Closing the circle (or G)

poolIt was a splendid warm week with a few visits to the pool purely to stimulate the thought processes of course. I sat diligently in writer’s corner in the shade and have achieved what I hoped for – enough written down that it has its own momentum now and writing a chapter now and then among other commitments will be OK. If any of it is any good that is,

Sunday was a dull cloudy, Essex beat Hampshire by an innings and lots and Watford lost 5-0. The only upside was it was my daughter’s birthday.  So Monday was time to set off after my stay at Cortijo Alto. It is so peaceful except when the farmers start spraying the olive groves at 6 am. Still it got me on the road in short order. My excitement today was twofold. I would virtually complete a circular tour of Spain being in Valencia only 100 km from Tortosa. Secondly thanks to the kind proprietors I was going to meet ‘The Hornet’ an olive tree my daughter and the family gave me for Christmas. I had a certificate and have already sampled some of its excellent first cold press extra virgin Arbequina oil. Now I was going to hug my tree!

IMG_2461I left the house and set off eastwards along the A92 autovia, pausing for breakfast near Granada with a fine view of the Sierra Nevada, still living up to their name. I came off at a junction signed Huercal-Overa, the town nearest to my tree but SatNav was not happy as we did some N roads with a few trucks making progress a little slower. I soon arrived and found the original San Francisco deep in the heart of Almeria. We had agreed I’d find my way to Olivas Querencia by amazing good luck or not at all so Angela kindly came to find me – the red Audi and a tall bald bloke are a bit of a give-away.

Angela and her husband Willem (yes, he’s Dutch) have owned Querencia since 2010. They bought a lovely house, a big farm and 22,000 olive trees.

IMG_2475They’ve made a brilliant fist of sorting the place out and have achieved coveted status as first cold press virgin olive oil with International Olive Council approval which means a lot of tasting by people in Jaen,  the capital of olive oil – one might say the Vatican of olive oil such is the mystery that surrounds it. Oh and it’s pretty tasty too like less fatty butter with added sunshine. And of course you’ll live longer.

We shared stories and I was treated to a fabulous unexpected impromptu lunch before going to visit the trees. Where I’ve been staying the olive trees are probably 100+ years old. At Querencia they are 10. I’m used to multi-trunk gnarled old things, these are beautiful single trunk olives neatly trimmed and already showing good olive production after blooming. But no hugging in case unwanted pruning took place!

It’s going to be a good year. FACT. Isn’t it great when something so serendipitous works out so well. Hey, I even played with their dogs! We will keep in touch and one of Fuzz’s yellow wristbands will be The Hornet’s identifier in the future.

But I had to be in Valencia and olive trees needed pruning and tidying up – sadly yellow leaves are a bad sign and have to be pulled off. So I got back onto the A7 Autovia del Mediterraneo which should take me straight to Valencia in about four hours. I guess it must have been my cheapskate settings at the start that say “Avoid Tolls” but we veered off round Alicante north towards Albacete and Madrid and then picked up the A31 into Valencia from the west.  My circle was rapidly becoming a capital G. It was fascinating as I drove through Spain’s granite and marble supply zone – every other building alongside the road proclaimed quality stone. It was a bit filled with mountain passes too – not as big as the 1379 metres  in Granada but at Lorca you top a rise a see the polythene plains of Murcia – I hope things have picked up after the disastrous rains earlier in the year. And later you come over another pass as the road turns into the A35 and there is the green plain of Valencia with fruit of every kind, then orange trees and then rice.

It takes me two attempts to find the hotel as SatNav lady has no truck with No Entry signs exhorting me repeatedly to turn left where it’s prohibited. I got here, showered and changed and went walk about in the old part of this fabulous city, remembering that when we were last here the Town Hall Square was an ice rink.

I went to the amazing Mercado de Colon, redolent of Victoria in Cordoba and San Miguel in Madrid and checked out a few bars where we’d been before including some great ham at one near the Hospes de Mar hotel we’d stayed at in 2015, took a light dinner in a nearby tapas bar and retired to post this. Last day tomorrow and fully back into the swing with a meeting about the Watford Community Trust Anniversary book on Wednesday.

Farewell 2015 in Valencia

Christmas lunchAfter 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.

IMG_1486 IMG_1487We 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.

IMG_1536The 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. P1010742There’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.P1010788P1010787

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.

 

City of A & S P1010801

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

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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.

IMG_1548IMG_1554That 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.

Veronica of the Virgin WSFlamenco Dancer - Mariano Benlliure sculptorDee 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.