What a stroke of luck it turned out to be, to have remained grounded and moored to my little rock nation until the milestone age of nineteen. I am one of the lucky ones. Though I never would have thought it at the time. I was a firework ready to go without enough sky to spill into. For those who were not born on an island, they must understand: you can’t just drive or take a train out of your country. To broaden your constrained horizons you must fly! And doing so for the first time at the lucid age of nineteen means you travel fully appreciating the thrill of travel. Being a proud late-bloomer I can say that travel has yet to lose its humbling charm.
And in an age when the much-maligned Ryanair was beginning a new Renaissance for travel here in Malta it was just a matter of picking a destination, prepare the post-paid suitcase, and take to the skies. Already, even back in 2009, people were lining up with hypothetical torches damning Ryanair as the would-be killer of our beloved Air Malta. But as a nineteen-year-old, what did I care for business ethics?
Ryanair’s local Renaissance also coincided with Valencia’s own coming-of-age. Spain’s third-largest city had been put on the crowded map in 2005 when local, global architect Santiago Calatrava bequeathed his city the City of Arts and Sciences. An alien planet of shining white domes and harps set in the mouth of the closed-up Turia rivers. Thus, history had made my bed, and I was more than happy to lie in it. And I never regretted popping my traveling cherry in that orange-blossomscented city. We booked a one-week stay in the first week of October.
I can never forget that slow-motion moment when I emerged from the Metro, the city coming into view step by view. When I emerged I looked around me. Everything swirled – maybe that was the origin of my later suffering of vertigo. Around me I could see only impressions, unfocused: the red-bricks of the Plaza de Toros, the white grandeur of the North Station, the sunny avenues of the Xativa, and just wide open spaces I never got to see back home. I’m here – bring it on!
Valencia has that rare luxury of feeling like an overgrown town. All the major sights and districts are within comfortable walking distance. Simply position yourself somewhere near the three main squares – Plaza Ayuntamiento, Reina Sofia and del Virgen – and you’re never more than a leafy thirty-minute walk to where you really must go. And walking in Valencia is made mercifully kind by the fact that Valencia is as flat a city as they come. Being a coastal city there are no hills to speak of and the only time you’ll find yourself going up anywhere is in a Corte Ingles or Zara escalator.
The simplest of simple pleasures: walking: is a mandatory luxury in Valencia. Its streets are embellished with surprises. Street names with Moorish tiles depicting Medieval scenes. Eccentric three-dimensional graffiti. Subtle political messages about Catalonian independence sprayed unto residential walls. Antique book shops where you can (and O did I) buy Spanish-civil-war posters and books rendered tatty by timely age. And a plethora, a peacock’s tail of neat, symmetrical, eccentric balconies.
Walking around the old quarter of the Barrio del Carmen elicits a feel of vaudeville timelessness. A taste of ancient Andalusia pulsing with a modern, Bohemian heart. The narrow winding roads with old apartments and floral balconies never fail to surprise: old bookshops with young, long-haired owners; underground bars selling local and artisan beers; and the Plaza del Carmen, a Jekyll and Hide square dominated by a convent and at night is transformed into Valencia’s main nightlife hub. Finding a place to eat and drink in the Barrio is easy even for the un-seasoned traveler. And safety is not an issue though common sense is cautioned.
Whilst finding a place to eat is never a problem, getting around to ordering your lunch or dinner can be somewhat of an ordeal. English is not high on most waiters’ menu of skills. If you don’t know any rudimentary Spanish or at least Italian you will have to get used to a lot of pointing. And menus, for a first-time traveler, or even someone traveling to Spain for the first time, can be confusing. Tapas are fun and an extremely sociable style of eating, once used to, so here’s a little glossary to help you navigate the indecipherable menus.
Bocadillo: A sandwich cut lengthwise that can be filled with all manner of random curiosities ranging from Spanish omelette to chorizo to calamari. These are found on most menus and are a typical lunch option. It does save you the hassle of customising your meal by putting together your own tapas-puzzle.
Montaditos: These are miniature versions of the bocadillo. For a fun culinary adventure, make your way down to the Cerveceria 100 Montaditos in the Plaza Reina Sofia and try one of the 100 fillings available, top it up with a landslide of crisps, and embellish it with a jarra or caña of beer. At just 1 € a pop the montaditos come with a wildly random range of options: from fillings with white chocolate to shrimp and mayonnaise. Don’t leave Valencia without having lunch from there.
Tapas: The infamous side-dishes that have gained popularity in the last two decades. A little, important tip: don’t get carried away, the portions of tapas are generally not small. Especially the seafood ones. Don’t let your eyes dictate your stomach. They can be filling. Here are a few examples of typical tapas options you will find on most menus. Calamares Romanos – fried calamari rings. Pulpo Gallego – Galician style octopus stew. Salmon ahumado con queso blando – smoked salmon with cream cheese. Patatas Bravas – fried potatoes generally served with spicy tomato sauce. And of course one cannot forget the jamon Serrano and chorizo – the quintessential, delicately prepared, Spanish hams. Spain is a charcuterie-aficionado’s paradise.
