Spain – Valencia, Amore a Primera Vista
Here is a city that took me by surprise. I knew it was the third largest city in Spain and expected it to be beautiful, but did not anticipate the incredible charm that Valencia has to offer. We are in Valencia, walking downtown among orange trees. I have never seen anything quite like it. Where else would you have orange trees laden with oranges line the city’s large avenues and narrow ancient side streets? Only in beautiful España. The coastline here is known as Costa del Azahar, meaning orange blossom coast. Valencianos tell me that in April, when the orange trees are blooming, the fragrance of orange blossoms wafts through the city streets like perfume off a beautfiul woman. Ahh, I have to come back in April.
We are staying at the Westin, situated in an old heritage building that used to be a stable for police horses, then a fire station and now a hotel. It’s a beautiful two story building with two long wings, a beautiful inner courtyard and a nice lobby. Apparently it is one of the better hotels in the city, the other being the Las Arenas on the beach, a much more palatial and luxurious structure. When we checked in, a large crowd was waiting in front of the hotel, waiting to get a glimpse of not us but some celebrity. The area was roped off and security guards were controlling the excited crowd. The celebrities, arriving moments after us while we were still in the lobby, were the Barcelona soccer team, one of the three top teams in Spain. They were in town for a game and the 75,000 person stadium was sold out. I would have gone to watch a game for the experience, in spite of the crowds, but it was not to be. The team marched through the lobby dressed in grey suits (all the same) and signed autographs for the waiting crowd. They were strikingly small compared to our big hockey players. I guess they need to be smaller built for this game. They do look good on the football field though. Hey, I am not blind.
Another celebrity gracing the city right now is George Clooney (oh yes, he is following me). Apparently he is filming a science fiction film, “Tomorrowland”, in the futuristic Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencas (city of arts and science) in Valencia. Someone was saying that he may be staying at our hotel but I don’t think so. Well, if he showed up at breakfast I guess that would not warrant a letter of complaint to the hotel manager (you never know). Just saying. We saw signs of filming at the City of Arts and Science and it will be interesting to watch Clooney, I mean the film, when it’s out.
Valencia was a wonderful excursion from the Playa Blanca laying to the south of the Costa del Azahar. It was only about an hour drive along the lovely A7 winding its way among the small towns and villages along the way. The road however does not pass though the villages and if you want to visit any of them you have to get off the highway, pay the toll for using the road and visit the town, which we are doing on several occasions on our travels. I think Valencia is close enough that we are driving there again tomorrow for the day. I didn’t get enough of Valencia, nor do I think that I will anytime soon.
The old city is the heart of Valencia and where we spent most of our time. The old churches, squares and monuments are breathtaking in their dignified beauty. The side streets are charming and elegant with old mansions now converted into housings lining them up (Calle Cavaliers). One tapas bar after another offer fabulous tapas any time of the day and outdoor restaurants (now with overhead heaters) have their tables set in the sunny squares. We went to the beach (of course) and walked along the very long and wide promenade by the even wider sandy beach. Thousands of people, locals it seemed, were strolling along the promenade around lunch time (1:00 pm) but as if on cue they all disappeared by 2:00 pm, retreating to the dozens of restaurants lining the promenade for lunch or going home for a siesta. More on the Spanish siesta later, that subject deserves it own post. The restaurants by the way are not spread out along the entire promenade. They are concentrated together along one stretch at the end of the beach. They are empty at 1:00 and completely full at 2:00.
We stopped for lunch at the famed La Pepica restaurant at the edge of the promenade on the beach, known among locals and tourists alike for its paella. We were there on a Sunday and Sunday is paella day for Valencianos who go out to enjoy a seafood, chicken, rabbit or other paella varieties and they all seem to be at Pepica, with us. It’s a very large restaurant and it was full. It was so interesting to watch people eat. First course of fried fish or shellfish was de rigueur, or plates upon plates of tapas with sangria or beer shared among the larger groups. I only wish I could go from table to table checking out what they were having. As it was I was doing a fair bit of starring at the tables nearby, but if they noticed it, they seemed to tolerate it.
We shared a vegetarian paella (it was on the menu, so I can’t be the only one ordering it) and other than not having enough soccarat it was delicious, worth a second visit. Soccarat is the caramelized crusty layer of rice that forms on the bottom of the paella pan. It adds crunch and sweetness that is highly valued by paella experts. Next time I will ask them to cook it enough for the soccarat to form. Apparently you know that it is forming by listening to the rice crackle as it cooks. Our paella contained fresh beans called garrafon, similar to but not exactly like fava beans. See image below. It also had broad beans, red and green peppers, zucchini and maybe other vegetables that I can’t remember. Paella though is about the rice and should not be overwhelmed by the toppings. I scraped the sides of the dish to savour every bit of soccarat clinging to it and enjoyed it with local beer (yes, I have taken to drinking beer here, dunno why but it tastes right).
We also visited the Mercado Central, a beautiful market in an impressive building that Valencianos are very proud of. There are markets in every neighbourhood but this one attracts people from all over the city. I could have stayed there all day, and we kind of did. I tasted olive oils, vinegars and dried fruits and even bought paella pans there. I knowI I can get them in Canada but it’s more fun to remember where I bought them when I make paella at home. I bought olive oil made from the olives of 1000 (yes, one thousand) years old olive trees. Can you believe it? The olive oil spoiled me for any future olive oils, I am sure. I have never tasted such freshness and depth of flavour in any olive oil before. My mother, who had a very refined palate, used to only cook with Spanish olive oils and I can see why. More on the market in another post. Some overlap cannot be avoided.
I have so much to tell about Valencia but it will make the post too long. We took a tapas tour with Suzie from Tours in Valencia and had fun sampling tapas in “insiders” tapas bars around town. More on that later as well. In the meantime, here are some images to share from that beautiful city on the Mediterranean. Sorry, no Clooney sighting.
Desearia que estuvieras aqui conmigo– Wish you were here with me.