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.

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