Paella: A Valencian classic and local invention. A risotto-type dish served with rice and an assortment of carnivorous and aquatic delights – from bits of rabbit meat to prawns. There is a great art behind the making of this deceptively simple dish. And you can generally tell which restaurants do it out of pride and which do it just for the tourists. Look out for the paellera, the large black wok-like dish where paella is traditionally cooked and served, for a mark of authenticity. And, of course, the display, where the chef puts in his or her stamp of pride.
In Valencia, do yourself a favour, stick to the seafood, it won’t get much better.
The bars of Valencia are remarkably hospitable and seldom inactive. The main hotspot for nightlife is the Barrio del Carmen, but good bars can be found in most plazas and side-streets. Along the Plaza Ayuntamiento you will find fiercely local bars brilliantly active when there is a Valencia C.F. match on. Find yourself amidst a swarm of older men seated as if in a cinema, drinking Cruzcampo or Mahou beer heckling every move and debating every pass and tackle. The local feel extends to many of what I call the bull-bars. These can be a mixed bag: some are generic tourist traps others genuine local hangouts. Generally: the less staff you will see the more likely it is to be authentic. I call them bull-bars because of the typical mounted bull heads you see above tables and bars, accompanied by a myriad black-and-white photograph of famous bullfighters in action. Naturally, the best of these can be found around the Plaza del Toros, in the Calle Xativa and the wide, always-active, Plaza Reina Sofia.
Drinks in Valencia are not on the cheap side but with such a wide range of endemic options available there is something for any breed of drinker. For the hardcore try the local, golden tequila for a bucking kick. For those that want to hit the clubs in the Barrio order a pitcher of Sangria for an average of 8 €. If you’re, like myself, a beer aficionado forget about the pint, half-pint system here. Everything is done in smaller doses. A jarra is about three-quarters of a pint. This will cost on average 3 – 4 €. If you’re in the mood for a quiet drinking night there is the option of the caña, which is a bit less than a half pint and goes for around 1 €. Best Spanish brands of beer are widely available: Cruzcampo, Mahou, San Miguel, Estrella; and of course you’ll never be left wanting for any of the generic foreign beers. But why go for them?
In this city renowned for its oranges, why not opt instead for the refreshingly fresh, endemic cocktail the Agua de Valencia: the Water of Valencia. Served in generous glasses, the drink is a summery mixture of cava, orange juice, vodka and a smatter of gin. Crammed with ice there is no better companion for relaxing at the edge of the Barrio, overlooking the medieval Torres de Serrano. Interestingly, the drink was invented in 1959 by a Galician barman and painter Constante Gil working in the Café Madrid de Valencia. The great man is also renowned for a series of paintings he did immortalising the Valencian nightlife called Tertulias de Café. Really and truly, salud, Mr. Gil!
Interested as I was (and still am) in the way people live in borders beyond, to get a glimpse of the way they combat the dreariness of day-to-day life, I got myself a free entrance to a novillada in the Plaza de Toros. Ethical quagmire aside, yes, I went to see a bullfight. Because it was a novillada, a fight for novice matadors, the entrance was free. We stayed in the shady side of the arena (which normally would cost you twice as much as a sunny-side ticket) and at five in the afternoon, with the October sun still defiant, I looked around me, at the gathering crowds.
The eclectic admixture struck me straight off. The old men I had seen watching football in the Ayuntamiento, young men from each and every social class and even, yes, young women, the type you might see out at three in the morning in the Barrio. Young, fashionable, charming women. Watching, eating nuts, drinking beer, cheering, involved. My virginal bullfight kicked off with a bang-and-a-half. The first bull that came raging out of the pen ignored the bullfighter, jumped over the red barrera and straight into the crowds – who naturally parted like the Spanish-Red Sea. There were gasps and laughter alike all around. The banderilleros intervened and shepherded the bull back into the arena. Panic over, hearts calmed, the battle could begin. And the local novillo did not disappoint. His brazen passes were cheered on by all present, the crowds lofted up white handkerchiefs all around, and you felt part of a club whose rules you never could quite understand. Like being at a cricket match. But the local boy could not finish off the bull. As the bull lay dying someone had to come and finish it off with a knife to the head. At that point, we felt, it was time for us to leave.
That bull’s fate, I was to learn, like all the others, was to be dragged back to the Plaza’s abattoir, skinned, chopped and hung, in preparation for the post-fight meal in a few select restaurants in and around the Plaza.
