When we discovered that Spain’s high speed trains operate between Madrid and Valencia, we opted for this form of transport to our next destination (the decision was also partly aided by my continued fear of flying). Departing from the centre of Madrid we were delivered to the centre of Valencia in under two hours. The trip brought with it a comparative ease, and far less stress, to European air travel. Happily, train travel also imposes less hand luggage restrictions – the volume of ours was noticeably starting to increase by this stage of the trip (and I had hardly even begun to hit the Spanish shops!).
Upon arrival in seaside Valencia, we immediately noticed a slight drop in temperature and a definite absence of pilgrim crowds! A short (and cheap) cab ride to our hotel, AdHoc Valencia, was the perfect way to introduce us to this picturesque city and its circular, one way roads that envelope the old town. A feature of the town which quickly caught my attention was the wide strip of lush gardens, sports fields and public spaces that occupy the space that was once the Turia riverbed. A tour on the ubiquitous hop-on hop-off bus a lfew days later taught us that due to frequent flooding the river was redirected many years ago and now, irrigation canals operate below the riverbed gardens. The Islamic inspired architecture throughout the city was also a noticeable feature to a new visitor, particularly the two sets of enormous city gates which sit at the north and south of the old town.
On recommendation of Lonely Planet, we dined at The Ginger Loft Café on our first night in Valencia. At 9pm, we were the first diners to arrive and remained so for most of the evening. After Madrid, this initially had me concerned about our choice but my worries were quickly quashed once our cuisine arrived. It later became apparent that a lack of patrons in Valencia, particularly during August, should not be taken as a reflection on the quality of a venue, it can simply be attributed to the reduced population at this time of year. The cuisine offered at Ginger Loft is modern Spanish with a Middle Eastern influence. We firstly embarked on a selection of Spanish cured meats, olives and hommous. The variety of meats was extensively described to us by our waiter, including the part of the pig from which it was sourced and the method of curing, but unfortunately my memory has not retained all of this information. Needless to say, we devoured every morsel of this delicious starter. We then shared a salad and a plate of lamb meatballs, with bourghul. The leafy salad with roast pumpkin and toasted sunflower seeds was exceptionally fresh and served with a tangy Valencian orange dressing. This was a perfect accompaniment to the rich and flavoursome meatballs. One surprising outcome of the meal was that Dave discovered he actually likes bourghul, thereby opening up another vegetarian meal opportunity for us back home :)
The day we spent at Las Arenas, the main beach area of Valencia, was one of our favourite days in Spain. After an educational morning on the tourist bus, we hopped off at the beach to enjoy some Mediterranean sunshine. The beach was filled with very bronzed beachgoers and a smattering of those with less active melanin – I am sure there is no need to tell you which category we fell into! After Dave had satisfied an urge to dip his toes into the Mediterranean, we strolled along the strip of seaside restaurants in search of a paella lunch – Valencia prides itself as the creator of this dish which is traditionally served as a lunchtime meal. As it neared 2pm, we noticed several restaurants starting to fill up so we settled upon La Pepica. We were very pleased to be seated at a front table so that we were able to gaze at the ocean during our long, leisurely lunch. After some helpful guidance from our waiter on portion sizes, we decided on a plate of calamari and salad for starters, a seafood paella and a bottle of Albarino (white wine – the only Spanish grape which I am familiar with as it is on the menu at Ortiga in Brisbane). The entire meal was fantastic – the calamari was thick and tender with a light, crisp coating and the paella was seafood laden, delicately flavoured and served with a perfect crust. We opted to eat our paella in the more traditional way – directly out of the pan – a very convivial way of dining!
Valencia offers an extensive range of cuisine beyond paella. During our many walks through the winding, narrow streets in the proximity of our hotel, we stumbled upon two very impressive tapas bars, Soliluna and El Rull Taberna. These venues offered a selection of traditional tapas served in rustic ceramic bowls and accompanied by crusty bread with olive oil. Judging by the quality of food we devoured, I would expect anything on the menus would have delighted the tastebuds, though if forced to choose, we were particularly impressed by the baby chorizo (churichillos), marinated chicken wings (alitas de pollo) and crispy roast potatoes with salsa (patatas bravas). Both venues also mixed up some mean mojitos, sangria and Agua de Valencia. The latter is a traditional Valencian summer sangria alternative which packs a super punch!
Our culinary journey through Valencia continued with a trip to the Mercado Central, the largest fresh food market in Europe. The market is housed in an enormous pavilion with soaring decorative ceilings. The majestic building is almost deserving of a visit in itself but what was inside was the real focus of our attentions. Rows upon rows of stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, spices, cured meats, fresh seafood, wine, ore cured meats, cheese, deli items and bread lined the inside of the Mercado. Having not cooked in a few weeks by this stage of the trip and without a kitchen available to me, wandering past all the wonderfully fresh produce was near torture! I consolidated myself by remembering that come Barcelona, I would be able to unleash my cooking urges in the self-contained apartment we would be renting there.
There is no shortage of cultural offerings in Valencia and through my research I discovered that most museums and galleries offer gratis entradas (free entry) on Sundays. We took advantage of this saving and made our way to the Museo Bella Artes and Ceramics Museum for a day of air-conditioned culture. Again, the buildings themselves are magnificent, historic structures – the palace housing the Ceramics Museum was particularly impressive. We also visited the Science Museum which sits in the Turia riverbed, as part of the Arts and Sciences precinct. The buildings in this area are much more modern constructions, but still breathtaking. At night, the lighting on the buildings cleverly forms a fish skeleton sitting atop the Turia riverbed.
I discovered that shoppers are also well catered for in Valencia! For those (husbands) not so keen on this activity, Dave found the hire bikes (just like the yellow ones in Brisbane) to be a useful way to wile away the time. He managed to take in a few additional sights, and climb one of the many cathedral towers, while I engaged in some serious retail therapy.
As the gateway to the Baleariac Islands (including Ibiza), Valencia is often a stopover for partygoing travellers and locals. Dave toyed with the idea of a ferry trip to party central but we quickly discovered that in August, ferry travel and accommodation needs to be booked well in advance. After abandoning our dreams of partying like we were 22 again, on our penultimate night in Valencia we decided to see what the beach clubs had to offer. The mainland’s noctural offerings definitely did not disappoint! The Saturday night crowds were thick and full of life, but this didn’t seem to cause us any difficulty when moving between venues. Nor did we witness any of the alcohol fuelled aggression that seems to be so commonplace in Queensland entertainment precincts these days. When we pulled up stumps at 4am, the Valencian crowd was showing no signs of waning – it was clear that the majority of punters would carry through until closing time at 8am!
Valencia is an exceptionally likeable and liveable city. The 5 days we spent there immersed us in Spanish culture and lifestyle and provided us with some very fond memories, particularly of the culinary kind! I expect it may also have been the primary cause of our holiday weight gain :) If I have the opportunity to travel to Spain again, Valencia will be on the top of my list.