Valencia: Spain's most exciting cityBy Stuart White
August 06, 2010
Valencia has the weather, food and culture. STUART WHITE lists his top 10 reasons to visit Spain’s third largest, most exciting and wonderfully diverse city.
The famous Spanish dish originated in Valencia and locals insist their recipe is best. Good paella must be cooked to order, be alarmed if it arrives in under 20 minutes, and for a minimum of two people. It must also only be eaten at lunch, never dinner. Try Ernest Hemingway’s old favourite haunt, La Pepica, next to the port and on the beach, and dine with the Spanish families. The theatre kitchen – open plan so take a good look – and waiters insist this is how paella should be. It’s hard to disagree.
City of Art and Science
You will notice the spectacular architecture at the coastal end of the Turia Gardens when you fly in. Designed by the city’s famous son, Santiago Calatrava, and Felix Candela, it is Europe’s largest leisure-cultural complex and most striking. A work of art. The opera house has been likened to a shark and Darth Vader’s helmet, while the science museum resembles a dinosaur. The Oceanografico (aquarium) is first class – think sharks, dolphin shows and long under-water tunnels – with its Submarino fusion restaurant offering a nine-course tasting menu inside a giant fish tank. The science museum rotates exhibitions and has most with English translation.
Severe flooding to the historic centre in 1957 resulted in the River Turia being diverted out of the city. Governors wanted a motorway constructed on the former river bed but protestors intervened and the result today is a diverse 10km stretch below the traffic. Hire bikes and explore this most unique of nature paths. Join joggers, skateboarders, artists, footballers and musicians among the palm and orange trees (too dry and acidic to eat), lakes, artworks, flowers, water fountains, children’s play areas and sports fields – each has their own corner of these tranquil gardens.
The golden sandy Mediteranean beaches of Las Arenas and Malvarrosa run uninterrupted for miles under the hot Valencian sun. Free, noticeably clean (like the whole city), and not over-crowded. The coastal promenade is relatively undeveloped with a modest number of unfancy bars and restaurants scattered along the front. In contrast, the five star super-plush Hotel Las Arenas towers over the Mediterranean and is an ideal base – on the beach and a short Metro ride from everywhere else.
Breathe in the heavenly smell of roasted nuts and spices, and not so pleasant waft of fresh fish in the heart of the city. All 8,000 square metres of Spain’s biggest and one of Europe’s oldest markets has recently been perfectly restored – the ornately decorated modernist building alone is worth a look. Feast your eyes on a thousand stalls – displaying every colour imaginable – selling local delicacies, including the exclusively rich Jamón Iberico de Bellota from black pigs who live on a strict diet of acorns. Take a walk around and revel in Valencian life. Open daily, except Sundays, from 7.30am to 2.30pm.
Valencia’s coat of arms features two L’s for double loyalty. The city is proud and its traditions of silk, oranges and ceramics are prominent on every corner you turn. The Silk Exchange is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and be sure to take a look at the ceramic museum in the baroque palace of Marquis of Dos Aguas. Also sip the refreshing Valencian drink of horchata – tigernuts, water and sugar – at Horchateria El Siglu in Plaza de Santa Catalina before tasting the Agua de Valencia signature city cocktail of orange juice, Champagne and sugar with drops of gin or vodka. This was invented in 1929 in glamorous saloon bar Cafe Madrid.
Valencia’s world-famous Fallas Festival officially runs from March 15 to 19, but in reality it never stops. More than 350 associations from different neighbourhoods each construct two elaborate structures out of wood and papier mache before unveiling them for a grand parade during the electric festival week. Artists spend all year working on the monstrous and often satirical effigies, which can be as tall as 25 metres. Judges pick a winner and then the matches come out to set the Valencian skies alight on the final day of this loud, smoky fiesta of fireworks, carnivals, music and traditional dress. The Fallero Museum houses the one ‘ninot’ dating back to 1934 saved from the flames.
Start your medieval city tour by entering through one of the last two remaining gothic military gates. From there, weave around the narrow cobbled streets and soak up the city’s heritage. Make sure you tick off the Generalitat Valenciana, Iglesia de Santa Catalina, basilica, statue of Neptune and Plaza Redonda from your must-see list. Visitors on a Thursday can witness the century-old Water Court – the oldest democratic institution in Europe – taking place at Plaza de la Virgin. At night, the bohemian Carmen district is where the party continues into the early hours.
Historians worldwide believe La Catedral de Valencia is home to the last cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. The Holy Grail is made of agate stone and displayed in a decorative – gold and pearls – structure in the city’s imposing cathedral. Legend says the Holy Grail, which features in the cult novel The Da Vinci Code, possesses miraculous powers and crowds gather to pray in its presence.
Bull fighting is unquestionably a matter of taste but it is hard to ignore the Spanish tradition, and the nation’s largest arena next to the railway station. Its museum is free and displays intricate costume worn by celebrated matadors. Formula One fans will be able to walk the European Grand Prix street circuit which loops around Marina Real Juan Carlos I. Here the world’s best sailors competed in the reliable Valencian wind at the 33rd America’s Cup in February – the 2007 event brought major investment into the city. And golden boy David Villa may have switched to Barcelona, but this season could be the last to watch the Valencia football team play at the hostile Estadio Mestalla before the famous club relocate to a new home in the outskirts.