The sign that greets you at Alicante airport in Valencia, Spain’s third largest city, says, “Welcome to Spain, the land where you have 300 days of sun”. You realise the significance of this signpost as you travel around Europe. Sun and sand are by far the most popular draws for locals and tourists. Spain, with its golden beaches and moderate to warm climate is a preferred destination, especially now, with cheap flights and attractive tour packages.
Your two-day halt before proceeding to Madrid and then Barcelona, is breezy. Unlike the rest of Europe, which for the better part of the year is swathed in shades of grey, here there is a warm sunflowr-yellow glow. Infact this cheery yellow is used liberally in the city, on verandah awnings of apartments, in hotel lobbies and on shop facades, driving home the ‘sunny’ feel that Valencia excudes, in more ways than one. The architecture too is less intimidating and more friendly. Urban gardens made in former riverbeds, sandy beaches, natural parks and a thriving arts scene make it an ideal vacation spot, where the city, countryside and seaside conjoin, almost seamlessly.
Settling in, 6 pm
We hire a cab @ 300 euro from Alicante, for three days and set off on the two and a half hour drive to our hotel in Valencia. While our rooms are being allotted, we decide to peep into the airy, informal coffee shop. A pleasant waiter from Congo, speaking fluent English and Spanish recommends Horchata, a cold and refreshing drink made from tiger nuts, or chufa. The drink is lemony and has a deliciously sweet aroma. He explains that this is laborious process that entails soaking nuts in water and sugar before grinding them and passing them through a fine sieve. Our rooms are ready and we are quick to shower and head out to explore the neighbourhood.
While the shops have their shutters down, eateries are overflowing with young people. Loud chatter and animated conversations greet us. Famished, we struggle to decide on our choice of food, given the fact that we have two vegetarians with us. Now that is a challenge, since English is not really common in these parts and signages and menú cards in most local cafes are in Spanish. While I found a chicken sandwhich and soup, my two cousins had difficulty in finding a pizza that did not have “clickety click” as the attendant animatedly reassured us.
Back in the room, I catch the Micahel Douglas, Matt Demon flick, Behind the Candlebra, dubbed in Spanish, but engaging all the same.
Day 1, Pottering around, 9am
Thanks to ipads, iphones and local maps we have a quick conference amongst ourselves and decide to do away with the hop on hop off bus tour and instead, pick the few things we want to do. One of us wanted to hit the beach, another wished to spend the day at the Cathedral and other historical monuments and yours truly wanted this and a liberal dose of the local street markets, not so much to shop but just to hang around and see what the locals buy and stock up.
A combination ticket for 50 euro per person, allowed us access to the local bus and entry to two major sightseeing attractions, entry to the aquarium, along with other areas in the huge and sprawling City of Art and Sciences, which included the interactive science museum and the famous Hemesferic outdoor art gallery.
The good news was that we were in a centrally located area and walking was a preferred mode of commuting, though cabs were cheap and easy to get too. So, we walked to the main square, Plaza del Ayuntamiento, which is a mix of architectural styles from the splendour of the town hall through Rococo, Spanish colonial and Moorish, to the plain art deco lines of the cinema. The first thing that catches our eye as we get to the square is the bull ring at Calle Xàtiva. Vision of bulls charging at each other, blood splattered and raging as an excited audience cheered rolled past our mind’s eye, but just for a second. Cut to reality, the place had a sombre look. The 19th-century amphitheatre of brick and bloodshed was shut but one could peer through its iron grills and visualise what it must be in the olden days to see bullfighting. The bull ring with a strong Neoclassical style was inspired by the civil Roman architecture. A polygonal building, it has 48 sides, is more than 17 metres high and 52 metres in diameter.
Since our only fixed agenda is to potter around, we find ourselves in what looks like a maze of cobbled streets in the old district of El Carmen. We enter through one of 12 ancient city gates, a wee bit disappointed at not seeing too much activity. One had thought the place would be buzzing with action. There are a handful of tourists and locals going about their business. Language is an issue and the only English that you can seemingly speak is with fellow tourists.
The cathedral, located on Plaza de la Reina, is exquisite from inside, and is said to house the Holy Grail. Less grand in scale, but no less impressive in its ornamentation, is the Basilica of the Virgin on Plaza de la Virgen. Panoramic views are yours for the asking as you climb atop the Miquelet which conveniently towers over other buildings.
Beach bumming, 1.30pm
As we descend the tower and exit the cathedral we find a row of restaurants. Sampling Valencia’s signature dish, we brave ourselves to tuck into a platter of paella which is rice and rabbit meat and some veggie salads. For dessert we try the highly recommended Chocolate con Churros (a kind of stringed doughnut with dipping chocolate).
