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Vibrant Valencia

Feasts, Foods, Fine Art and Folklore

by John Mariani

Valencians Cherish Tradition

Valencia, in Spain’s 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.

"Art City"

Still, 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.

Delectable Market

Also 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.

Abundant Seafood

The 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 shops.

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.

Authentic Paella

Eating Around Valencia

Whether 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 Joy.

Enjoy the Wine—at its Source

Wine Bar

Venture 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.

Valencia 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.

Royal Festivals

Feast Happy Valencians

The 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.

John 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.

Images by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery


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