Of the five different cities I lived in during my year abroad, I confess I fell particularly hard for Valencia, quite a miraculous feat considering what an awful, torrid-time I had there, whilst working for a belligerent boss and that I only stayed for two months. However, Valencia is just so incredibly beautiful and quintessentially laid-back as the Spanish stereotype dictates, yet with a fresh, buzzing atmosphere owing to barrios such as my personal favourite, El Carmen. The Valencian locals are relaxed and have an appreciation for the good things in life, whether it be relishing a morning café solo with a flaky croissant whilst chatting to the neighbour, browsing the Mercado Central for the best hake steaks and glittering tellinas (tiny clams) for a family supper, or strolling along the Turia Park with the family pooch and their two children on scooters, relishing the cooler evening hours of the day.
WHERE TO STAY? - EL CARMEN
El Carmen is a sea of narrow, winding streets underneath apartment balconies that are filled with sprawling plants, flowers and bizarre knick-knacks. The walls of some of the more decrepit buildings are decorated with eye-catching graffiti designed by quirky, creative, politically-astute individuals. Yet the local population is a mix of youthful artists and elderly people who live in the one of the several elderly person’s homes. Yet, all inhabitants coexist harmoniously, sipping cañas (small beers) in the early-evening sunshine, thereby creating an eclectic ambiance that my twenty-year old self and grandparents could both appreciate.
For me, it is the perfect location to stay in the city as it is within walking distance of Plaza de la Reina which houses the stunning cathedral, as well as the Central Market and the Silk trade museum, Llotja de la Seda. Similarly, from most corners of El Carmen one has access to the wonderful Turia Park, which is perfect for a days cycling. Despite being a stone-throw away from all the action, El Carmen remains a more peaceful, residential area therefore a pleasant alternative to the bustling, saturated tourist areas.
This area is brimming with wonderful eateries, tapas bars and bodegas on ever street corner or square, you can’t help but stumble across somewhere decent to sample crispy calamares a la romana (fried calamari rings), patatas bravas, anchoas (fried anchovies), a cool refereshing caña or a glass of agua de Valencia (meaning Valencian water, a cocktail consisting of Valencian orange juice, cava, vodka and gin, divine!). El Carmen is the perfect location for a city break, yet it's still wonderfully simple to hop on a metro or bus to whizz all the way to the sandy beaches on the coast (the journey can take from 20-30 minutes).
Valencia is full of exciting places to visit within the city, all within walking distance, just remember to wear a sensible pair of sturdy sandals or even trainers if you're intending on sight-seeing and stop regularly to sip refreshing cañas, rushing is simply frowned upon in this city.
The Cathedral is located in the heart of the old town, la Ciutat Vela in La Plaza de la Reina and was built between the 13th and 15th century in a magnificent Gothic style. The entrance to the Cathedral (as pictured left) is truly spectacular, however I do entreat you to spend the measly couple of euros to enter to peek inside, your ticket also includes entrance to the Cathedral Museum which houses many artifacts and an underground basement containing an archaeological site with roman remains, even some human ones...
La Llotja de la Seda is a collection of buildings that were dedicated to the everyday commerce and trading contracts of the booming Silk trade during the 15th and 16th century. It's grand Trading hall, winding staircases and grotesque gargoyles show it to be masterpiece of late Gothic architecture. For just two euros entry and just next to the Central market, the Llotja is well worth a peek.
La Turia park, stretching over 9km, came into existence after the riverbed of the river Turia was drained and rerouted after a catastrophic flood in 1957. The old riverbed was transformed into the picturesque sunken park you see today, featuring many of the old bridges of the past and more modern ones allowing traffic to pass overhead. La Turia is the perfect location for a gentle evening stroll, or for cycling during the day. If you wander near the Torres de Serranos in El Carmen, you're guaranteed to stumble across a little bike rental shop, as there are many to choose from, all offering reasonable prices. You can gain access to La Turia from many areas of the city and it is often the quickest way to get round as it is completely pedestrianized, with specific lanes for cyclists and runners too. If like me, you feel like you need to run off the enormous amounts of food and beer regretfully consumed during the day, I would recommend running along the shady Turia where there are plenty of fountains, pleasant things to see along your way and a guaranteed number of slim, athletic locals to inspire you.
