‘LA RIUÁ’ October 14, 1957: 60 Years Since The Flood That Changed Valencia Forever

On October 14, 1957, a little known disaster occurred in the Spanish city of Valencia. When I first moved to Valencia in 2005, I heard the story of the Turia (the Valencia river) flooding the city in the 1950’s. Now, the city has the beauty of a park in place of the dry riverbed. Years after I first moved to Spain, I decided to research the event in more depth (excuse the pun), and it is the backdrop for my second Secrets of Spain novel, Vengeance in the Valencian Water (out Jan. 2014).

In my first book of the series, Blood in Valencian Soil, Cayetano, a bullfighter from Madrid and Luna, a bike mechanic from Valencia, team up to find the burial-place of a murdered Republican soldier and his involvement with an International Brigade nurse, who disappeared from Cuenca in 1939.  The second book of the series, while on the search for more civil war mass graves, Cayetano’s Falange member grandfather, José, is forced to tell his story of survival during the Valencian flood which changed his life forever.

city mapThe Turia wasn’t always a flowing torrent of water. While there has been recorded flood records since the 1300’s, the riverbed spent most of its time dry, where people would walk to the tiny stream to wash their clothes. Shack houses sprung up in the riverbed. Sales of animals were held down in the riverbed. It was not a year round flowing river. Serious floods had happened every century that the modern city was based against the Turia, the most recent in only 1949 when several dozen people drowned. Even so, they were unprepared for October 1957.

Before you read on, here is the link to a documentary made in 2007 by Valencia University, with radio reports, video footage and eyewitness accounts of the flood. It’s all in Spanish, but if you don’t speak the language, you could just mute the sound and watch the video if you want, you will get the idea. Floods pretty much speak for themselves.

Each October, rain comes to the Valencia region, not so much in the city area, but in the surrounding plains and mountainous area that separates the city from inland Spain (If you’re new to this area, Valencia is both a city and a province of Spain. Just a heads-up). The rainfall surges during this change in autumn, onto land that is very dry after a long year without much rain. On Saturday 12 October, 1957, the heavens opened up over Valencia city, in conjunction to the torrential rains in surrounding villages in the Turia (plains around the city) region. On the morning of Sunday 13 October, Las Provincias newspaper noted that the outlying towns of Lliria, Segorbe, Chelva, Requena and Buñol had received rainfall of 500 millimetres in only two days. The Barranco del Carraixet and Palancia rivers north of the city, and the Magre river to the south, along with the Turia river through than ran Valencia city had all risen, but said there was no reason to worry. The rain began to die down in the city, and by late evening, had stopped completely. What the people of Valencia didn’t know was the immense torrent that was gushing its way down the Turia river towards them.

At around 9.30pm, an emergency call came through from the towns of Pedralba and Vilamarxant, 40 kilometres from Valencia, announcing that both towns had been flooded by a deluge of water as the river swelled beyond breaking point. At 11pm, an alarm sounded in the city, notifying all Guardia Civil and Police to be on alert, as the flood was heading directly towards the populated city.

Just after midnight, with the absence of rain, the river continued to swell, and logs and debris began floating through the city, blocking the bridges that connected the two sides of Valencia. Alarms sounded to alert people, and messengers knocked on doors in the El Carmen and Campanar areas, both the closest barrios on each side of the river’s edge. Radio messages went out with a flurry as police rushed to warn people of impending water. Soon after, the first waves began crashing over the edge of the riverbed, instantly flooding the flat streets on both sides, just as the torrential rains returned. In one hour, the water height pouring against the central city was between one to two metres and rising, cutting people off from any escape in the dark. More than 1000 cubic metes of water per second flowed into the streets, reaching over two metres in some areas. The Manises Dam at the edge of the city rose to seven metres above normal height as the river tripled its width and swallowed up much of the city and surrounding area. All water, power and phone connections were swamped and collapsed under the water. Reports say manhole covers exploded into the air followed by a violent shot of muddy water as the water took the city one street at a time.

ciudadinundada-1(If you don’t speak Spanish – blue: river, green: populated flooded farming areas, purple: city/town flooded, grey: not flooded populated areas. Notice the tiny safe area in the centre of the disaster zone?)

In the centre of the old town lies the Plaza de la Virgen and Plaza de la Reina, where today stands the Valencia cathedral,  the Basilica and the archbishop’s palace just behind them. Along with Calle Micalet, this tiny pocket was once home to a mosque and before that a Roman city. This area is built on the slightest, and almost impossible to see, ridge in the land, resulting in these treasures not getting any water and instead were surrounded. (Coincidentally, in my novel, the main character lives one street over from Calle Micalet in this magical pocket of space, but don’t be fooled into thinking they are all going to be safe – you know I don’t write happy endings!)

