If I told you that the beloved rice dish called paella, a creamy drink known as horchata (inspiration for RumChata liquor), and the architect Santiago Calatrava (hello Milwaukee Art Museum) all have something in common, would you guess that they all have their roots in the city of Valencia, Spain? Maybe you aren’t familiar with paella, horchata, or Calatrava, but there’s a good chance you’ve eaten a Valencia orange at some point in your life, they are grown in Florida now after all. Spain’s third largest city by population may not be as well-known as prestigious Madrid, or arouse the same excitement as energetic Barcelona, but I was very impressed by Valencia’s unique architecture and artistic side, accessible outdoor spaces, mouthwatering food, and lower cost of living and visiting.
Something else that I hadn’t realized about Valencia until we arrived was that we were now far enough north on the peninsula to experience the influence of the Catalan language and culture. The Valencian language is a dialect of Catalan, and along with Spanish, Valencian serves as an official language of the region. The Catalan language does share similarities with Spanish, but has a closer relationship with the French language and the Italian spoken in the north of the Italy. While I can read some Catalan, it’s difficult for me to understand it when spoken to, and I most certainly cannot form a coherent sentence in conversation. Fortunately, we managed just fine with Spanish, and even English would suffice in some places – just another reason to love this friendly and beautiful city.
Within a couple hours of our evening arrival in Valencia, we succeeded in accomplishing a hefty to-do list. With Dan behind the wheel and me navigating us from Xàbia to Valencia, we managed to return the rental car before close, meet our Airbnb host at the apartment, and speed shop for groceries all before our dinner reservation a few blocks away at Palao Bistro. The waitress was very friendly and the meal so good, that we felt thankful to have had a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner together in a new city. Afterwards, we enjoyed a glass of wine from the balcony of our apartment in the surprisingly quiet Russafa neighborhood and watched as a group gathered together on their balcony for a “backyard” BBQ.
Our Christmas morning wasn’t exactly quiet as we woke early for a sunrise run through the Jardines del Turia or Turia Park. I immediately fell in love with this urban park that sits on the now dried-up Turia riverbed and offers nine kilometers (~5.5 miles) of foot and bike paths, waterways, and green spaces, not to mention public toilets and bubblers! We followed the footpaths east until we reached the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias as the sun was rising.
On account of us stopping for a mid-run sunrise photoshoot, we scrambled to make it to church on time, but in true Spanish form, the service started 10 minutes late. The kind congregation at Igelesia Anglicana de Valencia welcomed us at their Christmas morning church service where the rector presided in both Spanish and English.
After the bilingual service, we walked into city center to partake in the Christmas festivities at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (Town Hall Square). There was a large, fake Christmas tree, ice skating rink, and plenty of families socializing together, but I thought that Málaga’s illuminated city center had in fact felt more festive. We weren’t visiting Valencia just for the holiday décor though, so we carried on to find a restaurant serving lunch.
Having satisfied our hunger on a spread of self-service tapas, we ventured onward into the Old City district of Ciutat Vella to see for ourselves (not relying on Google anymore) what was actually open to visitors on this holiday. Not too surprisingly, we had to settle for seeing most of the notable historical monuments from the outside and would wait to tour inside when they reopened the day after Christmas.
Perhaps most disappointing was our failure to find an open Horchatería so we could try the famed Valencian horchata beverage. Tiger nuts are the main ingredient in the tasty and refreshing horchata drink that’s most popular during the summer but beloved and requested (by tourists) year-round. Horchaterías are the shops that specialize in the drink, the oldest of which is said to have been around for over two centuries. Despondent, we instead settled for the appropriate “cold” weather treat – churros with chocolate dipping sauce. It was a delicious end to our walk around the city under the warm Valencian sun and a good way to acquaint ourselves with the places we would return to the next day.
Late afternoon by now, we decided to head back to the apartment so we could exchange gifts and call our families to wish them a Merry Christmas before cooking our own Christmas dinner. I’m not sure what Valencians typically eat on Christmas Day, but while driving from Xàbia to Valencia the day before, we had decided we wanted to make a traditional Spanish dish. We narrowed it down to paella, the iconic Valencian rice and meat based dish, or Jamón Ibérico, a specialty cured ham that only comes from Iberian pigs. Dan was pretty excited about the idea of us buying a leg of Jamón Ibérico but I was hesitant – not because the ham isn’t good, the thinly sliced meat is delicious! Rather, I had no clue how that large, ostentatious leg of ham hanging behind the meat counter reaches your plate in wafer-thin slices.
