03 May 2020
From the Romans to Calatrava,
Valencia blossoms in the sun
Some weeks before the outbreak of Covid-19 or the Corona Virus pandemic, before Italy and Spain went into ‘lockdown’ and virtual isolation, I spent a few carefree days in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain.
I was conscious that week that back in Ireland there was snow, ice and freezing temperatures. But in Valencia, the oranges were ripening on the trees, the skies were blue, and the temperatures were in the high teens.
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 similarities with Barcelona, which I visited four years ago, are striking. Both Mediterranean ports have large harbours full of cruise ships, pretty beachfront promenades, atmospheric Gothic cores, picturesque central markets, and attractive, futuristic architecture.
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.
The port city of Valencia is on Spain’s south-east Orange Blossom Coast, where the Turia River meets the Mediterranean Sea. There are several beaches as well as Albufera park, a wetlands reserve with a lake and walking trails.
Roman and ‘Modernista’ architecture
Valencia was founded as a Roman colony in 138 BCE. Its historic centre is one of the largest in Spain, covering about 169 hectares. The city 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 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 the cathedral, which is the centrepiece of the old town and 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.
One of the first places I visited in the city was Valencia Cathedral, which is almost 800 years old. It is said to have been consecrated in 1238 by Archbishop Pere d’Albalat of Tarragona after the Reconquista or Christian conquest of Valencia, and was dedicated to Saint Mary on the orders of James I the Conqueror.
However, this was a site of religious worship from many centuries earlier. At first, a Roman temple stood here, later the Visigoths built a cathedral here, and this was converted into a mosque by the Moors.
There is evidence that some decades after the Christian conquest of Valencia, the mosque-cathedral remained standing, even with Quranic inscriptions on the walls, until 1262. Hypothetically, the mosque corresponded to the current transepts of the cathedral, the ‘Apostles’ Gate’ would be the entrance to the mosque, and the Almoina (‘alms’) gate the mihrab.
Most of Valencia Cathedral was built between the 13th century and the 15th century. Pope Alexander VI was born Rodrigo de Borja near Valencia and he was still a cardinal when he petitioned the Pope to make the Bishop of Valencia an archbishop. Pope Innocent VIII granted the request in 1492, shortly before Rodrigo de Borja became Pope. The cathedral was burned during the Spanish Civil War and many of its decorative features were lost.
Holy grail or pious tale?
The cathedral’s greatest treasure is a chalice said to be the true Holy Grail. This chalice with Arabic inscriptions was given to the cathedral by king Alfonso V of Aragon in 1436. This chalice is held in the Chapel of the Holy Grail, where it continues to attract pilgrims.
It is most likely that it was produced in a Palestinian or Egyptian workshop between the 4th century BC and the 1st century AD. However, an inventory said to date from AD 262, says the cha
A later inventory, dated 1134, describes the chalice as the one in which ‘Christ Our Lord consecrated his blood.’
The chalice has been used during visits to Valencia by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
In the heart of Valencia, Santos Juanes is a Roman Catholic church in the Mercat neighbourhood. The church is also known as the Church of the two Saint Johns, or Saint John of the Market, because it is beside the Central Market and faces the Llotja de la Seda or Silk Exchange.
The two Saint Johns named in the dedication are Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist.
A church was first built here on the site of a former mosque in 1240, two years after the conquest of Valencia by King James and his Christian armies. This follows a pattern found throughout the city, and the church is one of the so-called ‘foundational parishes’ in Valencia.
The ‘Sistine Chapel’ of Valencia
But the ‘Baroque Jewel’ of Valencia must be the Church of San Nicolás de Bari and San Pedro Mártir, which has been called the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of Valencia. Pope Callixtus III (1455-1458), also known as Alfonso de Borja, was the Rector of the Church of San Nicolás from 1418 and Bishop of Valencia from 1429 before becoming Pope in 1455.
