg, jamón and cubed gouda the next. And all the while the coffee and freshly pressed orange juice just kept on coming.
The hotel also has a killer location in Eixample Noble district, right in the heart of the city. Moreover, we had a lovely section of the amazing Turia Gardens right on our doorstep.
At over nine kilometres long, Valencia’s ribbon-shaped green belt is Spain’s longest and most unique urban park. Landscaping began in the 1970s in a bid to spruce up an extensive section of the dried up Turia River, which had been diverted south in order to avoid city centre floods.
Crossed by no less than eighteen bridges, the gardens are positively bursting with gorgeous architecture, striking art, walking trails, cycling paths, ponds and fountains. It’s safe to say I have never seen a park quite like it. Stepping out of the hotel on that first day, we decided to take a right to see where the gardens took us.
Slowly but surely, we made our way towards Valencia’s so-called City of Arts and Sciences. Unveiled in 1998, this spectacular complex stands as a science museum, cultural centre and modern art park.
City of Arts and Sciences.
The Valencia Opera House (Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía) is arguably the most eye-catching building. With a program that includes ballet, opera, zarzuela and live music concerts, it has four auditoriums across its fourteen stories and stands as the world’s tallest opera house.
Another Calatrava masterpiece is L’ Hemisfèric, a stunning eye-shaped creation containing a planetarium and a colossal IMAX Cinema. It has a number of daily education screenings, including Born to be Wild, which takes viewers around the Kenyan savannah and the jungles of Borneo.
Moreover, the complex is home to Oceanogràfic, one of Europe’s biggest aquariums, in addition to the Príncipe Felipe Science Museum. Special events are common and indeed on the day of our visit Henry and I saw people getting a taste of astronaut training in the various pools set between the buildings.
For our next walking project, we turned left out of the hotel towards Valencia’s historical quarter. Along the way, I just had to stop and marvel at this stupendous tree, one of several in Parque de la Glorieta.
My overriding impression of Valencia that summer was of one giant, open air restaurant. Wherever we went, there were tables and chairs spilling out onto the various squares and roads. Knives and forks clinked, waiters glided to and fro and the air was punctuated with the smells of sizzling meat and fruity wine.
Sometimes, these huddled clusters of clientele were so tightly packed together it was tricky to know where one restaurant ended and the next began.
This was certainly the case on Carrer dels Manyans, where it got so hectic we found ourselves ducking into Devil Records just to get away from the milling masses and pesky restaurant touts.
This is a proper old school record shop, where you can hardly take a step without bumping into another customer. With a focus on vinyl, t-shirts, rock memorabilia and local concert tickets, Devil Records has become a city institution, while just about every other record store has closed down.
While I can’t remember the titles I purchased that day, I know that this is where I bought my last batch of CDs. Just under a year later, I took the difficult decision to sell my twenty year record collection as part of my transition into life as a digital nomad.
Whenever we found a peaceful spot, Henry and I invariably stopped for a drink and a bite. One such opportunity came at the handsome and orderly Plaza Lope de Vega, home to a handful of small tapas bars.
Curiously, the square plays host to Europe’s narrowest building. Apparently the facade spans a ridiculous 107 centimetres from side to side. It houses a handful of tiny apartments and, in years past, a well known jewellery store on the ground floor.
It was only a matter of time before we came upon Valencia Cathedral, the city’s most impressive example of gothic architecture. Construction began in the thirteenth century and went on for hundreds of years, resulting in a mix of architectural styles, including renaissance, baroque and romanesque.
As fate would have it, I didn’t manage my usual routine of exploring every nook and cranny. This was my one billionth Spanish church and it was obnoxiously crowded on the day of our visit. Thus, after a brief look, we decided to head up El Miguelete, the octagonal shaped bell tower.
Unusually, the bell (Little Michael in English) never received an enclosed cover. And so it just sits exposed, providing a curious look to the city skyline. Furthermore, its nickname is something of a misnomer, as the bell is actually one of Spain’s largest, weighing over seven and a half tons.
Naturally, the views are wonderful, the best in the city some say. Well worth paying the negligent two Euro fee and doing the considerably more taxing 207-step climb. To get my shots, I had to squeeze my camera through the ugly wire fencing that runs around the viewing platform.
