Travel Trends: Spanish surprise

Valencia and its surroundings are often ignored when planning trips to the Iberian Peninsula. It’s time to take a look

THE OLD CITY’S Plaza of the Virgin. To the left is the cathedral featuring a stained-glass Star of David above one of its entrances (photo credit: LAWRENCE RIFKIN)
THE OLD CITY’S Plaza of the Virgin. To the left is the cathedral featuring a stained-glass Star of David above one of its entrances
(photo credit: LAWRENCE RIFKIN)
tour guide friend once told me how she described Israel’s three largest cities to her groups: Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays, Haifa works.
That’s a pretty fair assessment, considering Haifa’s gritty port, refineries and chemical plants. Offhandedly, ask most Israelis how they’d spend a day there and they’ll probably mention a visit to the stunning Baha’i Gardens and one of the delightful harbor outlooks high on the northern side of the Carmel. But that would be about it.
That’s the way I envisioned Spain’s Valencia – and the only reason I envisioned it to begin with was because someone offered me a chance to go. After all, there’s the highly cosmopolitan capital, Madrid, with its wide boulevards, royal palaces, well preserved Old City and world-class Prado. Then there’s Barcelona, with its splendid cultural life and spectacular architecture. The same for Seville and its World Heritage Sites and Holy Week processions, and Toledo and its rich Christian, Muslim and Jewish history.
But Valencia? At first glance online, it seemed to be little more than a larger version of Haifa, with a bustling Mediterranean port (one of Europe’s largest and busiest), numerous chemical plants and medium-to-heavy industry, including a Ford assembly line. Oh yes: There are lots of orange groves. But on closer look, the city and its provincial environs might be one of the best-kept tourist secrets in Spain.
VALENCIA WAS founded on the banks of the Turia River in 138 BCE as a Roman colony. There’s not much in the way of Roman ruins to be seen there today (although there is a display of roadway – said to have led to Rome, of course – as part of a shallow, glass-covered dig that can be viewed from street level in a plaza near the old city’s cathedral). For more extensive Roman ruins, go to Lliria, about 25 km. northwest of Valencia, or Sagunto, about 30 km. directly north of the city.
In 714 CE, the Muslim Moors brought the oranges that later made the region famous and are credited with instituting a system of canals and ditches for irrigation. (In fact, every Thursday at noon, to this day, a semi-official “water court” convenes outside Valencia’s old cathedral doors for farmers with grievances against other farmers alleged to be using more than their fair share.)
Muslim rule continued for the next five centuries, with a few years under the more coexistential leadership of Christian nobleman and sometime mercenary Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid. In 1238, Christian militias led by James I overthrew the Muslim rulers, beginning a period of further growth and prosperity that was from time to time interrupted by epidemics as well as a royal edict forbidding Valencia, along with other Mediterranean port cities, from participating in the lucrative transatlantic trade that grew out of Columbus’s historic voyage to the New World. Interestingly, one of the ways the city kept its head above water was with the production of silk, an industrial sector that had been strengthened under Muslim rule.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Valencia’s rulers expelled the city’s remaining Jews and Muslims, something that decimated the middle class and brought on financial decline, a situation exacerbated a century later by an alignment with the losing side in the War of Spanish Secession.
With the rise of Francisco Franco and his nationalists in 1936, the republican government temporarily relocated to Valencia. By the time the city surrendered to Franco’s forces in 1939, it had endured terrible destruction and thousands of civilian deaths, and for the next two decades it remained out of favor with the regime. It wasn’t until Franco’s death in 1975 and a return to democracy that the city’s fortunes began to recover. And how they’re recovering!
IF YOU OPEN a city map, you’ll notice a greensward meandering its way through the middle of Valencia. It was once the route of the Turia River as it made its way to the sea. But the Turia had a history of flooding, and in 1957, some serious rainfall left parts of the city under as much as five meters of water, and scores of people lost their lives.
At that point, it was decided to divert the river to the south and create a lush swath of parks, gardens, walkways and bicycle paths in its place. Eventually, much of the southeastern end became what is now called the City of Arts and Sciences, with a series of buildings that include an opera house, an interactive science museum, Europe’s largest aquarium and a convention hall with an IMAX movie theater.
The buildings were the vision of one of Valencia’s favorite sons, the architect Santiago Calatrava, he of the Bridge of Strings at the western entrance to Jerusalem and several other structures in Israel. Not everyone is enthralled with Calatrava’s style, yet you have to admit that the airy and curvy white lines of the City of Arts and Sciences are like a delightful Mediterranean breeze.
Rounding out the atmosphere at the City of Arts and Sciences is one of Valencia’s ubiquitous orxata carts. Orxata, also called horchata de chufa, is a sweet yet slightly tangy Valencian specialty, an off-white cold drink based on crushed tigernuts, cane sugar and water. Orxata is said to be very healthy, particularly good for the heart. It is also a milk substitute for the lactose intolerant. But don’t tell anyone – I found it to be a tasty and refreshing way to take in the city while enjoying the warm, sunny Mediterranean clime.
Walk several hundred meters farther down the old river bed and you are at the northern end of Valencia’s harbor. This part was reworked to accommodate the 2007 America’s Cup race, and today it berths scores of sleek motor yachts and sailboats, with restaurants and shops lining the waterfront. Stretching away to the north are the city’s clean municipal beaches.