At 4am, the flood reached its peak of approximately 2,700 cubic metres of water per second, but then quickly tapered off. As the sun rose on Monday October 14, the water continued to decrease and the Manises dam was no longer inundated. From the peak of around eight metres above average to only two metres at the dam, Valencians thought the worst was over. A single telephone line to Castellon in the north remained, so emergency services could get word to Madrid, calling for help. All roads and rail lines leading out of the city towards Madrid, Barcelona and Albacete were blocked, damaged or completely swept away. Many of the bridges that crossed the Turia were damaged or destroyed, along with the beautiful stonework that lined the river one day earlier.

riada10As people ventured out into the water and mud-filled streets, the government received a message around midday that things were about to get worse. The towns of Pedralba to Vilamarxant had again been inundated with a second flood, washing away all landmarks. The water took two hours to reach Valencia city, with 3,500 cubic meters of water per second hitting around 2pm, accompanied by the worst downpour of rain yet seen; around 100 millimetres in just half an hour, enough that people couldn’t even see in front of them. By 3.30pm, the flood reached its peak of around 6,000 cubic metres of water per second, enough to start washing away buildings that had been weakened in the first flood. The river had expanded to cover 2,200 hectares. While Valencia city gave many the luxury of multi-story buildings to find shelter above the water line, which rose between two to five metres above street level in places, the more outlying areas by the beach and port, including the towns of Nazaret, El Cabanyal and Malvarrosa at the mouth of the river, were on flat land and single level buildings, resulting in a complete catastrophe and loss of life as the water poured into the sea. Only five bridges, the longest-standing stone ones, remained in place, though some were damaged and impassable. The worst had finally passed, and the riverbed emptied out into silence again. The final death toll was recorded as 81, though the actual figure remains unknown, but commonly thought around 400.

riada07In the coming days, the army came in by truck and helicopter, bringing up to 500,000 kilos of bread to feed stricken residents. Many needed to be airlifted from rooftops and isolated pockets of dry land as the water receded. Much of the city, port and beach areas were filled with a heavy mud and debris, resulting in a ‘on hands on deck’ response from army and locals alike to clean up. On October 24, dictator Francisco Franco arrived (when much was cleaned already, of course) to survey the damage and have his loyal (oppressed, whatever) subjects cheer for him for coming to the disaster zone. As people lived on bread brought north from Gandia and milk given out by the ladle-load, the long process of rebuilding began. The mud was not completely cleaned away until the end of November.

In June 1958, the outlying port and beach areas suffered a second minor flood, as their drains were still clogged with mud, and the following month ‘Plan Sur’ began, a project to divert the river. The plan had initially been designed over a decade earlier but sidelined due to excessiveness (which is ironic considering the ‘excessiveness’ of everything the Valencian government spends money on). A plan to build an enormous green space in the city was put up against building a huge highway to get people from Madrid to the beach a fraction faster. In 1965 construction began to divert the river south of the city, resulting in water flowing around the city for the first time in 1972. At the same time, land cleared by the flood on the other side of the river from the old town was used to create many new buildings, mostly apartments, giving Valencia a construction boom (that’s a whole other tale). The flood had accidentally given Valencia a whole new chapter in its story, already thousands of years old. (I have never seen any water in the river diversion, other than the tiny part where the sea flows into the river mouth. If you have a photo of the Plan Sur river diversion (any year) with water in it, I would love to see it).

Here is a short clip (in Spanish) made as they designed Plan Sur in the 60’s, with some aerial shots of Valencia if you’re so inclined.

In 1976, on his first visit to Valencia as head of State, King Juan Carlos I gifted the dry riverbed to the city, and the highway plan was shelved forever; the seven kilometre park won its place in Valencia’s history. Construction on the final part of the Turia riverbed park continues today, with most of the park now complete. The ‘top’ of the park has Valencia’s zoo, the Bioparc, and footpaths and bike lanes weave though gardens, streams, sports fields, playgrounds to the other end, home to Valencia’s massive Arts and Sciences complex. The final part, where the old riverbed meets the sea is all-but completed.

While Valencia is an amazing city, the park is the jewel in the crown.

This is a tourism video was taken a few years ago, but shows Valencia from the air, over the park and areas rebuilt after the flood, plus many of the great sights you can read about in my books.


