Travels in Spain before Covid: Valencia Day 7

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November 1st 2020
Published: November 2nd 2020
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VALENCIA Oct 26, 2019

By 8am we had boarded the bus and were off to Valencia traveling North East on the Autovia A-92N. Vera announced that there would be two stops on this long journey from Granada through the region of Murcia to Alicante and finally Valencia. Adding beauty and interest to our drive, we passed through the spectacular mountainous region of Granada province with their famous cave houses (you can stay in a cave hotel or eat in a cave restaurant) and Parque Nacional de Sierra Nevada. The cave dwellings were quite close to the highway so I was able to get a closer view of awnings, windows and clothes drying on lines, giving life to the unique homes here. It was fall and the poplar trees' yellow autumn leaves against the brilliant blue sky and rocky sunlit crags were a pleasure to behold but frustrating for this photographer, making me a ‘drive by shooter’. Also in the distance were the snow capped mountains of Sierra Nevada and the Pradollano ski resort, known locally as simply the Sierra Nevada. The climate here is quite varied, similar to California making this a popular destination in Spain.

Vera told us about the nearby Alpujarras mountain range that is between Sierra Nevada Mountains and the tropical coast. Some Arabs escaped to this remote region in the 1500s bringing with them their culture and crafts. Reading more about this area with its semi-tropical climate, mountain goats that roam the high elevation and startling Moorish white washed homes with its mix of cultures sounds like an area I would love to go back to visit. International hippies, writers, and artists are drawn here. Musician Phil Collins spent time here to write his story about the daily life of bartering for goods while restoring his house. Improvements in internet connections means increasing opportunities for digital nomads who want this lifestyle without living in a big city. I’m all about it!

Suddenly two hot air balloons came into view and I tried to imagine myself on a peaceful journey over the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains instead of peering through the glass window of a bus. Not far from here is the natural park Geoparque Granada near the town of Guadix, which is where they sell the hot air balloon rides. A wind farm soon came into view on a bluff that was skirted with olive groves.

Soon we were passing through the hot and dry region of Almeria. The nearby Tabernas Desert was a major location of Spanish Spaghetti Westerns that were filmed here in the 1950s. I noticed on this drive that the landscape on this southern route is far more beautiful and interesting than the drives south from Madrid to Seville, however I am sure that drive would have been greatly enhanced if in it had been in the spring when the sunflowers and cotton were in bloom.

As we entered the region of Baza a gentle fog had settled in the valley creating a lovely layer that framed the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. We saw marble being excavated from the mountains from an area that was sourced for the creation of the Bilbao Guggenheim museum.

By 10 am we passed into the more open landscape of the province of Murcia where, Vera told us, there had been a big earthquake 7 or 8 years ago that was bad enough to force people who lived in caves out of their homes. As we made our way East the more rural aspect began to look more populated. Lorca was the next big town on our way. I was able to photograph some charming buildings and the sprawling Lorca Castle on the hillside in front of us.

The Murcia region, located in the fertile low lying huerta or orchard, is known as the garden of Europe due to warmer climate and fertile land but Vera tells us they are overproducing and using too many chemicals. The beautiful Mar Menor, Europe’s largest salt lake, is in Murcia but it too is becoming contaminated with chemicals and over development. Large fish kills and ecological disasters are causing big problems for resorts and home investors.

Cartagena, a city we will visit in about a week, was visible from our vantage point. Vera pointed out a hill that featured a statue of Franco on top of the fortress San Christo Mintiago from the Franco regime (he had close ties with the Catholic Church). As we know in Spain, it had been mandatory to be Catholic for 400 years, and later, during Franco’s 36 year strict catholic dictatorship, it was mandatory to name a child legally with a catholic name. At that time public school students could choose classes in religion or ethics, but if you chose ethics classes the student was forced to face the back wall with a book and no teacher. Those in the catholic right wing party wanted to make religion mandatory in all public government schools while those in the left wanted to remove religion but offered a compromise of an optional class in religion. Currently there are private non-religious, international, and subsidized, schools where parents pay half and the catholic government pays the other half. Even now the church gets money from all nonspecific charities and pays no taxes. People are not so happy about this. Today there are only a few active catholics and few people in Spain are religious at all.

