Mostly I want an airline flight to end quickly and I spend ten minutes or so willing the pilot to get the plane on the ground so that I can get off and get started but this was not the case when approaching the city of Valencia on the Levante coast of Spain.
The approach route involved a manoeuvre out over the Mediterranean and then a long languid approach around the south of the city. The water was so blue it was as though the sky had fallen to earth and we crossed from sea to land over L’Albufera de València, the largest freshwater lagoon in Spain, a place for fishing and for growing paella rice. (Mar Menor in the neighbouring province of Murcia is the largest seawater lagoon by-the-way).
From the air I picked out the Old Town with its Gothic Cathedral and the City of Arts and Sciences and I was already looking forward to some of that paella rice later in the day.
After landing and passing through arrival security we took the metro into the city. After being robbed on the Athens Metro I am always nervous of this mode of transportation but this seemed safe enough and within twenty minutes we were in the city still with all of our bags and possessions and then by some complete fluke I plotted a direct walking route to the hotel almost in the centre of the old city centre.
It was a nice hotel, boutique by description but not in reality and we settled in, approved the facilities and walked straight back out into the city. Directly opposite was the Museum of Ceramics housed in the Palace of the Marquis of Dos Aguas, a Rococo nobility palace and a house considered as a supreme example of nobility and opulence. The alabaster decoration came with warnings not to touch and reminded me somewhat of a Moscow Metro Station.
This is the Palace in 1870 and the building opposite, previously the Duke of Cardona’s baroque-style palace is now the SH Inglés Hotel.
Immediately I liked this place, the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona and just ahead of Bilbao and Malaga and after we had got our bearings we set off to explore the heart of the old city and started first at a tapas bar in the “Plaza de la Vergen” in a gloriously sunny spot overlooking the east door of the Cathedral.
It was wonderful, the sky was blue, the plaza was golden, busy and vibrant, the people were relaxed, the visitors were hurried, the waiters were languorous, purple shadows shifted across the pavements and disappeared into secret corners and we were back in Spain!
The decision to move on was a difficult one, I think I could happily have stayed all day but Valencia had a lot more to offer than a pavement bar and the bottom of a beer glass so we paid up, bagged up and move on.
We were planning to walk to the central market but went in completely the wrong direction and found ourselves at the very edge of the old town and on the border of the dried out bed of the River Turia so leaving that until another day we turned back and looked once more for our intended destination.
We walked through a combination of Baroque and modern, old and new, through a twisting labyrinth of alleyways and narrow streets all drizzled like olive oil in the history of the city, a combination of pristine plazas and graffiti spoilt corners, effervescent fountains and beggars pitches, forever being drawn into the historic heart of the city. And what a city, towering mansions, brooding palaces and around every corner a tree lined plaza decorated with restaurant tables serving wine and tapas.
Eventually we came to the Market District, an area bubbling like a geyser with gay excitement. Outside the tapas bars welcomed us in but we ignored them with a casual ‘maybe later’ and carried on to the market hall itself. What a place. Bursting with fresh local produce, if I lived in Valencia I would spend all of my money in the central market. Fruit, vegetables, tapas, wine, meat and fish, even though I am not a shopper I would gladly spend an hour or so there every day.
The tapas restaurants were so exciting that we thought we might return later but when we did they were all closed. If I ever return I will remember that. So we wandered into the back streets of the city and settled on a restaurant which wasn’t the best but offered traditional food at a good price so foot-weary and tired we took a table and ordered food.
I wanted paella because although it has come to be regarded as the national dish of Spain it originated right here in Valencia. When the Moors reached Alicante in 718 they discovered a pleasant climate perfect for growing crops that wouldn’t grow in Africa and set about turning this part of the peninsula into a centre of horticulture.
They developed a system of irrigation and exploited the wetlands that were created to grow rice. Not just any rice however, not your supermarket economy rice, not Uncle Ben’s ‘boil in a bag’, but arroz bomba introduced from the east which has the perfect constituency to produce the dish.
These days people will add almost any ingredient to a paella but the true Valencian meal is always made of chicken, rabbit and white beans. Most things work but I have a friend who adds liver and that doesn’t but then again I have strong culinary views on liver – avoid it at all costs – it takes offal.
There was no liver, just traditional Valencian paella and I was glad about that and after we had eaten and after a very long day we made our way back through streets brimming with joy to the hotel. I liked this place. I liked this place a lot!