Tag Archives: Valencia

Travels in Spain, Valencia to Alicante

There was just one short morning left in Valencia. After breakfast we went our separate ways. Kim went to the shopping centre (don’t ask me why) and I returned the streets of the old town to catch anything that I might have missed.

And I had missed quite a lot…

…. It is only a small old town area but I have learned from experience that there is always something new to discover. While Kim went to the modern shopping Mall I went to the old Market District.

Monday morning must be big market day in Valencia because the place was crazy with stalls and buzzing with activity – locals and visitors, stalls selling rubbish, pickpockets eyeing a wallet snatch opportunity, beggars rattling jars and tourists looking obvious and confused. I guess I was a tourist so I left the street stalls and made my way to the Market Hall and not really wanting to buy anything found a vacant stool at a tapas bar and ordered a beer.

Drinking alone you can get through a beer quite quickly so I left soon after and returned to the streets.

Nearby was the Llotja de la Seda  a late Valencian Gothic-style civil building, a previous silk exchange and now included in the UNESCO World heritage List as  “a site of outstanding universal value as it is a wholly exceptional example of a secular building in late Gothic style, which dramatically illustrates the power and wealth of one of the great Mediterranean mercantile cities.”

It is hardly surprising that with forty-seven listed sites Italy has the most UNESCO World Heritage sites but for those who think of Spain as nothing more than a country of over developed Costas with concrete condominiums, aluminium and fibreglass marinas and pampered golf courses it might be a shock to learn that Spain has forty-three sites and is second highest in the exclusive list of places to see and visit and I was delighted now to visit this one.

With time running out I dashed through the streets, gobbling up heritage as I went, the city hall, the post office, the nineteenth century market and The Llotja de la Seda.

I then made my way back to meet Kim after her shopping expedition and to check out of the hotel. Kim hadn’t bought a single thing but I had added to my overflowing cultural reservoir of knowledge.

There was still a couple of hours to wait until our train departure so we returned now to the city market hall, much busier today than previously and we wandered through the stalls selling meat and fish and delicacies and regretted that it wasn’t really sensible to buy anything except for two bottles of cheap wine but surprisingly good wine that we would now take to my sister’s place.

We had been in a rush but now time seemed to surprisingly slow down so we stopped for a last drink in Valencia before collecting our bags and making our way to the train station. We were reluctant to leave but we had made our plans and now we were travelling south to Alicante.

We had booked reasonably priced tickets with the Spanish State railway provider RENFE but as the engine and carriages pulled in we wondered if this was a wise decision. RENFE maintains that it has a focus on improving traveller comfort and increasing the efficiency of its fleet of trains but as we climbed aboard and found our worn out seats I wasn’t so sure.

As it happened it wasn’t so bad, it was slow, almost glacial at times, the landscape was flat and boring as the train took a looping inland route away from the coast and towards the brooding grey mountains of the interior. There were frequent length stops next to vast citrus groves as our transport made way to give way for faster trains and the buffet car was absurdly expensive but eventually we were only twenty minutes late when we arrived at Alicante Terminus and a good job too because I had given wrong instructions to my sister and she was waiting at the wrong station.

Eventually they collected us and we made our way south out of Benidorm and to their house in Quesada just south of Alicante.  I had enjoyed our time in Valencia but now we could slow down and relax .

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Travels in Spain. Tiles of Valencia

If I was recommending a city in Spain for tile and ceramics I would suggest Talavera de la Reina.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Talavera achieved great recognition, thanks to its ceramics. Wonderful pieces of pottery and Talavera tiles are found in the main museums all over the world and in the most luxurious palaces all over Europe.  The city is internationally known for its products, which King Philip II used as tiled revetments in many of his works, such as the monastery of El Escorial.  The nickname of Talavera de la Reina is ‘The City of Pottery’ and Mexico’s famous Talavera pottery was named after the place.

But, having said that Valencia has some interesting wall tiles of its own…

Travels in Spain, Valencia City of Arts and Sciences and a Twelve Mile Walk

The next day we planned a walk, I calculated this to be about five to six miles, along the linear garden of the Turia, through the City of Arts and Sciences and on to the marina and the beach and then back again.

We started straight after breakfast and made our way to the city gate and out of the old town and to the Turia River.  When I say Turia River I mean the path of the river before it was diverted.

The river was once infamous for its floods. The one which occurred in October 1957, known as the Great Flood of Valencia, overwhelmed the city. To prevent this from happening ever again (hopefully), a diversion project was devised (Plan Sur de Valencia) and the river was divided in two at the western city limits. The river was diverted southwards along a new course that bypasses the city until it meets the Mediterranean.

The old course of the river has been turned into a central green-space, a cultural attraction known as the garden of the Turia.

This is a good web page if you want to know more about the flood – the-flood-that-changed-valencia-forever

Walking through the old town on the way to the gardens I especially liked this traditional old hardware shop rubbing shoulders with modern boutiques and souvenir shops…

Once in the gardens it was a pleasant walk among tree lined paths, running trails and cycle tracks and underneath bridges which once carried pedestrians and traffic over the river but now appear to be entirely decorative and simply cross the exotic gardens from one side to the other.  I especially liked a modern bridge which underneath was designed like a medieval cathedral…

There was a sports field and a children’s playground and then a temporary equestrian centre where horses were being prepared for some sort of event but this was nearly two hours away and we had walking to do so we declined to stay and watch and just carried on.

By the time we reached the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias we had already walked over four miles and it was clear that my estimate was hopelessly wrong.  This area of the modern city is a sort of futuristic arts and entertainment-based cultural and architectural complex, all steel and glass shamelessly showing off in a ‘look at me, look at me’ sort of way in the intense midday sunshine which made the glass sparkle and the steel shine, the water shimmer and the golden pavements glow.

What a fabulous place but we had no time to stop today to look inside the museums or the Aquarium but as we passed through with several backward glances we immediately put it very close to the top of our ‘must return to’ list!

As we passed out of the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias  we chanced upon a modern shopping centre and  El Corte Inglés S.A,  the biggest department store group in Europe which ranks fourth worldwide and Kim could not resist a peek inside so she left me at a pavement bar for a beer and disappeared into the belly of the beast.

To my surprise she reappeared thirty minutes later as agreed just as I was certain that she would surely take much longer and I was contemplating ordering a second beer so I abandoned that, paid up and we continued on to the beach front area of the city.

As it turned out it was busy, much more frantic than I expected and the much busier in the restaurants where they were serving elaborate platters of food which we instinctively knew meant that they wouldn’t be absolutely delighted if we staked a table and proceeded to order just a couple of beers.  So we carried on along the beach until the restaurants ran out and then found a little bar in an adjacent street and stopped for our drink.

Now there was a decision to be made.  With my walking estimate cruelly exposed as completely and ludicrously wrong should we walk back or find a metro station?  Kim decided that we should walk so after consulting the map we identified the most direct route back to the old town and set off with steely resolve.

At a brisk pace it took us about forty-five minutes to walk back and we finished the return walk at the Royal Palace Gardens which were rather nice but there is no Royal Palace because it was destroyed in 1810 by the people of Valencia themselves to prevent it falling into the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte during the Peninsular War (War of Spanish Independence).

We sat for a beer in the Plaza, we had walked over twelve miles and we didn’t really want to do much more walking after that.

As it was Sunday evening the Cathedral was open for its intended purpose and on the way back to the hotel we slipped inside thus avoiding the staggeringly high entrance fee and I was glad that we did because I have to say that on this occasion I am forced to agree with Kim and report that it wasn’t especially thrilling inside.

Except for the Holy Grail!  One of the many supposed Holy Chalices in the World is kept under lock and key in one of the Cathedral’s chapels and is claimed to be the one and only true Holy Grail.  So now I can give up searching.  So sure are they that it has been the official papal chalice for many previous Popes and was used most recently by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

Upon weary legs we made our way slowly back to the hotel and in the evening I left restaurant selection duties to Kim (she is so much better at this than me) and my decision was completely vindicated when she came across a traditional looking Spanish Bodega which served conventional food with a modern twist.  It was wonderful.

We needed more time in Valencia but the next day we would be reluctantly moving on…

Travels in Spain, Doors of Valencia

Travels in Spain, Valencia and the Old Town

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!

Travels in Spain, Guadalest and Benidorm (A Blast from the Past)

After simple breakfast at Pensión El Pirineo I persuaded the others now to join me on a voyage of personal nostalgia and rediscovery.  I visited this part of Spain forty years ago when I went on a two week holiday to Benidorm and I thought it might be fun to revisit the places that I had seen in 1977.

First we went to Guadalest (picture above, 1977) a small mountain village with a castle which is a short bus trip drive out of Benidorm and a day trip that I took all those years ago.  It hadn’t really changed a great deal, except it had had a few coats of fresh paint and the local ladies selling genuine lace products had been replaced by tourist shops selling junk.

We stopped for lunch and a walk around the narrow streets but it was much smaller than I remembered and it didn’t take long to refresh my memories and soon we were on the road into Benidorm.

Mick wasn’t looking forward to this at all, I think it is quite low down on his list of places to visit in Spain but I was really happy to be revisiting the place that I had hated in 1977 and Mick hates in 2017.

Back then we could have gone practically anywhere we liked, so long as it was within our restricted budget of course, but we choose to go to Benidorm on the Costa Blanca for two whole weeks and we selected the Don Juan hotel on Calle Gerona, just behind the Levante beach because my girlfriend, Linda (later my wife) had been there some time before with her parents and had liked it.

Iglesia de San Jaime y Santa Ana near the Balcón del Mediterráneo in 1977..

And again in 2017…

Benidorm is one of the most popular tourist locations in Europe, today six million people go there each year on holiday but in 1977 it was even more popular and that year attracted the most holidaymakers ever and over twelve million people poured into the city.  That peak in numbers has never been matched since and it is unlikely that it ever will be.

Arriving in Benidorm we left the motorway and found an underground car park with surprising ease (underground car parks are always empty in Spain because the Spanish refuse to pay parking fees) and with the anticipation of severe culture shock rising to near boiling point we made straight for the old town.

Almost immediately it was a huge let down.  We had been expecting tat shops and British pubs, the distinctive smell of Hawaiian tropic, fat bellied lager louts with tattoos and peroxide Essex blondes with fake designer sunglasses and massive boob-jobs but there was none of that sort of thing at all.  No rampaging bands of tourist hooligans just a pensioner choir singing on the beach.

It was a very a very civilised affair with predominantly elderly Spanish people sedately enjoying the sun and a few British left-over’s from the winter Saga tours where the length of stay could be measured directly in degrees of orange tan.  Not even any ‘looky-looky’ men to pester us!

I have to say that Benidorm in 2017 was nothing like what I was anticipating at all but was really rather pleasant and the beaches were immense and spectacular with beautiful clean sand and blue flags flapping proudly in the breeze.  It is an interesting fact that Spain has more blue flag beaches than any other participating country with five hundred and eleven in five thousand kilometres of coastline, the United Kingdom by comparison, has only one hundred and twenty-five in nearly eighteen thousand kilometres.

Balcón del Mediterráneo in 1977…

And again in 2017, now with a tiled pavement and terrace…

In the old town itself there were more Spanish tapas bars than British pubs and there was a notable absence of those awful places with tacky pictures of the food on the menu.   There was not a bit of it and after wandering around the old town searching unsuccessfully for cheap souvenir shops we had to finally admit defeat and sit in a bar on the seafront and have the first beer of the day.

If Benidorm was a surprisingly nice place then the old town was an especially nice place with a blue domed church, reminiscent of those in the Greek islands, and a pedestrianised area that was positively delightful.  I remembered this from my visit forty years ago but not much else I have to say and with refreshment time over we walked a short way along the Levante in search of what we were sure was the real Benidorm from the television series but without success we called a halt to the expedition and retraced our steps back to the car.

Although we were disappointed not to see what we had come for it was a pleasant surprise and we left with the confirmation that despite the tourists that flock in every summer that Benidorm is a very real Spanish town, with Spanish culture and a Spanish history of tuna fishermen and merchant sailors that was actually quite plain to see.