So, like any millennial, I consulted the experts on YouTube. I clicked on the first video that popped up since the guys in front of the camera looked like professionals and realized within a few seconds that there is an art to carving your Jamón Ibérico that requires a special stand, some very sharp knives (yes, plural), and a ham tongs… practice probably helps too. I saw this experiment ending one of two ways for us – with either a medical emergency or with the realization that the Airbnb did not come equipped with anything remotely resembling jam carving supplies making it a feat impossible to overcome. Neither of those scenarios resulted in wafer-thin slices of Jamón Ibérico on our plates. The final nail was put in the coffin at the grocery store when I saw the price of the legs of Jamón Ibérico. Not cheap. So we walked out with the ingredients for paella and I had no regrets about that decision. The paella did turn out fantastic and we feasted on our balcony at 10 PM in true Spanish fashion!
While we weren’t up in time for a sunrise run the next morning, we did take advantage of another beautiful morning and ran to the beach at Playa de las Arenas. I have to say that I was very impressed by Valencia’s sidewalks, bike lanes, and recreational areas that allow residents and visitors to enjoy the stellar weather year round across the city. Following our run, we headed back into the city center for a delicious (and early by Spain’s standards) lunch at LIA where we ordered a pitcher of the local cocktail. Known as Agua de Valencia, it’s a mixer that consists of champagne, fresh Valencian orange juice, vodka, and gin – a strong concoction!
Fortunately, on this day we were actually able to tour the inside of the places that we only saw from the street the day before. We popped into the Mercat Central, one of the largest public market buildings in Europe, for free smells of the fresh produce, jamón, and seafood. We would have preferred to extend our visit but were kicked out when the market closed for the afternoon.
Next up was the La Lonja de la Seda (Silk Exchange) – this historical building was constructed between the late 15th and mid-16th centuries to be used as a center for commerce. The building is a reminder of Valencia’s Golden Age when they held significant influence amongst the Mediterranean port cities. That prosperity of the city deteriorated after new trade routes with the Americas were established and Valencia’s position on the Mediterranean excluded them from commerce across the Atlantic. Economic recovery came in the 18th century in the form of manufactured silk and ceramic tile products, but Valencia would struggle through economic downturns into the 20th century. Spurred by population growth in the 1960s and the arrival of democracy in Spain in the 1970s, the city revived its cultural heritage and historic monuments – tourism followed shortly thereafter.
One example of a monument of interest to most tourists is the Parroquia de San Nicolás de Bari y San Pedro Mártir. The exterior of the church gives no hint at the magnificence of the frescos on the interior that depict the lives of the two saints (Nicholas and Peter Martyr) in colors that spill across the ceiling and walls. For 8 EUR you receive an audio guide (included in admission) that walks you through what has been described as the Valencian “Sistine Chapel”.
Before heading away from the city center, we were on a mission to succeed in what we failed at the day before – finding an authentic Horchatería so we could sample a traditional horchata. Horchatería Daniel seemed like the perfect fit so we walked away with his and hers drinks. I actually really liked the beverage and while it was quite sweet and slightly chalky, I can see how it would be incredibly refreshing on a hot summer day.
Our last planned stop of the day fell through after we arrived at Europe’s largest aquarium, L’Oceanográfic, with a little under two hours before close and the lady at the ticket office promptly informed us that it was impossible to visit the aquarium that day. She said we would need at least four hours. It was probably for the best that she refused to sell us tickets because at over 30 EUR they are not cheap! Instead of viewing fish and dolphins, we headed back to the apartment for a low-key dinner of pizza and leftover paella.
On the last morning of our Spanish holiday, I started the day with a walk through what was quickly becoming my favorite park I have ever visited. This time I set off westward in Turia Park passing kids learning how to ride bikes and running groups working on sprints. The space is filled with water pools that reflect the sun, and yet the trails are shaded by palm and orange trees among other leafy vegetation. I didn’t have time to go as far as I would have liked, but it looks like there are soccer, baseball, and maybe even a football field, along with a track and basketball court. If I could dream up my perfect park, I think this would be it and I was happy to have made a final visit on yet another warm, sunny day before we headed back to Brussels.
If you also read my prior two recaps of our road trip through Southern Spain, you have probably inferred that I would consider this trip to have been a complete success. I may have initially turned up my nose at the idea of returning somewhere we had already been instead of visiting a new country, but it’s a good thing I got over that narrow-minded outlook quickly. The unparalleled scenery and cuisine, plus welcoming people and cultures we encountered as we made our way up the coast from Málaga to Valencia made for a memorable and completely new experience in what I would consider to be a familiar country.
Ending our trip in Valencia was the perfect farewell to Spain too – I didn’t expect to find Valencia to be such an attractive city, but before we had even departed for Brussels, I told Dan that I was so impressed with its livability that I could definitely move here. I am not usually this decisive in ranking things, but I think the residents of Valencia are on to something in calling this jewel on the Mediterranean home.