I recently had the pleasure of visiting Valencia, Spain’s third largest city and one of the most beautiful and relaxed European cities I’ve ever been to. A single trip hardly qualifies me as an expert, but I hope that my article will give you a flavour of the city and its myriad charms.
We stayed at the Vincci Lys on C/ Martínez Cubells, walking distance from everything we wanted to see and round the corner from the Xàtiva? subway station that had a direct connection to the airport. If I visit again I’ll stay somewhere a little cheaper and closer to the Carmen area where we hung out every evening, but as a base for a first trip, it was excellent.
Exploring on foot
Valencia was an ideal walking city with a perfect combination of clean, wide pavements and winding alleys to get lost in. Every day we walked through the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, a beautiful square surrounded by ornate buildings and filled with greenery and a large fountain. Branching to the right took us through another square, Plaza de la Reina, to Valencia Cathedral, while a left fork brought us to the huge tiled Central Market, one of the largest in Europe, and the Silk Exchange, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Barrio del Carmen
Every evening we gravitated towards the bohemian Barrio del Carmen area, a rabbit warren of narrow passageways and cobbled streets which come alive at night with cafes, bars and clubs. Calle de Caballeros is the “main drag” and can become a little packed with tourists, but two of our favourite bars of the trip were here. We enjoyed sitting under the trees outside Café Sant Jaume sipping Agua de Valencia (Cava, vodka and orange juice – an absolute must) and watching people wander by. I also had one of the best mojitos of my life in Borgia, a tiny incense-filled bar with an Arabian theme and a solo barman who painstaking crushed dozens of mint leaves for our drinks. Not cheap, but definitely worth it!
Dos cañas y tapas por favor
We found some great little places slightly out of the way where we were the only tourists and the bar staff didn’t speak English. We spent hours sat outside San Miguel Café on Plaza Músico López Chavarri watching locals walking their dogs and hopping on and off hire bicycles. This was also where we learned to ask for dos cañas instead of dos cerveza to make sure we got a perfectly sized small beer.
In 1957 Valencia was badly flooded by the River Turia and the authorities decided to divert the course of the water to stop the same thing from happening again. They turned the former river bed into a beautiful landscaped park, the Jardin del Turia, which stretches for 9km around the north and east of the city. One of the highlights of the park is the unique Gulliver playground which turns children into Lilliputians as they climb up his giant legs and slide down his arms.
The City of Arts and Sciences
At the end of the Jardin del Turia is La Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias, a futuristic complex of scientific and cultural buildings. Designed by Valencia-born Santiago Calatrava, the City of Arts and Sciences put Spain firmly on the map in architectural circles and is now one of the country’s top tourist attractions. One of the highlights of the trip was, quite unexpectedly, a dolphin show in the Oceanographic which combined some pretty impressive tricks with death-defying diving by the trainers. The performance was made all the more exciting by a terrific storm which rolled in towards the end of the display and sent the audience running for cover as they left the auditorium.
Getting to the beach takes around 20 minutes and involves a metro and a tram, but the public transport is great in Valencia so this wasn’t too much of a problem. We went on a warm weekend and the beach and promenade thronged with Spanish tourists and locals soaking up the spring sun. The long promenade is lined with palm trees and clusters of hotels, bars and restaurants so there are plenty of opportunities to stop for a drink and a bite to eat. Having said that, finding a seat was pretty tricky and the food and drink we had was fairly pricey and not great quality. It’s definitely worth a trip, but you may want to take a picnic!
The feast of Our Virgin of the Helpless
Purely by chance we happened to visit on the second weekend of May when Valencians celebrate the feast of Our Virgin of the Helpless, the second biggest festival on the calendar after the famous Las Fallas. On the Saturday night we were ambling around the Carmen when we unexpectedly stumbled upon a huge open air concert in the Plaza de la Virgen. The square was festooned with flowers and thousands of people were singing along to Spanish music played by a full orchestra. That weekend we also experienced a firework display, a long religious procession through the city and hundreds of people dressed in traditional costumes. It was a real treat to be in the city at such a significant time.
Valencia easily climbed to the higher echelons of my ‘favourite cities’ list. For me it had the perfect combination of beautiful architecture, laid back bars, friendly people and a lively, warm and welcoming atmosphere. I’d recommend it to anyone.