All photos in 1957 are courtesy of Juan Antonio Soler Aces.

Valencia Photos of the Month: Horchaterías in Plaza de Santa Catalina


Plaza Santa Catalina in 1837, 1860, 1895 and 2013. Horchatería Santa Catalina is on the left, across the church entrance and El Siglo is on the right just before the church entrance. 

Plaza de Santa Catalina (named after the Santa Catalina church), off Plaza de la Reina, located in the heart of Valencia since forever, is home to two of Valencia’s long-standing and iconic stores, all-but across the tiny pedestrian street from one another and selling the same product – horchata.

Horchata (orxata in Valencian) is the local beverage of the ages. The drink is made of tiger nuts, water and sugar; you can get substandard versions made from almonds or rice elsewhere, but Valencia is the home of the product. When the Muslims owned/ ran/ inhabited the city from the 8th-13th centuries, they perfected the drink, made from chufas (tiger nuts) in nearby Alboraia, outside the city area. It looks as if made from milk, but dairy-avoiders have no need to shy away from the drink. It is served ice-cold and has fartons (don’t poke fun of the name), long pastry delights dipped in for extra fun.

horchata gif

Right across from the entrance to the Santa Catalina church is Horchateria de Santa Catalina, which is decorated in the traditional tile design of the area. After several hundred years and multiple royal visits, they know what they are serving. Horchata, fartons, various pastries, churros and coffees are all available, and you can get your sugar on for just a few euros. It’s one of Valencia’s quiet icons, with a handy location to everywhere in the old town.


Across the tiny street is Horchatería El Siglo, who have been serving up horchata since 1836. The same products as across the street, though with a simpler setting, and some argue, better quality horchata. They also have a nice outdoor setting area. Again, for a few euros you can have all you want and chill with the locals. Or could, because as of 31 December 2014, thanks to a law changing rents in Spain, disaster has struck El Siglo. While the rent increases, put up to current market rates, have been coming for the last twenty years, they have now come into force. While many of the 9000 local family-owned stores in Valencia, the classic older stores of the city, managed to negotiate rents (going up thousands of euros a month!), some, like El Siglo have instead decided to close their doors and have the owners retire. Rents have been frozen, some for up to half a century, in Spain for the aid of businesses, and that helpful time has come to an end. After all this time, a law has closed El Siglo and we’ll be seeing some ugly generic Starbucks in there, even though they are everywhere like a plague. Thousands of stores around Spain will now disappear thanks to this law change. You will be seeing more franchises and generic stores over the beautiful lace stores, shoe stores, doll repairers (yes), antique shops, tailors, cafes, basket weavers, horchaterías et al, businesses handed down through generations. And that really sucks. The time for the rent freezes came to an end, and some argue it had to happen, however the face of Spain is being changed quickly, thanks to corporations who can afford the new rents.

 RIP El Siglo

Valencia Photos of the Month: Ancient Moorish Tower of Plaça de l’Àngel

While the Romans founded Valentia is 138BC, the Moors took over the city in 714, and the city remained a small area by the riverside. But in the early 11th century, Valencia city was proclaimed the taifa of Valencia, the city kingdom of the area, after the fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba in 1010. Abd al-Aziz ibn Amir took over the city and from the beginning of his reign in 1021, Valencia needed a secure wall around the city, which was expanding quickly with people moving north from al-Andaluz. The stone wall was built with seven gateways, and circular towers for lookout and protection, but only some parts of this great wall still remain. 



Between the main gate, Bab al-Qantara, (now the site of Valencia Torres de Serranos gate) and gate number two, the west gate named Bab al-Hanax (my last post HERE shows photos of the remaining wall) was on Calle Salines. (Also between these gates was Portal de la Valldigna, the doorway to the Christian pocket of the city) Between these two gates was the Torre del Angel (Angel tower). El Cid took over the city in 1099, but it wasn’t until 1356 that the new city walls needed to be built, expanding the city when Christian reign took over the city. Only parts of the original towers and slices of the ancient stronghold remained standing as the city doubled in size.

Plaza del Angel, (called Plaça de l’Àngel in Valencian), a tiny square off the main road away from Torre de Serranos, managed to hide and protect one of the Moorish towers for centuries. In 1701, a hotel was built around the Torre de Angel, using the still intact tower as part of its establishment. It appeared in travel guides for the city from 1849. The Parador /Hostal del Angel was featured in an article in 1930, about the family and building (article is below in the slideshow). The hostal actually had its entrance in Plaza Navarro, but was the main building in the tiny Plaza del Angel along its back. Both the Moorish tower and wall were protected inside the hostal.

