I’m a greedy tourist. When I travel, I want to experience it all: the old and the new, the quaint and the cosmopolitan, the historic and the contemporary. So when I heard about a city that flows with the ease of a small town while boasting beaches, museums and architectural masterpieces on par with those of the world’s great cultural centers, I took notice.
I was chatting with a musician who’d recently toured Spain’s third-largest city, Valencia. “It has one of the most gorgeous skies I’ve ever seen,” she said, sipping a cocktail as we talked. “The light is intoxicating.” Over several more drinks — I think the light in Valencia wasn’t the only thing she found intoxicating — she extolled the city’s virtues. It was alternately a “hot, happening city” and a “cute little town.” The contradictions intrigued me. How successfully, I wondered, did the place straddle them? Armed with my curiosity and a carry-on, I set off to find out.
Arriving in Valencia at an ungodly hour of the morning, I stumbled up to the reception desk of my hotel. Still dazed from the medication that had failed to induce sleep in the air but was successfully instilling stupor on the ground, I learned that my room wouldn’t be ready for several hours. Forced to rally, I stored my luggage, splashed water on my face, downed a quick coffee and headed out to investigate the town.
To infuse my stride with a bit of knowledge, I joined a walking tour of the spot where it all began, the Centro Historico. Exploring the city’s past, we learned that retired Roman soldiers created a community named Valentia here in 138 B.C.; that Arabs conquered the region in the 8th century, introducing the rice that would eventually crown the city the birthplace of paella and the oranges that continue to be the region’s most important cash crop; and that King James converted Valencia to Christianity in 1238, erecting churches on the sites of demolished mosques. Our guide, Jose, pointed out remnants from medieval times: the Torres de Serranos and, across the city center, the Torres de Quart, towers that for centuries served as both prisons and the gates of the city wall.
As we roamed through the winding walkways, I was smitten with the balconies that extended from seemingly every window in town, some curving, with intricate ironwork, some tiled with Mediterranean ceramics. As a New Yorker, I envied these beautifully crafted stages for viewing what I would have to concur is one of the most gorgeous skies I’ve ever seen.
Our group moved deeper into the city center toward the Gothic glory of La Lonja. Now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, this building was the commodity exchange and hub for the city’s booming silk trade in the 16th century. With its twisting pillars soaring almost 60 feet to the vaulted ceiling, it was immediately clear why La Lonja is considered one of Europe’s most significant non-religious Gothic buildings.
Across the street, the architectural style quickly fast-forwarded 400 years as we approached the Mercado Central. “This structure of brick, stone, iron, wood, ceramic and glass is a model example of the modernist design,” explained Jose, leading us toward a stand with countless hanging hams for a taste of jamon serrano. With about 900 stalls selling fresh produce, cheeses, spices, meat, seafood and just about any other comestible you can imagine, the Mercado is the largest indoor market in Europe. That morning it buzzed with movement and chatter. And although pockets of tourists like us snapped pictures and mindlessly stared at the painted oranges embellishing the ceiling’s cupolas, most of the crowd was local, speaking Spanish or Valenciano, the regional language, and going about their daily shopping.
Our next stop was the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the spot where, at 2 p.m. every day from March 15 to 19, during the festival of Las Fallas, Valencia erupts into a concert of gunpowder and fireworks known as the mascletas. Las Fallas, a festival in honor of St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, attracts more visitors to Valencia than any other event (and sends many locals in search of quieter pastures). During the festivities, the city proudly presents its fallas: gigantic, building-high papier-mache sculptures satirizing politicians, celebrities and local customs. The nonstop partying, parades and fireworks climax at midnight on the 19th with the public burning of all the papier-mache participants stationed throughout the city — except for one small ninot, a life-size figure sitting at the base of one of the colossal fallas, chosen by popular vote. I saw these spared sculptures, dating back to 1934, later, at their current safe haven in the Museo Fallero.
My second wind was starting to wane and the summer sun was blazing, so I felt blessed when we sought refuge in the Centro’s religious anchor, La Catedral de Valencia. The city’s main cathedral was built over 500 years and incorporates multiple architectural styles. Constructed in the traditional form of a cross, it welcomes visitors through three main entrances, one Romanesque, one Gothic and one Baroque.
We entered through Puerta de los Hierros, the Baroque door on Plaza de la Reina, to find ornate frescoes, altars and chapels within. One of those chapels, the Capilla del Santo Caliz, holds a chalice said to be the one from which Christ drank during the Last Supper, although Valencia is not the only city to claim this treasure. Later, as we stood gazing at the Goya paintings in the Capilla de San Francisco de Borja, from the artist’s dark later years, a young woman in our group noted several pregnant women walking around the church’s periphery. The cathedral, Jose explained, is also home to the Virgen del Buen Parto (Our Lady of Good Delivery), so it’s a tradition that during every month of their pregnancies, expectant mothers walk nine times around the cathedral before saying a prayer to ensure a healthy delivery.
