Vibrant Valencia

Somewhat to our surprise, the taxi we had ordered via RentExperience was outside the apartment at 6.30am to transport us to the airport for our 8.00am flight to Valencia. The driver spoke no English, but that didn’t stop him talking the whole way – in between singing along with the fado songs on the radio. We got there in record time as there was very little traffic at that time.

Flew Portugalia Air, although our ticket was with TAP, a once government owned now privatised Portuguese airline. Was clean, comfortable enough and on time.

Mark was at the airport to meet us as they live a short distance from the airport. We met Mark and Alex in Kuala Lumpar last year on our way back from our Mont Blanc adventure. We were all doing a Food Tour of KL, got chatting and it turned out that the boys were heading to Australia, and, staying in Melbourne for a few nights. So, they came and had dinner with us while they were in town, and we have been able to keep in contact via FaceBook ever since. When they knew we were coming to Spain they kindly invited us to stay with them for a few nights. And they have proved to be the most amazing and generous hosts – determined to help us see as much of Valencia and its surrounds as possible.

It was back to the apartment for a quick unpack, before Alex walked us around to their local bakery to sample warm from the oven empanadas, insisting that we needed to have our ‘elevenes’. He bought 4 flavours: black pudding ( one for you Darryl Morris), spinach, spicy tomato and tuna. All were delicious , encased in a crisp, light pastry.

  
Then it was into the car and we set off for Albufera, a large fresh water lagoon and estuary in the Gulf of Valencia. It was a very hot, sunny Sunday and obviously most of Valencia had the same idea – the traffic was heavy, and finding somewhere to park the car proved tricky, but highly amusing. We drove round and round until Alex cleverly spied a secret little spot on a side road. Success.

 The area produces a huge amount of rice, and the farmers adopt the age old (and out dated Pete says) practice of burning the rice stubble, so the lake was ringed by smoke plumes. We took a short boat ride on the lake in one of the old wooden fishing boats, and it was lovely and peaceful being on the water. There are traditional barros (houses) around the edge of the lake, amidst large dense reeds. 

  
  
After the boat ride we wandered into the little town of El Palmar, which is a few houses, a church and dozens and dozens of paella and seafood restaurants. And just about all of them were packed to the rafters with large groups – babies, kids, Mums, Dads, Grandparents. Everybody was in El Palmar for their Sunday lunch, which is traditionally paella (I have learnt that paella is rarely eaten in the evening).

Our destination was Canas y Barro Restaurante , which serves Cocina Tipica Valenciana. In fact, it had won first prize in some competition last year, an accomplishment that was proudly displayed.

 
  
 The large room was full and buzzing with the noise of happy eaters. Our table was towards the back, overlooking the rice fields. We started with patas bravos, cod croquetas, deep fried tiny weeny little calamari and a grilled pepper & cod mixture, which is yummy on bread. An excellent start (!), washed down by a glass of rose on my part and a beer on Pete’s – much needed as the temperature had climbed to 31 and the air conditioning was not working in the restaurant.

  
  
Next was the main event – the paella. This one had beans, rabbit, and chicken in it. Very yummy. We learnt that you eat straight from the paella pan – portions are marked out, and heaven help if you stray into your neighbour’s paella territory! 

  
The paella was accompanied by a vino blanco from the Valencia region. 

  
We staggered out, very full of food, and piled back into the car (which, much to Mark’s delight and surprise, was still there). Back to Valencia to have a wander around the streets. As it was a holiday weekend in Valencia (unfortunately we had missed the big parade on Friday) there was a fete being held under one of the main old gates into the city. There were stalls of all kinds, apparently with a medieval theme. And, the place was heaving with people. 

  
  
Alex took us on a walking tour of the main sights ( much to our amusement he was mistaken for a tour guide by one lost tourist seeking his Food Tour) so that we could get an overview of the city and orientate ourselves. We ended up at Estacion del Norte, which is the most glorious station thanks to a restoration project. It is festooned with amazing mosaics that glitter and gleam. 

   

  

  

  The station sits beside the bull ring, which makes for a stark counterpoint to the ornate railway station.

  
In fact, from what we have seen of the town it is jam packed with architectural delights – medieval, baroque, deco, you name it, Valencia has it. The decorative features on top of the main buildings are beautiful – very grand. We look forward to exploring the city further over the next few days, and in daylight as it is now fast approaching 8pm.

Alex takes us home on the metro, leaving Mark to collect the car and drive home. Their apartment is only 2 stops from the train station, and they are only a couple of blocks from their metro stop. Very handy.

