During its chequered history Spain’s third largest city on the Mediterranean Coast was occupied by the Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and then the Christians. While Valencia is certain to figure on a keen-eyed art enthusiast’s Spanish jaunt, even today it’s true worth is underrated, often eclipsed by the shadow of Madrid and Barcelona. But that might change this year since the World Design Organisation nominated Valencia as the World Design Capital for 2022 for its “impressive mix of historic and modern structures coupled and coexisting with the natural environment”. The Spanish city can hardly be summed up in a few sights and sounds. For a first-timer, however, the following recommendations must be on the checklist.
Time your visit to see the most spectacular Spanish Festival during March, for around five days. Named for San Jose or Saint Joseph, the Catholic patron saint of carpenters, the festival began back in the Middle Ages and celebrated the end of the cold working days of winter when carpenters burnt old scraps of wood as a spring cleaning ritual. All over the town you can see towering, beautiful paper, cartoonish mannequins (called ninots) arranged in a tableau that illustrates social themes, popular culture and issues, with a healthy dose of satire and humour. The Festival culminates in the Crema—the burning down of the created sculptures in a blaze of sound and color.
To feel far away from civilisation, spend some time at the tranquil Albufera National Park, located just 10km out of the city and home to a sprawling palm-fringed lagoon and sand dunes. Here you’ll be able to see a huge variety of wildlife, including rare species of wading birds, as well discover the rice field ecosystems. This freshwater lake six miles south of the city is one of the most important wetlands in Europe. Separated from the sea by a narrow strip of sand dunes, this is where the grain has been grown for 1200 years, after being introduced to Spain by the Moors. Urban nomads can take walks in the Jardins Del Turia, a unique park in the city that runs along the bed of a dried-up old river ( which was diverted to prevent flooding) filled with grassy lawns, palm trees, fragrant orange trees, benches for lounging and art installations. You can see locals jogging, skating and cycling through this landscaped parkland, crisscrossed by 18 bridges from different epochs. You can walk, jog or cycle your way through, looking at the impressive water sculptures, bridges, and fish ponds.
Valencia has a mix of old Gothic and Renaissance architecture as well as cutting-edge modern architecture. Don’t miss the National Ceramics Museum, housed in a rococo palace said to be Valencia’s ‘Versailles in miniature’. Be awed by its over-the-top façade with alabaster carvings and doorway flanked by two muscular figures, with a statue of the virgin. Valencia’s love of avant-garde architecture is evident in the new Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of the Arts and Sciences): this complex of public buildings, pools and elevated walkways, designed by Valencia-born superstar architect Santiago Calatrava, includes a science museum, a planetarium, and an aquarium.
Start at the imposing Torres de Serranos, built in 1394 for defense, and a cultural landmark of the city. Visit the majestic 13th-century cathedral—a mish-mash of styles like Gothic, baroque and Renaissance built on the site of an old mosque. Its main claim to fame is the “Holy Grail”, a chalice dating to at least Christ’s time; two Goya paintings, and the windows—they are made from fine alabaster. Climb the 207 steps of the tower for the best views of the city. Don’t miss the La Lonja e la Seda, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is a gothic chamber of commerce built to impress visiting merchants in the 16th century and to symbolise the city’s wealth and power. The main trading hall is a stunner—the ceiling and the spiral columns remind one of palm trees and the gleaming floor is made up of slabs of black, white and brown-coloured marble. You can also choose to explore the hidden Silk Road route by walking through the Velluters area, the Silk Museum, the Silk Exchange (Lonja de la Seda).
Visit the cavernous Mercado Central or the Central Market, one of Europe’s oldest food markets, which is an amazing Art Nouveau structure of brick, stone, iron, wood, ceramic and glass. It dates back to 1918, and has a wrought iron structure and a central dome decorated with stained glass oranges and lemons, representing the typical produce of the Valencia region. Enjoy the sensory overload of vendors selling everything from fresh fruits and juices, to breads, nuts, vegetables, meats, and an overwhelming supply of fish and seafood. Follow it up with a visit to Mercado Colon, a more upmarket market housed in a Modernist building with stained glass and bricks, with a Gaudi-inspired façade, and elegant stalls that sell handicrafts, wines, ceramics , fruits and vegetables as well as houses restaurants and cafés.
The classic Spanish dish paella originated in this city and includes an array of meat, seafood, and veggies that intermingle in a fluffy bed of saffron-spiced, slow-simmered rice. The classic ‘Valencian paella’ is a feast of chicken, rabbit and green beans. For authentic paella head to La Pepica founded in 1898 and a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. Wash it down with a glass of sangria. Don’t forget to try horchata—a special milky drink made out of tiger nuts and eaten with doughnut like fartons.
Valencia has kilometres of long, sandy beaches within easy access of the city centre and more than 300 sunny days a year. Soak up the sun at La Malvarrosa Beach, next to a spanking new marina that was renovated for the arrival of the America’s Cup to Valencia in 2007, with its beach cabanas, sand sculptures and loungers. Indulge in a spot of beach volleyball and have a paella meal at one of the many cafés and restaurants that line the promenade or head to Sagunto Beach to see the old Roman ruins.
There are no direct flights between India and Spain. Most flights from major Indian cities such as Mumbai and Delhi include at least one stopover in a European city.
Valencia is very compact and walkable. The city’s metro system and three tram lines are commonly used for commuting.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer, blogger, and a Japanese language specialist from Chennai. In her search for a good travel story, she has snowmobiled in Lapland, walked with the lions in Zimbabwe, and flown in a microlight over the Victoria Falls.