Adjacent to the cathedral, the Plaza de la Virgen is the city’s busiest pedestrian plaza, a bustling meeting place of outdoor cafes and tables. Steps from there, our tour concluded at Horchateria El Siglo, where we dunked fartons (finger-shaped pastries) in horchata, a cold, creamy drink made from pressed tiger nuts that’s Valencia’s signature beverage.
Our tour over, I made my way back to my hotel and collapsed in my deliciously air-conditioned room, thinking that Valencia certainly doesn’t skimp on tradition. On one simple walk, the city had effortlessly revealed more than 2,000 years of history .
Tradition may reign in Valencia, but that doesn’t limit the city’s thirst for innovation. After disastrous floods from the Turia River devastated the city in October 1957, the waterway was diverted southward, away from the city center, and the old riverbed was converted into a 51 / 2-mile swath of green known as the Jardin del Turia.
The next day, I rented a bike, and with Mother Nature’s blessing — Valencia enjoys more than 300 sunny days a year — I joined the throngs of walkers, joggers and cyclists traversing the city on the unique curving path. Soon I found myself in a galaxy far, far away.
Ahead of me lay a futuristic complex with buildings shaped like gigantic eyes, helmets and spiky rib cages. Long rectangular pools reflected the white trencadis (broken-tile) mosaic of the buildings’ surface and the blue of the Mediterranean sky. The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences) was created by Valencia’s most famous living architect, Santiago Calatrava, the man entrusted with designing the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York. Over the past 15 years, he has transformed a formerly underused and underwhelming portion of Valencia into an architectural wonderland of international significance.
First, the helmet. The Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, the opera house, was inaugurated in 2005, the latest addition to the avant-garde collection of buildings. Its four auditoriums present operas, ballets, concerts and theatrical productions for up to 4,400 patrons. Next, I observed the eye. The first building in the City of Arts and Sciences to open its doors, the Hemisferic is an Imax theater and planetarium with the largest cinema hall in Spain, including a 1,100-square-yard concave screen and a 3-D digital projection system. Continuing my exploration, I headed toward the rib cage that is the Museo de las Ciencias Principe Felipe. “Mira, mama, la ballena!” squealed a little boy crossing in front of me, pointing and pulling his slightly less excited mother toward the Science Museum. Yes, some have likened the roof’s piercing prongs to a ballena, or whale, skeleton, and I gathered that the name has stuck. Inside, interactive exhibitions explore science and technology.
My final stop was the Oceanografic, designed by the Spanish architect Felix Candela, the largest aquarium in Europe, with 45,000 specimens of animals grouped to represent the world’s main marine ecosystems. Inside you can also view dolphin acrobatics at a show in the Dolphinarium — I attended one with synchronized swimmers and live drumming — or walk through the underwater glass tunnels, crossing the paths of sharks, eels and fish of all sizes.
Okay, I’d discovered Valencia’s past and explored its present and future. Now it was time to go seaside. Because in addition to all its cultural and historical marvels, one of Valencia’s chief claims to fame is its enviable location on the Mediterranean Sea, about a 15-minute drive from the city center.
I spent the day splashing at La Malvarrosa beach before walking down the promenade for a beachside paella. Though many different versions are served, I figured “when in Valencia” and opted for the traditional paella valenciana, made with chicken, rabbit and vegetables. I’d been forewarned that only tourists request a plated portion, so I dug into the delicious rice dish “Valencia style” — scooping straight from the pan.
Finally, I visited the Port and Royal Juan Carlos I Marina, an area that was reborn, rebuilt and revamped as Valencia prepared to be the first European city to host the America’s Cup yachting race in 2007 and then again in 2010. The European Formula 1 Grand Prix races through these streets every summer, and more than 200,000 passengers are expected to have embarked on cruises on these waters this year.
To get a taste of that, I set sail on a sunset catamaran cruise. As the wind guided our boat farther from shore, I watched the bright sky morph into golden tones, and I thanked my lucky stars, some of which were starting to appear for their evening shift, to have found a city capable of satisfying my diverse travel desires. A glass of cava in hand, I toasted the town and the city, the old and the new that make Spain’s No. 3 second to none.
Quintanilla is an actor and travel writer living in New York. His Web site is www.travelingiq.com.