By Mark Hodson
Many people have visited Spain’s two-big-hitting cities Madrid and Barcelona, but what of its third? Some might struggle even to name it, and fewer still will have actually explored Valencia.
I recently spent a fortnight with my family staying in a village called Massalfassar about eight miles north of Valencia. It was staggeringly hot – reaching 42ºC on one torpid afternoon – but we did manage to prise ourselves away from the swimming pool to explore the city and the surrounding region.
Valencia is widely known (in Spain, at least) as home to the paella, and hosts a couple of colourful festivals: Las Fallas in the spring and Tomatina in August, which involves manic tomato throwing and is actually held in the nearby village of Buñol. For many years it wasn’t a place troubled by excessive numbers of tourists, but that has changed.
In 1957, the river that ran through the centre of Valencia, the Turia, flooded spectacularly, killing at least 81 people. The government decided to divert the river to the south and – faced with an unsightly dried-up river bed snaking through the centre – decided to turn it into gardens.
It took several decades to complete the project but now you can join the locals as they walk, skate, cycle and jog along six miles of beautifully landscaped gardens, pathways, fountains and playgrounds. The ancient bridges across the river remain, along with some new ones, several of which were designed by the Valencia-born contemporary architect Santiago Calatrava.
Calatrava was also commissioned to design the City of Arts and Sciences, a collection of cutting-edge museums that stands at one end of the Turia Gardens. This provides a new focal point to the city, a counter point to the elegant old town, which lies to the north-west.
To orient ourselves we took a cycle tour with Solution Bike which is based in the old town. Despite the heat, Valencia is a great city for cycling – it’s very flat, has a large network of dedicated bike paths and it’s not long before you find yourselves in the Turia Gardens away from all motorised traffic.
Like all visitors, we stopped to gawp at the futuristic structures of the City of Arts and Sciences, though our guide Alvaro was keen to point out that one of the buildings was already missing all of its white tiles. Pointing at a huge wall of grey concrete he said: “They just fell off and nobody knows if the city will have enough money to put them back up again. Like all of Spain, we’re broke.”
Valencia certainly rode the wave of prosperity for the last couple of decades of the 20th Century. It played host to the America’s Cup, for which an expensive new marina was built, and the Spanish Grand Prix was held on a track around the docks (though this has since gone back to arch-rival Barcelona). Its taxpayers are still picking up the bill.
We cycled to the marina and found it a little lifeless, despite the fact it is still home to the America’s Cup teams. A few super yachts were moored up, but some of the buildings were starting to look a bit tatty. A flagship modernist building was empty. Alvaro pointed to the tiles above our heads and pulled a face. “Best not stay under here, just in case,” he said.
It was only a short ride to the beach which was much busier. Valencia is lucky enough to boast a long wide sandy beach lined with seafood restaurants and cafes. Though there are finer beaches a few miles down the coast, you wouldn’t complain if you had to spend an afternoon there.
With our bearings in place, we returned to the city on several occasions, both in the daytime and at night. Eating out was a highlight. One day we whet our appetites by wandering around the food stalls of the Central Market – a high-ceilinged modernista building – before lunching at La Pilareta, a tiled tapas bar in the old town that is so famed for its mussels that it has buckets under the bar where you are encouraged to throw your shells. These mussels are not like the big flabby mejillones found elsewhere in Spain, but a smaller and tastier local variety known as clochinas. Served in a plain broth of lemon and garlic, they are superb.
On another day we ate at Bar Cantina La Lonja Del Pescado, an atmospheric seafood restaurant in the docks. This is not some tarted up dockland area, but a working dock, so it’s fairly gritty. The food was sensational though, particularly the spaghetti with seafood pictured below.
We spent one long hot day at the City of Arts and Sciences, which contains a science museum, an IMAX cinema and Europe’s biggest aquarium. The science museum was particularly impressive with endless buttons to press and games to play, while the movie about outer space we saw at the IMAX was entertaining, if not quite as technologically impressive as the architecture suggested.
The aquarium, Oceanogràfic, was busy with families looking to escape the heat outside and it would take a particularly jaded palette not to be wowed by the sharks, walruses, beluga whales and sea lions. I had my doubts about watching a show of performing dolphins, but I was outvoted by the rest of the family, and it turned out to be a highlight of the day.
Although Valencia remains an eccentric destination for a two-week summer holiday, it would certainly make an outstanding place for a city break in spring or autumn. There is plenty to see in two or three days, the food is sensational and the weather is reliably sunny, and if you don’t have kids in tow, you can explore the hip bars and cafes of the Ruzafa district close to the train station. Next time, maybe.
Find out more from the tourist board.
P.S. It’s claimed the building pictured below in Valencia’s old town is the narrowest in Europe at just 109cm. The mind boggles.