Only in a recently-resurrected city like Valencia could you see an archaic bullfight in the afternoon and then visit the most modernist architecture in Europe the next day. The City of Arts and Sciences is Valencia’s equivalent of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum or the London Eye. It is a tourist Mecca, not much for the local there except a family Sunday out. Nonetheless it must not be missed. We took the long way there by walking the length of the Turia Gardens; clean, green distinctive gardens that stand on the curves of the dammed up Turia River. A symbol of Valencia’s ambition. But getting a bus from the city centre is also an efficient, hassle-free way of getting to the City. And you would certainly want to get the bus back.
You will be pleasantly tired after a whole day walking, exploring, that gleaming white zoo. Entrance to the Science Museum and the state-of-the-art Oceanografico come at a hefty price. But even if you feel like being frugal – walking is free after all – you would not complain. The Umbraclet, a garden hemmed into a ribbed, expansive cage, is a surreal patch; at night it is transformed into a chic events centre. The length and breadth of the Science Museum is a bright, shining walkway flanked by clear shallow water and a skyline of giants.
Do have a break and try an Horchata from one of the stands present within the City. A 13th century, Arab-period cold drink made from tiger nuts, served with a long sweet bun for dipping and stirring; I didn’t like it at first, thought it too sweet, but then, it settles and becomes an addiction.
We did in the end pay the 25 € ticket and braved the queues to enter the Oceanografico, one of Europe’s largest aquariums. And it was worth it. Certainly. It felt like a metropolis for all manner of marine animals. And it does the spirit good, to be in the company of playful beluga whales, chatty penguins, and walking through avenues inhabited by toothy sharks and charmingly hideous Sun fish. We came out of there, twilight dusking, feeling exhausted but serene. But now we needed a rest for the longest period of the day was dawning: night-time.
And this, even as a first-time traveler, was, surprisingly, the easiest thing to get used to. Spain’s peculiar nocturnal lifestyle which, when experienced for a duration of time, makes you feel nothing but envy. From around five in the afternoon to eight in the evening it is belated siesta time. At eight you wake up, have a wash, get ready, then go out at around nine. When we first went out at this time, noticing it was too early for dinner, we went strolling around the shops. Yes, window-shopping at nine in the evening. Shops in Spain don’t generally close till ten. The Corte Ingles certainly doesn’t. A large chain store selling everything from make-up to books to upmarket clothing. The bookshop therein was a labyrinth you want to get lost in – especially if you’re a Spanish reader.
By ten your stomach – the three o’clock tapas now all but forgotten – begins to rumble. So you venture to feed it. You will find no shortage of options. The Barrio, despite its nightlife reputation, has some excellent, Italian-style restaurants. The Plaza Reina Sofia has a range of bull-bars and Irish pubs, not to mention the Cerveceria 100 Montaditos. The Calle San Vincent Ferrer, the street connecting the Ayuntamiento with the Reina Sofia has some top-notch, large, modern paella and tapas restaurants, sat cheek-by-jowl to the opera house, giving the leafy street a classy feel.
After dining and wining you’re ready, by midnight, to hit out and paint the city orange-yellow. By this time most locals – yourself included – begin their drinking lightly. Hitting one of the many bars in around the Barrio, or the Gran Via Marques del Turia, just off the Turia Gardens (the latter, incidentally, serving as a subtle red-light district). The Plaza del Virgen, the gateway to the Barrio, is a must-see at this hour. Not only for the limestone, candle-lit beauty of the square that contains the medieval Micalet Cathedral and the blue-domed church of the Desamparados; but this is an excellent place for witnessing and taking part in the botellon. A Spanish tradition to rival bullfighting (and similarly dying out). Watch bands of young people sitting around on the historic steps and the central fountain drinking from plastic cups, wine bottles, pitchers, the lot. This saves you having to get drunk at sometimes extortionate prices charged by nightclubs. But, also, it is symptomatic of the Spanish lust to socialise, en masse.
But even the botellon must come to an end. At around one thirty in the morning nightclubs begin filling up. We found ourselves in a Latin club in the Barrio, drinking tequila shots like golden grenades, pitchers of sweet sangria, and some of the best Mojitos in the country. At two in the morning the club was overrun by a marauding hen’s party. We joined in, they joined in, foreigners and locals blending into one beautiful, un-sobre admixture. At four in the morning, making our way back to the hotel near the Ayuntamiento, we walked past streets and squares still buzzing with activity.
The last morning in Valencia, for me, was a poignant, ambivalent scene. Going out for my customary early-morning walks to see the city waking up, I made my way to the Plaza del Virgen, now deathly quiet. I sat on the reclining Neptune fountain gazing out at the medieval square, the sun still stubbornly sleeping-in. I read some pages of the book I was reading at the time, Octavio Paz’s The Double Flame, until life started returning to the gracious city. It was a day I would not get to see bloom. Ryanair was beckoning us. I sauntered back to the hotel grateful to the city for allowing me a week living outside myself and, almost teary-eyed, I promised Valencia I would be back.
It was a promise I couldn’t help keeping. An ideal city for the first-time traveler, easily navigable, hospitable, and just that little bit peculiar: more importantly, it leaves you wanting a second-time.