Valencia is the third largest city in Spain and was an optional stop on the Busabout route between Barcelona and Madrid. A few of us hopped off the bus, curious about what we would find. I was told the Old Town was nice enough, the City of Arts and Sciences was futuristic and cool and that the beach was better than Barcelona. In other words, I didn’t have a lot to go on.
I stayed in Valencia for three nights as I would be taking an overnight train to Granada and the day I wanted to leave (after two nights), the train fare was about €60 more expensive. I figured a quiet day in Valencia and a €12 hostel would be a better use of financial resources than spending an extra €60 on the train. The Busabout recommended hostel, the Purple Nest, was cheap and the people who worked at the front desk were nice, but that’s really the best thing I can say about it. I really liked the city of Valencia but after three nights I was more than ready to leave that hostel. The beds were beyond creaky and rickety, the showers fluctuated between boiling and freezing – often without warning – and the hostel bar was terrible. They had a policy that you couldn’t bring alcohol into the hostel, which they justified by saying the prices in the bar were competitive (and they were) – but the alcohol served in the bar was absolutely disgusting. The beer was skunky, the wine was vegetal… I ended up buying a Heineken out of their vending machine because the guy couldn’t tell me when the keg was last changed. Plus they played cheesy lounge music on the highest volume possible, even when the bar was almost empty. It’s like they were trying to create a party that didn’t exist, or didn’t want to exist, because all people wanted to do was have a beer and relax.
The beach in Valencia, despite its proximity to the harbour, was beautiful. It was also huge, with natural sand and tons of room for people to spread out. It didn’t feel crowded at all and no one tried to sell you anything – I spent a few hours reading a book and occasionally wading into the water without encountering a single vendor. The beach is lined with restaurants and I splurged on a lunchtime “menu of the day” consisting of three courses, including Valencian paella (which includes rabbit and chicken), drinks and bread.
I had to take a bus to get to the beach but it was fairly painless – buses in Valencia seem to run primarily on loop systems, which makes figuring out where to go a bit confusing. I really prefer the linear system where I know that I can cross the road to get to a stop heading in the opposite direction. The hostel said that it would take about an hour to walk there but after seeing the bus route and the distance travelled I think that their estimate was on the short end.
There was a walking tour offered by Tour Me Out, the same company I used in Barcelona, but the tour picked people up at the hostel just before noon. Based on previous experience with walking tours, it seemed as though it would run straight into the siesta time – so if I wanted to do anything else in Valencia during the day I would have to get up early and head out. High on my list was a visit to the Mercado Central which was supposed to have over 900 vendors, but was only open during the pre-siesta hours of 7am to 2:30pm. I had been told that it was bigger than La Boqueria, the Barcelona market, and better to wander through than the Mercado Central in Florence, but at this point the jury was still out.
The Mercado Central seemed to have a larger footprint than La Boqueria, but I’m really quite confused by the estimate of “over 900 vendors”. I wandered through the aisles, walking from end to end, and there really didn’t seem to be 900 vendors. Even including the stalls set up outside, which sold everything from souvenirs to garlic, the estimate is still quite high. I had the opportunity to sample some local wine and some Rioja from 1998 (which really drove home how frustrating the no alcohol rule at the Purple Nest was) which was on special for about €14 a bottle. In search of breakfast, as I had left my hostel without eating, I stopped for a few snacks and took advantage of the opportunity to practice my Spanish. I had a fabulous coffee, which matched anything I had in Italy, a light, flaky breakfast pastry and a big cup of fresh pineapple.
Barcelona had more food stalls and more opportunities to sample and eat and Florence had the amazing food court on the second floor. The Valencian Mercado Central was nice, in the way that most markets are, but definitely didn’t live up to the hype. I know it sounds crazy that there’s hype around markets, but there is.
I finished at the market much earlier than anticipated and wandered a bit through the old town, window shopping and taking pictures of the street art. My initial impression of Valencia, which never really changed during my trip, is that it was much cleaner, less touristic and a bit classier than Valencia. Take the clothing stores, for example – in Barcelona I did a bit of shopping and I found that a lot of the stuff in the windows and at the front of the store was more youthful and a bit trashier in appearance. I even commented to my friend that the clothing in the plus size sections of Barcelona was so much nicer than in the normal stores, which isn’t usually the case.
Women and girls in Valencia, meanwhile, seemed to be dressed in a much more sophisticated fashion. The same stores that I visited in Barcelona had more adult, more conservative styles on display in the windows and I found it much more enjoyable to browse through the shops in Valencia than I did in Barcelona. I know that there are always regional differences that need to be taken into consideration in marketing, but it was interesting to such a clear example.