I wished that I had grasped that in 1977 because if I had then I am sure that I would have enjoyed it more then.

Travels in Spain, Alcoy and the Festival of the Moors and the Christians

I do like Spanish carnivals and I have always been keen to see a Festival of Moors and Christians which take place regularly throughout the year mostly in the province of Valencia in the Levante region of Spain.

Earlier this year I was trawling the airline web sites and reconciling these to suitable events and came across the perfect combination; cheap flights to Alicante and one of the most famous of all these festivals in the nearby town of Alcoy near to Benidorm and with dates that matched perfectly,  I didn’t take a lot of persuading to book the flights.

Finding a hotel was a lot more difficult, Alcoy gets rather busy during the three day festival and the nearest that I could find at a price that suits my skinflint budget was twenty miles away in the village of Confrides near to Guadalest.

The Festival of Moors and Christians celebrates the seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 which has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and the Spanish have organised and interpreted their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become an established feature of the self-image of the Spanish people.  It has become embellished into a sort of organised Catholic national crusade but it is a confusing story because Spain has largely embraced its Muslim occupation as a proud part of its history.

In popular culture the reconquest has been raised to the status of a crusade and the expulsion of the Moors as liberation from an occupying army but this is not strictly the case and it would be wrong to interpret it in this way.  At this time Córdoba became the largest, richest and most sophisticated city in Western Europe.  Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange flourished.  Muslims imported a rich intellectual tradition from the Middle East and North Africa and Muslim and Jewish scholars played an important part in reviving and expanding classical Greek learning in Western Europe.

The period of Moorish occupation was to last nearly four hundred years and in eastern Iberia the Moors created the landscape of the region. After irrigation they planted citrus groves and peach and almond orchards. The terraces seen on the hillsides throughout the region are an everlasting Moor legacy.

As it is essentially a celebration the people of the town and the surrounding villages split themselves equally into Moors and Christians and then organise grand parades and mock battles to tell the story of the ‘Reconquista’.

After meeting Mick and Lindsay (my sister and her husband) we began by driving from the airport directly to our hotel and when I say directly I use this term in the loosest possible sense because the mountain drive from Alicante to Confrides is anything but direct with roads that sweep and climb and rise and fall around the contours of the pepper grey mountains decorated with sprawling orchards and fruit trees.

Just a few miles out of Alicante and we noticed something pretty dramatic – suddenly, almost within the turn of a corner, the landscape changed from brown and arid to green and mountainous; the high-rise concrete hotels gave way to pretty villages and we found myself in lush valleys of oranges, almonds and lemon groves.

We were delighted with the hotel, a simple place on a bend in the road that provided excellent views along the fertile valley.  There is nothing boutique about Pensión El Pirineo just a down-to-earth place with unpretentious rooms and a promising menu so we booked a table for later and made our way to Alcoy.

The town was busy and parking was difficult but eventually we squeezed into a spot along a dusty track and made our way on foot to the Plaza Major which was anticipating the procession of the Moors.  The Christians had arrived earlier this morning so we had missed that already.  The procession was timed for five o’clock and as the event got closer the square was filled to bursting with people taking up their positions ready for the parade.

It was mad, chaotic and disorganised.  In my last job once a year I helped organise a street parade in Spalding in Lincolnshire but by the time it stopped forever the police and the health and safety fanatics had squeezed the life out of it but this was not a problem in Alcoy I can tell you as people pushed and shoved and wandered around unrestricted on the parade route.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect but it was wonderful. The Moors arrived on horseback and in marching columns some in historically accurate uniforms but others with a very loose interpretation of Moorish costumes. – rather more carnival theatre than history.

The Festival lasts for three days and is all rather intense so we were happy with our one afternoon, this year we saw the parade, maybe next year we will return for the final day siege.  As it happened we had to battle our way out of the town as people filled the streets and the bars and the festivities continued on every street corner and we felt happy to have shared a happy slice of Spanish life and culture.

We shared another slice of Spanish life later that evening back at Pensión El Pirineo where local people came and went through the bar and the restaurant and we savoured an evening of local cuisine and Murcian wine – it was delightful!