Valencia is a city of sunshine, delicious beaches and exquisite architecture. And yet it really isn’t really sure whether it also wants to be a tourist hotspot. On the whole. it seems to be happy leaving that job to its big brother Barcelona up the coast.
Most resorts would give their suntanned arms and legs for Valencia’s miles of beautifully soft sand caressed by its gentle Mediterranean waves. And yet, the sea front here is largely undeveloped – save for our ostentatiously grand hotel and a paved promenade with more joggers than tourists. There is an untidy row of mediocre bars and restaurants – half of which are closed.
There are no charismatic restaurant proprietors enthusiastically tempting you into their glitzy establishments with offers of freshly caught fish. It’s all a bit lackadaisical and half-hearted. You can look at a menu without being approached and sit down without getting served. Attracting the attention of the waiter requires emergency flares or a very loud horn. And yet when, out of desperation and near starvation you walk up to the bar to order, they pout disapprovingly at your impatience and ask you to sit down.
Unlike many tourist hotspots, Valencia also has a lovely smooth, clean and integrated metro system. Not that this was built to attract tourists. In fact, the ticket machine seemed specifically designed to perplex them. So, when you buy two tickets, you get one ticket, which you have to share. Too bad, I guess, if you lose each other on the escalator.
This morning we took the metro into the old city. It was a tram for a couple of stops, then it slipped underground and we ambled across the platform onto a very similar looking train. We had to endure fresh quality air, comfortable seats, more than sufficient headroom and audible announcements. How I miss the London Underground. The Valencians have a lot to learn about respecting tourists as cattle.
We alighted at Alemeda – a station positioned on the re-claimed river bed that snakes gracefully through the city. After the great floods of 1957, the Turia was diverted south, leaving a wide river floor which is now lush with trees, parkland, football pitches and a pathway from which you can access the city. I think they should drain the Thames – it is hardly an attractive river and think of all of the land that would free up. They could have a children’s playground in front of the House of Parliament.
And so we walked the city of Valencia. It was noisy and full of cars, but to its credit it did have a tourist information centre. “Do you have a map?” I asked the man. He ripped one off the pad on the desk and asked me where I was from. “England” I ventured – thinking in a proper tourist city he would have worked that out all by himself.
We admired and I photographed an endless number of old buildings – with baroque, renaissance and catholic styles and influences. We stopped for brunch in a café right outside the doorway of the mansion of the Marquis of Dos Aguas. This is described as “extreme baroque” (or what we might call “garish”). The doorway is described as a “dripping fantasy in alabaster designed by” (a guy with a long name) “who subsequently went insane”. I could see why. It was like a bad dream – as are so many of those religious murals and paintings.
We were served by a young woman in leather trousers who didn’t have a menu. My wife teased out some croissants and coffee using her cursory command of Spanish. After twenty minutes consuming these and imbibing the dripping fantasy in alabaster, I went inside to pay. The woman in the leather trousers spoke a torrent of Spanish at me like I was a native. My sister has this theory that we are descended from Spaniards on my mother’s side. I am beginning to wonder if she is right. More likely she (the woman in leather trousers, not my sister) had caught secondary insanity from a living with the dripping fantasy in alabaster every day and thought the whole world was still Spanish.
As if to prove me right, when I tried to pay, she gave me someone else’s change. Then she charged me only for the coffee, and finally – due to my expertise in international hand-signals (pointing at the croissants with one hand whilst raising two fingers with the other) – she finally got it right. “Gracios” I offered, fluently and left her to her insanity.
We walked up through the Plaza de la Virgin where there were some enthusiastic young people with musical instruments trying to engage with the crowd about something we didn’t get. To their credit, they did a decent rendition of “Every step you take” whilst we admired the (literally) dripping alabaster fountain with Titon with his eight virgins and their eight pitchers. As we walked on towards the Palau de la Generalitat, an enthusiastic rendition of “Imagine” faded into the distance. Is the only decent music English?
We diverted into La Lonja – a silk market with an extraordinarily high and spacious room upheld by majestic spiral pillars. There was also a spiral staircase, unfortunately closed to potential tourists because the stairs are apparently fixed only to the inside the walls and was not a wrapped around a central pillar, as spiral staircases are meant to be.
We nonchalantly tagged onto group of loudly inquisitive American tourists with their Dutch-sounding guide and laughed with them at rude gargoyles of men with bare buttocks. This is what civilisation descends to when the mighty nations of the world engage in tourism. Valencia is right to be cautious.
We meandered through the impressive covered Mercado Central. I fondly reminisced about the equally glorious Tommyfield Market in my home town of Oldham – tragically burned to the ground before a single tourist ever visited. Here in Valencia, the fresh fish were like dripping alabaster, so white they were almost luminous, and the fruit was as shiny as polished wax. Thankfully-unrecognisable carcasses hung from the charcuterie. We purchased some meat-free pizza slices, grapes and strawberries without a word of Spanish. It is always a thrill to trade directly with the locals.
Outside we hoisted ourselves up on a wall and ate our well-earned lunch. The area was teeming with people. A man played a violin and then unsuccessfully requested unreasonable payment from unwitting spectators gathered in the pavement cafes. We sat near a statuesque young girl with an intent expression staring down the street. Who was she waiting for, and why were they late? After twenty minutes of her barely moving, my wife proposed that she might be a woman of the streets. I wasn’t going to ask.
An older woman was selling green leaves from a shopping trolley – or rather she wasn’t. But she did manage to shift a single net of garlic cloves. Behind the wall we sat on, we could smell mint mingled with stale urine. Tome to walk on and leave the mystery girl still rooted to the spot – ever waiting for whoever or whatever she was hoping – or not hoping – to meet.
We traipsed round more building and more plazas and dodged more cars. We found the banking and hotel area where the pavements glisten with gold. Despite the protests of our feet, we decided to tick off one more of the potential tourist sites and drag them up the cathedral tower. We made them climb 207 spiral steps, each one safely wrapped around a central pillar. My wife was a little breathless.
I was fine until we got to the top when I suffered that familiar sickening vertigo feeling – my throat as tight as a pair of leather trousers and my stomach feeling like a dripping fantasy in alabaster. I dared to snap the traditional panoramic shots of roofs and spires with my eyes half closed – and briefly caught sight of the sea, hiding from the tourists behind ugly tenement flats.
Back at the hotel we ambled out towards the taciturn sea and soothed our weary feet on the silky soft sand, bereft of tourists. We paddled in the cool Mediterranean for a few minutes, and imagined what a great place this would be for a holiday resort, if only it could make its mind up.