Valencia is the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona. The Port of Valencia is the 5th busiest container port in Europe and the largest on the Mediterranean, and is these days something of a work in progress. For those lucky enough to arrive by ship the impression is of a sprawling building site. Perhaps visitors will remember the 2005 America’s Cup yachting races which were held at Valencia and attracted 150,000 visitors to the port each day during the two weeks of events.
Valencia was founded by the Romans. Its historic centre is one of the largest in Spain, with ancient monuments, views and cultural attractions enough to gladden the heart of any history buff. During the Muslim rule the city was called Medina at-Turab.
Most people might not recognise the name of the Castilian noble Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, but mention Charlton Heston and El Cid and one has an epic picture of Valencia during a historic period of turmoil. Rodrigo was intent on creating his own principality so, in command of a combined Christian and Moorish army, he besieged the city between 1092 and 1094, and ruled there till 1099. He was killed in true movie fashion defending the city from an Almoravid siege (led by actor Herbert Lom), leaving his wife Ximena Díaz to rule in his place for another two years, when the Almoravids retook the city and restored it to Muslim control.
The ancient winding and characterful streets of the Barrio del Carmen near the market contain buildings dating back to Roman and Arabic eras. The narrow streets remind one of North African souks. The Cathedral, built between the 13th and 15th centuries, is primarily of Gothic style but contains elements of Baroque and Romanesque architecture. Beside the Cathedral is the striking Gothic Basilica of the Virgin (Basílica De La Virgen De Los Desamparados).
There was a catastrophic flood in 1949 with dozens of deaths, and again in 1957 when the river Turia overflowed its banks, claiming more than eighty lives. To prevent another tragedy the river course was diverted in the 1960s. The original track of the river remains and is now a lush sunken park called the ‘Garden of the Turia’ (Jardí del Túria or Jardín del Turia). This green ribbon offers cyclists and pedestrians a chance to cross much of the city without putting either a wheel or foot on roads. This park is a jogger’s paradise and traffic-free apart from bikes carrying Lycra-clad enthusiasts. Followers of sports other than cycling might like to know that Valencia is the only city in Spain to have two American football teams in LNFA series A, the national first division: Valencia Firebats and Valencia Giants.
Valencia is known internationally for paella valenciana, a rice dish cooked in a distinctive wide, shallow pan. Its main ingredients apart from the Spanish rice are saffron, seafood or meat, along with a few vegetables. This dish is offered in many local restaurants, but pick one that is frequented by residents rather than tourists.
Another good choice for gastronomic immersion are tapas or pinxos. These are on offer in many small bars across town from lunchtime onwards. There is something of a process for ordering these delicious snacks. Well, in truth one does not usually order them at all but rather select a few and pile onto your plate. The barman will note how many tapas you have consumed and will present the bill at the end of your grazing.
Apart from bread topped with the ubiquitous ham there might also be some seafood, cheeses and of course the famous Spanish omelette of onions and potatoes. Croquettes of various kinds should not be missed: they are usually made with a rich white sauce flavoured with ham, cheese or chicken.
The residents of Valencia are blessed with a city sporting monuments to its historic past, but there is a living historic market (Mercado Central) that is very much alive. One can learn much about a country by taking a look at its produce market and Valencia has one that is vibrant with colour, rich in diversity and tempting at every turn. The Modernist facade is testament to the importance of the produce market in the past – and even in the 21st century.
There are stalls that specialise in olives. Tubs of them flavoured with herbs or spices vie for your attention between others mixed with red peppers or stuffed with garlic. Another vendor displays the biggest radishes you would have ever seen, alongside some surprisingly exotic yams attesting to Spain’s growing ethnic population. There are rows of cured hams hanging like meaty fringes, and fish counters with glistening prawns and shellfish. Take a break at the market cafe and try some horchata which is a local speciality drink made with tiger nuts.
The largest plaza in Valencia is the Plaça de l’Ajuntament or Plaza del Ayuntamiento. The City Hall (Ayuntamiento) is found here, and the central post office. The Plaça de la Mare de Déu contains the Basilica of the Virgin and the Turia fountain. Another beautiful photo opportunity…and there are so many in this vibrant city.
Valencia is a city with which one can quickly fall in love. It offers spectacular historic buildings, rustic tapas bars, plenty of retail therapy opportunities and much more. A day would give an introduction but one would need to stay much longer to enjoy the full romance of this Spanish gem.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018