The church is tucked away quietly in the streets of the old town, and is almost hidden from view in a laneway off Calle Caballeros, adding to the surprise awaiting visitors. Inside, it is one of the finest examples of a Gothic church with baroque decorations. Frescoes and plasterwork cover the entire interior, from small pilasters in chapels, to the walls, apse and vaulted ceiling, creating a visual and colour spectacle.
The frescoes were designed by Antonio Palomino in 1694 and completed ten years later by his pupil Dionis Vidal in 1704.
Markets and railway stations
The Central Market or Mercado Central is an imposing modernist building built in 1928 on the site of one of Spain’s oldest food markets. It may be the most beautiful covered food market I have ever visited. The vast Modernista structure of iron and glass is brilliantly ornamented with luminous ceramic tiles.
Vividly coloured glass windows and cupolas house hundreds of vendors and stalls selling over extraordinary fruits, vegetables, spices, nuts, candy, bread, wine and cheeses, making the market a riot of colour, sounds and smells.
Beside the Mercado Central, La Lonja or the Silk Exchange is an imposing late Gothic Monument to the mercantile power of Valencia. This splendid building is a Unesco World Heritage site and is one of Spain’s finest examples of a civil Gothic building.
La Lonja was built as the city’s silk and commodities exchange and was designed by the architect Pere Compte. It was built in the late 15th century, when Valencia was booming.
The main entrance was the Puerta de las Pecados or the ‘door of sin,’ is decorated with tendrils and figures on both sides. The name was a warning merchants about the dangers of sharp business practices.
The Estació del Nord or North Station is the main railway station in Valencia. The entrance is on Calle de Xàtiva in the city centre next to the city’s bullring, just a 200-metre walk from the city hall.
The station was designed by the Valencian architect Demetrio Ribes Marco, and was built in 1906-1917. It is one of the main works of Valencian Art Nouveau and walking into the entrance hall is like stepping back in time. This is a grandiose, Modernista-style building and it is a visual feast of colours, with ceramic mosaics and vegetable, flower, orange tree and orange blossom motifs decorating every square metre.
The Plaza de Toros, beside the Estación del Norte, is Valencia’s bullring, built in 1850-1859. It was designed in the neoclassical style by the Valencian architect Sebastián Monleón Estellés, who was inspired by the Colosseum in Rome and the Arena of Nîmes in France.
I have been a pacifist and a vegetarian all my adult life, so I have no fondness for or interest in bullrings. Indeed, the only bullrings I have enjoyed visiting are small squares in Wexford and Drogheda. But the Plaza de Toros in Valencia is an eye-catching building, formed by a 48-sided polygon, with 384 external arches, and a capacity for around 10,500 people.
The Alameda is a green riverbed that that snakes through the ancient city but has been drained and is full of lawns and gardens.
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.
One of the results is the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, the City of Arts and Sciences, designed by the Valencian-born architect, Santiago Calatrava, and Felix Candela. They have produced a cultural complex of glittering glass structures that soars above the waterfront, and it covers 350,000 square metres on the former riverbed of the River Turia.
This is one of the best-known works by Calatrava. Although it has not been without its controversies, it has become the most important modern tourist destination in Valencia and is one of the ‘12 Treasures of Spain,’ alongside the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, Seville Cathedral, the Alhambra in Granada, the Cathedral of Santiago Compostela and Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
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.
The whole complex was originally budgeted at €300 million, but it has cost nearly three times the initial expected cost, and many people in Valencia complain about both the costs and the many design flaws that have involved continuous, major repairs.
Despite the critics, this is a fascinating and captivating work of art, architecture and engineering. It is not one building, but a collection of buildings and facilities.
Yet, one of the real architectural pleasures of Valencia is the collection of narrow, cobbled streets and small squares, lined with small shops, cafés, restaurants and colourful buildings. It is truly worth taking time to sit down and simply watch life passing by.
This three-page feature was first published in May 2020 in the ‘Church Review,’ the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazine