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City Life: Valencia

Rich in history, stylish in appearance and rustic in nature, Valencia has shrugged off its under-the-radar image while retaining its ability to surprise

City Life: Valencia
Placa de la Reina, Valencia. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile.

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Dusk is falling, and Valencia feels like a catwalk. I’m floating through the Old Town’s medieval streets and squares, guided by María Cosín. She’s a personal shopper, effortlessly elegant in her hunter-green short suit. I’m an afterthought, trailing two steps behind as she sails through the luxury brands, haute couture and sparkling jewellery of Valencia’s finest boutiques.

As we walk, María gives the lowdown on Valencian women. I follow, jotting her whip-smart observations into my Moleskine. “Accessories are very important for the Valencian woman,” she says, marching past the sparkling windows of high-end shopping street Calle de la Paz. “Compared to Madrid and Barcelona, Valencian women are much more sophisticated. It goes right back to our traditional dress. We know how to accessorise. We like the brands. For us, more is more.”

There’s a twinkle in María’s eye. To illustrate her point, she takes me past a shop selling traditional Valencian dresses — the kind you see lighting up the streets during Las Fallas (Valencia’s biggest festival). It’s as if Christian Lacroix had turned his hand to peasant costumes. An outfit created from the silk brocades, intricate lace, ornamental combs and exotic earrings on display could easily cost several thousand euros. Valencian women like their luxury, all right.

Spain’s third-largest city has its Zaras and its Mangos, of course (with prices typically around 25% cheaper than in the UK), but it really comes into its own at the top end. Designers like Francis Montesinos and Alex Vidal entice around the district of L’Eixample. We explore stores like Hannover 1998, where customers can park in the basement before ascending to the shop floor, and Loewe, exquisitely designed by architect Peter Marino. From its cast bronze facade to its soft golden lighting and sparingly displayed Spanish leather goods, this is a store that knows how to seduce — just like its city.

This wasn’t always the case. When I first visited Valencia, almost 10 years ago, it seemed shy, underdeveloped, off the radar. It had substance, but lacked the scale and confidence of Barcelona or Madrid, the juicy profile of Seville. Today, it’s different. Valencia has its cosy Ciutat Vella district, but it’s also got wildly imaginative set pieces like Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences, and the Turia Gardens — a leafy park set in a dried-up riverbed. It’s hosted the America’s Cup, seen hip neighbourhoods like Ruzafa and El Carmen come of age, while acclaimed landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson is helping to transform its former rail yards into a lush green central park.

El moment

Valencia has become a destination, in other words, without losing its capacity to surprise. It still feels friendly — a place that’s happy to live in el moment, where you can programme every second of your stay or simply play things by ear. It hasn’t been weighed down by hustling waiters and human statues. As María Cosín put it, “Valencia has flavour.”

That’s partly due to the richness of its history. Valencia was founded by the Romans in 138BC, and went on to be occupied by the Visigoths and Moors before King James I of Aragon laid siege to it in 1238. All of these layers remain, like rings in a tree. At the Museo Arqueológico de la Almoina — a part museum, part archaeological site beneath Plaza de la Almoina — for example, a series of raised walkways take me through remains of the Roman forum, baths, circus and basilica. At Horchateria El Siglo restaurant, I down a milky glass of horchata, a popular Valencian drink made from tigernuts, sugar and water that dates back to Moorish times.

Miguel and Enrique at Canyar Restaurante, Valencia. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile.

Miguel and Enrique at Canyar Restaurante, Valencia. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile.

Paella is another blast of place on a plate. Forget those gaudy pictures on menu boards along the Costa del Sol — true paella was born in the rice paddies of the Albufera lagoon on the Gulf of Valencia. Moors brought the rice. Local farmers added the chicken and rabbit, coaxing rustic stews from flat pans on wood fires.

