Valencia: how well do you know Spain’s third city?

September 5th, 2014


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.

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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.



Deal of the Day: 48% off five-star Mauritius retreat

August 12th, 2014

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Holiday details: save 48% on a week-long stay at the five-star Constance Belle Mare Plage, Mauritius. Enjoy the seven resort restaurants, spa, swimming pool and activities available including scuba-diving, water-skiing and kite surfing.

Price: from £1,199 per person (a saving of £1,125 pp) based on two adults sharing a room on half-board basis and include scheduled return flights with Air Mauritius from London Heathrow.

Date: departures between 1 and 15 September 2014. 

Book with: Tropical Sky or call 0843 249 5361.


Deal of the Day: £1,000 off luxury Ibiza villa

August 11th, 2014

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Holiday details: rent out Escandell on The Balearic island of Ibiza. This four bedroom, three bathroom rural hideaway sleeping seven has its own private pool, table tennis, landscaped, tiered garden with lawn, citrus and olive trees, covered dining terrace and sun terrace.

Price: £1995 per rental (a saving of £1000). Return UK flights and car hire are extra, but these can be arranged on request.

Date: departing 31 August 2014.

Book with: Vintage Travel or call 01954 261431. 

Deal of the Day: save over £1000 on thatched villa stay in the Maldives

August 7th, 2014

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Holiday details: enjoy a seven-night stay at Kanuhara, Maldives with Western & Oriental. Stay in a thatched roof villa and take advantage of the resort’s tennis courts, squash courts, beach volleyball and watersports including 40 nearby dive sites and dolphin spotting trips.

Price: from £1,935 per person (a saving of £1,005 pp) based on two sharing a sunrise beach villa on a full-board basis. Price includes economy flights with Sri Lankan Airlines from London and seaplane transfers.

Date: book by 31 October for departures between 1 November – 21 December 2014.

Book with: Western & Oriental or call 020 7666 1234.

Deal of the Day: save over £240 on two-week studio stay on the island of Kefalonia

August 6th, 2014

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Holiday details: Sunvil Holidays are offering a 28% discount on a two-week stay to Apollonia Studios on the island of Kefalonia, Greece. The property is located right on the water in the village of Assos, and each studio has a private veranda with ocean views. A beach and handful of tavernas are just a minute away on foot.

Price: £669 per person (a saving of £243 pp) based on two sharing on a self-catering basis, including flights (Manchester) and transfers.

Date: departing 23 August 2014.

Book with: Sunvil Holidays or call 020 8758 4758. 

Deal of the Day: save 30% on eight sharing a private villa in Ibiza, with private pool

August 5th, 2014

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Holiday details: stay for seven nights at Can Colina, Ibiza, and save up to £4,840 in total. This six-bedroom villa, complete with private pool, is situated just 10 minutes from Ibiza Town and Talamanca beach. Alternatively, the nearby Santa Gertrudis is renowned as the artistic and gourmet centre of the island. Many of the island’s best beaches and restaurants are within a 15-minute drive.

Price: from £1,410 per person (a saving of £605 pp) based on eight travelling. Price includes seven nights’ self-catering accommodation, flights from London Gatwick to Ibiza (other regional airports may be available upon payment of a supplement) and car hire.

Date: departing on 18 or 25 August 2014.

Book with: Simpson Exclusive or call 020 3411 4399.

Meet the Boss: Emma Barnett, MD of Tots Too

August 4th, 2014

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In our latest Meet the Boss interview, we talk to Emma Barnett, Managing Director of Tots Too. Emma founded Essential Escapes in 2002, following a career in luxury travel which saw her travel extensively around the globe visiting some of the world’s top spa destinations and resorts. Now a mother of four, she launched sister company, Tots Too, to help parents find the world’s best spa resorts with second-to-none kids facilities so that Emma, and parents like her, could continue to enjoy the luxury spa holidays she had enjoyed before the arrival of children.

Q. Please tell us about a great holiday memory from your childhood.

I went to Hawaii on a business trip with my dad and remember, even at the age of six, thinking how exotic it was. I learnt to swim in a huge pool, ate chicken and chips in a basket with club sodas every day for lunch and remember hula dancing round a giant pig on a spit.

Q. What three items are always found in your hand luggage?

iPad, Dr Haushka hand cream and lip gloss.

Q. If you could spend next weekend anywhere in the world, where would you go, and why?

I love Indonesia. The people are so warm and hospitable and the food is amazing. There is a real spirituality to the country and it’s one of the few places that have evoked very strong emotions in me. I love Asia but I find Indonesia to be the most magical.

Q. Please tell us about a particularly challenging booking you have handled.

We had a client who wanted us to fly over a string quartet for him to serenade his wife. Easy in the UK but not so easy on a small Greek island. Needless to say we did manage it.

Q. What has been your most enjoyable holiday in recent years?

I went to Daios Cove in 2012 when I was heavily pregnant with number four and had my three other kids in tow with the youngest being only 13 months. The fantastic kids club run by WWKC, the head of guest services and restaurant hostess Ana all helped to make it very easy for me. We had three hours off every afternoon and babysitting for the baby every evening. We were always given the same great table at breakfast with amazing personal service and room service at 6pm every day with the most delicious food for the kids. Everything ran so smoothly that I truly relaxed on this holiday. Unimaginable, really, considering.

Q. And what has been your all-time worst holiday experience?

I booked a diving holiday in Watamu, Kenya, for my sister’s 30th birthday. The first week of the holiday was an amazing uber luxury safari experience in the Masai Mara (paid for by my previous company) so when it came to me paying, the standards had to drop! The hotel was awful with dirty rooms, depressing public areas and some very dubious clients. It didn’t help that the weather was bad for the whole week, the food was inedible and the diving conditions were very unfavourable. It was the longest week of our lives.

Q. What luxury would you take to your desert island?

A martini – my outlook is always a lot sunnier when I’ve had a martini.

Q. What one thing would most improve people’s overall holiday experience?

Good childcare. When the kids are happy and entertained, that’s one less job for the parents to think about and then they too can relax and enjoy the things they wouldn’t normally have time for at home like spa treatments or romantic dinners.

Q. Tell us your favourite hotel – one for business, one for pleasure.

Hotel for pleasure is the Ritz-Carlton, Abama in Tenerife and for business it would be The Oriental in Bangkok.

Q. What is the most exciting project your company is working on right now?

Our family experiences for kids that are a bit older – we’ve started with exclusive jungle safaris in Sri Lanka which has been a huge hit so far. There is more in pipeline but I can’t divulge too much at this stage.

Thanks, Emma.

Deal of the Day: save £390 on a five-star Cyprus holiday with three pools

August 1st, 2014


Holiday details: stay for seven nights for the price of five at the five-star Anassa, Cyprus. Surrounding the three freshwater swimming pools (one heated in winter) are large sun terraces. There is an indoor pool, a gym, tennis and squash courts, sauna, steam baths and an indoor exercise seawater pool.

Price: £1599 per person (a saving of £390 pp) in a studio suite on a b&b basis, including flights from Manchester and transfers.

Date: departing 29 September 2014.

Book with: Prestige Holidays or call 01425 480400.

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