Spain's Valencia: New and Improving
Sunday, September 3, 2006
As much as anything, seafood paella enticed me to Valencia. That and the fact that it's an ancient city on the Mediterranean coast, and its very name evokes images of sun-ripened oranges.
As it turned out, I saw only one orange tree in the Spanish city of Valencia, and it was a rather straggly example of the species. The seafood paella -- and I had sample tastes at four restaurants -- was so overwhelmingly fishy that I opted for other choices. Twice I picked chicken paella, demonstrating my preference by pointing at the sample dishes in the windows.
That was great, except both times I had it, I kept wondering why Spanish chickens would all have such oddly misshapen legs. Then it came to me: The "chicken" legs came off of rabbits.
It's a good metaphor for Valencia: Some aspects of the city failed to live up to my preconceived notions, but it had other surprises in store.
Like, who knew that the Holy Grail was here in the Valencia Cathedral, in a glass display cabinet? And in the same huge, incredible church where the chalice from the Last Supper is displayed -- a cathedral built on the ruins of a mosque between 1262 and 1426 -- you can also see the mummified severed arm of the martyred St. Vincent.
Valencia, 220 miles southeast of Madrid, was once one of the continent's most important ports and richest cities. You see evidence of that old wealth in the historic quarter, where fine old Spanish baroque, Gothic and Romanesque buildings line stone-paved squares whose centers bubble with lavish fountains.
Then there's another whole area at the other end of the spectrum of centuries: the City of Arts and Sciences.
Here, on an 87-acre, derelict parcel, the city has spent nearly $3 billion in recent years to produce a series of futuristic crystal palaces that serve as museums and performance spaces. Conductor Zubin Mehta, among others, has been auditioning musicians to be part of a new orchestra that will begin playing in October in the ultra-modern performing arts center.
Four of the buildings in the City of Arts and Sciences were designed by the dazzling architect Santiago Calatrava, a native of Valencia whose bridges and buildings have met wide acclaim throughout Europe and the Americas. All of the buildings are surrounded by huge reflecting pools and fountains. Each one was clearly designed to make a double visual impact -- once when viewed as a solid white structure with lots of glass, and again when seen as a shimmering reflection in bright blue water.
My notion of Valencia as a Mediterranean coastal city turned out to be off: Yes, it's still a major port city, but its attractive, populated portions are well out of view of the water. The port for years has been merely functional, the buildings around it allowed to deteriorate. That, however, is changing. Big time, and quickly.
The America's Cup is coming to Valencia next summer, and the government is spending $637.5 million to spiff up the city. Most of that money is going to the waterfront, in a spasm of pride about being the first European city to host the cup since 1851.
During my visit last spring, you could see the frenzy of activity. Old customhouses and other buildings meant to support the shipping industry had already been given facelifts and were painted in lovely pastel colors. The city is also creating a waterfront promenade that will be lined with palm trees, restaurants and bars.