Valencia, City of Contrasts
So remember the other day, when Tina was thrilling with you to the amazing sights and cultural depth of Madrid? Or when she was rhapsodizing over the richness and color of Seville? How she made it sound like our times in Spain were on an amazing streak that seemed to be without end?
Great! Hang onto that for, like, the equivalent of three days. That’s because I’m going to talk to you about Valencia, which is the third-largest city in Spain and also our third(ish) destination. To help bring that to life for you as a tourist, here are some other third-largest cities:
- Manchester, England
- Calgary, Canada
- Naples, Italy
- Chicago, United States
All of which, you know — not bad when you think about it, but all sharing a certain set of common characteristics: long-settled, not the wealthiest or most prosperous, of an industrial background, perhaps not the first place people would go on visits to those countries.
I mean, sorry Calgary, but let’s face facts. People in Ohio are not thumbing through tourist guides over dinner some night and thinking, “I can’t wait to visit the 1988 Olympic torch site, I really can’t! Why can’t I go now?”
So in retrospect, perhaps we devoted a little more time to Valencia than we should have — but there was romance driving our decision. Valencia has oranges named after it! It’s the traditional home of paella, the rich roasted rice and meat dish that is practically mandatory on a trip to Spain. And there’s the ocean, besides! How could we go wrong (even though it basically sounded like an Iberian Marseille)?
Perhaps the first thing that struck both Tina and me about Valencia was how modern it felt, but not in the space-age-flying-cars kind of way. Rather, the city has a bustling (in the European sense of the word) yet modest atmosphere, which neither screams out to tourists to pay attention, nor conveys any earnest attempt to impress.
Our hotel was roughly 100 yards away from the main port, former site of both the 2007 and 2010 America’s Cups, with facilities built especially for the events. And if you’re the type of person who will wear dri-fit Polo shirts, drape a cotton sweater over you shoulders, and absolutely geek out over hull profiles (of which we did see more than a few), then Valencia has something for you.
However, our hotel was also about 100 feet away from neighborhoods that could charitably be described as working class, and that dichotomy — the one on display from our hotel window — probably describes Valencia better than anything: a city under careful and progressive, if not exactly urgent, image renovation.
We opted to begin our adventure on the beaches, though it was late in the day and the breeze was rather more stuff than most beach-goers were interested in. Though we weren’t aware of it yet, the beachfront represented everything we would come to know about Valencia — a relatively recent veneer of modern cleanliness that had been laid over old-fashioned, working Spain.
In other words, about one street over from this picture were streets full of unadorned neighborhoods, local schools, hospitals and the sorts of people who seemed genuinely confused to find tourists traipsing by. The usual buffer of shops or hotels or restaurants, the ones that you might find just about anywhere travelers flock, just didn’t exist.
One second, you’re on a beach that hosted throngs of yachting enthusiasts during the America’s Cup; a minute later, we might as well have been walking through a working-class suburb outside of Toronto. It would feel the same if two people with sunburns, cameras and vague smiles walked past our front door as I write this — not bad, necessarily, but disconcerting for all involved.
Eventually though, with a little adventuring and about an afternoon of being lost among three condominium construction sites, we found our way into the centro. We followed one of the most distinctive features of Valencia, the rehabilitated riverbed that runs a roughly 7 km course through the city.
In the late 1950s, a severe flood led to the draining and re-routing of the river Turia around the city, leaving a vast empty spot that ran through the center of town. A plan to build a highway was scrapped in favor of the option to build a series of continuous parks, creating a ribbon of greenery that flows through Valencia’s heart.
Depending on where you happen to be, you can look over what used to be the riverbank and see people taking in sun, riding their bikes, playing on soccer pitches or even attending festivals. And as you cross the bridges, you move into the elder, high-fashion area of the city.
What I am going to do now is show you a picture of two models dancing in a shop window.
No, yeah, no, really, I know, but they’re not mannequins. They’re two pretty young women shaking their booties in a Benneton vestibule to a twenty-second dance music loop, in order to promote a sale on jeggings.
See what I mean about strange opposites? From America’s Cup to empty beach to average working neighborhood to women paid to dance in windows. And it was around every corner.
Same plaza! I’m not saying I expect your head to asplode or anything, but this is what I mean when I suggest a city of contrasts.
The one thing that Valencia was not confused about, however, was the food. Valencia prides itself on authenticity, and claims to the invention of some of Spain’s most traditional dishes. For example, we have horchata, a regional specialty made with the milky juices of freshly ground chufa (tigernut). We had sampled horchata in Madrid’s gourmet markets and Seville’s off-the-map cafes, but they couldn’t hold a tallow taper to the 200 year old institution, Horchateria de Santa Catalina, in the old city’s center.
For about $5 you can sample some of the city’s finest horchata with a farton, the ephemeral and airy pastry finger that locals tear, dunk and savor with their drink. The horchata was medium-sweet, but fresh and as light tasting as ground green almonds. There was no comparison between real, traditional horchata, and the reconstituted-from-powder drink we had just days before, and which Tina insisted on calling, “Poser Juice” for the rest of the trip.
Horchata may be a curious concept to North Americans, but one Spanish dish that everyone has heard of it the very traditional paella, and nobody does paella like Valencia. There is no shortage of paella in Valencia and choosing which restaurant to go to is a challenge, so we took a recommendation and dined at Restaurante L’Estimat. On a trendy strip of fine paella and seafood restaurants overlooking the beach, L’Estimat was certainly no charmer from the outside.
Inside, however, the bright and breezy restaurant was bustling during a busy lunch rush. In addition to a fairly exhaustive a la carte menu, L’Estimat features several fixed price menus for 2+ people. We opted for a traditional 3 course Valencian menu which came with a bottle of wine for 33 Euro per person. We started with mejilones al vapor, mussels which were sweet, plump and unbearably fresh, served rustically with nothing but their own broth and a drizzle of olive oil as dressing. The second course was ensalata Valenciana, a mixed green salad with tomato, egg, olives and tuna.
However, we came for the paella Valenciana, a traditionalsaffron scented rice dish with beans, peppers, rabbit and chicken. The traditional paella pan is heavy cast iron, flat and with a large surface area to maximize the delectable bottom crust which crisps and scorches in the most pickable, moresome kind of way.
The pan was also easily 15″ in diameter. And there were two of us. That’s a lot of paella.
As always, of course, we soldiered through. The meat was slightly dry for my personal taste, but the flavors were rustic, honest and gentle. This was the perfect sharable comfort dish.
For our splurge meal in Valencia, Tina and I headed out to the City of Arts and Sciences to dine at Restaurante Submarino, located inside Oceanografic which is the aquarium complex. When you arrive, make your way downstairs under light fixtures shaped like lily pads….
….and you will be seated inside an underground aquarium, surrounded by thousands of bright, flickering, silvery bream.
Before the first course, the waitress tempted our tastebuds with an amuse bouche of silky and rich foie gras gently sealed with a lid of gellied apple brandy and freshly baked bread.
We chose different dishes for our courses, of course, because Tina feels personally affronted at the thought of going out for dinner and not trying at least 6 different items on the menu. One appetizer was a crawfish tartare with a ‘veil of foie’ and a shellfish cream scented with citronelle. According to Tina, the tartare was rather subdued and had the texture of poached shrimp rather than tartare. The veil of foie gras was absolutely lost in every way except for it’s wonton appearance, and the shellfish cream tasted like bouillabaisse….and not necessarily in the best way possible.
The far superior appetizer was mine, of course, a crab meat roll with avocado, apple, tomato, mini bean sprouts, apple foam and curry oil. As an appetizer, each element could stand alone exquisitely, but together it was a symphony with each bite a different and equally elegant combination.
At least the entrees did not disappoint. First up was perfectly tender monkfish, cooked through but no more, with a black olive crust, grated almonds, sauteed asparagus, smoked Idiazabal cheese, pine nut and “small beak oil”. I have no idea what that means. This dish, however, was an absolute star with intriguing flavor, contrasting texture, rich fish complemented by a briny crust, all swimming over what amounted to a decadent butter sauce on the bottom of the plate. If we came back the next night, Tina would probably have just ordered this dish again. And again.
My entree was wild sea bass with a perfectly crispy skin, served over a bed of zucchini noodles and cockles in an ‘iodized’ cream sauce. Iodized? Really? As one who mercilessly mocks molecular gastronomy, the title didn’t impress me much, but the rich, creamy sauce did, thickened with butter and spotted through with cockles shining through like little gems.
For dessert, we had a hazelnut millefeuille with yogurt sorbet. This was not how one would generally conceptualize a millefeuille, but it was a perfectly competent slab of layered chocolate mousse. The yogurt sorbet, on the other hand, was tart and complex enough to complement the otherwise good, but not great, efforts of the pastry chef.
The surprise dark horse finisher was a caramelized pastry filled with Maria cookies and a coffee and brandy ice cream. The appearance really doesn’t do this dessert justice. The crispy brulee exterior cracked when gently tapped to yield a luscious interior, similar in taste to a souffle-like bread pudding. The heady ice cream was a perfect accompaniment, and this was far and above the best dessert we ate in Spain. Not the prettiest, mind you, but certainly the most soul stroking.
After a meal like that, it was all we could do to waddle through the rest of the aquarium, trying to avoid the instinct to nap.
Finally, you may be drinking sangria and cerveza in Madrid, Cava in Barcelona and sherry in Jerez, but when if you visit Valencia it truly behooves you to try their signature cocktail of Agua de Valencia. This dangerously delicious punch is made with sweetened freshly squeezed orange juice, sparkling Spanish Cava (the Spanish equivalent of a dry champagne), and a knock yer socks off blend of vodka, gin and Cointreau. Muddled with fresh orange slices and served over ice, this is the champions drink for people watching in the plaza as a lazy afternoon slowly floats by.
Or rather, as the afternoon winds into evening and you find yourself surrounded, yet again, by a throng of costumed locals at a festival that you don’t actually understand the purpose of. But you’re sure happy to be there.
Next stop: Barcelona, with all the white sandy beaches, stunningly ornate architecture and brash regional pride that a smitten traveler could ask for.