Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Valencia

The America’s Cup has put this Spanish gem firmly on the boaters’ map – but its culinary and cultural endowments hold appeal for travellers of all stripes, says Paul Richardson.

August 21 2010
Paul Richardson

Twenty years ago, Valencia was a city you might have heard of, possibly in connection with citrus fruit. You might even have been able to locate it on the map (halfway down Spain’s Mediterranean coast, roughly opposite the island of Ibiza). You would be unlikely to have seen it for yourself, however, since in those days Valencia had few foreign visitors, despite the proximity of the Costa Blanca. A city of some 810,000, it had a handsome old town, a climate as close to perfection as anywhere in Europe, its own traditions and even its own language, Valenciano.

This best-kept-secret state was great while it lasted, as anyone who knew Valencia then will attest. But the 21st-century values of interconnectedness, efficiency and a buzzy brand profile are ones that the new Valencia has gone out of its way to acquire. The high-speed AVE rail link, coming in late 2010/early 2011, will get you here from Madrid in about 90 minutes (two hours off the old journey time), while EasyJet’s non-stops from Gatwick have made it a popular weekend destination from the UK. The choice of Valencia as the seat of the 32nd America’s Cup in 2007 kicked off a drastic sprucing-up campaign (combined with a certain degree of shameless speculation), the fruits of which formed an impressive backdrop for the 33rd Cup this February, which Valencia again hosted. These included contributions from blue-chip architects – Santiago Calatrava and David Chipperfield among them – along with a clutch of hotels suited to an altogether more sophisticated visitor.

Architecturally Valencia has always been well endowed, the harmonious old town replete with baroque churches, renaissance palaces and modernista town houses. Between the Fine Art Museum with its Goyas and Velázquezs, the National Ceramics Museum, the cathedral and the Silk Exchange – a sublime piece of 15th-century civil gothic – the visitor has plenty to be getting along with.

But for a city on the move, the historic stuff was never going to be enough. The Turia riverbed, drained in 1957 after a series of floods, was transformed in the 1980s into a public park with football pitches, woodland and walkways. Now – with the exception of the IVAM, the contemporary art museum inaugurated in 1989, and the brand-new MuVim – the city’s new cultural projects have tended to concentrate here. The Palau de la Música, a streamlined concert hall opened in 1987, is rated one of the country’s great centres of musical excellence; the 2009-2010 programme features soloists of the calibre of Grigory Sokolov and Joshua Bell, and orchestras from the Czech Philharmonic to the LSO.

Then came the heavy guns. Valencia-born Calatrava, starchitect and prolific bridge-builder, devised a plan for the ocean end of the Turia, collectively known as the City of the Arts and Sciences and comprising a science museum, a vast aquarium and an auditorium complex under the name of Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia. With the opera house now up and running, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias is practically complete, and the net result dazzles: soaring ribs of white concrete, lined with plate glass and porcelain, all on a massive scale and flooded with Mediterranean light.

If there is one building in this new complex that succeeds both in style and substance, it is surely the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, which has drawn the cultural centre of gravity several kilometres out of the old town. From outside it’s awe-inspiring – immense, white and futuristic, like some Kubrickian spaceship. But the remarkable stuff is going on inside: four theatres under one roof, including a 1,481-capacity opera house. Under the direction of Helga Schmidt and resident conductors Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta, its brilliant young orchestra has matured into what many critics call Spain’s finest ensemble.

Fans of the “old” Valencia reminisce about the Malvarrosa, the cheerfully tatty seaside zone to which Valencianos still head at weekends to stroll along the boardwalk and eat paella. (Try the excellent example at La Rosa, a beachfront classic, or its swankier uptown equivalent, Casa Roberto.) But here, too, things have changed. The legacy of its new status among the boating fraternities includes the splendid, Chipperfield-designed Veles e Vents (“sails and winds”), the America’s Cup Pavilion; and a spanking-new promenade. Sailors should meanwhile drop in on Velas Lluch, a traditional sail-maker in a hangar-like showroom where everything is still made on site.

