Feasts, Foods, Fine Art and Folklore
by John Mariani
Valencians Cherish Tradition
Levante region, is a testament to great beauty, surprising
modernity and a gentleness of life palpable in its street
festivals and nightlife. To the south is sun-burnt Alicante,
bordered by vineyards of remarkable diversity. Fertile and
fecund, Valencia's coastal plain has been called the “garden
of Spain,” with significant rice production in paddies
just outside the city. And of course, the Valencia orange
is a favorite around the world.
Although the region was colonized by the Greeks, Valencia
takes its name from the Latin word valentia, meaning
“strength” or “vigor.” For hundreds
of years the Moors dominated the region, until El Cid captured
the city in 1094. It returned to Moorish rule in 1102 until
Jaume I of Aragon drove the Moors out for good in 1238. By
the 15th century, Valencia’s economy, academies and
cultural life rivaled those of Barcelona's.
while the fortunes and tourist pleasures of other Spanish
cities flourished in the post-Franco period, Valencia, now
with one million inhabitants, had to play catch-up and has
done so with a vigor that shows first and foremost in the
diverting of the river Turia, which had for decades brought
destructive flooding. Now the Turia flows beneath a magnificent
municipal park, and the river's former bridges are lovely
edifices that span the greenery. Within this park, museums
and exhibition spaces of progressive architecture can be counted
among the finest in Europe. At a section called the Ciudad
de las Artes y las Ciencias designed by Santiago
Calatrava and Felix Candela, there is an oceanographic museum,
a Hemisphere, a Museum of Science, a Palace of Arts and a
Palace of Music, all within steps of each another.
nearby is the exceptional and admirably lighted Museo
de Bellas Artes, with extensive medieval and early
Renaissance masterpieces along with works by Andrea del Sarto,
Van Dyck, Murillo, El Greco and roomful of Goyas. But the
late self-portrait of Diego Velasquez is one of those paintings
worth a journey in itself, a proud but sympathetic face that
seems to have seen all the world’s virtues and vice.
The geographic heart of Valencia is its historic center, anchored
by the august double-towered entrance to what was once a walled
city. The spiritual heart of the city, however, is the glorious
Romanesque and Gothic Valencia Cathedral with baroque and rococo flourishes. It took 200 years to build;
the final spire was erected in 1736.
proximity of everything you want to see in Valencia makes
a two- or three-day visit ideal, and there are plenty of good
hotels centrally located from which to fan out. We stayed
at a pleasantly serviceable modern place, the Hotel
Husa Dimar, which seemed to be just a block or two
from everything. The extremely helpful Valencia Tourism and
Convention Bureau is an excellent place to get your bearings.
Buy a “Valencia Card,” which offers a pass on
public transport and discounts in museums, restaurants, and
The city has a splendid food market, especially
impressive for its glistening array of seafood. People engage
in the timeless arts of weaving and sewing and ceramics, while
nearby, contemporary café society hops and well-dressed
Valencians come for late-night drinks.
you’re craving a good paella, want a counter full of
tapas for nibbling with a cold Mahou beer or a dry fino Sherry or desire some of the region's fine seafood, here’s
where to go: The
Food of Valencia: Papa Hemingway, Paella and More Pure Culinary
the Wine—at its Source
farther in a rental car and visit the area’s vineyards.
Make your first stop the Wine Museum in Utiel.
Housed inside the Bodega Redonda, it has
a unique round-shaped cellar and good exhibitions of the history
of winemaking in Valencia. A guided tour can lead you to ancient
wine caves set deep into the earth in the charming old town
of Requena, whose archeology dates back to the 15th century.
is Spain's second largest producer, after La Mancha, and a
new, young generation of winemakers is now stressing quality
over quantity, proving that formerly snubbed local grapes
like Bobal, Verdil, Muscat and Monastrell can be made into
wines of power and complexity.
Even the large cooperatives have made a major shift. Bodegas
Bocopa comprises 1,800 wine growers on 8,000 hectares
of land and represents sixty percent of the Alicante region’s
wines under D.O. (Denomination of Origin) regulations. In
2000 a new, state-of-the-art facility was built on the Alicante-Madrid
motorway to process the grapes and wines of its members.
Valencians are so feast happy that it is highly probable that
whatever time of year you visit you'll run right into a festival
going on in the streets and plazas of the old city. A religious
holiday, a saint's day, a military victory, a harvest—all
reason enough to throw a party. In the town of Buñol, La Tomatina festival draws 30,000 people
who lob 240,000 tomatoes at each other. But the grandest by
far is Fallas de San José, which has
been held every March since the Middle Ages. The city shuts
down and the women don expensive gowns and jewels created
specially for the pageant. Townspeople strew flowers before
Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados (Our Lady of the
Forsaken), patroness of the city, and hold the “Nit
del Foc” (Night of the Fire), at which humorous cardboard
figures called fallas are set afire in the plazas.
It is this cherished traditionalism and the religious overtones
that buoy Valencians' pride, but they are well aware, as you
too will be, that the Valencia they know and love is quickly
becoming one of the most modern cities in Spain.
Mariani is well known for his frank and
poignant writing in Esquire, Wine Spectator, Diversion and the Harper Collection.
He is author of The Encyclopedia of American
Food & Drink, The Dictionary of Italian Food
and Drink and co-author, with his wife, of
the Italian-American Cookbook.
by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery