04 February 2020

The architectural pleasures
of walking around the streets
and squares of Valencia

The dome in the Valencia’s Central Market, the Mercado Central (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The architectural delights during my visit to Valencia last week included the cathedral, some of the city’s many historic churches, the heart of the city’s former Jewish quarter, the City of Arts and Sciences or Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, designed by Valencia’s world-renown architect Santiago Calatrav.

But there many other architectural delights too – too many to take in a short, two-day visit. So, this is merely a taste of some of the other buildings I enjoyed in Valencia:

The Mercado Central was built in 1928 on the site of one of Spain’s oldest food markets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

1, The Mercado Central

Valencia’s Central Market, the Mercado Central, an imposing modernist building dating from the early 20th century, built in 1928 on the site of one of Spain’s oldest food markets.

This 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, meaning the market is a riot of colour, sounds and smells.

But you’ve got to get there early in the day, because it is closed by mid-afternoon.

The courtyard in La Lonja, the former Silk Market (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

2, La Lonja, The Silk Market

La Lonja, or Silk Market, beside the Mercado Central, 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 designed by the architect Pere Compte. It was built in the late 15th century, at a time when Pere Compte was at the peak of his career and 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.

Two main buildings flank the inner courtyard filled with orange trees that were in full fruit when I visited last week.

The Sala de Contratación is a magnificent room, with twisted columns and Gothic windows with intricate tracery. This was the centre of the silk and wool trade, of banking and commerce.

The Consulado del Mar was the seat of a tribunal adjudicating on maritime mercantile cases. The ground floor chamber has a fine Renaissance ceiling, the Sala Dorada on the top floor has an artesonado or intricately decorated, 15th century wooden ceiling.

The Estació del Nord or North Station, designed by the Valencian architect Demetrio Ribes Marco (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

3, Estación del Norte:

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. Before its completion, trains used to run right through the main doorways of the unfinished building to their final destination at what’s now the Town Hall Square.

The building is one of the main works of Valencian Art Nouveau and was listed as an Historical Artistic Monument in 1961 and a Cultural Heritage site 1987.

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 main foyer is decorated with ceramic mosaics and murals, with mosaics wishing travellers bon voyage in a variety of languages. The wooden ticket booths have survived, and there are ceramic paintings by Gregorio Muñoz Dueñas in an exhibition room to the right of the main entrance.

Although the station is on the south side of the inner city, its name come from the Caminos de Hierro del Norte de España (Railways of the North of Spain), the railway company that built it and opened it in 1917. The company was later nationalised and incorporated into RENFE, and later separated into Adif, the company that now runs and owns it. The station has millions of passengers each year.

The city hall gives its name to Plaza del Ayuntamiento (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

4, The City Hall:

The Plaza del Ayuntamiento is the central hub of the city and many buses terminate outside the handsome, neoclassical Ayuntamiento or city hall, which gives its name to the square.

Inside the city hall is the city museum, the Museo Histórico Municipal, where the exhibits include the sword said to have been held by James I when he conquered the city from the Moors.

The Palacio de Comunicaciones is the main post office in Valencia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

5, The Post Office ‘Palace’:

Across the square from the City Hall, the Post Office has a magnificent dome and a grand interior. The official name of the building is the Palacio de Comunicaciones, although the inscription on its façade has led to it being known as the Edificio de Correos y Telégrafos, or the Posts and Telegraphs Building.

The palace was officially by King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia at the beginning of the 20th century and was completed in 1923.

The Palau de Musica towers over the linear park on the dry riverbed of the Turia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

6, Palau de Música

A short walk from Calatrava’s Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències, the Palau de Musica towers over the linear park on the dry riverbed of the Turia.

This is a beautiful concert hall, hosting mainly classical-music recitals. Beautiful fountains that perform a display to music, synchronising the water jets in time which each crescendo and every beat. This is amazing to watch and often happens around mid-day, but I missed this during my visit last week.

(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

7, The Bull Ring:

The Plaza de Toros, beside the Estación del Norte, is Valencia’s bullring. It was 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.

When it was built, the arena was outside the city walls, near the Ruzafa Gate. It is an early example of a building that used cast iron columns that provide remarkable transparency in the boxes.

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. It is formed by a 48-sided polygon, with 384 external arches, and a capacity for around 10,500 people.

The Archbishop’s Palace, facing the Romanesque south doorway of Valencia Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

8, The Archbishop’s Palace

The Archbishop’s Palace, facing the Romanesque south doorway of Valencia Cathedral, dates back to the 13th century, although only the pointed arches survive from the original building.

The palace stands on the site a grain market during the time of the Moors. It is simple in design, with an inside cloister and a handsome chapel. The arch that connects it the palace with the cathedral was built in 1357.

Continuous pillaging and many fires made it necessary to rebuild this palace in the 20th century, although the earlier chapel and cloister have survived. There are portraits of the Archbishops of Valencia in the council chamber.

La Puerta del Mar was built in 1946 in imitation of the city gate that once stood on the site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

9, The City Walls and Gates

Over 1,000 years ago, a formidable set of city walls and 12 monumental gates defended Valencia against marauders and invading armies. Today, the medieval walls have disappeared, although two gates survive: the Torres de Serranos to the north, and the Torres de Quart to the west.

To the east, La Puerta del Mar (or ‘Gateway to the Sea’) was built in 1946 in imitation of the city gate that once stood on the site. The original gate was built in 1801 and demolished in 1867, along with a large part of the original city wall. The gate replaced a mediaeval one that actually stood nearer to the river. Both were inspired by the triumphal arches of the Romans.

The Plaça del Doctor Collado is a charming square lined with cafés and colourful buildings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

10, The streets and squares of Valencia

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.

Colourful shoes for walking around the colourful squares and cobbled streets of Valencia? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Calatrava’s architectural
masterpiece in Valencia
triumphs over all criticism

The City of Arts and Sciences, designed by Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela, is one of the ‘12 Treasures of Spain’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

On my first day in Valencia last week, I naturally went in search of the cathedral, some of the historic churches, and the heart of the city’s former Jewish quarter.

But, perhaps, the most interesting area to visit from an architectural point of view came on the second day when I spent a morning at the City of Arts and Sciences or Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències.

This cultural and architectural complex covers 350,000 square metres on the former riverbed of the River Turia. It is one of the best-known works by Valencia’s world-renown architect Santiago Calatrava, and 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.’

The other 12 treasures include the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, Seville Cathedral, Alhambra in Granada, the Cathedral of Santiago Compostela, and Gaduí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

The architect Santiago Calatrava, who was born in Valencia in 1951, is known world-wide for his public projects such as bridges, stations, museums and stadiums skills in painting and sculpting. He worked on the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències in Valencia with the Madrid-born architect Félix Candela (1910-1997), who designed the underwater city L’Oceanografic.

After a catastrophic flood in 1957, the former riverbed of the River Turia which was drained and rerouted, and the old riverbed was turned into a picturesque, sunken park.

L’Hemisfèric, the first building in the complex, was completed in 1998 and is centrepiece of the complex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The City of Arts and Sciences was designed by Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela. The first stages of the project began in 1996, and it was inaugurated in 1998 with the opening of L’Hemisfèric. The last major component of the City, el Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, was inaugurated in 2005.

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.

The centrepiece of the complex is L’Hemisfèric, completed in 1998. The building includes an IMAX cinema, a planetarium and a laser show.

The building, with a surface of 13,000 sq m, resembles an unblinking, heavy-lidded, giant eye, or the ‘eye of knowledge.’ Its design resembles an eyelid that opens to access the surrounding water pool. The bottom of the pool is glass, creating the illusion of the eye as a whole. The dome or the iris of the eye is a theatre.

El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe, an interactive museum of science, stretches like the giant skeleton of a whale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe opened in 2000. This is an interactive museum of science and stretches like the giant skeleton of a whale within the city. It occupies around 42,000 sq m on three floors, including 26,000 sq m of exhibition space, the largest in Spain.

The landscaped walk at the top of L’Umbracle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

L’Umbracle (2001) is a 320 m long, 60 m wide, portal that links the buildings in the park, but it also includes a car park and offices. On top of this building, a landscaped walk includes 55 fixed arches and 54 floating arches that stand 18 m high, like a feathery ribbed roof.

Here is a collection of plants and trees carefully picked to change colour with each season, and a changing collection of free-standing sculptures. The garden includes 99 palm trees, 78 small palm trees, 62 bitter orange trees, 42 varieties of shrubs, 450 climbing plants, 5,500 ground cover plants and over 100 aromatic plants.

L’Oceanogràfic (2003) is an open-air oceanographic park and the largest oceanographic aquarium in Europe with 110,000 sq m and 42 million litres of water. It was built in the shape of a water lily and is the work of architect Félix Candela, whose concepts here are reminiscent of Antoni Gaudí’s work in Barcelona.

El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia broods over the riverbed like a giant beetle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia (2005) broods over the riverbed like a giant beetle, its shell shimmering with translucent, mosaic tiles. This is an opera house and a performing arts centre, surrounded by 87,000 sq m of landscape and water, as well as 10,000 sq m of walking area.

The Palau de Les Arts has four sections: the main hall, the master hall, the auditorium, and the Martin y Soler theatre. The building has a metallic feather outer roof that rests on two supports and is 230 m long and 70 m high.

El Pont de l’Assut de l’Or with L’Oceanogràfic in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

El Pont de l’Assut de l’Or (2008) is a white cable-stayed bridge crossing the dry Turia riverbed, connecting the south side with Minorca Street, in between El Museu de les Ciències and L’Agora. The tower of the bridge, at 125 m high, is the highest point in Valencia.

L’Àgora was inaugurated in 2011 but has still not been completed. One guidebook describes is as ‘poking out of the ground like a giant purple mussel.’ This covered plaza hosts concerts, sporting events, exhibitions, conventions and congresses.

Dame Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971), Irish-born scientist, Quaker, pacifist, prison reformer and scientist, celebrated in an exhibition on women scientists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The ‘City of Sciences’ has beset by controversy from the beginning. The conservative Popular Party dismissed it as a ‘work of the pharaohs’ that would serve only to swell the ego of the Socialists, the driving forces behind the initiative. But later Popular Party governments expanded the complex beyond the original project and the enormous cost threatened to bankrupt Valencia.

The Palau de les Arts alone went €45 million over budget and has had many structural problems. But a report last year said the economic impact of the complex is €113 million a year and generates 3,509 jobs.

The Palau de les Arts went €45 million over budget (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)