After spending an excellent Christmas with Dee’s sister and brother in law in Sucina down the coast in the province of Murcia with Christmas lunch in Santiago de la Ribera and a Boxing Day excursion to Cabo Palos and Cartagena, we set off for Valencia for the week until the New Year. Given last year’s experience in Cadiz we left the car back at the airport and took their shuttle bus to the excellent boutique hotel Hospes Palau de Mar which is in two converted merchant buildings not far from the old city and the Turia Gardens, the 9 km super-park that semicircles Valencia in the former bed of the diverted river Turia.
We were too early to check in so left our luggage and set off for a Sunday flea market held behind the Mestalla – Valencia Football Club’s stadium where we went to see a match back in 2006. Sadly by the time we made it, the majority of stalls had packed up and gone. So it was time to find somewhere for lunch and console ourselves that if we had found anything interesting it would have probably been difficult to get it back home. After going back to the hotel and establishing ourselves in our room we walked off to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento where an ice rink was installed and fun was being had by all amid bright white light decorations on all the buildings around it. We found a lovely little family bar Jamon del Medio just along from the hotel so we dined there and only had a short stagger back to the hotel.
Next morning we took the open top bus tour around the old town, down past the fabulous City of Arts and Sciences, Oceanografic aquarium complex to Las Arenas beach and the Marina where we got off to explore.
The wide sandy beach is fringed by a promenade with at least a hundred restaurants all promising the authentic Valencian paella – well this is the home of the dish after all.The surrounding area also has some interesting old buildings including beautiful wrought iron warehouses and the old Custom House with its tall clock tower. There are also lots of signs of the Americas Cup which was based here in 2010 and of the Grand Prix de Europa which was held here from 2018-2012. It was a bit early for paella so after a coffee we jumped back on the tour bus and headed back into the old town. There’s lots to explore here to with the modernist North Station and the Central Market with lots of local iconography and products. We were going to go to the Fine Arts Museum but of course it was closed on a Monday so plan B was back to the hotel to chill and read before a further evening explore of the centre. It took us to what was to be a breakfast gem for the next three days – the Café Agricultura which is part of the HQ building of the Royal Valencia Society for Agriculture and Sport. We entered a nice-looking cafeteria for an aperitif and idly picked up the menu which did a simple breakfast which was great value. Only when we ventured to the loo did we notice that the cafeteria led to a massive entrance hall with a monumental staircase and apparently, lots of meeting rooms and full scale dining areas. They also run the young farmers’ clubs and bridge and chess clubs along with influencing agricultural policy in the region.
After juice, coffee and croissants there next morning we picked out an interesting-sounding place from the guide book – the Casa-Museo Jose Benlliure. Now he was a painter I confess to being unaware of but the exhibition occupies his former home in which his garden studio was left much as when he last used it. Cluttered with inspirational eclectica he’d gathered during the many years up to his death aged 79 in 1937. The paintings were OK but the place and the process were fascinating especially to my newly-developed watercolourist companion.
We walked from his house along the Turia Gardens to La Lonja one of Valencia’s must-see buildings. It was the silk traders’ exchange and the building was started in 1492 – what a busy year that was in Spain what with Columbus setting off from La Rabida. We had no idea that Valencia had loads of mulberry trees and a thriving silk industry way back then but the gothic building with its barley twist columns echoing the palm trees that abound in the city and ceiling bosses like bundles of silk is clearly very important as it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. Nearby a group of women lace makers proved that fabric crafts are still alive in the city.
The cathedral is close by but we’d done enough sightseeing for one day but maybe tomorrow, who knows? We did in fact go back there after lunch which was in the Taberna Vintara in Plaza de la Reina which was most amusing with some interesting staff and customers. While walking about we spotted some wall graffiti Banksy-style but always of cats. A short Google revealed these to be the work of Valencian street artist Julia Lool and very amusing they are too (her blog does have English translation).
The cathedral is an enormous building constructed at various times since the thirteenth century. It has gothic, baroque and romanesque elements, a couple of Goya paintings and an octagonal tower, St Michael’s appropriately, that apparently gives great views over the city – we decided against climbing its 200+ steps. Most importantly for Wagner fans, it is home to the Holy Grail. In a chapel is a brown agate chalice said to be the one used by Christ at the Last Supper. It’s disputed by the Vatican but revered by the locals and has been used by visiting popes to celebrate mass.
You can’t be in Valencia and not spend some time in the City of Arts and Sciences designed by architect Santiago Calatrava. Sadly there was nothing of interest on at the Opera but the Science Museum had a brilliant range of interactive exhibits which help you to understand some complex scientific concepts by walking through them, touching things and experiencing their reactions. Another exhibit looks at materials and things that are made from them with an emphasis on furniture and domestic items. A real fun couple of hours and a good café to rest afterwards. I was never very good at time keeping and the human sundial outside was baffling.
We then moved on to the Oceanografic, deemed the best aquarium in Spain. It may well be but its pungent smelling underground caverns soon drove us out so we missed the fish but caught a dolphin display in the pool and saw some amazing scarlet ibis in the aviary
Then it was time to go to the beach in quest of the perfect paella. Whether perfect or not it’s too soon to judge but we had a very good one at La Perla but it is impossible to choose from the jostling menu thrusters touting for your euros. A gentle digestive stroll along the beach followed in wonderfully blue skies and warm weather for the end of December.
That evening we heard a great commotion outside the bar near the hotel we were in and went outside to find the streets filled with hundreds of people in fancy dress running along. We went with them following the sound of some insistent drums to the Plaza de la Reina where we discovered this was the finish of an annual charity 5km run that’s held on30 December every year. The San Silvestre run has been going since 1983 and attracted an estimated 15000 to 18000 runners of all ages. As with so many events like this there are some serious runners but many are in fancy dress and there to end the year with a bit of fun.
New Year’s Eve was our final night in Valencia and we started it with a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts we couldn’t do earlier in the week. It has some very fine exhibits with several paintings by Velazquez, Ribera, Murillo and Goya and lots by Jaoquin Sorolla who we didn’t know very well but was a good friend of John Singer Sargent and exhibited with him a few times. There were some very fine portraits and ‘plein air’ works as he espoused the vogue for painting directly in nature in the open air not in a studio.
Dee was very taken by this early fifteenth century Virgin by the Valencian artist Peris Sarria. There were also lots of sculptures, including this flamenco dancer, by Mariano Benlliure the brother of Jose who’s house we seen earlier. Their father and another brother were also painters so there was quite a dynasty of artistic Benlliures about which we had previously known nothing at all. Cultured out, we had a coffee at the museum and a stroll back to the Plaza de la Reina for another light lunch as we had booked the special New Year dinner at the hotel. This proved a riotous affair with silly hats, whistles and streamers and much jollity among the staff as well – many of them were international catering students drafted in for a big party by the hotel. It was a fine way to see in the new year.