Valencia, Spain’s third largest city, offers much more than simply the industrial centre which many imagine. This mediaeval seat of learning and trade has a charm reaching far beyond the attractions of its wide sandy beaches and windswept sea.
Valencia is a wonderful place to visit; history and modernity go hand in hand with a fascinating range of things to do and enjoy. But it remains a city in transition where there’s still scope, as in many other cities ‘on the edge’, for better communication with those who come to enjoy and admire this evolving location. In some ways, however, that’s part of the adventure….
In 2007 Valencia plays host to a world-class event, the America’s Cup; but it also has an exotic living civic history and a rural hinterland, known so far to only a few, which encompasses the Albufera ornithological paradise and the ancient traditions of towns like Sagunt and Xativa.
Valencia, we now know, is The Place for everyone to be seen in 2007. It’s to host the America’s Cup on behalf of Switzerland, and everyone who’s anyone will be there.
Well, that’s next year. In the meantime, we turned up this August (2006) for our holiday, barely aware that the America’s Cup was on the agenda (though, come to think of it, we did have a brief encounter with the run-up to it on a trip to Marseilles last summer).
For us, arriving late on a hot August evening, the attraction was simply that Valencia is a city with history, sun and lots to see.
Our rule-of-thumb is that the hotel we choose for our holiday should be near the historic centre of the selected sunny city destination; anywhere near a cathedral is usually a good way to ensure that, especially if the map shows the streets around the hotel as small and windy.
And so we found ourselves, that first evening, sitting in a paved square with its own uplit fountain outside the Astoria Hotel, serenaded by some very business-like passing musicians and enjoying a late meal after our travels. (We subsequently realised that ‘late’ is a different idea in the mind of a Brit from that of Valencians, whose young families dine out at times which seemed exotic even to us as oldies.)
Then next morning we began our annual adventure, to discover as much as possible about our host city whilst taking in the ambiance and enjoying a few of life’s little luxuries. Not hard to do in Valencia!
A city of contrasts
You can read all the guidebooks about a city, but nothing except direct experience takes you to the real thing. One lasting impression we have of Valencia is that it’s amazingly flat and easy to get around. Don’t, whatever you do, take a car – the local parking attendants are very diligent. But do get a street map and some walking shoes; this is easy terrain. Take your time and your ease and savour the freedom to roam which visitors to Valencia can enjoy. The mediaeval centre of the city is compact and rewarding for those who linger and explore it.
And do be prepared for surprises. Until you’ve seen it, you truly won’t be able to understand the impact of the Third Millennium City of Arts and Sciences, with the Palau de la Musica, its enormously impressive Science Museum, Congress Palace (still being built) and the wonderful Oceanografic, complete with shark tunnel, flamingos and leaping dolphins.
Nor can you really imagine the exquisite architectural balance of the Plaza de la Virgen which shares the centre of the old city with the Cathedral and other mediaeval buildings.
It’s a meeting point, a perfect setting for a relaxing break or meal and, almost unnoticed, adjacent to the site of roman remains, visible through cleverly placed glass partitions and in one place actually excavated and viewed via a glass-based water feature. Here is evidence before our very eyes of Valencia’s history from Roman times onwards, set with such sense of place that it feels almost unreal.
Valencia is green
Altogether a different experience is the greenness of Valencia. We had heard of the great Turia, the now-dry river bed which surrounds the old city and provides some ten kilometres of leisure space for locals and visitors alike. Walkers, cyclists, footballers (of all ages and both genders), relaxed locals and tourists mix with ease in this enormous space, enriched with much public artwork and trees of every sort, and spanned at many points by bridges ranging in design from the formidably modern to the elegantly ancient.
This is an open space, magnificently appointed, which must surely meet the needs of all who use and visit it – yet it came about only because city leaders feared another mighty flood, such as that in 1957, and so they decided to divert the river proper. Sometimes it is indeed possible to bring about good from catastrophe.
What was less familiar to us was Valencia’s stoutly walled (and thereby almost un-findable) Botanic Garden, which is administered by the University. It’s an oasis of clearly ordered information, calm and dappled light.
And further afield is the huge shallow lagoon of Albufera (we went on the Bus Turistica), just a metre deep for most of its five kilometre diameter, but home to many different birds and host to thousands of visitors who are transported in the traditional flat-bottomed boats of the local people.
Strangely, to most of us from the more Northern parts of Europe, almost none of these amenities has developed commercially. Of course in some ways that’s great, but in other ways not so. You can’t even buy a bottle of water on your trip to Albufera, and locating the entrance to the Botanic Garden is a real challenge – though admirably it was open on a Bank Holiday when everywhere else was closed. (In fact, many things, including – despite the jellyfish sea bathing scare – the main public swimming baths, were closed for the whole of August…)
Back exploring the built environment, we were fascinated by the range of styles and shapes of the city. The fifteenth century UNESCO World Heritage site of La Lonja de los Mercaderes is one of the oldest secular institutional buildings (it’s a mediaeval silk trading hall), and just opposite it is the ornate early twentieth century Mercado Central, not to mention the extraordinary Estacion de Nord (sadly next door to the only real blot we saw on the valencian landscape, the Bullring, still put to its original use – though happily functioning as a market whilst we were in town) with its tiled salutation of Bon Voyage on the walls in many languages.
Conveniently, our hotel being just across the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (City Hall) from the Estacion de Nord, it was easy to get out of town on the train for the green hills which surround Valencia. Thus we found ourselves taking days out variously in Sagunt to the north and Xativa to the south – both famed for their fortress castles, but both also surprising us with other sights as well.
In Xativa we suddenly encountered an enormous street market – at least a kilometre long, with everything from wonderful dried herbs, to candles, carved wooden animals and (thousands of!) walking sticks – which had encamped for a week, marking the traditional Southern European Feast of the Assumption on 15 August. Here, where we had anticipated just a quiet stroll, were merchants from all over the world, South America, Africa and closer to home, many of them in traditional costume, plying their wares, selling food, playing music and generally in celebratory mode.
And in Sagunt, a place like Xativa which from the railway station seemed unappealing – and was certainly seriously unsignposted – we saw a magnificent open-air opera house, reconstructed in somewhat controversial style on the site of a Roman amphitheatre, overlooking Sagunt’s fabled old town but still far below the castle with its breath-taking vistas across the mountains and plains encompassing Valencia city, and onwards to the sea.
A place to revisit
Valencia is vibrant and varied, a place to return to when one can. Not every aspect of the transition to a modern city has been resolved, as the continuing use of the Bullring in its original role demonstrates, but it is evident that much progress has been made. There were of course things missing on our visit.
Nowhere in the city itself was any music, even small-scale performances (other than enterprising street musicians), to be found during August. Many places provided no clues for non-Spanish / Valenciano-Catalan speakers about how to conduct one’s business – always crucial if serious tourism is to be encouraged. Most tourist information points (even at the train station) were thinly stocked and closed in the afternoons and during festivals, even though thousands of visitors were in town. Signposting is almost non-existent, at least as far as we could see. Public transport remains largely a mystery to us even now, and after about ten at night seems effectively to disappear, which might be thought strange given the late hours kept by the locals.
But on the whole these are not aspects of great cities only now emerging into prominence which don’t also occur elsewhere. They are things which will need to be addressed as Valencia becomes more used to welcoming visitors from far and wide.
Valencia is a city with great promise for future, as well as a fascinating past. If you haven’t been there yet, it should be firmly on your list of places to look forward to.