In Valencia, the old and new nestle side-by-side in an intriguing landscape of contradictions.
Bright, vibrant and ironic, Valencia is home to atmospheric old quarters, gothic cathedrals, the wild Fallas Spring festival, and Europe’s newest scientific and cultural architectural wonder. Formerly an industrial town, this third largest Spanish city has grown to shed its staid image and is now billed as a great urban getaway. It’s a city where tradition sits comfortably next to technology, and where paella first originated. Add to that its friendly, mildly chaotic vibe and a happening party-till-dawn nightlife, this city that never sleeps is hardly boring.
A good place to start exploring is the Plaza de la Virgen (Virgen Square) and its surrounds. In this old part of Valencia, even McDonald’s looks quaint, while somber reminders of the war can be seen in bullet holes left in the buildings. One of the main sights around this busy plaza is the Cathedral. Like the city itself, the cathedral is a mash of styles: the eastern section is Romanesque, the dome and tower are Gothic, and the main entrance is baroque. Don’t miss the rich, recently restored frescos above the main altar (said to be done by the same restorer as the Sistine Chapel) and two large Goya paintings. But the real jewel of the crown here is the Holy Grail – the chalice from which Christ sipped during the Supper – in the Gothic chapel, right of the main entrance. Next to the cathedral is a spiral flight of 207 steps leading up the bell tower – worth the giddying climb up for panoramic views of the city.
The plaza is also circled by cafes and restaurants, and there are plenty of options here where you can dig into Valencian cuisine – including its famed paella served with a dollop of alioli (garlic mayonnaise). Try variations such as arroz a banda (simmered in a fish stock), arroz negro (with squid ink), arroz al horno (baked in the oven), or fideuá (where rice is substituted with noodles). Wash it down with another local specialty, Agua de Valencia, or Water of Valencia. Despite its innocuous-sounding name, this tipple contains not water, but orange juice mixed with sparkling cava wine. For authentically delicious Mediterranean cuisine combined with high-energy flamenco dance, head to the quaint La Lola (www.lalolarestaurante.com). Tucked in a side alley, this casual 30-seater locally owned by the gregarious pony-tailed Jesus, promises a fun night out.
Then there’s Mercado Central, or central market, originally constructed in 1928 and one of the largest markets in Europe, with nearly 1,000 stalls. Here, you can find stalls selling a swirl of food and produce, from horchata (a chilled, creamy local summer drink made from tigernuts, sugar and water and tastes like sweet soya milk) to chocolates, churro and top grade Jamon Iberico de Bellota cured ham.
While the early Moorish conquerors were responsible for much of Valencia’s fascinating historical architecture, new avant garde masterpieces sprouting up is adding to the intriguing landscape as well. Not to be missed is the City of Arts and Sciences (www.cac.es), created by famed Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava. The massive scientific and cultural complex is composed of five dramatic buildings and a landscaped promenade sprawled over 350,000sqm in the former Turia dry riverbed. Each futuristic-looking building of soaring steel, glass and concrete is equally unorthodox, and together, have dramatically changed the city’s skyline. The dome-shaped Hemisferic, rising like a giant eyeball out of the pools of water linking the complex together, is the main structure; it houses a planetarium and possibly the largest IMAX cinema in Spain. The undulating Oceanografic (designed by the late Spanish architect Felix Candela; the rest are the work of Calatrava) is said to be the biggest marine park in Europe. Next to it, the skeletal Principe Felipe Science Museum is the newest addition to the complex, while the Agora auditorium stands tall in the background with its pointed ellipsis. The fifth structure, the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia Opera House, clad in white mosaic tiles, appears like a glistening sci-fi white-beaked creature with its impossibly thin curved roof.
The City of Arts and Sciences links to the Turia old riverbed, now a 12km belt of parks and gardens that meanders across the city to form its central axis. Wander through, and you’re reminded that despite its newfound urban attractions, Valencia’s appeal still lies in its lanquid, easy-going pace. At the tail end of the Turia riverbed is the eco-friendly Bioparc zoo (www.bioparcvalencia.es), where endangered animals seemingly roam free without any cages and bars. Replicating the landscapes from savannah to Africa and Madagascar, rivers and twigs act as natural boundaries, while letting visitors get up-close to cute lemurs, hyenas and gorillas. Clean, modern and well laid-out, it makes for an entertaining half-day excursion even if you’re not a nature fan.
Valencia is home to some fine beaches as well, one of which is the La Malvarrosa beach along the seafront promenade. Do as the locals do, and take advantage of the balmy, Mediterranean climate to linger on this powder-fine beach that seems to stretch forever before reaching the sea. Nearby is the Royal Marina, a luxury leisure port created for the America Cup sailing races and the setting of the F1 European Grand Prix street circuit. Cap off your walk with a cocktail and mid-day snack on the terrace of the palatial Las Arenas Hotel (www.hotelvalencialasarenas.com) overlooking the beach.
And that’s perhaps the best way to enjoy Valencia – to relax, forget about time, and not expect anything to happen in a hurry. After all, in this land of siestas, no one eats dinner until 10pm and don’t even think about hitting the clubs till midnight.