“The first five hours in a city stay with you for the rest of your life,” says Miguel Seguí, laying his version of the classic dish before me at Canyar Restaurante. He and his brother, Enrique, run this much-loved eatery, set in a 19th-century townhouse near the Estació del Nord railway station. Miguel has a stern gaze, warm heart and thick-rimmed glasses like Mr Fredricksen’s, from Pixar’s Up. Enrique has slicked-back hair, an avuncular smile and a shirt open to the third button. The pair float between tables, schmoozing against a backdrop of lace curtains, antique cabinets and photos of visiting celebs — Daniel Craig and Neil Armstrong, to name but two.

The paella is thinly layered, maybe a centimetre deep, and minimally garnished with prawns, green beans, garlic, saffron, salt and olive oil. It comes with a traditional wooden spoon and a side of green aioli. The stock tastes intensely of “what it is”, as they put it.

I ask Miguel to write his name in my notebook, so I catch the spelling.

“Do you speak Spanish?” he asks.

I don’t, unfortunately.

“If you could, I’d give you one of my novels.”

Several restaurants catch my imagination over a short few days — ranging from Michelin-starred eateries like Vertical, with its ninth-storey views over the City of Arts and Sciences, to concept wine stores like Vegamar Selección, on Carrer de Colón, or Casa Montaña, a 178-year-old bodega doing mouth-watering tapas near the beach in El Cabanyal.

Gwyneth Paltrow and US celebrity chef Mario Batali dropped in at Casa Montaña while filming Spain… On the Road Again, I learn — ducking under the counter, like generations of customers have, to reach a back room stacked with vast casks. I do the same, wolfing down two velvety fingers of tuna marinated in seven spices.

Another reinterpretation of Valencia’s classics comes at Riff, where head chef Bernd Knöller has won a Michelin star for his food. Dishes on my tasting menu range from rice with flounder and Jerusalem artichoke to a beautiful composition of peas with egg yolk, shards of Iberian ham and a dusting of paprika served in a blue ceramic bowl. The dining room is a bright, almost Scandinavian-style space, and Bernd’s creative use of classic ingredients like rice, jamón and tomatoes (tapas tasters include a white bloody mary) has won him a reputation as one of the region’s best chefs. Valencia hasn’t got the foodie chops of, say, San Sebastián or Girona, but a new cuisine is simmering away nicely.

So how did a chef from Germany’s Black Forest end up in Spain?

“Of course, I was in love with a Spanish girl,” Bernd confides over coffee in the corner cafe next door. “You make changes in life for war or love. This was love.” His serious face is transformed by a generous chuckle. “That, and the weather.”

Valencia’s Holy Grail

Slowly but surely, I’m getting under Valencia’s skin. Checking into Caro Hotel, a boutique five-star set into the old palace of the Marquis de Caro, I find a cornice stone from the Roman Circus of Valencia mounted to the wall. There’s a QR Code on the wall outside my room. When I scan it with my iPhone, it takes me to a YouTube video explaining its historical features — including sandstone archways embedded in the wall that once led to Moorish town walls. Bulgari bath products and a flatscreen TV sit snugly alongside the 800-year-old brickwork — just some of the neat touches by Barcelona-based interior designer Francesc Rifé.

Valencia’s most luxurious accessory, however, is the Holy Grail. I don’t mean that as some laboured metaphor. The city claims to possess the actual Holy Grail — as in the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper. Can this be true? Stepping into the Valencia Cathedral’s dimly lit Santo Cáliz Chapel (Holy Grail Chapel), the atmospherics certainly suggest so. Sweet incense infuses my nostrils. The chalice is mounted in an alcove, bathed in a yellow beam of light. Several rows of benches are dotted with the devoted.

The chalice has been here since 1437, and is actually in two parts. The grail itself is modestly carved from a piece of agate, with its golden stem, handles and pearl-studded base added later (more is more, remember?). Valencia has gone to great lengths to prove its authenticity, but the 25-cent leaflet I buy from a nun next door concedes that ‘there exists only a firm legend’ regarding its whereabouts from AD258-713.

City of Arts & Science, Valencia. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile.

City of Arts & Science, Valencia. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile.

Oh well. One original Valencians truly can claim is the City of Arts and Sciences. Local architect Santiago Calatrava was given a blank canvas here, and boy did he come good. A suite of several buildings sprawls over the 86-acre site like huge alien insects. Cycling around the complex, the IMAX cinema (L’Hemisfèric) strikes me as a supersized eye, made whole by its reflecting pool. The opera house/cultural centre (Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia) is a gargantuan beetle; the science museum (Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe), the bleached ribcage of a whale. In between, locals and tourists mingle, shooting selfies as they try to make sense of the dramatic landscape.

My favourite attraction here is L’Oceanogràfic, an aquarium claiming to be the biggest in Europe. It showcases over 500 species in several separate buildings, with highlights including a 75-metre shark tunnel and an igloo-like Arctic area, housing enormous walruses and beluga whales. I sit down to shoot a video, tracking the toothpaste-white whale as it swims past, fixing bystanders with a friendly eye. The animal can weigh up to 1.5 tons.

The surprises continue to stack up. I love the salty-tongued traders at Valencia’s Mercado Central (Central Market); the squelchy thunk of cleavers and fish knives; the swirling columns of La Lonja, the city’s former silk exchange; and the stallholders sewing, knitting and embroidering in Plaza Redonda. I love that the city’s festivals incorporate tomato throwing (La Tomatina), flower fights (Feria de Julio) and the burning of satirical floats (Las Fallas). I love its orange trees; did you know Valencians refer to their ‘other half’ as mi media naranja (‘my half-orange’)?

One of the last shops I step into belongs to Vincente Gracia, a jeweller with a splendidly baroque showroom on Calle de la Paz. Valencia has a long tradition of gold and silversmiths, and Gracia is their 21st-century torchbearer — Vogue named him one of world’s top jewellers (clients include the Spanish royal family). ‘Vitality’ and ‘poetry’ are words that crop up again and again as he talks me through his process; one which begins with inspiration drawn from his customers, Persian poetry, precious stones and Valencia’s history, and ends with bespoke pieces, costing up to several thousand euros.

The unapologetic opulence of his rooms, with their heavy drapes, art deco lights and seductively cluttered shelves, is another example of Valencia’s mania for accessorising. As is Vincente himself — a small, smiling man, dressed in layers ranging from avuncular tweed to a smart, woollen waistcoat and paisley-patterned neck scarf and shirt.

When I ask how he describes the florid, naturalistic style to his pieces, a light dances in his eyes. “In one centimetre cubed, we try to put as much as possible,” he laughs. “It’s eclectic. It’s baroque. It’s real Valencian style.”

ESSENTIALS

Getting there
Ryanair flies direct from Bristol, East Midlands, Stansted and Manchester. EasyJet flies from Gatwick. ryanair.com   easyjet.com
Average flight time: 2h15m.

Getting around
Old Town is best seen on foot. Valencia Bikes does rentals if you fancy exploring on two wheels. For a walking tour, contact Valencia Guias. María Cosín, the personal shopper in this feature, is contactable at 3n1.es. The Valencia Tourist Card offers free public transport and 15% off many attractions, for €20 (£16.34) for 48 hours. valenciabikes.com   valenciaguias.com   valenciatouristcard.com

When to go
Spring and autumn are the best times to visit, with temperatures typically in the low- to mid-20Cs.

Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.20.
International dial code: 00 34 96.
Time difference: GMT +1.

Places mentioned
Loewe: loewe.com
Canyar Restaurante: canyarrestaurante.com
Vertical: restaurantevertical.com
Casa Montaña: emilianobodega.com
Riff: restaurante-riff.com
Caro Hotel: carohotel.com
Valencia Cathedral: catedraldevalencia.es
City of Arts and Sciences: cac.es
Mercado Central: mercadocentralvalencia.es
Vincente Gracia: vicentegraciajoyas.com

More info
visitvalencia.com
valenciapremium.com

How to do it
Kirker Holidays offers three nights B&B at The Westin Valencia from £639 per person, including entry to the City of Arts and Sciences, flights and transfers. kirkerholidays.com

Original Travel has three nights at a five-star hotel, including flights and car hire from £540 per person. originaltravel.co.uk

Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)