When the great Valencia flood of 1957 destroyed the hostal, the area was left unattended, until development saw a new apartment building go up in the ruins of the hostal grounds, making Plaza del Angel the small triangular plaza it is today. The hostal grounds became a park, leaving the tower and wall safe from demolition. But the park was neglected and then pulled away, and today the old hostal grounds and surrounding Moorish treasures are fenced off and kept away from a public. Getting a good photo of the Torre de Angel can be quite a challenge. However, the Valencian government committed to preserving the tower and surrounding wall. A quick search finds that the promised works on the Moorish towers in the Barrio del Carmen have not made any progress, missed all restoration details since 2006, and now other agencies are being called in to investigate the delays. So in Valencian terms, this issue probably won’t be sorted for another 100 years. Let’s hope the towers outlast the bureaucracy.

Also saved from the same part for the Moorish wall is another smaller tower technically now called the Calle Mare Vella tower, though this street provides no glimpse of the structure. It sits against 1970’s apartment blocks and can be seen easily from outside the car park area (?!) on Calle Borras and Calle Adoberies.

Plaza del Angel/Plaça de l’Àngel is one of the sites featured in all books in the Secret of Spain book series. Both these books and this site use both the Spanish and Valencian spellings, depending on time period featured, as Valencia was banned under the Franco dictatorship. The plaza itself is labelled in both languages in the city, though newer maps only have Valencian spellings. There are other great Moorish secrets tucked away in Valencia, which I will do in a separate post.

All historical photos via Valencian Historia Grafica and recent photos author’s own, or via Google

Valencia Photos of the Month: Portal de la Valldigna

Portal Valldigna Valencia
Portal Valldigna Valencia

Portal Valldigna (Valldigna Gate) is a portal/gateway built in 1400 to separate the Christian and Moorish areas of the city. It is located in the oldest part of Valencia’s old town, in the Barrio del Carmen, in the Ciutat Vella. The gateway never had a door, and simply separated the nearby buildings, and leaned against the ancient Arab wall around the city. The local abbot had his home over the doorway, and gave the Portal Valldigna after the  Monasterio de Santa María de la Valldigna, an amazing monastery built in 1298 outside the city area.


Father Jofre defending a madman, by Joaquin Sorolla (1887) – Source

The portal, seen here in this painting by one of Valencia’s finest artists, shows the portal in the background as Joan Gilabert Jofré, known as Father Jofré, saves a madman from being stoned in 1409. After spending time seeing how Muslims cared for the mentally ill, Father Jofré went on the start the world’s first mental institution in the world, sanctioned by Pope Benedict XIII and King Martín I of Aragon. It was built nearby and named after Valencia’s patron saint Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados.

In 1474, a book named Obres e trobes en lahors de la Verge María was printed with paintings of the Portal Valldigna, showing an inscription in Valencian, es obres or trobes Davall scrites quals them lahors tracten of the sacratíssima Verge Maria (in praise of the Virgin Mary). In 1589 a new plaque was put above the portal depicts King Jaime II of Aragon at the founding of Valldigna monastery.

Speed forward to the 1940’s and the portal was in a state of disrepair and the city planned to demolish it along with the historical buildings surrounding it. In 1944, the Valencia Director of Fine Arts stepped in to have the Portal Valldigna named a historical monument and saved it from its fate. The portal and above building was fully renovated in 1965, making sure the original Arab and Christian stones were saved. A new plaque was put over the entrance into the ‘old cities’ with the shields of both the city of Valencia and the Valldigna monastery. The Valencia inscription next to it reads : Dona Nostra Son of Bona, Pregueu per nós, Valldigna Portal (Good Women of Our Son, Pray for us, Valldigna Portal).


Today, Portal Valldigna is a good spot to stop by and see a pocket of Valencia’s ancient history, away from the crowds. It is easy to find if you are already visiting some of Valencia’s more well-known sites. If you are new to Valencia, just head up Carrer Concordía off Carrer Serrano, and follow the road right, and you will be on Carrer Portal Valldigna. Or, head down Carrer Cavallers (Calle Caballeros if your map is in Spanish) and head down either tiny Carrer Landrer, or even narrower Carrer Salinas, which, while not the prettiest street in the city, has a section of the ancient Arab wall, just standing alone between two buildings. A landmark often missed by many.

