Named “El Levante” after the rising sun, this lush region is the part of Spain that wakes up first. Valencia has the Mediterranean Sea as its front yard, while the inland huerta is one of the most fertile in Europe, crowded with orange and lemon groves, date-palm plantations and rice fields still irrigated by systems devised by the Moors. Paella originated in these parts, and a juicy orange is named after Valencia. Evidence of the lengthy Moorish occupation can be seen throughout, in the castles, crops and place names – Benidorm, Alicante and Alcoy are all derived from Arabic. The region also encompasses the historical Murcia, which offers a fascinating contrast to the sun-and-sand debauchery on the water. Explored from one end to the other, this is a land of ancient and modern, of beauty and beastliness.
The growing self-assurance of the region is evident in the increasing presence of Valenciano – a dialect of Catalan – which challenges Castilian as the main language of education and broadcasting in the area. There are even a few extreme trains of thought that challenge the dialect’s Catalan origins, but those beliefs have remained largely on the margins.
Murcia is quite distinct, a comunidad autónoma in its own right, and there could hardly be a more severe contrast with the richness of the Valencian huerta. This southeastern corner of Spain is virtually a desert and is some of the driest territory in Europe. It was fought over for centuries by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans, but there survives almost no physical evidence of their presence – or of five hundred years of Moorish rule, beyond an Arabic feel to some of the small towns and the odd date-palm here and there. The province’s capital city of Murcia, with its lovely cathedral and terrace tapas bars, makes for a comfortable base for exploring the region.
Much of the coast is marred by heavy overdevelopment, with concrete apartment blocks and sprawling holiday complexes looming over many of the best beaches. However, away from the big resorts, particularly around Denia and Xàbia (Jávea) in Valencia, there are some attractive isolated coves, while the historic hilltop settlements of Altea and Peñíscola are undeniably picturesque, if touristy. In Murcia, the resorts of the Mar Menor are reasonably attractive and very popular with Spanish families in high season; the best beaches are in the extreme south, around Águilas, where you’ll find some dazzling unspoilt coves. The increasingly vibrant cities of Valencia and Alicante are the major urban centres, and there are several delightful historic small towns and villages a short way inland, such as Morella, Xàtiva and Lorca.
The Valencia area has a powerful tradition of fiestas, and there are a couple of elements unique to this part of the country. Above all, throughout the year and more or less wherever you go, there are mock battles between Muslims and Christians (Moros y Cristianos). Recalling the Christian Reconquest of the country – whether through symbolic processions or re-creations of specific battles – they’re some of the most elaborate and colourful festivities to be seen anywhere, above all in Alcoy. The other recurring feature is the fallas (bonfires) in which giant carnival floats and figures are paraded through the streets before being ceremoniously burned.
Getting around by public transport is relatively straightforward with frequent train and bus services, though you’ll need your own transport to really explore the area. The motorway network is excellent, but tolls are quite pricey.Read More
Gastronomy is of great cultural importance to the Valencians. Rice is the dominant ingredient in dishes of the region, grown locally in paddy fields still irrigated by the Moorish canal system (acequias). Gourmets tend to agree that the best paellas are to be found around (but not in) Valencia, the city where the dish originated. The genuine version doesn’t mix fish and meat – it typically contains chicken, rabbit, green beans, garrofón (large butter beans), snails, artichokes and saffron – and should be prepared fresh and cooked over wood (leña), not scooped from some vast, sticky vat; most places will make it for a minimum of two people, with advance notice.
Other rice-based dishes vary around the region: arroz negro is rice cooked with squid complete with ink, which gives the dish its colour, and served with all i oli, a powerful garlic mayonnaise. Arroz al horno is drier, baked with chickpeas. Fideuà is seafood and noodles cooked paella-style. The most famous, arroz a banda, is found on the south coast around Denia – it’s rice cooked with seafood, served as two separate dishes: soup, then rice. Around Alicante, you can try arroz con costra, which is a meat-based paella topped with a baked egg crust. Apart from rice, vegetables (best a la plancha, brushed with olive oil and garlic) are always fresh and plentiful.
The sweet-toothed should try turrón, a nuts-and-honey nougat, which you could follow with a horchata (or orxata), a rich drink made from tiger nuts (chufas) or almonds (almendras).