There are many reasons to go back to a particular city. It might be the art, the architecture, the history, the scenery or the food that draws you back. Valencia has all that, in spades. But, our reason for returning is more personal. Some four years ago we had the good fortune to meet Mark and Alex, two Valencian residents, on a food tour in Kuala Lumpar. I know, how weird is that! They were on their honeymoon, and were including Australia, and Melbourne, on their Grand Tour. We invited them to come and have dinner with us when they arrived in Melbourne, and the rest is history. We bonded over food, and thanks to Facebook we have been able to keep the fires of friendship burning bright and this is now our third reunion in Spain, and our second visit to their wonderful home of Valencia (little did they know when they met us that we would be like the bad pennies that keep turning up!).
Over wine, and Alex’s marvellous supper, we catch up on what has been happening in our lives since last years meeting. They both have to work on Friday so we are set loose to explore Valencia on our own, armed with a plethora of suggestions from Alex, who is a fountain of enthusiastic knowledge about what this wonderful city has to offer. Their apartment is an easy walk to the centre of town, so we set off along the the walking, riding, jogging path that runs around the outside of the old town, with Torres de Quart, and Mayan Coffee Cafe which sits behind this ancient tower, as our first destination.
Coffee hit taken care of, we walk to the IVAM (Institut d’ Valencia Art Modern), where there is a terrific exhibition based around all facets of urban life, called Lost in the City.
From there we walk along to the Museo de Belles Arts Valencia, entry free, to see an exhibition of photographs that recreate and/or reinterpret old Spanish paintings. A very clever idea.
All this culture has made us thirsty and hungry, so we leg it to the Mercado Central and prop ourselves up on stools at Bar Central to indulge in a glass of cava (and food) to salute our 27th wedding anniversary – where have the years gone? Although the ‘official’ celebration will be in the evening, with the boys.
It is then time to meet Alex, who is taking us to see the St Nicolau Church, which has recently reopened to the public after a major restoration of the fresco covered walls and ceiling. Apparently the locals have flocked to see the restoration, and rightly so. The church is magnificent, breathtaking. A visiting scholar from the Vatican has likened the frescos, and the quality of the restoration work, to the beauty of the Sistine Chapel. The audio guide does assume a level of knowledge about religious art and architecture that we heathens sadly lack, however we manage to figure most of it out. Even Pete is impressed by this church.
In Alex’s world it is now merienda time (that’s afternoon tea to you) as it is 5 o’clock. He hustles us towards a café that won the best sandwich in the world award last year. That is to be our merienda. He insisted that the sandwich was very small and we needed one each, but when it arrives it seems massive to us, and very rich. Not surprising, given it contains black pudding, olives, melted Camembert, a slice of grilled Pork and rocket leaves!!!! One for you Darryl Morris. We stagger out, grateful for the fact that dinner is not until 9pm.
Our walk through the city streets to our rendezvous point with Mark takes us past a multitude of street art. Valencia’s walls team with excellent examples of street art, and over the course of the day I have come to recognise some of the artists. Alex & Mark have done a street art walking tour, so Alex is able to tell me a little about some of the artists and their signature style. If you are a lover of this type of art you must visit Valencia.
The next activity on the Alex tour of Valencia is a visit to a refugio under one of the civil service buildings. Here we learn about a terrible time in Spanish modern history, the Spanish Civil War. Valencia was bombed for 237 of the 982 days of the Civil War. The bombing was done by Italian planes given to Franco by his mate Mussolini, out of a base on Mallorca. The bombing aimed to prevent anyone entering or leaving the port and to terrorise the people of Valencia, a goal they certainly achieved. To protect the people, numerous public refuges were built under Government buildings and schools. After the end of the civil war, many destitute families were forced to make their home in the refuges that were dotted around the city.
The one we visit has recently been restored, with an accompanying exhibition. Unfortunately it is in Spanish, but with the help of the boys we glean an understanding of what it was like to live in those times. We are further helped by a fellow visitor, an 80 year old lady who is more than happy to tell us a little of her experiences. A time of fear and deprivation.
To cheer ourselves up we drop into the Centro Cultural Bancaja, where we have the good fortune to see an exhibition of work by an artist called Julian Opie. None of us had ever heard of him before, but we all loved his work – a cross between TinTin and Japanese animé, with a very clever use of technology thrown in. Apparently he designed the album cover for Best of Blur , if any of you are Blur fans (again draws a blank from me).
It is then time for a pre dinner drink in a tiny authentico bar:
Dinner turns out to be a night of some hilarity. We are the only customers in the restaurant, never a good sign. The waiter is eager but clumsy, not helped by the huge angled glass plates he has to deal with. Hang on to your wine glasses as the meals are served. The food leaves a little to be desired, particularly when Alex and I discover that what we thought was going to be duck breast was actually a large slab of duck liver. No thank you. But, there is no faulting the company, nor the excellent bottle of wine, so it was an enjoyable end to a great day.
Saturday morning we are up bright and early for our weekend excursion and overnight stay in the medieval walled town of Daroca (see where the red cross is on the map below). It was fascinating to see the changes in the landscape as we travelled 237km inland.
