Georges Rouzeau - 2006-08-16
Less celebrated than its rivals Madrid and Barcelona, Valencia is nonetheless emerging as the destination of the moment. Host city of the 32
Spain’s third largest city, with over one million inhabitants, Valencia is a skilful blend of tradition and modernity. How could it be anything else? Founded by the Greeks two thousand years ago, occupied by Carthaginians and Visigoths, in turn Roman, Arabian and finally Christian, this large Mediterranean city is multilayered. It is also a hot-blooded city. Of course, the climate is particularly mild here and the taste for fiesta is in no way inferior to that of Barcelona. But Valencia is also a city of protest with a resolute character. The city repelled the soldiers of Napoleon’s Old Guard but welcomed the Republican troops with open arms in 1939, after the fall of Catalonia.
It is also – and has been for a long time – a forward-looking city. Evidence of this can be seen in its City of Arts and Sciences and its Oceanographic Museum (the third largest in the world), which attract almost as many visitors as the museums of Madrid. In a few months’ time the brand new opera house will open, built, like the rest, by Santiago Calatrava, Valencia’s emblematic architect.
The America’s Cup has nevertheless served as a catalyst for the transformation of an essentially agricultural city that has, for a long time, turned its back on its coastline. The industrial port, specialising in the export of citrus fruit (Valencia oranges in particular), is being relocated south of the city, a sign that tourism and culture are taking precedence over other activities. The seafront is becoming a new fashionable destination, with its open-air bars where people come looking for a little fresh air.
At first sight you will be won over by this town, with its appearance of a (small) capital. The broad avenues laid out in the 19th century, planted with palms and ficus, are cooled by fountains. Eclectic buildings blithely mix genres, while the Estacion del Norte (north station) and mercado central (central market) (see article) are fine creations of early 20th century modernist architecture. As you approach the historic centre wrapped around the cathedral, a succession of Gothic churches, bell towers, palaces and residences fill the shaded alleys. At nightfall, the bodegas, tapas bars, cafés and nightclubs fill up and the night bursts into life, particularly in the barrio Carmen right in the city centre, northwest of the cathedral.
The Turia Gardens (Antiguo cauce del rio Turia)
In 1957, one catastrophic flood too many induced the authorities to divert the Turia river from its bed. Initially the town councillors decided to put a motorway there, right in the middle of the city! In view of the general outcry, there was a change of plan: the drained riverbed was to be turned into a garden. Today this immense green lung is a blessing, a haven of freshness right at the heart of the city. Palms, pines, oleander and other Mediterranean species conjure up a mythical Persia. Here there is a succession of areas for playing football, rugby, tennis, softball and even baseball. In the evening, hundreds of joggers invade the paths. Luisa (my guide) and I travelled through by bicycle, allowing us to make the very most of this green stretch punctuated with classic bridges, modern bridges, astonishing buildings and constructions. The ambitious can leave the riverbed to visit the botanical garden (one of the first in Spain) or the fine arts museum, which are in the immediate vicinity of the banks.
Inside the riverbed, Ricardo Boffil has created an evocation of the city’s Moorish past by lining up ponds (in Pompeii red), canals and fountains. Further on, the Palace of Music, opened in 1987 by its architect José Maria Paredes, is a few hundred metres ahead of Santiago Calatrava’s Palace of Arts (opera, dance, music), which will be inaugurated in October. This is the final stone to complete the amazing complex that constitutes the City of Arts and Sciences, which is also set in the riverbed.
The City of Arts and Sciences
This futuristic complex of cultural activities evokes an Atlantis whose “marine” architecture plays with large white ridges and waterways serving as a setting. There are in fact three separate buildings. The Prìncipe Felipe Science Museum explores the human body, the Universe and its laws of physics in a fun and interactive way – kids love it. The Hemisfèric is devoted to sound and image with a planetarium, Imax cinema and laserium. Lastly, the Oceanographic – our favourite – is an amazing reconstruction of all the marine universes, from the hottest to the coldest. With its 42 million cubic metres of water, there are plenty of thrills in store: you pass through an aquarium gallery just a few centimetres away from sharks’ jaws… And you will no doubt succumb to the charm of the pair of belugas from Argentina.
The old town
Around its cathedral (which stands on the site of a mosque), the old town has an abundance of Gothic religious and secular buildings. Towers, bell towers, patios, palaces, chapels and squares invite you to take a stroll through time. But that’s not all there is: the cafés, tapas bars, craftspeople (ceramicists in particular) and small traders are very lively here and make Valencia’s city centre one of the busiest there is, both day and night.
On Thursday morning, stand in front of the cathedral’s Gothic Apostles’ Door, which gives on to the Virgin’s Square (plaza de la Virgen). The Water Tribunal, which dates back to the Arab caliphates, sits here to legislate on the use of irrigation in the heart of the fertile Valencia countryside, the huerta.
One of the finest historical streets is unquestionably calle de Caballeros, which boasts the Palacio de la Generalidad, the former headquarters of the deputies in charge of collecting tax in the kingdom. Another choice morsel, the fortress-like silk exchange or lonja is a gem of secular European Gothic. Inside, the vastness of the old trading room is striking. It is punctuated with exquisite tall cable columns, and on Sundays a stamp market takes place here. The sea consulate’s room upstairs has just reopened after a year of restoration.
As for nightlife, the barrio del Carmen stretches between calle de Caballeros, the plaza de la Virgen and the plaza del Tosal, almost encompassing the historic centre. What a stroke of luck! Get hold of the free brochure Cool Carmen!, which lists places where you can live it up as well as designer boutiques, the best tapas bars, etc. Our favourite bar? The Café de Las Horas, set, of course, in calle Conde de Almodóvar. This dark alcove, with its overloaded baroque decoration, serves the best Agua de Valencia (made with freshly-squeezed orange juice) while you listen to classical or disco music (Thursday evening).
32nd America’s Cup
Rugby players playing chess at the wheel of a Formula 1 car: this is how the world’s oldest nautical competition was once described. On board: strapping sailors carrying out highly physical manoeuvres; this is an event where strategy counts more than anything and the boats, which are marvels of technology, cost several hundred million euros. Indeed, when berthed, the keel of each boat is protected by an iron curtain in order to prevent spying!
The seafront and the America’s Cup
What an extraordinary site! Already, just the line of the headquarters of the teams in competition is really something! Valencia has not skimped on anything: the layout of the harbour has been modified with the construction of a new giant breakwater; the old industrial port and its container ship activities are going to be moved; old docks have been renovated; a new immaculate white building, Veles e Vents, has also been built for the occasion. The ground floor boasts a café with terrace and, above all, an unobstructed view of the channel where the boats have to pass to reach the sea.
Aside from the competition, there is always a good reason to go to the harbour. In the daytime you can take a breath of fresh air, thanks to the thermal breeze that rises around 1pm, admire the crews and their boats and even set off for a little cruise to explore the bases. At night, the seafront becomes the realm of open-air bars and lounges, set on terraces or upstairs in old fishermen’s houses. Here the party is in full swing.
The latest fashion in Valencia: taking to the sea!
In July and August the temperature reaches 38°C and the air is full of humidity. It’s best to go in spring or autumn.
Where to stay
Hotel Vincci Lys, Calle Martinez Cubells, 5, Tel: +34/ 963 509 550, Fax: +34/ 963 509 552
A chic hotel set in a pedestrian street right in the centre of Valencia, near the town hall square and ten minutes away from the cathedral. Large classic and elegant rooms, first-class welcome; spa and restaurant.