Valencia is relatively level. That means it’s walkable. There is good public transport, including an extensive underground rail system, and the taxi drivers are polite and fair. Yet you’ll want to spend much of your time hoofing it because there’s plenty to see. Tip: You might first want to spend a couple of hours riding one (or both) of the city’s double-decker circular bus lines; they give you a wide view of the city’s various precincts, complete with earbuds for a pre-recorded explanation that’s coordinated with the vehicle’s progress. You can also hop off and later hop back on should you decide to explore a neighborhood along the route.
The city, let me tell you, is very clean and well maintained. (Valencians apparently are given ample opportunity to take part in the effort, with trash and recycling bins prominently appearing on street corners.) The jewel in the crown, Valencia’s ciutat vella – the old city or historic city center, with its centuries-old buildings and cobblestone streets and alleys – is particularly spotless and beautifully preserved.
The ciutat vella’s 800-year-old cathedral in the Plaza of the Virgin is a Valencian Gothic structure with several 15th-century paintings and works of art. It features what believers say is a chalice used at the Last Supper. The part that caught my attention, though, was the large Star of David in the stained-glass window above one of its entrances. The Serranos Gate, with its two polygonal towers, is one of the only remnants of the old city’s walls and the best preserved. It is at the far-northern expanse of the ciutat vella, facing the former Turia riverbed. Think of the Jaffa Gate, only with twin turrets.
The Silk Exchange, built in Mediterranean Gothic style, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is opposite the stone and wrought-iron Central Market, built in the early 20th century on the site of the city’s original open-air market; go there and sample some of the produce and other goods on sale daily. There is also a museum of fine arts (with what is considered the country’s second most important collection, after Madrid’s Prado), a museum of modern art and other museums highlighting the history of traditional Valencian crafts, such as ceramics and porcelain.
Just outside the old city, to the south, is Valencia’s Plaza de Toros, or bull ring. An impressive structure, it was built in the mid- 1800s and has room for some 12,000 spectators. It hosts bull fights on only a semi-regular basis, owing, as one local told me, to a growing aversion to the bloody sport even among Spaniards. There was no bull fight when I was there, and because a journalist must always face the truth, no matter how gory, I didn’t feel too much of a letdown.
Valencia’s ciutat vella is home to a wide range of restaurants. Many base their menus on the tapas style of dining, which is to say a small portion of many different dishes. The food on offer is amazingly diverse (and in quite a few cases obviously non-kosher, with many establishments conferring pride of place on whole cured pig legs clamped in a special utensil that allows them to be sliced into almost razorthin portions of jamon, a local favorite).
Valencia is also famous as the birthplace of paella, a rice-based casserole that most people imagine as including seafood, although the original recipe used chicken and rabbit. I and the others in my group were treated to a few hours at Escuela de Arroces y Paella Valenciana, a paella joint in the ciutat vella that teaches you how to prepare the dish and then places it before you accompanied by delightful salads and wines. While I would have preferred to eat paella made by Chef Beni, our teacher, it was a true culinary experience in every sense of the word. (Actually, our paella wasn’t bad at all.)
On the cultural side, a yearly festival peculiar to Valencia (and one that might resonate with fans of Lag Ba’omer) is the Falles, a celebration every March commemorating St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers. The festival sees neighborhood residents and members of social groups and organizations constructing human or animal figures of anywhere from one to several meters in height; they abide by an agreed-upon theme that is often satirical in nature. The figures, called falla, can be highly elaborate and quite beautifully crafted – but the common feature is that they are combustible.
After four days of parades, concerts, fireworks and other forms of celebration, judges choose the city’s two most beautiful falla (one created as part of a special children’s category). These falla are granted what might be called a pardon, for all the rest are brought together in small and large piles throughout the city and burned in bonfires on the eve of St. Joseph Day. The falla saved from the conflagrations are placed in the Museu Faller, a former convent near the old Turia riverbed. Many of the winners displayed there are absolutely stunning in their quality and detail, having been created by what can only be described as artists and artisans.
VALENCIA PROVINCE outside the city also offers excellent opportunities for sightseeing.
About 45 minutes to the north are the San Jose grottos, which offer guided boat rides and walking tours of almost a kilometer in length along an underground river. (A note to the claustrophobic: The river and passageways are sometimes narrow and low, and you often have to duck for a few meters at a time.) The grottos feature interesting stalactite formations from the limestone and clay ceilings, and some of the walls still have what are said to be prehistoric cave drawings.
Outside, the mountains of the area offer stunning backdrops to fertile agricultural land used to grow not only oranges, but also rice and other crops, and are excellent for scenic hikes of varying durations.
Starting about an hour’s drive to the south, Alicante Province offers numerous sites of interest, including Algar, with its tranquil waterfalls and sheltered bathing ponds, and Guadalest, with its ancient city built into peaked cliffs overlooking the more modern parts of the town. (It’s a climb, but it’s well worth it.) Farther to the south is the coastal city of Benidorm, which can be described as Eilat on steroids. It anchors part of the Spanish shore known as the Costa Blanca. Like Valencia (and unlike Eilat), Benidorm is extremely well maintained, offering clean, sandy beaches, waterfront bistros and bars, and an old city with charming alleys featuring further venues for food and entertainment. Much of the coastline we explored on electrically-assisted touring bikes.
In closing, if you have just one chance to visit Europe and for only a limited amount of time, there are other places far more deserving of your attention. But if you’re a Europhile who goes back for more and enjoys discovering new and exciting locales, don’t overlook Valencia and the region that surrounds it, which are a true Spanish surprise. (Come to think of it, it’s a good reason for me to give Haifa another look.)
The writer traveled to Valencia as a guest of Eshet Tours.