Asked to name the top two cities in Spain, most people would tell you: easy, it’s Madrid and Barcelona. But the third? Far fewer would plump for Valencia. Yet there it is, a city of just under one million people, lying at mid-point between France and Spain’s southern tip on the Mediterranean coast. And whereas Madrid and Barcelona attract the crowds – Barcelona almost to breaking point – Valencia is off most tourist itineraries, leaving it a place favoured mostly by the Spanish themselves and with an indigenous character still to be savoured - including its celebrated paellas!
We had been there just once, way back in the 1960s, so decided to it was time for a return. We first indulged in a few days at Benicassim, a resort some 25 miles to the north, where we had stayed during what we termed our honeymoon, a holiday taken in 1963 which was in fact the year following our marriage. Benicassim is now best known for its summer rock festival but as we were there in September the crowds had departed and our hotel, the Voramar – the same as in 1963 – was a delightful oasis of calm, with sea-bathing from the hotel balcony and an excellent and diverse restaurant menu (in 1963, it seemed to serve salmonete – red mullet – every night.)
Then it was on to Valencia, where we and our two US friends Bill and Dal – seeing Spain for the first time – had rented an Airbnb apartment just ten minutes’ walk from Valencia’s old town. At its entrance can be found one of the city’s set-piece attractions, its great Mercado Central, (photo below) or covered market, set in a glorious early twentieth-century building, with stall after stall of local produce, especially ham, fish and cheeses, and the familiar bustle that comes from all such havens of the best food .
Apart from ourselves, there were few tourists to be spotted, and the same went for other Valencia locations cited in the guide-books. One such was La Lonja, once Valencia’s silk and commodity exchange, built in Valencia’s boom years of the late fifteenth century. It is one of Spain’s finest civil Gothic buildings, with timber ceilings and marbled floors (photo below). Entry cost just three Euros and there was little information provided, giving the appealing sense that somehow Valencia is still in pre-tourism mode.
Another fifteenth-century structure formed the city’s western gate, the Torres de Quart (photo at foot). You toil up steep stone stairs to reach the castellated platform at the summit giving a splendid view of the city stretched out below – but pausing to take note of the scars left by French cannonballs during Napoleon’s invasion of 1808. Valencia’s defenders in fact prevailed, leaving Napoleon to march on Madrid instead. The tower’s name, Torres de Quart, offers a neat clue to Valencia’s identity – it is rendered in Catalan, and the city prides itself on occupying the southernmost tip of the Catalonia region.
Another unconsidered delight lies in the Museo de Bellas Artes, its art museum housed in a former seminary a short distance outside the old town. It has a stunning Velazquez self-portrait and a set of Goya portraits, thus enabling us to renew acquaintance with two of the painters in our global top-ten list. But there is more. The museum has a display devoted to the Caravaggisti, the painters who hurried to Rome around 1615 and beyond, inspired by the great master of realistic light-and-shade painting, Caravaggio. Two of them grew up in Valencia: Jusepe de Ribera and Francesc Ribalta, and a number of their paintings hang in the museum.
There was also an entire room for Joaquin Sorolla, Spain’s leading impressionist, a revelation to us as we discovered him for the first time (ironically, London’s National Gallery staged an exhibition of his paintings about six months after we saw him in Valencia.) There were other sights aplenty, from Roman remains to the Oceonografic, one of the finest aquariums in Europe. And, as always in Spain, there were the streets and the squares, largest of all the Plaza de la Virgin, by Valencia’s cathedral, where the city comes to walk and sit and drink and talk, and where we joined them to savour the balmy autumn air.
As for food: Valencia, it should be remembered, is the home and fount of paella, the rice-based dish that has come to define Spain. It is traditionally eaten at lunch-time, and we had a superb example at the Restaurante Navarro, just ten minutes’ walk from our apartment, delighting in the creamy yellow rice, and serving ourselves direct from the cooking pans deposited on our table. Bill and Dal had a lobster paella, ours was a full-on seafood mix,(see photo top) and it was hard to tell which of us was the most satisfied .
Valencia is compact and manageable, many of the main attractions walkable, but also served by a metro system, and with reasonably priced taxis. September seemed the perfect time to visit, past the height of the summer in terms of both heat and school holidays. The city provided yet another reminder of all that we find alluring about Spain: great food, great art, a buzzy and distinctive culture, a place of promises and memories.
We travelled, as always, with Brittany Ferries, finding the eight-hour drive from Santander within our compass, and only marginally spoiled by the 60-Euro speeding fine I was awarded during our return journey.