If any city deserved to be announced in capitals, it’s Valencia. I lived in Valencia for roughly three years and I had a whirlwind of a time. I moved away in 2007, on the premise that I would return in three months. However, court cases, immigration and several cases of terminal cancer got in the way and my life once again took shape in New Zealand. Valencia has remained the place I love the most, and I joked that I left my heart there when I moved, so I would need to return. After a long absence, it was time to put that to the test.
Time to get my Valencia on
I arrived in Valencia by train. The trip from Barcelona felt days long. Despite a successful trip to the Catalonian capital, I wasn’t in a great mood. The three-hour trip was punctuated with stops in forgettable locations, and the rigours of the night before threatened my resolve to stay positive. I arrived my apartment on Calle San Vicente Martir, and met a lovely woman named Inés, whose English was much appreciated, I felt keen to be on holiday again.
When I joked and said I left my heart in Valencia, perhaps I wasn’t joking. I dumped my bags and set off along the streets of the city’s old town, and realised that I absolutely belong in this city. That began six nights and days of enjoying as much Valencia as possible. Who needs sleep? Not me, a few hours after I arrived in V-Town, I found myself in a club deep in the El Carmen district, lost and loving it.
Rather than bore you with a diary of my events, here are the top ten things I rediscovered about Valencia. I knew all of these things, but they stood out to me again on this trip.
In no particular order, and without photos of the same spots as every other site –
1 – PDA’s (Public Displays of Affection) are everywhere
When I started writing the modern day storyline of Blood in the Valencian Soil (BITVS), I set out to write in little details of life in Valencia city. Now, I have seen this in many Spanish cities and towns, but in Valencia it seems to stand out to me. Everywhere, but particularly in the Turia park, they are people kissing. Not just kissing, attempting to suck each other’s faces off. To their credit, the Spanish don’t look like two virgins at their church wedding when they kiss, they have largely sorted the art of good kissing. I have a love/hate relationship with this level of public affection. I love the fact that people feel free enough to sit around kissing (very unlike where I live), and I hate it because I’m not the one doing the kissing! I remember on a number of occasions, when living in Valencia, when asked what I would like to do on an evening out, I replied, “Let’s go and make out in the park. That’s what all the kids are doing these days”. If you have a companion while in Valencia, or happen upon one, I recommend kissing in the park. The other week, I saw a couple farewelling one another. I was lying in the grass, listening to some Pablo Alborán, when I heard a bang nearby. This couple, in their lust for one another, had both dropped their bikes in a heap while he swept her into his arms for a very long smooch. I screwed my face up – with jealousy. I think kissing is highly underrated, but Valencia’s Turia celebrates this somewhat lost art.
Anyone fancy a kiss near my favourite part of the park?
2 – It’s so easy to get around the city
Pull out your map of Valencia. You feel mind-blown by the amount of things to do. There’s the old town, the El Carmen, Ruzafa, the Turia (which has the Bioparc zoo and the Arts and Sciences at opposite ends of each other!), and you can’t miss a chance to go to Malvarrosa. Sure, if you want to explore Plaza de la Virgen and Plaza de la Reina, they are nearby each other, but you may feel like you are going to have to miss out the further flung attractions.
Oh, no you don’t! The beauty of Valencia is that everything is within walking distance, and you don’t have to enjoy marathons to sight-see on foot. Even if you don’t want to walk, there is the excellent bus and Metro services. Valencia is beautifully packed. Want to try the markets ofMercado Central, Mercado Colón and Mercado Ruzafa in the same day? Of course you can! Want to eat paella at the beach, but also visit the Arts and Sciences complex? Do both! Want to wander all the historical sights of the old town? You can do all of that in a day, and enjoy plenty of meals, beverages and ambiance. It’s nigh impossible to get lost in Valencia, despite it’s narrow intricate streets of the inner area. If all else fails, you will eventually pop out on what got nicknamed ‘the ring road’, the road that winds along the edge of the park, and around Carrer Guillem de Castro/Xativa/Colón. This circle of roads encompasses the oldest part of the city, and what could be considered the most complicated area to navigate, but also home to the largest concentration of sights. No matter where you get lost, you’ll pop out on the main road and can dive back in somewhere for more fun. In six days, I did every sight in the whole city, plus day trips outside the city, and multiple afternoons of mucking around relaxing. You will never want to leave Valencia, but if you are time-poor, you can still be attraction-rich.
There is a lot to see, so get out there!
