Walking, strolling, exploring the urban Barrios of Valencia one discovers a homely city ready to claim anyone’s inspiration. It was said of Buenos Aires that there are fairies dwelling in the streets called Duende that cast a spell on you and ensure you always return. Valencia has its own Duende fairies and they hover and haunt where you least expect them: casting a spell upon visitors when they least expect it. And, just as I did: you will return.
“Defending the land is not a crime.” The dream of Catalunian independence still goes strong. Having fought so valiantly for the Republic in the torrid Spanish Civil War, Catalans feel they are owed recognition by the Madrid government. A noble, endemic culture resides in the lands of Catalans. And during a time when they are fighting for independence yet again let me quote some of their benchmark writers and artists.
“There are Catalanists because there are Spanishers.”
Joan Fuster (Valencian essayist)
“All this awaits me if I can get up tomorrow. If I can rise no more, here’s what’s waiting: — You will remain, to see how good it all is: Life and Death.”
Joan Salvat-Papasseit (Catalan modernist poet)
“Wherever you are, you find the sun, a blade of grass, the spirals of the dragonfly. Courage consists of staying at home, close to nature, which could not care less about our disasters. Each grain of dust contains the soul of something marvelous.”
Joan Miro (Mallorcan Surrealist painter)
The square that most enchanted me. A limestone ocean. Busy but never cramped. Inside the church of the Desamparados (the Forsaken) there is an iconic statue of the Virgin Mary gone black. The statue is made of wood thus by time it has gone morena from all the candle-light. I happened upon a wedding Mass when I was there. Mass in Spanish is somewhat chilling (echoes of Torquemada?).
The Micalet is the Cathedral of Valencia. When the Fallas are celebrated here in March they erect a large monument to the Virgin which is decked in flowers gifted to the statue by teary-eyed Falla queens. Behind the Micalet there is a museum containing Roman ruins. But this square isn’t about the past. It’s about magical urban geography: to the north the Barrio del Carmen: to the south the twinned plazas.
Just one of the many colourful painted tiles you are likely to randomly confront as you flaner around Valencia. This depicts the entrance of Sant Vincent Ferrer into the city. The Dominican friar who lived in the 14th century was said to be a great traveler, travelling and preaching the Gospel which he had resolutely memorised. He did this, apparently, even though he could only speak Valencian. But of course, he was fluent in the universal language of tongues. The feast day of this darling of the medieval church is celebrated on the 5th of April.
Inside this charming house in the Barrio del Carmen there probably lives a family or individual related with the Fallas. The decorated tiles on either side of the modern arboreal door testify to this. There are many Fallas groups scattered all over the city: prodigiously talented men (mostly) that build wooden floats larger than elephants, with grotesque satirical faces criticising everyone from politicians to footballers. On the last night of the Fallas week: all Fallas are burned down in one city-wide bonfire. As many tears are shed as flames are set. This is a city with many poignant and existentialist feasts: everything dies in the end, no?
What you come to learn from Spanish eating habits – some of the most unorthodox in Western Europe – is that dining is not about culinary grace: it’s about socialising. You see a lot of people drinking beer with their food, chatting, sharing. Although food isn’t particularly cheap there are diverse, exciting, cheap options. Like this place: the Cerveceria (literally beer-place) that serves a 100 different types of Montaditos (small bread cut lengthwise). Each one costs one euro and you get a healthy ration of crisps with it. A jarra of beer never goes amiss either. The menu has all the options available. You tick which Montaditos you want. Then you go to the counter, hand in the menu and wait for your name to be called in a charming Spanish lisp. Do beware however: the menu is Spanish-language only.
You really could, just could, write an entire article exclusively about Valencia’s balconies and haloed architecture.
The scene outside the Plaza de Toros at the start of the novillada – a corrida for novice matadors. Bullfighting as a spectacle and sport might be on its last legs, the next generation will only know of bullfights via videos and textbooks. But I tell you, attend one of these corridas – and it feels as if it’s still as strong as ever! Being an objective, opinionated traveler, here are two quotes from both sides of the spectrum. But bear in mind: don’t make up your mind either way until you’ve witnessed first-hand this endangered spectacle. Then and only then can you take sides. I have.
“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death…” Ernest Hemingway.
“To protest about bullfighting in Spain, the eating of dogs in South Korea, or the slaughter of baby seals in Canada while continuing to eat eggs from hens who have spent their lives crammed into cages, or veal from calves who have been deprived of their mothers, their proper diet, and the freedom to lie down with their legs extended, is like denouncing apartheid in South Africa while asking your neighbors not to sell their houses to blacks.” Peter Singer, Animal Liberation.
The Ayuntamiento building putting on its sun-clothes. The seat of local government, the elaborate, imposing whale of a building looks restive in the early morning as the sun raises the curtain on another day. There is no better way of becoming intimate with a city than by seeing it arise. Like waking up with a new bedfellow. One feels local, tranquil, on almost sensual terms with the city.
Note the bat crowning the entrance. The bat is the icon of Valencia. The winged wyrm was the cimera reial of the kings of Aragon in the 13th century and is now widely seen around Valencia from its manholes to the coat-of-arms of its football clubs (C.F. Valencia and Levante).
The shanty side of Valencia with political slogans draped across the balconies – from those parched for a drop straight to those who are drunk. A worthy, zestful heart beats within. Long may it prosper!
The Turia Gardens lead you, tantalisingly, towards the delta where you will find awaiting you the epic City of Arts and Sciences. But the Gardens are a pleasure in themselves. Embellished by old stone bridges, reflective ponds, modern labyrinths and serene pathways: the gardens are a favoured jogging spot, a perfect family Sunday-out, and a haven for young courting couples.
With every new corner turned you will find yourself asking: are we there yet? But here, magnificently, the old adage really finds new life: travel is about the journey. And the journey is the Turia.
“I am always searching for more light and space.” Santiago Calatrava, Valencian architect and mastermind behind the masterpiece. The City of Arts and Sciences is situated in the delta of the closed-up Turia river that flooded its banks in the 70’s killing many people. Walking through this complex is like walking on air. It houses a Science museum, an Opera house (pictured), one of Europe’s largest aquariums and Planetarium.
Little tip: don’t forget to visit the City at night. The atmosphere is other-worldly. And if you happen across an event at the Umbraclet walkway you will be mesmerised.