For many, VALENCIA’s enviable perch on the Mediterranean would be enough of a draw. Not so for the city itself: Valencia has been reinventing itself at a heady pace, and shows no signs of slowing down. Well on the way to equalling – indeed, eclipsing in some instances – the cosmopolitan vitality of Barcelona and the cultural variety of Madrid, Spain’s third-largest city has finally shaken off its slightly provincial former reputation. In the last decade and a half, a vast, iconic La Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias cultural complex has been established, the state-of-the-art metro has continued to expand and dozens of hip new bars, restaurants and boutiques have injected new life into the historic centre. Valencia has also fully redeveloped its beach and port area, in part sparked by its hosting of prestigious yachting jamboree, the America’s Cup. Nevertheless, despite its size and stylista cachet, Valencia retains an unpretentious if tangibly charged air.
Always an important city, Valencia was fought over for the agricultural wealth of its surrounding huerta. After Romans and Visigoths, it was occupied by the Moors for over four centuries with only a brief interruption (1094–1101) when El Cid recaptured it. He died here in 1099, but his body, propped on a horse and led out through the gates, was still enough to cause the Moorish armies – previously encouraged by news of his death – to flee in terror. It wasn’t until 1238 that Jaime I of Aragón permanently wrested Valencia back. It has remained one of Spain’s largest and richest cities ever since.
Valencia has long boasted some of the best nightlife in mainland Spain. Vivir Sin Dormir (Live Without Sleep) is the name of one of its bars, and it could be taken as a Valencian mantra. The city is alive with noise and colour throughout the year, with explosions of gunpowder, fireworks and festivities punctuating the calendar. Valencia’s fiestas are some of the most riotous in Spain and the best is Las Fallas, March 12–19, which culminates in a massive bonfire where all the processional floats are burned.
The most atmospheric area of the city is undoubtedly the maze-like Barrio del Carmen (in Valenciano “de Carmé”), roughly north of the Mercado Central to the Río Turia, extending up to the Torres de Serranos and west to the Torres de Quart. This once-neglected quarter continues to undergo regeneration, as buildings are renovated and stylish cafés open up next to crumbling townhouses, all of which makes for an incredibly vibrant, alternative neighbourhood. The city walls, which, judging from the two surviving gates, must have been magnificent, were pulled down in 1871 to make way for a ring road, and the beautiful church of Santo Domingo, in Plaza de Tetuan, has been converted into a barracks – it was from here that General Milans del Bosch ordered his tanks onto the streets during the abortive coup of 1981. This incident, however, isn’t representative of the city’s political inclination, which has traditionally been to the left – Valencia was the seat of the Republican government during the Civil War after it fled Madrid, and was the last city to fall to Franco.
The oldest part of Valencia is almost entirely encircled by a great loop of the Río Turia, which is now a landscaped riverbed park. In 1956, after serious flooding damaged much of the old town, the river was diverted. The ancient stone bridges remain, but the riverbed now houses cycle ways, footpaths and football pitches, as well as the astonishing Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias, Europe’s largest cultural complex. As further proof that Valencia is ever inventing itself, the city is now getting its own Central Park. The 23-hectare Valencia Parque Central is currently being built on old rail lines, in the area of the new Sorolla train station, and is one of the city’s – if not Spain’s – largest redevelopment projects to date. The massive park will include plazas, promenades, children’s gardens, an art centre, an amphitheatre and more.
Valencia’s main beach is the Playa de la Malvarrosa to the east of the city centre, which becomes Playa de las Arenas at its southern end.Read More
La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias
La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias
More than any other project, the breathtaking Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences, or CAC), rising from the riverbed, symbolizes the autonomous government’s vision for Valencia and its quest to establish the city as a prime tourist destination. The giant complex – Europe’s largest cultural centre – consists of a series of futuristic edifices designed mainly by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava.
The architecture itself is simply stunning. Even if you only have a day or two in the city, it’s well worth the effort getting here to take in the eye-catching buildings surrounded by huge, shallow pools. Calatrava’s designs adopt an organic form, his technical and engineering brilliance providing the basis for his pioneering concrete, steel and glass creations. However, despite near-universal acclaim for its architecture, the complex has not completely escaped criticism. Some feel that the vast cost of constructing it should have been used to tackle the city’s pressing social issues, while others have been less than overwhelmed by some of the content inside the Ciudad’s startling structures.
In your explorations, stroll through the Umbracle, a series of eighteen-metre-high arches towering over a landscaped walkway shaded with vegetation from throughout the region, including palms, honeysuckle, bougainvillea and, of course, orange trees.
The Hemisfèric, one of the more astonishing buildings of the complex, is a striking eye-shaped concrete structure – complete with lashes, and an eyeball that forms a huge concave screen used to project IMAX movies, laser shows, nature documentaries and more.
Museo de las Ciencias
The colossal Museo de las Ciencias (Science Museum), whose protruding supports make the building resemble a giant sun-bleached carcass, is crammed with interactive exhibits about science, sport and the human body that are sure to appeal to children, from a colourful 3D representation of DNA to a Foucault Pendulum, which at 34m is one of the longest in the world.
The Parque Oceanográfico, designed by Félix Candela, is one of the world’s largest aquariums. It’s divided into multiple zones, with beluga whales in the Arctic area, Japanese spider crabs in the temperate zone and a kaleidoscopic collection of reef fish, sharks and turtles in the seventy-metre tunnel that forms the tropical zone. The park also has all manner of splashy events, including the thrilling (though pricey) Encuentro con Tiburones (Shark Encounter), where you can scuba-dive with sharks; and a penguin visit, popular with kids, where you can feed Humboldt penguins and view their hatchery and rearing area. In the summer, the aquarium sometimes opens for night visits, while the restaurant is a sleek underwater space where you dine with fish darting past your table.
Palacio de les Arts Reina Sofía and L’Ágora
The majestic pistachio-nut-shaped Palacio de las Artes is a high-tech performing arts palace, with renowned musical director Lorin Maazel at the helm. Stages and halls of varying sizes – all with splendid acoustics – host ballet, opera and classical-music concerts, among others. Performances are staged throughout the year, and it’s well worth snagging a ticket to see one. The equally impressive 80m L’Àgora (open for events only), is a multifunctional space inaugurated in November 2009 to host the Valencia 500 Open tennis tournament, and now features various events, from sports meets to the glittering annual Valencia Fashion Week.
The port and the playas
The port and the playas
Barcelona famously transformed its waterfront from drab to dazzling, and Valencia has done something similar to its city coastline, having significantly spruced up its beaches and boardwalk over the last decade. In 2007, Valencia became the first European port since 1851 to host the America’s Cup (which was staged here again in 2010), and to celebrate the event, parts of the forgotten waterfront were redeveloped, with a gleaming new marina and the eye-catching Veles e Vents (“Sails and Winds”) structure designed by British architect David Chipperfield helping to transform the area. The Valencia Street Circuit was also constructed in the port area as the race site of the 2008 Formula One European Grand Prix, which will continue to be held here until 2014.
As for beaches, you can catch some rays on the soft sand of the broad and breezy playas Malvarrosa and Las Arenas, which are backed by the Paseo Marítimo and extend along the waterfront. The outdoor cafés, bars and clubs here are particularly popular in the summer months. There are a number of ways to get to Malvarrosa and Las Arenas, but one easy route is to take the #5 metro at the central Colón station to Marítim Serrería, and switch to the #6 line to Neptú, from where you can walk north along the boardwalk to the sands. You can also catch buses from Plaza del Ayuntamiento, often supplemented during the summer by buses from various points in the centre; ask at the tourist office.
Fallas: Valencia on Fire
Fallas: Valencia on Fire
Valencia erupts in a blaze of colour and noise for the Fiesta de las Fallas, March 12 to 19. During the year, each barrio or neighbourhood builds satirical caricatures or fallas, some as tall as buildings. These begin to appear in the plazas at the beginning of March and are judged and awarded prizes before being set alight at midnight on March 19, the Nit de Foc – traditionally, carpenters celebrated the beginning of spring by decorating the torches (foc in Valenciano) they used over winter and adding them to a ritual bonfire. The fallas are ignited in succession – and the last to go up are the prize winners. Each falla has a small model or ninot beside it, usually created by the children of the barrio. These are exhibited in La Lonja before the fiesta begins, and the best displayed in the Museu Fallero; the rest are burned with the fallas.
During the fiesta, processions of falleros, dressed in traditional costume and accompanied by bands, carry flowers to the Plaza de la Virgen, where they are massed to create the skirt of a huge statue of La Virgen. The daily Las Mascaletas firecracker display (2pm in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento) sees the whole city racing to this central square for a ten-minute series of body-shuddering explosions. There are also nightly fireworks, bullfights, paella contests in the streets and chocolate y buñuelos stalls. Finally, around 1am on March 19, the falla of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento goes up in flames, followed by the last thunderous firework display of the Nit de Foc.
Week before Lent: Carnaval
Águilas’ carnaval is one of the wildest in the country. Vinaròs also has good carnaval celebrations.
12–19 March: Las Fallas de San José
Valencia’s Las Fallas is by far the biggest of the bonfire festivals, and indeed one of the most important fiestas in all Spain. The whole thing costs over €1 million, most of which goes up in smoke (literally) on the final Nit de Foc when the grotesque caricatures, fashioned from papier-mâché and wood, are burned. Throughout, there are bullfights, music and stupendous fireworks.
19 March: Día de San José
Smaller fallas festivals in Xàtiva, Benidorm and Denia.
Third Sun of Lent: Fiesta de la Magdalena
Castellón de la Plana celebrates the end of Moorish rule with pilgrimages and processions of huge floats.
Semana Santa (Holy Week)
In Elche, there are, naturally, big Palm Sunday celebrations making use of the local palms, while throughout the week there are also religious processions in Cartagena, Lorca, Orihuela and Valencia. The Easter processions in Murcia are particularly famous, and they continue into the following week with, on the Tuesday, the Bando de la Huerta, a huge parade of floats celebrating local agriculture, and, on the Saturday evening, the riotous “Burial of the Sardine” which marks the end of these spring festivals.