The walking tour was interesting, but I was expecting a bit more. We also spent a lot of time walking in circles – it’s hard to explain, but we didn’t actually cover that much ground as the tour kept passing by the same points. We tried the traditional Valencian drink horchata, which is made from something called a tiger nut and then sweetened with what is probably an ungodly amount of sugar. It’s hard to describe, but it’s milky in colour and texture but kind of tastes like pureed carrot. It’s traditional to drink it with a pastry, dipping the pastry into the drink and letting it soak in as much horchata as possible. I preferred to eat my pastry separately as it was a lot easier to get the drink down on its own, like a shot. A big, carroty tasting shot.
The most… interesting(?) part of the walking tour were some of the gargoyles that decorated the buildings. These statues, carved by some disgruntled artists a few hundred years ago, portray men and women touching themselves, in various states of pleasure. I never would have noticed unless our guide pointed them out, but once you see them, that’s it. Apparently the disgruntled artists told their bosses that sexually explicit gargoyles were actually a commentary on the seven deadly sins, so they got away with it.
The Holy Grail, or at least one of the best contenders for the title, is located in the Valencian cathedral. I had briefly considered going, but you had to pay for entrance to the cathedral – which is annoying, after Rome – and then the Holy Grail is locked up in a tiny box, far away from where the public is allowed to walk. I wasn’t really interested in spending €5 or so to squint at a cup.
Once we finished the walking tour, we were invited along for some tapas and a drink for the ultra competitive price of €10. Once again I probably should have known better – the last lunch with Tour Me Out wasn’t the best, but I had spotted an advertisement for their tapas experience on the website, so I figured it would be somewhat worthwhile. The tapas we were offered were pretty meagre – a bit of meat, some cheese and olives. The €10 also included a drink, but it was smaller than their normal offerings (I ordered a second because it was pretty amazing) and we all had something called agua de Valencia, which wasn’t really water at all, but rather an alcoholic beverage that included cava, orange juice and other liquors. Recipes are apparently closely guarded secrets although the traditional liquors are gin and vodka. I didn’t taste any of the gin, which is probably why I liked it so much.
There were a lot of chips on the table, and bread, so most of us filled up on those as much as possible and the restaurant was very good about keeping them refilled and keeping us happy. A friend of the guide had tagged along and showed us her favourite way to eat chips – she squeezed some lemon juice over the chips (and they had to be crispy), sprinkled on a generous dose of pepper and then shook the bowl wildly to distribute her lemon juice and pepper mixture. It was delicious.
There was a bike tour offered by Busabout and by Tour Me Out, but I decided to just make my way down the City of Arts and Science on my last morning/afternoon in Valencia. I was told that the walk would take about 25 minutes, but I’m not quite sure who was setting that pace since it took quite a bit longer. Once you get to the complex of futuristic buildings there are lots of sign posts telling you how long it will take to get from one part of the complex to the other.
I walked down along the old riverbed, which was turned into parkland after the waterway was diverted in the 1950s. It’s a beautiful park, the kind of place that would be the gem of any city, with meandering paths, well tended flowerbeds, sports fields and playgrounds for kids. It would be a great spot for a bike ride.
A lot of people recommended the Oceanografic, Europe’s largest aquarium, located in the heart of the City of Arts and Science. I opted against visiting, for several reasons: it’s expensive, at close to €30 for a normal adult entry; I don’t agree with dolphin shows and keeping animals in captivity (I don’t even like zoos); and I’m a scuba diver. If I want to see some great saltwater fish, I will go do it in the ocean. I spent two weeks diving in Bonaire, with clear waters and thousands of aquarium quality fish.
There was an interactive science museum, an IMAX theatre (in the dome fashion, which used to be called OMNIMAX, but I’m not sure if that title still applies) and a music hall. The buildings are linked by pathways and large pools – I saw kids renting plastic kayaks and playing in those air-inflated domes, shrieking and generally enjoying themselves. There are a few small cafés and snack bars, but mostly the area between the buildings is empty except for tourists, art and parkland.
The futuristic buildings of the City of Arts and Science (La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias) were something straight out of the movies. They wouldn’t be out of place in the latest Star Wars, with their unique and sweeping architectural style. There were also lots of sculptures, that just seemed to fit in with the environment. The construction of the buildings took just over two years to complete and are considered Valencia’s greatest modern tourist attraction. Based on the number of tour buses and groups that I saw, I can see how and why that claim would be made.
Valencia was beautiful, quiet and clean. It was the perfect place to spend a few days, enjoying the beach and the scenery before heading down into the more extreme heat of Andalusia. Spain has, so far, proved to be an extremely underrated destination and I look forward to seeing more of it.