3 – Valencia has its very own vibe
“It’s the vibe of the thing”. Classic line from an excellent Australian film. It’s relevant here in Valencia. The city definitely has its own vibe. Valencia is like Spain’s youngest child. Madrid has the feeling of being the oldest child – there is a reserved obligation, a feeling of needing to be in charge, needing to set an example. Barcelona is the middle-child, too flamboyant to be forgotten, but feels the need to show off for attention. Valencia is the baby of the family, and while the other cities came of age, Valencia was still running between the adults in search of fun. Now, Valencia doesn’t need guidance, or to try to measure up to its counterparts. It may be Spain’s third largest city, but there is no conformity in its way of life. Valencia is alive with its own traditions, language, food and attitude. Valencia feels like its inhabitants are on regular alert for a good time. The city, like the nation, may be in times of hardship, however, the joy of life remains.
You would never know an anti-austerity protest in directly beneath me, would you?
4 – You don’t need to know Valencia’s history – you’re living in it
When Valencia sighs, it doesn’t just let out the stress of the day. It heaves with the weight of all that has gone on. This is a great thing! Granted, most who visit the city don’t know the great detail of this spirited city. For a history nerd like me, I jump up and down with excitement. The interesting thing about Spain is (and I spent many an evening talking about this over drinks) that the country is how it is for a number of reasons. The people are the way they are for specific reasons. This all relates to Spain recent (ie. 20th century) past. Spain is a deeply complex country, and history’s events have plunged in a knife into each city and town differently. For example, the horrors many cities suffered in the civil war are very different. Valencia was never at the front line of the war (aerial bombings aside), but when the city fell at the end of the war, the last point to be captured by Franco’s rebel troops, it fell hard. (BITVS can give you a easy-to-digest concept of this if you are interested. My fiction doesn’t get to stuck on little details, so as not to weigh down the narrative. Good if you don’t want to be a history buff) Also, for me, the disastrous story of Valencia’s 1957 flood still has hints around the city. While researching the subject for my next novel, the locations in the book are largely the same as they are today. I can walk around corners, my hand on the stone buildings, and be able to visualise the flood water level, which is marked in some locations. Valencia has a soul, and if you wander off the cruise-ship tourist trail, you can hear it speak.
The Portal de Valldigna, the old entrance to the Arab quarter of the city in 1400. My next novel, Vengeance in the Valencian Water, has a scene here. Standing there with the place to myself, gave me a chance to finalise details for a gruesome scene.
5 – The city knows who it is, but the future is still wide open
In my eagerness to celebrate San Isidro in Madrid, I forgot to check the fiesta timetable for Valencia. What do you know? Second Sunday of May is the procession Virgen de los Desamparados. The Virgin of the helpless/forsaken, who is much-loved in V-Town, is pulled out of the Basilica, where she lives, and carried to the city’s cathedral. It’s around 200 metres. Piece of cake. Not. The original statue dates from around the 15th century, so she stays at home, and a replica is paraded through the thousands of people who want to see her. Touching the statue is a big deal, you get a year of grace if you touch her. People hurl their babies at this thing, who cry in panic. I stood in attendance and watched with amusement as people cheered “Long live the mother of God” (Correct me if I’m wrong there). Was this the end? Lord no. The night before had been full of processions and prayer, and the rest of the day followed suit. Valencia has many such days in its calendar, and they are regularly attended, despite being hundreds of years old, and surely enlightenment has opened people’s minds to the world. No matter, from rugby-throwing your baby at a replica statue, to burning down the city at Fallas, and everything else the year holds, Valencia loves its traditions.
In saying that, Valencia, like its Spanish counterparts elsewhere, has suffered upheaval. Apart from anti-austerity, Valencia’s current main beef with the scum-filled right-wing government is the cuts to education. Indeed, what becomes of the generation of children in school right now? Those a decade older than them are suffering at the beginning of their lives. Everyone is hurting. Valencia has a difficult future ahead. I realise this is irrelevant information for your average tourist, but not to me.
Valencia’s ghastly mayor, Rita Barberá, throws petals at the Virgen while people toss forth their kids. It’s all smiles on the balcony for the rich, not so much for people on the ground
6 – It’s all about the people
Yes – Valencia has it all – the abundant good weather, the first-class food, the luxury of the Turia, history, language, shopping, sexy policemen in tight pants (note – may be limited to the guy I saw in Plaza de la Reina), but the people make the city. I feel this way about any place. Something can be beautiful, but if the people are assholes, the trip is ruined. There are a few assholes in V-Town, like anywhere, but for me, the moments where I met with people in the city, old friends and new, they were the best parts of the trip. Who would have thought I would have watched a group of ex-pats try to lay out a portable cricket pitch in the baseball diamond in the Turia? It’s the more out-of-the-way things that make a trip for me. You can only take so much sightseeing and tapas. People make the difference.
Graham Hunt and myself pose for a shameless selfie to post on the WABAS FB page. Nicest guy in Valencia, no question.
7 – It’s possible to be a local and a tourist at the same time
How? I will tell you. Shoes. You can tell a tourist by their shoes. They are wearing comfortable walking shoes. Please, go and buy something pretty and inappropriate, and you will blend in.
