I must have spent far more Christmases outside the UK than in it in the last ten years. The novelty of feeling the warmth of the sun’s rays on my back surrounded by Christmas trees, Christmas spirit and the odd dodgy battery-operated Santa Claus never goes away. But this was my favourite yet, as I grew to know the city of Valencia much better.
Valencia is both a city and a province, the metropolis itself being the third largest in the country after the capital Madrid and Barcelona. Known by many tourists as the home of paella, this is a city that has seen massive investment to create an attractive modern harbourside and arts and science complex, leading to the hosting of the America’s Cup and a Formula 1 Grand Prix.
As my girlfriend is a native of the city, I had the benefit of an expert guide. First stop on my tour was a walk through the largest urban park in Europe, which has been built on the old Turía riverbed. We descended into a varied and verdant leisure space, with fields, fountains, sports pitches and even a curious children’s playground in which the kids act the part of little Lilliputians as they clamber under, over and through a giant Gulliver.
This all came about due to a devastating flood in 1957 which killed 81 people and caused widespread damage, after which the river was rerouted the vulnerable areas. The first stage of the park was opened in 1986 since when various new elements have been added, resulting in a popular park which stretches for nine kilometres. Named Jardín del Turia, it is known locally as simply ‘El Río’ (‘The River’).
No first day in Valencia is complete without a visit to the ‘Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias’, created by the local-born architect Santiago Calatrava. I had previously seen the complex from a distance, but when we reached it this time, it quite overwhelmed me. There is an opera house (Palacio de las Artes Reina Sofia) whose looks are to this architectural layman not a million miles removed from the iconic Sydney Opera House. The eye-shaped Hemispheric 3D cinema (1900m² and 24.4m in diameter) shows documentary films on its enormous screen and certainly made an impression on me. I was a ground-breaking technology when it opened in 1998.
The Science Museum is worth a visit if you have young children as they will inevitably love the interactive educational exhibits. You may have been to similar places before and personally I found myself more engaged by the building itself. The controversial ‘Ágora’ building, used for the Valencia Open ATP 500 tennis tournament, once experienced an embarrassing moment for the architect, when the doors exploded due to a difference in thermal temperature between the inside and outside. I was informed that in architectural circles, Calatrava’s work is often criticised due to various inaccuracies and fundamental flaws that have led to such events. The roof was originally supposed to open and close, but money ran out before that idea could be implemented.
The oceanographic aquarium is Europe’s largest and is composed of a range of buildings, each representing a different aquatic environment including the Arctic, Antarctic, the Mediterranean and Temperate and Tropical Seas. It is shaped like a water lily.
One of the things I have always most loved about Spain is its sense of the importance of family and I also enjoy the tradition of two big Christmas meals – one on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas Day itself. The dinner on Christmas Eve runs on late, and it is midnight when you are still enjoying yourself at the table and celebrating the arrival of the 25th. Each family has their own choice of centrepiece dish, often according to a long-standing family tradition. For us, on Christmas Day itself, it was roast chicken stuffed with ham and cheese, and with cava poured on and an apple stuffed inside, alongside a bread sauce made with TUC biscuits.
On Christmas Day, to walk off our lunch, we wandered to the centre in what turned out to be a long stroll, captivated as I became by the old city (‘ El Casco Histórico’), assisted by Pilar’s knowledge of the area, art and architecture, which brought Valencia to life.
While it was still daylight, I was able to appreciate the recently renovated early 20th Century market building ‘Mercado de Colón’.The cleaning-up of the facade has made visible the lovely mosaics, which feature traditional Valencian scenes, such as orange trees and ‘falleras’ (women in the traditional dress of the springtime festival of Las Fallas). The building is now home to boutique shops including an artisanal beer bar.
As darkness descended, we went to the ‘Plaza del Ayuntamiento’, the city’s main square. The place was awash with atmosphere and plenty of couples taking ‘selfies’ in front of the Christmas tree. There was an enormous nativity scene with human-sized figures. Surrounding the square are some important and attractive buildings including the city hall and post office headquarters. The early 20th Century city hall has a combination of neo styles and the newly-restored post office which faces it has a beautiful dome. From this square, you can see the central train station, also early 20th century and a good example of modernist architecture.
Just a little way away, you arrive at the ‘Plaza de la Reina’. The cathedral has doors of various styles including Mediaeval, Romanesque and Baroque ones. We also saw the basilica in the nearby Plaza de la Virgen, which houses the image of ‘Our Lady’ and was built on the site of a Roman temple. The Gothic statue of the Virgin with two children by her feet rotates mechanically.
The Central Market is one of the oldest in Europe which is still running and is an attractive building which has a diverse range of stalls. Right opposite is a second market, the ‘Lonja de Los Mercaderes’ (constructed between 1482 and 1546) and a UNESCO heritage site. Considered an exceptional example of a secular European gothic building, with its columns and consistent design throughout, this edifice is an example of the Valencian civil gothic style and illustrates the power and wealth of what was one of the biggest market cities in the Mediterranean.
Rounding out our tour of the Casco Histórico, I must mention the surviving gates to the mediaeval city at either end, with their two towers each - the Torres de Serrano and Torres de Quart.
I would love to return for ‘Fallas’, which takes place this year from 15th to 19th March. If I am able to, I will be sure to write of my experience.
This article was kindly contributed by Mark Melhuish. Thank you, Mark.
PS. The aforementioned girlfriend, Pilar, is now Mark's wife, clebrated with a wonderful English/Spanish wedding in Pilar's home city.