Museo Nacional de Ceramica Gonzalez Marti (Palacio Del Marques De Dos Aguas)- The National Ceramic museum established by Gonzalez Martí, despite being dedicated to ceramic art and artifacts it is located in a luxurious palace, previously home to a Marques, that combines magnificent Rococco, Neo-classical and oriental elements. The entrance to the building is truly spectacular and the inside features beautiful halls adorned with elegant furnishings, so if you're not too enthused by the idea of Ceramics there's plenty more to see.
Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències- The City of Sciences and Arts is a mesmerizing and futuristic development located in the middle of La Turia Park, consisting of an opera house, a cinema, a planetarium, a science museum and much more. Undoubtedly, the development is a controversial topic in the eyes of the local population, given that it cost three times the initial estimated 300 million euros to build and some buildings to this day, disappointingly remain unfinished over two decades later. Most famous among its attractions is L'Oceanogràfic, an open-air oceanographic park , with each building representing different aquatic environments including the Mediterranean, Wetlands, Temperate and Tropical Seas and Oceans. Entrance to the L'Oceanogràfic costs a pretty penny, however it does house over 500 different species including dolphins, beluga whales, wetland birds and walruses. Although, if you don't want to fork out the price of an entry ticket to any of the buildings, it's definitely worth just pottering about the site to admire the impressive glass and metal buildings dominating the landscape.
Jardin Botanico - The botanical gardens belonging to the University of Valencia are simply a gorgeous way to spend a quiet afternoon. Much of the gardens are shaded by the enormous, ancient trees dotted about the site, hailing from all corners of the world including as far as Australia. Make sure to explore in the hot houses and green houses housing orchids and robust little cacti, purple and pink succulents and colorful mosses, but be careful of those spikes!
Parroquia de San Nicolás - Known as the second Sistine Chapel, the Saint Nicolas Church is one of Valencia's architectural treasures and the restored frescoes within it re truly marvelous to witness.
WHERE TO EAT?
El Mercado Central- The central market is a magical place of food heaven, it is the largest indoor market in Europe and is jam-packed full of stalls offering goods that vary from piles of fragrant paprika, exotic fruits, humongous squids, barnacles, fresh herbs, legs of Jamón ibérico hanging from walls to huge angry looking octopuses whose dead-pan eyes appear to follow you around the room. If you happen to have delicate nostrils, I would perhaps stay clear of the fish section as the smell is rather pungent and you may find lobsters and crabs wriggling about on the counters, still frothing at the mouth (graphic I know, but I find it simply fascinating). Although this place becomes packed with tourists on weekends, particularly during the afternoon, it is very much a place that caters for local shoppers too. More often than not, the locals tend to arrive in the morning to avoid the exasperating need to deftly steer their shopping trolleys through waves of excitable tourists, snapping photos of the stall-owners and their wares. Most of the goods on offer are priced by kilo and are more expensive than what you can find in the supermarket, however the quality is always superb. If you are a bit unsure, look for a stall with several locals waiting and ask for some jamón and manchego, that combined with a ripe avocado, tomato, olive oil and some fresh bread will serve as a tasty supper for two.
Café Infanta - this delightful quirky restaurant/bar located in Plaza del Tossal in El Carmen is a firm favorite, whether it be for enjoying a lazy lunch (their Paella Valenciana with aromatic saffron-infused rice, rabbit and green beans is just wonderful), for a cold, refreshing beer or a cool, iced caipirinha cocktail in the evening whilst watching the world go by in the square.
El Rodamon de Ruzafa, an up-market tapas restaurant offering a take on fantastic world dishes plated up as Valencian tapas, the food is edgy, a bit different and quite expensive but absolutely delicious and unique too,ranging from tempura fried-prawns to Tuna Tataki (a special way of preparing fish in Japanese cuisine) with sesame hummus, sesame seeds and pickled radish, just beautiful! For wine-lovers, this place is a real treat too as they have an excellent selection of local wines and knowledgeable staff to boot! Just to note, Ruzafa is an excellent area for innovative cuisine and trendy wine bars and this restaurant is in the perfect location for discovering new venues for a bite to eat or a glass of something.
El Obrador del Carmen, A gorgeous artisan bakery located in El Carmen, next to the Catholic University on Carrer de Corona, this little gem is definitely worth a visit for freshly baked bread and buttery, indulgent chocolate croissants. The independent bakery is run by acclaimed pastry chef, Leyla Ruiz who delightfully was the first bakery in Valencia to serve exclusively vegan repostería.