28 January 2020

Two days in Valencia,
the third city of Spain
with a Gothic heart

Fresh oranges on sale in the Mercado Central or central market in Valencia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

I am spending two days in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain. This is my seventh time to visit Spain, but like many people I have long overlooked Valencia.

Valencia is Spain’s third city, but for tourists and travellers, it is almost as if Valencia lives in the shadows of Barcelona. Both Valencia and Barcelona are Catalan-speaking cities, and Valencian is the Catalan dialect spoken throughout the ethnically Catalan Valencia region, just south of Catalonia.

The port city of Valencia is on Spain’s south-east Orange Blossom Coast, where the Turia River meets the Mediterranean Sea. Valencia also has several beaches, including some within nearby Albufera park, a wetlands reserve with a lake, walking trails and bird-watching.

Valencia was founded as a Roman colony in 138 BCE. Its historic centre is one of the largest in Spain, covering about 169 hectares.

Valencia has a relatively dry subtropical Mediterranean climate with very mild winters and long warm to hot summers. In recent years, more people are discovering this friendly haven and the sites that make Valencia special and one of Spain’s most popular tourist destinations.

The similarities with Barcelona, which I visited in 2016, are striking. Each Mediterranean port has a massive harbour full of cruise ships, a pretty beachfront promenade, an atmospheric Gothic core, a picturesque central market, and attractive, futuristic glass architecture along the waterfront.

The flag of Valencia shows the city’s and the region’s identity with Catalonia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The heart of Valencia is its Barrio Carmen, a labyrinth of mediaeval lanes full of dusty Art Nouveau pharmacies, crumbling castle walls, Gothic archways, airy plazas full of café tables, and bubbling fountains.

The architectural sites in the heart of the city include La Catedral, the centrepiece of the old town, which claims the original Holy Grail among its treasures; La Lonja, the 15th century Gothic silk and commodities’ exchange; the Mercado Central or central market; and the 100-year-old Estación del Norde, the city’s beautiful Modernista train station.

Valencia’s Museum of Fine Arts specialises in works from Spain’s Golden Age, with pieces by Goya, Velázquez, Sorolla and the Flemish masters.

The Alameda is a green river of lawns and gardens that snakes through the ancient city. Wherever you stroll, a breath of fresh air is nearby, along with shady paths and benches ripe for picnicking.

Barcelona has long had the tourism edge over other cities with Gaudí’s distinctive architecture, cheap flights and a better soccer team. But lately Valencia has come into its own as a destination for things not seen farther north, and as a less suffocating, more tranquil alternative.

I also hope to visit the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, the City of Arts and Sciences, designed by the Valencian architect, Santiago Calatrava, and Felix Candela who have produced a cultural complex of glittering glass structures that soars above the waterfront, just a short stroll from the Roman walls.

At the height of a property boom in the early 2000s, Valencia decided it wanted to raise its profile through the kind of hyper-ambitious, grandiose architectural project that would attract a new kind of tourism.

Close by is Calatrava’s opera house, which has attracted Plácido Domingo, world-famous conductors, and a dance series with features from flamenco to zarzuela.

I am conscious that back in Ireland there is snow, ice and freezing temperatures. But here, the oranges are ripening on the trees, the skies are blue, and the temperatures are in the high teens, even though this is still January. I arrived on a direct flight with Ryanair from Dublin and I am staying at the Senator Parque Central Hotel, just a short walk from the city centre. Join me over these few days as I walk around the streets of Valencia.

«Καλόν ταξείδιον» … ‘Travel Well’ … greetings in Greek at the Estación del Norde, Valencia’s architecturally beautiful train station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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