We stopped to explore the lovely seaside city of Alicante. The weather was beautifully sunny with a light breeze off the water making the palm lined promenade (reminiscent of Solerno Italy) walk so pleasant. Tiles colored in charcoal, white and pink formed large waves on the wide pedestrian walkway. Handicraft stalls were positioned intermittently selling mostly cheap manufactured leather and tourist trinkets, although I did see a lovely inlaid wood picture framed for 5 euro (but I resisted). Kathleen and I were on the hunt for the region’s famous Turron almond ice cream (tasted a little like bisque tortoni) but our main objective was to use their bano as there were no public restrooms around. The Turron was a definite bonus, it was delicious and I should have bought more!

The Santa Barbara Fortress Castle was perched on the top of a high butte overlooking the beach and shore. To get there a tunnel followed by an elevator ride to the top would give you a great ocean view but we didn’t have enough time to try that. We did however take a shoes-off stroll in the sand among numerous seaside bathers. We were wishing we had time for a swim.

While Kathleen and I walked and shopped, Dave took off on his own heading for the beach but was last seen on the Alicante promenade. When we were ready to board the bus Dave was not there and without cell phone communication we all worried we would lose him especially after our experience last night (when, because of a hearing challenge, he had gotten confused about where we were meeting for dinner) that he wouldn’t make the bus. I was greatly relieved when several people spotted him and he made it back just in time.

As we traveled on to Valencia where orange trees, introduced long ago by the Moors, begin to replace olive trees in the orchards. Valencia is known for its oranges and we learned champagne is its traditional drink. Mimosa anyone? We drove past the large city of Benidorm, on the coast, known as the New York of Spain. Vera told us it is overcrowded in season but there is so much to do. Although the seaside holiday city is now packed with tall skyscrapers, the original small settlements date back to around 3,000 BC. It wasn’t until the Moors arrived that the population began to grow.

Vera provided some historical background as our bus approached Valencia. This ancient city, founded in 130 BC has a rich artistic heritage, full of art and masterpieces from previous civilizations. The 15th century brought Valencia into a time of economic expansion known as the Valencian Golden Age making the city quite wealthy from its production of silks, textiles and ceramics. Culturally advanced, Valencia became one of the most influential cities on the Mediterranean.

Valencia survived the loss of trade with the Americas, the War of Spanish succession, and the War of Independence, but during Spain’s Civil War in the 1930s, a time when the city had been the capital of Spain for one year, sadly approximately 1,000 buildings were destroyed. Many significant buildings were burned but later restored, including the Cathedral of Valencia. Currently, Vera told us, Valencia has become the hub of greed and corruption in Spain. Laws are being changed to allow building in natural and protected areas. These changes would cause flooding and destruction of the natural environment. She warns of the same frightening economic inequality in Spain, resulting in a separation of extreme wealth from the poor and lower middle class, as is going on in the rest of the world.

Valencia, a city of 5 million people, located in the region of Catalonia, is a place where languages become more confusing. Catalan and Spanish are both spoken as well as a mixture of Portuguese. Some street signs are in Catalan, while others are in Spanish. The Catalan language reads and sounds more like French, the Latin root of the language, but each is a different language, not a dialect. The sign of the Museum of Arts and Sciences is in Catalan. Josep (Catalan) or Jose (Spanish) is our guide. By the way, buenas tardes is only used after lunch.

Our bus stopped and as we got out to walk around the science museum Vera steered us towards a woman offering Horchata, a famous Moorish white beverage made out of tiger nuts (an underground nut) mixed with sugar. This drink was introduced by the Arabs as being very healthy and full of vitamins. Also offered was a sampling of their Farton pastry (a long iced bun which is a traditional treat).

