endless summer

You don’t have to go to a tropical island to escape winter. Europe has its own slice of sunshine in Valencia, where the tapas is cheap and the living is easy.


Flying into Valencia, you are instantly aware you’ve left small, dark Northern Europe far behind. The land is expansive, bright, sunny, open and sprinkled with cookie-cutter towns. The Spanish live well: a sense of style and care permeates everything — food, architecture, art — and Valencia is quite cheap by European standards.

Arriving in this city of 1.8 million people in early January after a freezing Paris and a cold, cramped Amsterdam was simply bliss. It was 14 C the first day, 19 C the next, and ripe oranges were falling off the trees. I stayed at the Center Valencia, a bright clean hostel right in the center of old town, by Plaza de las Virgens and the 14th-century Serranos Tower (an old gate to the city). The historical hub is a maze of winding streets, brightly lit medieval buildings, big plazas with fountains and high church towers you can actually ascend for astonishing views. Valencia was a Roman City (you can never get away from Rome) from 138 B.C., and destroyed by general Pompeii only 58 years later in a civil war. The town has an incredible long and convoluted history: Valencian is another language similar to Catalonian, and Valencia was a semi-independent kingdom for centuries, and even became the capital of Republican Spain in the Civil War with Franco, during which it was the last to fall. The historical center is eminently foot-friendly. I only took the metro twice, once from the airport: the numerous grand tourist sites can all be visited on foot.

Of the 49 museums in town, about half are free, and the rest are only one or two euros — a welcome change from Northern Europe. The majestic City of Science and Industry has a raft of radical 1968-ish seashell spaceship buildings: an opera house, science museum, an Imax theater and a huge oceanographic center. There is a neat Modern Art museum, IVAM, while the Bellas Arts museum chronicles the entire history of art in Spain. Both are free and open through siesta. There’s a large bullfighting ring by the train station, with a whole museum devoted to this strange savage sport. On the whole, Valencia isn’t as spoiled as Barcelona, which was half-devastated by the ‘92 Olympics. Although this city is on about the same latitude as Manhattan, it is a place without winter, and one of the very warmest spots in the Mediterranean.

You can go into any restaurant in Valencia without a horde of waiters descending on you: just stroll in, check out the people, plop down and study the menu — they will come to you when you want and not try to get rid of you when you hang around for an hour after you’re finished. This is all part of a relaxed kind of class that Valencia has. In Plaza de la Reina, a neat tapas cafe had 20 different finger slice sandwiches on toothpicks with shrimp and lettuce, cheese, red peppers and sauce, sausage and mustard — beautiful artistic things that you take out of the cases from the bar and eat at will. At the end they count the toothpicks and charge you — $2.25 each. At tapas bars, they give you them for free when you have drinks. But the most famous Valencian delicacies are the paella and the little-known horchata — a delicious sweet, white drink made from vanilla, almond and tiger nut.

The massive 1262-1660 cathedral dominates the central Plaza de la Reina, with a 51-meter tower that affords a spectacular view of the city. When the huge bell strikes, you can watch your neighbors’ teeth vibrate. It houses the holy chalice of Christ’s last supper, a relic which Pope Benedict used in a 2006 visit. Next door is the ancient Basilica of the Virgin and La Almoina Archeaological Museum, which displays the excavated original Roman center and streets under a glassed ceiling. Another equally tall tower, the Santa Catalina, rises on the other side of the square. For 530 years, Valencia was an Islamic city, part of the Moorish conquest that absorbed most of Spain, and parts of the Islamic walls are preserved. The west-side Museum of History of Valencia (there are three altogether) has dioramas that showcase the people, dress, and activities of 50 different eras in four languages. On the west side of the center, there is one of the largest covered markets in Europe, where the 16th-century plush gothic Silk Exchange was the source of Valencia’s financial boom in the 18th century.

After a devastating 1957 flood, the Turia River (which winds around the northern part of the center) was drained, diverted, and turned into a huge park called the Garden of the Turia. Today it is chock full of botanical gardens, museums, sports facilities, and a bicycle trail. This is the site of the world-famous Las Fallas Festival, a traditional fiesta with four-storey puppets, locals in historical dress and huge fireworks displays. And if you come before March 19 you can join in the fun.

• Getting there — RyanAir flies there from Britain for peanuts, but be aware of the insane 15-kilo checked bag limit. From Moscow, Iberia flies there for approximately $470 round-trip. The metro runs right to the airport.

• Visas — Spain is, of course, a part of the E.U., so Russian and C.I.S. citizens need a Schengen visa. U.S., Canadian, New Zealand, Australian and Japanese citizens can travel without a visa for up to 90 days.

• Accommodation — The Center Valencia hostel has clean and comfortable shared rooms from 14-24 euros per night. If you’re looking for more privacy, or something more luxurious, try the Hotel Las Arenas Balneario Resort, which is right on the beach and has double rooms from 166 euros.

• Siesta — Valencia observes the siesta, which means that things are open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., closed from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., then open again from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. This includes stores and government offices. A few museums stay open through siesta (grab the “Tourist Guide to Valencia” in English at a tourist center to find out which). Dinner is wonderfully late: 9-11pm, so you can tour till you drop, return to the hotel, rest, then eat.

• Language — Having colonized three-quarters of a continent, few Spanish speak English or anything else, so bring a phrase book. Spanish is pronounced exactly as spelled.

issue cover
march 13-19
issue #9 (308)2008 pdf


Spanish Embassy, 50/8 Bol. Nikitskaya Ul., Metro: Biblioteka Imeni Lenina, Tel. 202-2657

Center Valencia, 18 Calle Samaniego, Tel. 963-914-915

Hotel Las Arenas Balneario Resort, 22-24 Calle Eugenia Vines, Tel. 963-120-600


endless summer

going honkers

holm sweet holm