For a deeper look into Valencia’s amazing food culture, we made sure to include an hour exploring Mercado Central. Opened in 1928 after a fourteen year construction process, this art nouveau complex hosts over 860.000 square feet of stall space across two floors.
This place was much grander than the indoor market I’d seen in Zaragoza. Especially with its giant iron columns, ceramic tiles and grand, Italian style dome. With over 1200 fruit and veg stalls, it stands as Europe’s largest fruit and veg market.
Most tempting of all were the jamón stalls with their hanging slabs of salty goodness. It was here that Henry and I had to exercise some serious discipline as the clock ticked towards the restaurant reservation we’d made some weeks prior to our arrival in Valencia.
Keen to sample some of “the best paella in Spain”, we headed to one of Valencia’s most acclaimed restaurants, Bodego de la Sarieta. We arrived with big expectations and, happily, the resulting chicken and rabbit paella with chopped runner beans more than lived up to the hype.
Fuelled by world class paella, we returned to the historical centre with a visit to Turia Fountain on Plaza de la Virgen. Installed by the legendary Valencia born sculptor Manuel Silvestre de Edeta in 1976, the fountain depicts the Roman god Neptune presiding over eight naked women. Water pours from all the females, which is said to represent the Turia River.
I also remember marvelling at how a city of 790000 could just empty during siesta. Indeed it was quite remarkable as we walked through the desolate streets. On Calle de la Paz we managed to find an open cafe from which to sit and breathe in the silence.
On day two Henry had some Skype interviews to do for work, so I decided on an afternoon at Malvarossa Beach. This gave me an opportunity to jump on the metro at Valencia North Train Station. It’s an undeniably beautiful building and a key work of Valencian Art Nouveau.
Adding to the grandeur, the station sits right next to Valencia Bullring (Plaza de Toros). Completed in 1860, this is one of Spain’s oldest and most revered bullfighting venues. Interior tours are possible, while there’s even an onsite museum with entry at just two Euros.
When I eventually got to Malvarrosa Beach I was taken aback by the sheer scale of it. Down by the shoreline there were scores of people sunbathing, paddling and swimming. But the beach is big enough that you don’t have to get caught up in all that.
What’s more, Malvarrosa Beach isn’t simply Valencia’s premier sunbathing spot. It also enjoys a special place in Spanish history and culture. It is the setting of Tram to Malvarrosa Beach (Tranvia a la Malvarossa) a novel by the award-wining writer Manuel Vicent.
Vega was doing twelve months military service in Valencia at the time. When off duty, he would come to the beach with his guitar, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and a rum and coke from a nearby bar.
On our final day I added another Spanish football stadium to my growing collection. While on our way to the metro, Henry and I crossed Flower Bridge (Puente de las flores), decorated all year round with over twenty seven thousand well kept flowers.
In Spain Valencia is known as The City of Flowers and this bridge often shakes it up with different colour schemes depending on the season and various national festivals.
Just as I did in Madrid (Santiago Bernabéu Stadium) and Malaga (La Rosaleda Stadium), I took the self guided tour of Valencia’s footballing arena. Opened in 1923, The Mestalla Stadium is Spain’s fifth largest football theatre with a capacity of fifty five thousand people.
I hadn’t been aware that the club’s badge features a large bat. Nor indeed that the bat holds a special place in Valencian history. As the story goes, a bat landed on a flag belonging to James I of Aragon just before he headed into battle with The Moors in the thirteenth century.
James subsequently won the battle and believed that the bat played a key role in his victory. As a result, the bat ended up on several versions of Valencia’s official coat of arms.
In 2014 Valencia FC found themselves sued by Marvel Comics, who said the club’s latest bat-themed logo looked too similar to that of the caped crusader’s. The case has been dragging on for years, with the intellectual property office scheduled to rule in 2021 if no agreement is reached.
The bat imagery continues inside the stadium, where we got to stroll around the pitch. As is standard with these kinds of tours, we also got to peek inside the dressing room, the press room and visit the small onsite museum. For two big football fans such as Henry and I, it was a fun end to a memorable Valencia visit.
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