April 22–24: Moros y Cristianos
After a colourful procession in Alcoy, a huge battle commences between the two sides in the main square.
1–5: Fiestas de los Mayos
Fiesta in Alhama de Murcia, and Moros y Cristianos in Caravaca de la Cruz.
Second Sun: La Virgen de los Desamparados
The climax of this celebration in Valencia is when the statue of the Virgin is transferred from her basilica to the cathedral.
Third Sun: Moros y Cristianos
23–24: Noche de San Juan
Magnificent hogueras festival in Alicante (and San Juan de Alicante) with processions and fireworks, culminating as huge effigies and bonfires are burnt in the streets at midnight. It’s celebrated on a smaller scale on the beaches of Valencia (Malvarossa, Cabanyal and Aloboraya) with bonfire-jumping. Altea also celebrates with a popular tree-bearing procession and a bonfire in the old town.
Early July: Fiestas de la Santísima Sangre
Dancing in the streets of Denia, plus music and mock battles.
15–20: Moros y Cristianos
Second week: Feria de Julio
Valencia hosts music, bullfights and above all fireworks, ending with the Battle of the Flowers in the Alameda.
Penultimate weekend: FIB
Benicàssim’s international music festival, a massive party bringing together the major names in alternative and electronic music.
25–31: Moros y Cristianos
Villajoyosa sees battles by both land and sea.
4: Festa del Cristo de la Salut
Festival in El Palmar with processions by boat into the lake.
Mid-Aug: Misteri d’Eix
Elche presents a mystery play, based on a drama dating back to medieval times.
14–20: Feria de Agosto
Xàtiva’s fair has a very extensive cultural dimension including concerts, plays and exhibitions, plus bullfights and barrages of fireworks.
Local festivities in Denia.
Last week: La Tomatina
A riotous free-for-all of tomato-throwing takes place in Buñol on the last Wednesday of the month. There’s also a music festival in Morella.
Local fiesta in Sagunto, and at the same time the great Moros y Cristianos festival and a mystery play in Elche.
4–9: Moros y Cristianos
Bull-running through Segorbe’s streets.
8–9: Les Danses
Celebrations in Peñíscola’s old quarter include a human tower construction.
22: Fiesta de Santo Tomás
In Benicàssim with bands and a “blazing bull”.
Second Sun: La Virgen de Suffrage
Benidorm celebrates its patron saint’s day.
Move over Madrid and Barcelona, and make room for fashion diva Valencia. The city has a rich and vibrant fashion culture, and twice a year, in spring and autumn, the glossy Valencia Fashion Week (wwww.valenciafashionweek.com) sees catwalk shows from all the latest and greatest local and national designers. Valencia’s home-grown designers have made a splash in the international scene: look out for the flamboyant, gypsy-inspired pieces of Francis Montesinos; the sexy styles of Alex Vida; the urban look of Alejandro Sáez de la Torre; bold, geometric swimwear from Dolores Cortés; Higinio Mateu’s frisky dresses; and the avant-garde, flouncy threads of Tonuca. Shoes and accessories rival the clothes, with such renowned designers as jeweller Vicente Gracia, whose reinvented antique brooches have been worn by the Queen of Spain herself.
Where to shop? You can find both local and international designs throughout Valencia, from small boutiques to big department stores, particularly around the old town and city centre, including the Eixample (Ensanche) district, between Calle Colón and Gran Vía del Marqués del Turia; and Calle Jorge Juan by Mercado Colón.
Valencia is known for its horchata – a drink made from chufas (tiger nuts) served either liquid or granizada (slightly frozen), and accompanied by long, thin cakes called fartons. Legend has it that the name horchata was coined by Jaume I, shortly after he conquered Valencia. He was admiring the huerta one hot afternoon, and an Arab girl offered him a drink so refreshing that he exclaimed, “Aixó es or, xata” (this is gold, girl).
There are horchaterías all over the city: the two oldest are Santa Catalina (daily 8am–9pm; t963 912 379) and El Siglo (daily generally 8am–9pm; t963 918 466), both in Plaza Santa Catalina. One of the better-known spots to cool your throat is Daniel, Avda. de la Horchata 41 (daily 10am–1am; closed mid-Dec to Feb; t961 858 866, whorchateria-daniel.es; mPalmaret), where you can sit on the breezy terrace. In the historic Mercado de Colón, try the excellent La Casa de l’Orxata (daily Mon–Fri 7.30am–10.30pm, Sat & Sun until 2am; t963 527 307, wwww.casadelaorxata.com), who make their smooth horchata with traditional methods and organic ingredients, and sell it from street carts around town.
Traditionally, however, the best horchata comes from Alboraya, formerly a village in the Valencian suburbs, now absorbed into the city – take metro line #3. One old-time spot is Subies, Carretera de Barcelona in the Almássera neighborhood of Alboraya (daily 8.30am–11pm; t961 854 673), where three generations have been honing their craft.