Their apartment is lovely, on the top floor of a 7 storey block – 2 apartments per floor. The top floor apartments are called the attic (took me a while to work out they were referring to their apartment and not a hidden space in the roof!). Despite the fact we had eaten empanadas and a huge lunch, Alex insisted on cooking up a delightful meal of mussels, garlic prawns and assorted cold meats, cheese, olives, and very yummy  fried potatoes. I can see I’m going to be very well fed during this stay!

  
  
Alex explains the typical day of meals: breakfast of coffee, maybe a juice, and a muffin. Then one must have a snack around 11. Lunch can be anywhere from 1 to 3. Then there is the late afternoon snack, taken between 4- 7 (depending on when you had lunch) and the day finishes with the evening meal around 9-10. Oh my Lordy Lordy, I’m going to be the size of a house by the time I leave!! Then bed is around 11-12pm (I’m also going to be exhausted – no wonder they have a siesta).

Monday is a public holiday so the boys have a full day of sightseeing planned. After breakfast at home it is into the car and off to a lovely old town called Vilafames. Apart from being a charming town, it has a Museo de Arte Contemporaneo that Alex thinks we will enjoy. The Museum was founded in 1972 at the suggestion of the essayist, historian and art critic, Vicente Aguilera Cerni. It is owned by the Castellon Provincial Council, and displays around 400 works of art by national and international artists. The works are a mix of donations, loans and for sale by the artist. We spend a couple of hours, after a coffee, wandering around the town and the museum.

  
  
  
  
Then it is back into the car for the drive to the beachside town of Peniscola, which is where the Charlton Heston film El Cid was made, and was home to Pope Benedict XIII, as well as being a Knights Templar castle. Now it is a popular beach resort, with lots of new development.  

Lunch is our first goal as it is now 3pm, and we select a popular fish restaurant (so popular we have to wait for a table to come available). We share 2 seafood platters per couple – 36 Euro for the two. And of course a couple of glasses of white wine. Excellent.

  
This is followed by a leisurely wander around the old town, and finished with an ice cream, before heading back to the car and the apartment.   

  
   

  
  
A full day, as we don’t get home until about 8.30 – and have to restrain Alex from leaping into the kitchen to prepare yet more food!
Tuesday is back to being a work day for the boys, so we are let loose on our own. Unfortunately, it is wet, wet, wet. We use this as an excuse for a very slow start to our day, but eventually emerge from the apartment about 11 and head first off into the train station to buy our tickets to Montblanc on the Thursday. Luckily Pete had done his homework and knew we had to go to Tarragona, then change trains for Montblanc as our initial enquiry was met with a NO, and a shrug. However, we persevered and 3 queues later had our tickets in hand.

We then hit the streets to tick off some of the deco buildings, and other architectural delights, Alex had marked on the map for us – there are many to see. It’s tricky managing the umbrella and the camera, but a tourist has to do what a tourist has to do.

  
  
  
We end up at the renovated Mercado de Colon, which is now a hall of cafes and restaurants. This town sure loves its mosiacs.

   
  
 
We escape the rain at one of the small cafes – coffee, water and a bocadillo (filled bread roll) for 4.50Euro. 

  
The rain has finally stopped so we walk along the park that lines the river to the see the City of Arts and Science up close. The buildings are stark in their whiteness and modern design.

  
  
There is a beautiful sculpture exhibition along the promenade by a Spanish sculptor called Jimenez Deredia, so that was an unexpected bonus.

  
  
We then walk back to the old gates to meet the boys at 5pm. 

  
They whisk us off to experience a Valencian treat – which the Valencians call orzata, otherwise known as horchata in Spanish. It is a milky drink made from the tiger nut ( which looks like clumpy grass growing in the fields). They have brought us to a small village on the outskirts of town, called Alboraya, to what is the home of orzata – a very famous place called Horchata Daniel. Even Salvidor Dali has drunk orzata here – and Viggo  Mortenson.

  

  
   
 It is standard practice to accompany your orzata with a cake, traditionally one called Farto – something that resembles a small iced bun. The thing to do is dunk the Farto in the orzata. So, that is what we do. You can get the orzata normal, or iced – we have normal. I am not too keen on the Farto, but actually quite like the horchata – which has a unique but not unpleasant flavour.