Other seaside neighbourhoods are similarly renewing. The Cabanyal district, a charming but ruinous former fishing quarter, may soon be partially bulldozed to make way for a new road. It’s worth strolling through while it still exists in this form – ramshackle, salty and colourful. Stop for a glass of wine and a plate of olives in one of the neighbourhood’s two classic bodegas, Casa Montaña and Casa Guillermo.

The city’s changing fortunes are echoed in a restaurant scene that, while keeping its down-home roots intact (Ca’ Sento, regarded as one of the city’s finest eating places, is a family-run former bar), has witnessed a sudden flowering of modern Valencian cuisine. At La Sucursal, the menú degustación includes such tasteful propositions as roast tomato infusion with marinated shrimp and cucumber frappé, and red mullet loin with a herb crust and red pepper caviar. Torrijos is luxurious yet essentially simple, a place where the original chef’s daughter and son-in-law faithfully maintain the house style in such dishes as sole with saffron sauce, poached egg with truffle and Ibérico ham, and cinnamon sponge with quince ice cream. And at Arrop, chef Ricard Camarena marries rice, fish, fresh fruits and veg from the surrounding floodplain farms in unexpected and delightful ways: salted tuna with grapes and green pepper jus was a particular standout.

The hotel scene, while not as vibrant as it should be, has also greatly improved in recent years. In the port area, a clutch of properties have opened: the Hotel Neptuno, with its bold, colourful public areas and roof-terrace bar, and the massive Balneario Las Arenas, a 19th-century bathing club remade as a slick full-service resort, are the two most worthy. The Spanish Hospes group has brought its hallmark sleek luxury to a stately 19th-century town house, christened Palau de la Mar.

There is also the Westin Valencia, housed in a grand modernista building near the Turia park. As with its brand stablemates, this Westin doesn’t aspire to be the last word in cool design: service is the order of the day, and is first rate. The interior is soft-edged modern, with muted tones of brown, taupe, and cream, the exception being the Suite Real, a hilarious (if not impeccably tasteful) interpretation of no-holds-barred glamour that appeals to English pop stars and Hollywood actors.

Valencia is like that – conventional bourgeois taste punctuated by blasts of the eye-popping or outrageous. This manifests in its range of curious emporia, from mad-rag boutiques such as Linda Vuela a Rio, trading in Spain’s emerging designers, to Antonio Pérez Sanleón in the Calle Purísima, a venerated dealer of florid antiques from the baroque to the 19th century. And a visit to Valencia’s famous Central Market – at 8,000sq m one of the largest in Spain – is a must, its sheer, delicious sensory overload offering a striking contrast with the gothic sobriety of the Silk Exchange across the street. (On the subject of food marts, the Mercado de Colón has been recently reborn as a high-class foodie grazing zone, while the grocer Mantequerías Vicente Castillo is a compendium of all that’s best in the local gastronomy.)

Where Valenciano baroque as a style takes on its fullest significance, however, is La Gloria del Barroco, an exhibition centred on three old-town churches – San Juan de la Cruz, San Esteban and San Martin Obispo – linked by a painted walkway through the city’s streets. The interiors glitter with gilt, fresco and tiles. Naves are exhibition spaces filled with painting and sculpture, jewellery and furniture – including masterpieces by Francisco Ribalta and José de Ribera, followers of Caravaggio who brought chiaroscuro to Valencia in the early 17th century. To gaze at San Juan de la Cruz’s dazzle of gold and white is a reminder that baroque is architectural theatre of undeniable power; while at San Esteban, the sky-blue esgrafiat ceiling, with its flying cherubs, is a rich mixture designed to shock and awe – and it succeeds.

High on the wall outside San Martin Obispo, restorers found a trio of figures holding up a buttress. Grimy and obscured, they had lain unnoticed for years; now cleaned and restored, they’re the pride of town. Somewhere here lies a metaphor for Valencia itself – enthusiastic regeneration, not for its own sake, but to enhance the beauty and value of what already exists.