For me, the day starts with noise. Normally, it’s the sound of one of my young sons singing in the bathroom down the hallway. Or, if I’m lucky and the children have slept in, it’s my 6am alarm, waking me to the sound of Recuerdos de la Alhambra. But I’m not at home today, I’m in Valencia city. The hum of the city is immediately evident; Valencia is never quiet, and in my absence, I had forgotten just how noisy the city can be. Fourth noisiest in Europe, someone once told me. Statistics aside, the place buzzes with life 24 hours a day. I hear it while I lie in bed, the constant whirring of traffic somewhere, of scooters and buses on the street three stories below me. I wonder how long ago the love affair with leaning on the car horn began. The city sighs, breathes and releases a sound that is not unique, yet oddly comforting.
Out of bed and I pull open a window, to look down on Carrer de Sant Vicent Mártir. Two street cleaners are emptying a bin. I’m sure I heard one yell to the other that he didn’t have sex last night because his girlfriend was constipated. You can’t accuse Spaniards of not sharing. Only a few people are walking the streets at 7.30. The air is still cool, but that won’t last, even on this narrow shaded street. The beautiful building across from me is silent; I hope it has life inside somewhere, it deserves life. This street has seen a lot of history. Franco and his troops marched down here when the city was overcome in the war. That plays on this war nerd’s mind.
The apartment has a little patio in the well of the building. I step out in the cool air and privacy and sip my drinking yoghurt. It’s not a favourite thing, but I used to buy it in Spain when I lived here. The cheap price gave me a sense of nostalgia at the Mercadona last night, as did the organic fresh milk from Galicia, and the Valencian oranges. I don’t even eat oranges, can’t stand them. But they are part of the life I used to have in this city, and today is my chance to enjoy that life again, if I can find it. One floor up, a woman is talking to her daughter in French; the smell of cigarette smoke is overwhelming. Time to go for a walk.
Last night’s exuberance is still in my head. I walked the streets and alleys of Valencia old town in the dark – because it’s safe enough to do so – and found myself in a club late at night, with an old friend in tow. Places close earlier than they use to; all-night parties seem to have faded. Maybe the long-suffering residents of the El Carmen got their way with their noise protests, maybe the recession keeps people home more often. Maybe not, there are people everywhere. I had forgotten how many people live in Europe. Too much south Pacific island living? Is there such a thing?
Plaza del Ayuntamiento 1933 and today
The tourist route can wait, though it will be filled with cruise-ships parties following their guide soon. That’s new. I wander into Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the main square of the city. Two police officers stand at the main entrance, which is still closed. They both smile and nod hello as I walk by; that’s not new. There are a few other tourists out early in the day, but are all at least twenty years older than me. I have learned a lot about Plaza del Ayuntamiento in my absence – it was called Plaza Emilio Castelar during the Second Republic, and Plaza del Caudillo when Franco took over. They tried Plaza del País Valenciano for a while, too. Since I’m in Spain on a civil war research trip, I can stand and imagine the propaganda posters and protesters, plus soldiers from both sides of the battle.
Town Hall balcony 1939 and today
Franco gets his marching orders
A statue of Franco stood in the square once, to commemorate 25 years of peace under his reign (no comment!). Now, a statue of Francesc de Vinatea stands in its place, a 14th century Valencian hero. The plaza once had a flower market embedded in the centre, underneath a fountain-littered promenade, but that was ripped out in 1961. Now, flower vendors are stalls that dot around the open space. I buy some; pink somethings (I don’t know my flowers!), for no reason than to say hello to the old man who was selling them. The plaza teems with people driving around its exterior, the audible hum of life is in full swing. There are stickers on posts; protests against government cuts to education. Valencia’s voice is coming in to protest later, but I don’t know that yet. My first day in Valencia years ago, as a new citizen to the city, there was a fireworks display in the plaza. I had never seen such a spectacle; Valencia like to burn things with a lot of noise. It was to commemorate an event being staged, the same one that had brought me across the world. The fireworks, which were let off in the centre of the plaza, where I’m standing, were so loud that a glass bus shelter shattered into a gazillion pieces. Nobody batted an eyelid; shit happens. Now, my friends, who shared the moment, aren’t here. We’re spread out across the world again. It changes the feel of the city remarkably.