Because of the construction of the futuristic Museum of Arts and Sciences, tourism has put Valencia back on the map. The unusual museum is located in the former bed of the River Turia which was rerouted after the big flood in 1957 when the river burst its banks causing great damage to the city. This used to be Valencia’s worst area where chemical factories spilled into the river, but in the 1980s everything was torn down and the river diverted turning several bad acres into beautifully clean green space. A total of 18 pedestrian bridges, some dating back to the middle ages, still cross the riverbed, creating an unusual scenic view. The government gave the land as a park to Valencia for the construction of the City of Arts and Sciences, now the biggest park in Spain. Locals refer to the park with its walking trails, gardens, park benches, imported trees, fountains and play areas as The River. Valencia also boasts excellent transportation, good weather (the average temp is 22 degrees Celsius), culture and Mediterranean beaches. Vera tells us it is quite affordable.

The City of Arts and Sciences is the largest of its kind in Europe. The massive Oceanografic building houses over 500 species of marine life, while the L’Hemisferic, known as the eye of the city, seems to be crawling out of the earth and onto the surface of the water. L’Hemisferic features an audio visual space with an IMAX cinema and a planetarium. A long rectangular building houses the Prince Felipe Museum of Sciences with interactive hands on exhibits. I had anticipated exploring and photographing the unique architecture then choosing which of the several venues to visit, the planetarium, aquarium, theater, opera or one of the many changing scientific and cultural exhibits offered, but we were allowed such a short time here I spent my few minutes enjoying children being enclosed in air bubbles that floated in the pools surrounding the museum. Then, we were off for a bus tour of Valencia.

Our bus took us past a gargoyle bridge towards the Palau de les Arts, the first purpose-built opera venue, home of philharmonic orchestra. We learned about the El Expancia, with its 1980s restored old buildings, the busy Colon Market, the Grandes Via (broadway) with central parks in the middle and loads of Art nouveau buildings and unique Neem trees lining the streets that had been imported from India. The Fisherman’s quarter of El Cabanyal is a place by the sea that is well worth coming back for. With its colorful ceramic tiled buildings and fish markets I could have spent an entire day here with my camera in hand.

We drove by Valencia’s Plaza de Toros, the center of Valencia’s bullfights for almost 150 years. Looking every bit like a Roman colosseum, although it is neoclassical in design, the Bullring, one of the largest in Spain, was located in the middle of the city, still looking massive despite being wedged among other large buildings. Bullfighting still occurs in this arena which surprised me because I thought it was stopped in Catalonia. Most of the bullfights are held during the Fallas week in March and the July Fair.

Next to the bullring we saw the impressive North Railway Station. An Eagle was perched on top with its wings spread to symbolize speed.

We began our walking tour in Valencia’s Old Town called El Carmen. With no time for a visit, we passed the renowned National Ceramics Museum, a stunning palace that used to belong to the Marquis de Dos Aguas. Founded as a museum for ceramics in 1947, it now houses a great collection of local and foreign medieval ceramics as well as 18th century carriages.

Swiftly moving on, we entered the elegant Plaza de la Reina, a popular, often crowded, open air plaza surrounded by cafes, and anchored at one end by the Cathedral and the Cathedral’s tall belfry the El Micalet or El Miguelete. You can climb the 207 steps up the bell tower for a great view, but we didn’t. As an example of the plaza’s bustling popularity, we watched from a distance as people sitting in outdoor cafes observed demonstrators drumming protests to gain support for those with mental heath and related medical needs. It is interesting that this need for attention to mental health still exists from the time in 1409 when Father Joan Gilabert Jofre proclaimed a great need for a hospital or house where the innocent, the poor and the mad could be cared for.