Alex is on a roll showing us the different drinks, so next we sample their version of an iced coffee, called blanco y negro. It is strong coffee in a shallow bowl with a scoop of ice cream, called leche merengada, and the done thing is to sprinkle cinnamon across the top and then sort of mix the ice cream into the coffee. Not so keen on this one, the coffe is strong and bitter. We accompany the blanco y negro with another cake, this time danielet.

  
Next up is citronio – lemon ice cream in a lemon drink. Again it is all muddled up together into a smoothie consistency, then drunk through a straw or spooned up. It is delicious. 

  
  
We waddle out, and then drive on to another small town, called El Puig, to see a 1340 monastery and church. As it is now well after 6pm the monastery is closed (which means we were saved seeing 100s of paintings of clergymen!) but we have a quick look at the church and a wander round the town, peering in the open windows of the local houses to see snippets of local life.

  
There is also an odd tall chimney with a decided lean at the top next to the church, in the middle of the car park. Not sure what its story is.

  
Back home as the rain starts again, and we enjoy another lovely meal cooked by Alex before collapsing into bed.

Our final day in Valencia is bright and sunny, but will only reach 21 – perfect for touristing. We walk into town, heading for Mercado Central via another set of old gates, Torres de Quart. We pay 3 euro to climb up the tower, but the view is rather disappointing.

  
  More exciting is the coffee shop opposite that looks as if it might have decent coffee, Mayan Coffees. And it does – you even order a latte, and the barista taps the heated milk on the bench and does a leaf in the crema! It’s not the greatest coffee, but it’s a big improvement on most I’ve had, so happy days. I have a chat to the owner, who is excited to hear we are from Melbourne – the place he looks to for coffee guidance and inspiration!

  
It is then on to Mercado Central, and what a gorgeous market it is. A big and bright space, with beautiful tile work and domed ceilings. And, full of stalls packed with beautiful produce. The place groans with hams for a start.

  

  

  

 We wander the aisles before nabbing a stool at Central Bar, a tapas bar in the market owned by a Michelin chef. Time for a glass of cava, and some tapas. We share anchovies cerviche ( yum), the chef’s version of Russian salad, and then order a serve of pig’s ear – which I was hoping was going to be like one big piece of crackle. Sadly not, it was charred pieces of meat and cartilage – not to my taste, despite the sauce piquante to disguise it.

 

   

  

  
Refreshed we head over the road to the Commodity Exchange building (La Llotja), a UNESCO World Heritage building. It is a beautiful example of the Valencian civil gothic style, dating from 1483. 

  
  
  
Opposite La Llotja is the Esglesia Santos Juanes, which Pete is pleased to find closed tight. 

  
We then ticked off some of the other sights – Iglesia y Torre Se Santa Catalina, Plaza Rondo, the Cathedral. Splendid, splendid, splendid.

  
  
The building that houses the Ceramic Museum is truly amazing with its carved marble doorway and ornate facade. It looks like a set from a romantic opera.

  
Then for a complete change of tune there is the wonderful Art Deco cinema, Teatro Rialto.

  
And to finish off, the magnificent buildings that line the Paseo de Ruzafa.  This city is chock a block with wonderful architecture from across the centuries, and decades.

  
    
  
  
Home then for a well deserved rest before heading out with the boys to see two exhibitions at the Centro Cultural Bancaja. The first is called Translucent Skin, which is an exhibition of works from the Iberdrola Collection. Iberdrola is a Spanish public multinational electricity company, and I must say this sample of its collection is pretty amazing. The second exhibition is of the sketches made by the Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla for his epic work, The Vision of Spain, which hangs in the library of The Hispanic Society of America in New York (definitely something to try and see on my next visit to NYC if these sketches are anything to go by). Sorolla was a Valencian painter.  This work took almost ten years to complete ( it was completed in 1919), and had the goal of capturing the richness and diversity of Spain on canvas.

Culturally improved, it was time to dine (at 9pm – we are finally getting the hang of Spanish hours). The very clever Alex had discovered that a restaurant called  La Gallineta was offering a special promotion of 50% off food, so had booked us in. We were thrown into a panic when he received an email, as we were walking to the restaurant, cancelling the reservation – but decided to ignore that and turn up anyway. Glad we did – there was only one table occupied, and only a further two tables turned up during the course of the evening, and the waiter did not turn us away. Perhaps they did not want to honour the promotion? But, they did, without a quibble.

   
    

    
We toasted the boys for their wonderful hospitality and tour guiding. It will be very sad to leave them (and Yogui their little dog) tomorrow, but needs must ………

  

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