I leave the plaza and the older part of this ancient city, and head down the pedestrian Carrer de Ribera. It’s cold in the shade. The stores are still closed, but the cafes are all open, filled with people having breakfast at 9am. Everyone looks so relaxed. I’m glad I brought my pink scarf on holiday; it seems to be part of the fashion. New Zealand may as well be another planet when it comes to clothes; finally my scarf has a home. I’ll need to buy more before I go back.
Carrer de Colon is busy, its one way traffic speeds past as I wait to cross the wide street. A bus stops and many people, mostly women, get off, obviously on their way to work. It’s the Number 19 route, almost at its end. I’ll take that bus at some point, it’s the route I took many times before. One woman is loudly telling another that her period is really bad this morning. There’s that over-sharing again. I cross the street, next to a woman pushing a worn-down stroller. The girl, perhaps three, looks tired. The mother is struggling to push the child on wobbly wheels and suck on her cigarette. I don’t like to tell people how to live their lives, and hate to receive advice, but smoking like that in a child’s face annoys me. I forget I come from a place where smoking is considered strange.
I pass by the bullring, Plaza de Toros de Valencia, which is closed this early, even the ticket booths. Posters are up for the upcoming weekend fight. I must go (it will later disappoint me). The statue of Valencian fighter Manolo Montoliu has had an artificial wreath put around his neck, and it’s covered in ribbons the colour of the Valencian flag. The anniversary of his death has just passed.
Down busy Carrer de Russafa, past a panadería selling the most delicious-looking pastries, and there is a space in the line-up of conjoined buildings. I think of Jason Webster’s novel, A Death in Valencia, when the main character’s apartment block collapses in this suburb. There hasn’t been a building on that site in years. Wasn’t it once a public carparking space? Knowing Valencia, they probably went to build something and found Roman or similar artifacts. The place is good for finds like that.
Down Gran Via del Marques del Turia, a street I’ve wandered many times. You can wander either side of the multi-lane street, or through the middle, in the tree-lined walkway lovingly placed in the centre. The cobbled path is dusty, like Valencia always seems to be. There are many beautiful buildings along here; I had several friends who lived here, in gorgeous apartments. They don’t live here now; they were in San Francisco or New Zealand last I heard. My doctor lived on this street. His office, in his apartment, has a plaque outside his door, and I touch it when I walk past. In very difficult times, it was good to have someone who listened to serious concerns. The old bookstore is still there, still not open for the day. Imagine all the stories hiding inside. The optometrist is still there; a young woman is opening the place as I go by. I wonder if the old couple who worked there have retired yet. I hope they were able to. The traffic is building as I reach the end, at the Pont d’Aragó, the bridge over the Turia across the street. The light says I can cross, but cars stream through their own red light anyway. It was always dangerous crossing here, though I don’t have my quad (yes, quad) stroller with me anymore. The sight made cars stop, but running down a single woman seems to be of no concern, as always. I stood on this bridge late one night, eight months pregnant with my fourth child, knowing I had to move away from Valencia. What a depressing evening.
Into the Turia I walk, one of the grandest sights you will ever behold. Bikes drift past as I head along familiar routes. The Chinese guy is still doing tai chi in his usual spot after all these years. Keen runners are out, along with pairs of old women out for a stroll. One tells me that I’m beautiful enough to find a good husband. How generous. One of my favourite spots, the fountain outside the Palau de la Musica, is silent. My children loved running along the edges and watching the water displays. No one is playing now. A young guy is setting up a tripod and he goes out of his way to say hello to me as the sun begins to warm up the city. I remember seeing a friend here, a famous New Zealand sportsman, one hot summer evening as he was riding his wife’s bike, and had a pizza in the front basket. His front wheel wobbled when he waved hello. He’s gone now, runs some kind of hovercraft company these days. Another friend told me to stop running along here, because I was too pregnant; she’s gone now, too. There used to host open-air concerts here at night in the summer, maybe there still are. Sitting under trees with picnic baskets and enjoying noisy Spanish life; I hope the recession didn’t claim them.