Continuing to another little historic area, in the Plaza Lope de Vega n6, we saw the narrowest house in Spain (but I also read in Europe). As if you had to put emphasis on how narrow it is, an arm stretched with two hands pointing in opposite directions indicate the dimensions (a full 107cm wide!). The sign was placed at eye level over the front, and only door of the narrow building, now leading to the tapas bar La Estrecha. Buildings were taxed on how much frontage they had and this clever (and probably very skinny) owner obviously didn’t want to spend money on taxes. I can’t imagine what it was originally like inside sitting knee to knee but, beyond the front door, although now some interior walls have been removed so they could expand a bit inside.

Our walking tour ended in the pedestrian square Plaza de la Virgen, which used to be the main square in Valencia from the time of the Romans to the beginning of the 20th century. The name came from a legend that told of 900 young virgins who came to Valencia to be offered to the soldiers to reproduce. This was supposed to be an honor. The square is embraced by the Cathedral of Santa Maria or Cathedral of Valencia, and the 17th century blue domed Basilica de la Virgen de los Desamparados, where the beloved statue of the Virgin is kept inside. The Palace of the Generalitat is also nearby.

The unusual Gothic style Cathedral of Valencia was built over a former Roman temple that was later a mosque. Indeed quite an interesting piece of land. Although, by the time we arrived the impressive Baroque Door of the Irons and doors of the Palau were closed. Inside we might have seen important Renaissance frescoes and in the museum, works of Maella and Goya but the piece not to miss would have been the valuable Holy Grail of Valencia, the cup used by Jesus in the last supper located in the Chapel of the Holy Chalice.

The Tribunal de Las Aguas (the Water Court) meets outside the Door of the Apostles in the Plaza de la Virgen every Thursday keeping alive a one thousand year old tradition. The tribunal is made up of eight farmers who still wear the black blouse of the Huerta or orchards around Valencia and meet to discuss the efficiency of their irrigation systems. Virgen Square is also famous for the Ofrenda of Las Fallas, a feast day when the statue of the virgin is paraded through the streets bedecked in flowers. While we were there, women children and men, dressed in costumes for Fallas congregated for photos in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria. I quickly got in line to capture these smiling friendly people in their beautiful costumes.

Casting a magical spell to this historic center is the beautiful Fountain of Neptune, surrounded by eight naked ladies pouring water from jars that represent the irrigation channels of the river. In the early evening the fountain’s underwater lighting came on, creating a beautiful theatrical setting as we prepared to leave. We left passing though the Barrio del Carmen, wishing we had more time to spend here.

Paella is Spain’s most famous dish and it was first created in Valencia. The origin of paella comes from the Middle Ages in the region of Valencia where they grew lots of rice. Traditionally paella begins with Arborio rice (it absorbs flavors best) and to it you add saffron grown in fields up north, rabbit, and whatever else is available. Rabbit is not as popular now so many use chicken but in some areas in Valencia people still use rabbit. Vera told us that people who live near the sea added sea food, Paella Mixta could be a combination of meat and seafood. But be careful, in Spain they eat meat and fish with bones because it brings out richer flavors. Calamari ink mixed with mayo and garlic is another version. It is not traditional, and considered a bad idea, to add chorizo to the dish. For the best results, the stock needs to be prepared a day before. The dish is prepared in a wide shallow iron pan. Paella is generally eaten on Sundays because it takes time to prepare as well as eat. As we soon learned, is not easy for tourists to get good Paellas, and it can be very expensive, usually serving a minimum of 2 people.

Our chicken paella dinner experience at the Sercotel Sorolla Palace hotel was sadly just ok. I felt the food tasted mass produced and was served in a room tucked away, lacking any ambiance at all as if we were relegated to the back room of a nondescript conference center. Thankfully the salad was very good, but the cheap wine was too sharp. There was a nice raspberry soufflé dessert, but for me it was not enough to redeem the dinner. To top it off the hotel staff made us rush through our dinner not letting us have the experience of the laid back Spanish style enjoying your meal as an event. Our stay in the hotel was even less pleasant. We heard our neighbor’s conversations through the walls and in the middle of the night we had a mini flood on the floor from a leak in the hall. Travel is an unpredictable adventure.

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