Lunch done, its time to head to the beach. We grab a taxi (or a free tourist bus or metro if you have a Valencia Tourist Card) to Playa Malvarrosa, a huge expanse of sandy beach perfect for sunbathing, swimming and sports. We hop on to take a catamaran tour from the Marina Real Juan Carlos I which takes us past some dressed up yachts at the luxury leisure port before welcoming the warm waves of the Mediterranean Sea. The sight is magnificent, also because the time is just right. The sun is still up but is not at its scorching best. A few avid surfers wave out enthusiastically. It is holiday season all right. After a 40-minute riding of the waves, we are back on the beach, feeling terribly overdressed, seeing everyone in bikinis while we are in skirts and tees. The promenade is lined with bars and restaurants. We decide to try a corn on the cob and top it off with a fig and honey ice cream.
Day 2, Bargain hunting, 10 am
Valencia is a city that has a long history of markets which showcase its traditional wares like pottery, ceramics and a host of crafts. Apart from the street markets are special flea markets in different parts of the city. As a tourist you can just google and find a market on the day you are there and head out. You won’t be disappointed. But make sure you are there by 10 am. We wanted to go to the Central Market which has more than 1000 vendors but end up going to a market that is closer. The Tuesday street market is in Nazareth. From clothes, footwear, handbags and trinkets to antiques, water colours, furniture, you can also sample local delicacies. With bags diagonally slung across and wallets safely ensconced (though there are formidable looking male and female cops discreetly hanging around), I end up picking up some knick knacks that defy warnings of friends back home that the euro is not going to fetch me anything. A gold dressy wrist watch for 3 euro, a Picasso print for 8, leather bag for 18, pair of white slip-on beach sandals for 3 and a white cotton asymmetrical skirt for 10 euro. Frankly, I am quite impressed at my under 50 euro shopping!
Making acquaintance with creatures of the water world, 2.30pm
The City of Arts and Sciences, is our next stop where we have been advised to keep at least 4 hours to get a good idea of the place and rightly so. A mega sprawling city, created by the famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrva, the complex resembles animal skeletons and is futuristic as a preconception of 22nd century architecture. The Hemispheric houses the planetarium and an IMAX theatre. It has an Aquarium which comprises different buildings, each one identified with one of our planet's seas and oceans, housing exhibitions of the most typical environments and ecosystems. We enter through the spectacular circular entrance building noting its 26-metre glass walls and descend to the ground floor which has information desks, shops and other general services and then take elevators to go to the sections we want to see.
The Valencia Oceanographic aquarium, the largest in Europe, comprises multiple sections with exotic water creatures. It is virtually a marine park. As per the sign boards there are at least 7, 400 sea life creatures in habitats within the aquarium’s different zones, that include the Wetlands; Temperate and Tropical, Pacific and Atlantic, Indian and Caribbean, Antartic and Arctic and the Red Sea. Not surprisingly there are sharks, fish, crabs, walruses and whales with super specialised varieties which to your uninitiated knowledge are frankly, alien but fascinating all the same. The interactive science museum (El Museu de les Ciencias) which is part of the complex has a landscaped walk (L'Umbracle). Themed sections in specialised subjects are demystified with fun interactive gadgets to allow better understanding of scientific principles and concepts without appearing dry and boring to those without a science background.
The visit to this mega complex ends with a Dolphin Show which is held every evening. Again, conducted in Spanish in an open area, seating more than 5000 people on cemented slabs, the music and the trained dancing dolphins are a delight. The time is just right. The sun has gone down and it is pleasant. The music is upbeat and the host for the evening peppy. The audience comprising is truly international with kids in prams, and elderly on crutches sitting cheek by jowl, cheering the birds as they perform with astounding precision.
Exhausted after an action packed day, we once again chance upon Valencia’s signature structure, the Calatrava's Bridge, designed by its most famous son, Santiago Calatrava, who also designed the City of Arts and Sciences, Hemisferic and Umbracle. The L’Assut de lÓr Bridge was inaugurated in 2008. With a mastiff more than 125 metres high, it is the highest point of the city. The mast has a 46 degree angle from which come up 29 frontal wires in four steel rears holding all metal structures of the bridge weighing 500 tonnes.
As we wrap up for the day, we are happy with what we managed to pack in during our two-day stay, getting to see modern-day Spain, unfortunately at a time when the country is quite in the throes of recession. But so long as the sun shines on Valencia, the holiday spirit is not going to wane. Tourists, especially from Britain, will continue pouring in, making the most of an affordable holiday.
Taru works in the development sector on communications and is gradually succumbing to wanderlust as she finds the light-footed traveller in her