A walk along familiar paths brings back memories, like the bike stand where tourists grab a ride, Gulliver playground, which is amazing, but in all honesty, not that clean and my children were too small to really enjoy it. The concrete mini-golf thing is still there, looking as worn as ever. The cafe with foul-tasting horchata ice-blocks is open, and mothers sit outside with young kids. When we took our kids there with friends, we went around as a group, and collected the rubbish before the children could play. After a while, you accept that as standard practice. I remember learning of a friend’s miscarriage while at the playground, and wondering how could I tell her that her husband had been cheating on her after that? She forgave him, once she found out.
The skateboard ramps have even more graffiti and it seems angrier than before. Spanish life has got harder. ‘My’ part of the park, the area around the Arts and Sciences has a huge amount of familiarity, yet feels so different at the same time. On the whole, nothing has changed. The Reina Sofia theatre, the giant eye, could use a wash, but the place is exactly how I remember. I walked along here every day, and after being away so long, coming back is a bizarre experience. There’s no way of explaining what is it like to walk past things that I have missed for so long that I almost felt as if they no longer existed. The playground where my children played is exactly the same; the bushes still rustle oddly, too. The kids always suspected giant rats (not sure who started that rumour. It’s just birds). I sit in a spot under the shade of a tree. I did that one day, with my sons, then aged 23 months and 7 months, and wondered why we were alone. Then I noticed it was 44 degrees, according the temperature gauge on Pont de Montolivet. I had a pain in my stomach and I had a feeling I was pregnant. Four weeks later I had that confirmed, while looking out over the park in my apartment.
It’s odd to see my part of the city so lifeless. Once, I couldn’t walk down the road without bumping into 30 people I knew, friends to chat with, husbands wheeling pink shopping baskets home for their wives, locals who were amazed at how many sons I had and how close together they were all born. Now, almost no one is about. The woman at the perfume counter I used to visit seems happy to have a customer when I buy a bottle of Prada. The smell is an instant reminder of my old life.
It’s easy to waste hours walking around old haunts, up and down streets, filled with memories. The facade is all the same, but the atmosphere has changed. Valencia moved on without me. Of course it did; I moved on without Valencia. I was only meant to be away three months, not six years. But it’s great to be back. The day is quickly lost by wandering old haunts. I stop by the Disney store; there was a robbery at the nearby Carrefour once. Friends had been there, and dived behind piles of stuffed Disney characters. One guy dived behind his girlfriend. I don’t think the relationship lasted much longer after that. Today, the whole place is quiet.
Walking among the tourists at Torres de Serranos
It’s time to walk back through the park, to Torres de Serranos and dive back through the old town. People to see, places to go. I have to play tour guide later, not something I’m sure I can do. The way I know the city can’t really be explained. Plaza de la Virgen is gearing up for a fiesta, but I can’t even remember which one. I’ve seen a few girls in their fallera dresses, so it’s something big. I sit at the fountain, a popular spot, and remembered sitting here with my father, while heavily pregnant with son number 3 of 4. My father has passed away now.
I see familiar spots, places I put in my first Spain novel. New(er) places will be in the next novel. I’ll visit those spots later. The beverages in Cafe le las Horas are as good as ever in the mid-afternoon, as is the decor. I might sit here for a while; little do I know I’ll be wandering busy streets later and getting caught up in a giant-sized anti-government and banking protest. This spot will do nicely while I laugh with a friend. Valencia exists entirely inside the people who are there.
All 2013 photos author’s own. Valencia history photos courtesy of Juan Antonio Soler Aces