I’m kidding. The number of tourists has remarkably increased since I last visited Valencia. It’s a double-edged sword; the city needs to survive and cruise-ships pouring in mostly middle-aged punters, or hordes of Japanese tourists boosts the economy. They follow marked routes through Valencia’s main points, and in theory, spend their money. This is new to me, and I wondered what the city will look like in another five years. Perhaps like Barcelona, who seems to have sold itself to tourism? I hope not. The risk is there in Valencia right now. You can follow the main sights of the city, and they should be seen. They are popular for a reason.
However, wander a few streets away and you can feel the buzz of Valencia life again. Tourism hasn’t swallowed up Valencia’s spirit. You can sit and eat like a local, talk like a local (or at least try) and get a feel for the place. Cast off the oversized lens, the guidebook and the comfortable shoes, and get to know the place. You will be glad you did. My happiest moments were found in total solitude, just living life, and not sightseeing in Valencia.
Valencia bullring. As a woman aged 32, with no male companion, it was impossible to blend in. I needed to be male, over 60 and smoke a stinking great cigar to fit in. The guy next to me kept calling me Nueva Zelanda and every time a bull got stabbed/killed, he would remark “Nueva Zelanda sigue siendo tranquila. New Zealand remains calm.” He seemed rather surprised. Dude, I know my shit.
8 – You don’t suffer cathedral fatigue
Cathedral fatigue – I suffer it. I have long lost count of the number of Spanish cathedrals/churches/basilicas I have visited. I am not religious, so the places don’t hold significance (though the one I entered with Nick Lloyd in Barcelona was amazing – another post). I have seen some big churches – Valencia, Madrid, Barcelona, Segovia, Cuenca, Toledo, Seville, Granada, Cordoba, Xativa, Avila, Burgos to name a few locations. Valencia Cathedral is still the best of them all. Not for anything in particular, though it houses THE Holy Grail and the views from the bell tower are eye-watering. I guess it’s just the Valencia vibe that makes it special. Between the cathedral and the Basilica (home to the above Virgin statue), you will be left feeling like you’ve seen a great sight, not trudged through another church that reeks of the church’s former power over the population.
There are plenty of old-world attractions that aren’t churches, like the La Lonja, the Torres de Serranos and Torres de Quart, the streets of the El Carmen area, the town hall and the post office in Plaza Ayuntamiento, and the train station and bullring. Valencia has unique sights to see.
Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia, the Valencia Art Museum just over the Pont de la Trinitat, is a great spot to visit, and gorgeous. Go for the art, but stay for the beauty.
9 – Something new is always available to try
Whether it’s a tall glass of Horchata, a taller glass of Agua de Valencia, or a pincho (whose ingredients you can’t quite decipher, but it tastes good, so roll with it), the menus in Valencia will always have something for a new visitor, or someone who has been to the city before. Warning, they are plenty of bad paellas around, as with anything, but there are many fine ones as well. There is no need to find some upmarket place, because you need to make your way to many places in order to decide for yourself what is best.
I have been pretty much everywhere in Valencia (I have a propensity to wander), however fun sights can crop up anywhere. The streets of Valencia still have sights to behold, whether you are new to them or not. When in Valencia, whether it’s food, sights or ambiance, you can make your own fun. There isn’t a set list in order to find enjoyment. The city allows freedom to enjoy Spain.
The rabbit catches the chicken… now get in that paella. I’ve seen photos of this particular random street art, but never in the flesh. I found it by accident. Just one of the fun things about wandering Valencia
10 – It’s a great place to stage a novel trilogy about Spain’s past
Valencia is a terrific backdrop for novels about Spain. I’m certainly not the first to use the city as the central location, but you will find far more books based in bigger cities, or in the south of the country. In terms of novels, Valencia is like an untapped resource. I get many readers who know absolutely nothing about the city, but that’s okay, it’s an easy city to bring to life. It has enough unique features to quickly distinguish it from other locations.
Everything I have written already seems accurate with what I saw on my trip, and all the locations used in the next novel look/feel as I have already conjured up. Just as the city felt desperate in BITVS, it can lend itself being a place of fear in 1957 with a mixture of natural disasters and human greed.
Placa de L’Angel 1 is a location in both 1939 and 2009 in BITVS. I was pleased walk down the little plaza to find they are trying to save this building!
Did I learn anything new in Valencia?
Absolutely. I moved to Valencia with a one-year-old and a newborn. They have fire-red hair, and never could blend in as a local. I learned the city as a mother, as a family. The city is great for families, so much so that I had two more children. However, this trip was solo, and I saw the city differently. I could go out for longer, stay out later, climb more stairs, take more time to read, reflect and absorb. The city is great for the single traveler, but I will always want to enjoy it as a family. The choice is yours.
Up next… Part 3 – The civil war history of Barcelona with Nick Lloyd
Click here for the other parts of this series – Spain 2013 in Review