Historical photos by Valencia Historia Grafica

Valencia Photos of the Month: La Lonja

La Lonja de la Seda de Valencia (Silk Exchange, or Silk Llotja in Valencian) is one of Valencia’s greatest marvels. Set in the Plaza Mercado, next to other great buildings (which I’ll have to blog in a separate post due to their awesomeness), the La Lonja is a great representation of Valencia in its golden age. Designed in a Gothic style by Pere Compte, construction started in late 1482,  after 20 homes were demolished to make way for the building. Its Sala de Contractació, (Trading Hall or Hall of Columns), was completed in just fifteen years. However, the complex building, named a UNESCO site in 1996, wasn’t completed in 1548.

Since 1341, Valencia had been trading all major products from the Llotja de l’Oli (Oil Lonja) on a nearby site, but as the city boomed, it was time to upgrade the trading hall. Silk was becoming a major product in Valencia, and the city had big plans. Opting for the style of trading halls in Barcelona, Mallorca and Zaragoza, Valencia set to building La Lonja, comfortable that sales in the market would recover costs due to Valencia being Europe’s biggest port. The Trading Hall was built in the traditional style of a tall building held up columns. La Lonja’s main room is 36m by 21m, with 24 columns holding the spectacular ceiling 17.4m high. Despite other major works going on in Valencia, multiple sculptors and artists were employed to make this vital building a success. The quality and speed of the build cemented La Lonja as the symbol of Valencia’s golden era. The spiral columns were to represent palm trees, and the ceilings painted bright blue with golden stars, and around the building is a latin inspiration – Inclita domus sum annis aedificata quindecim. Gustate et videte concives quoniam bona est negotiatio, quae non agit dolum in lingua, quae jurat proximo et non deficit, quae pecuniam non dedit ad usuram eius. Mercator sic agens divitiis redundabit, et tandem vita fructur aeterna. (A rough translation says that the famous building requires no particular religion or nationality in those who wish to sell their wares. Merchants can enjoy wealth and eternal life). 

At the same time as the Trading Hall build, La Torre was also built, a third higher than the rest of the building. The bottom floor of the tower became a chapel designed by Juan Guas and the second and third floors were for prisons where merchants were held if they missed payments to La Lonja. The glorious staircase leading up to these cells is off-limits, but is beautiful example of the architecture of the building. The tower underwent a good quality restoration by Josep Antoni Aixa Ferrer between 1885 and 1902, to bring the simple roof details more into line with the rest of the building.

Once these aspects were completed in 1498, the Patio de los Naranjos was started. The courtyard was filled with orange and cypress trees, native to the area, with an eight-pointed star fountain, Moroccan style. The courtyard walls are covered with gargoyles, humorously representing figures of the time. The courtyard held many of the city’s most important fiestas and meetings, including royalty and ceremonies. The courtyard is accessed through the beautiful Chambers of Trade doorway.

But the La Lonja needed more beauty. Pere Compte died in 1506, and Joan Corbera carried on his work with an additional building off the courtyard, to be named the  Consulado del Mar (Consulate of the Sea). Started in 1238, the court held meetings on matters relating to maritime trade and commercial matters. They were given a large space within La Lonja and the room beholds a golden detailed ceiling. All of these rooms have been well maintained and all accessible for visitors. The cellars have also been recently restored and can be visited (and would have made great prison cells, not sure why they wasted the good views on the prisoners in the tower!).

The main door to the La Lonja, the portal sins (since the ‘original sins’ are carved around it) is not always accessible. When I first moved to Valencia, it was the main entry to the building, but now the building can be accessed from the back entry only, in Plaza de la Companyia (where you can see the plaque to El Palleter) and only costs a few euros for entry. The exterior is fully covered in gargoyles and carvings representing the kingdom of Valencia, and also has many Renaissance designs over the original Gothic details. Each doorway and window is heavily detailed and designed for a glorious all over effect. La Lonja became known at the Silk Llotja because the product was so essential to the city (around 25,000 people were working at around 3000 looms in Valencia at their height), though all items were traded here along with the silk. Sadly, the bottom fell out of Valencia silk industry in 1800, and the city lost its golden age forever. The building now exists as a tourist attraction after trading ended 30 years ago, but has been kept in perfect condition.

Spain named the building as a Property of National Interest in 1931, survived relatively unscathed in the civil war, and La Lonja became a world heritage site because “the site is of outstanding universal value as it is a wholly exceptional example of a secular building in late Gothic style, which dramatically illustrates the power and wealth of one of the great Mediterranean mercantile cities.” Valencia deserves great praise for maintaining such a priceless gem.

Click on each photo to start slideshow or see year of each shot.

Historical photos via Valencia Historia Grafica