Our home for the night was Hotel Cienbalones – Hotel 100 Balconies. We took their word for it. We had gone all out and booked the superior room, which was huge and had its own little sitting area. But our schedule didn’t allow for much lounging, Alex had a long list of things for us to see and do.
First up was a visit to the church before it closed for lunch. We arrived just as a christening party was leaving, which meant one of the chapels was still illuminated. Plus, we had a lovely chat to the nun who was whisking away the baptismal water – she told us about the legend behind the church, which escapes me now but had something to do with battling armies, blood on a cloth, and a donkey. The bloody cloth is enshrined in the church and is brought out at 5pm for supplicants.
The rest of the churches in the town were closed, much to Pete’s relief, so we satisfied ourselves with a walk up to the city walls (which extend for 4 km around the town) and admired the view.
There were up to 114 towers in the walls, but few survive today. There are however two main, imposing, gates into the city and a delightful water trough.
Some of the houses are held together with plaster, dodgy old wood and a wing and a prayer. All in all, a charming city, but not much to do as most things are closed to the public, and/or only in Spanish. We thought we might visit a winery but it transpires that they are currently closed to visitors as they are too busy doing wine stuff. The nearby Laguna de Gallocanta, which is usually teeming with birdlife, is also a no-go as the low water level has meant that the birds have flown to greener pastures.
We stop into the local bar, Méson Felix, for lunch. The local lads in the front bar assure us the food is good, and it is indeed honest, basic home cooking. Served by Felix himself I assume – a very jovial, but slightly grubby, mine host.
It is then into the car for a drive to nearby Calatayud, which turns out to be a beautiful old town, bustling with activity. The ‘modern’ city of Calatayud was founded by the Moors, and their castle dominates the skyline (as well as providing a wonderful home for nesting storks).
In fact, the town was a poster child for religious tolerance and ethnic diversity in its day as there was also a significant Jewish quarter, and of course the Christians muscled in, so numerous churches abound. We discover in the church of San Juan that a young Goya painted the four scenes at each ‘corner’ of the main dome, something the locals are very proud of, and rightly so.
There are a couple of beautiful towers dotted around the town:
And the old Jewish quarter is a fascinating rabbit warren of houses and narrow lanes. Again, the locals are happy to chat and point you in the right direction.
All in all, a charming and fascinating town to wander around.
But, it was also bustling with activity. When we first arrived the centre of town was cordoned off for a bike race for young cyclists. We joined the throngs of cheering parents to watch as aspiring Tour de France winners hurtled round the streets, before retiring to one of the many outdoor cafes for our merienda, which in my case was an enormous gin tonic.
From here we could enjoy not only the riding, but the antics of the bucks party with their accompanying band:
and the procession for a neighbourhood patron saint, complete with her parade of drummers:
On our wander we even meet a local artist, Juan Carlos Blas, who was busily working away in his studio as we walked past and poked our heads in. A charming man, who works with found materials – creating wooden sculptures and paintings of oil and fabric.
We farewelled the sun from the Moorish castle, which provided beautiful views across the countryside.
Given the hour (remembering the sun sets around 8.30 to 9) we decided to stay in Calatayud for dinner, and after a few false starts (one place was booked out, another closed) we found the lovely La Dolores, which was heaving with happy eaters. Luckily they could fit us in, and we too were happy customers. Mark deserved a medal for driving us back to Daroca after all that food.
Sunday was another clear and sunny day, and the boys had some treats in store for us. First up was the village of Albarracin, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Spain, tucked as it is in a lovely valley and perched high on the hilltops. The village is virtually intact from its medieval days and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tourism of course is its life blood, but even on this busy Mother’s Day Sunday there was space for us all.
Lunch was taken at the Hotel Albaccarin, where the jamon salad entree had us all in stitches – food for giants; enormous tomatoes and large slabs of jamon (they certainly didn’t use the fine blade on the slicer).
Then it was back into the car and a drive to Fanzara, which through a very clever initiative has become a street art museum, thus rescuing this tiny village from oblivion. There are now hundreds of street art pieces, from whole building size to tiny pieces tucked in secret places, and this is an ongoing project as new works will be added. Some are by world famous street artists, and I recognise many from Valencia. We spent a very happy hour and a half scurrying around the streets ‘bagging’ artists. We were often helped to spot them by the largely elderly residents, who have obviously embraced the project and taken ownership of the images in their street. Sadly, it was time to leave before we had seen them all. Here are just a snippet of what is on offer – yet another place we will have to return to.
We finally get back to Valencia around 9pm. We have covered a lot of territory, seen some wonderful sights and had some priceless experiences. These boys are truly excellent tour guides, and we know ourselves to be very lucky. The evening ends with a tantalising spread put on by Mark, and even though I declared I couldn’t eat a thing, I managed to scoff most of the delicious fare. I swear I am bursting at the seams!
It is with sadness that we say Farewell to these lovely people, but needs must. A train trip to Madrid calls the next morning. Hopefully we will be able to repay their generous hospitality when next they visit Australia. In the meantime, here’s to long distance friendships.