Though it’s Spain’s third-largest city with a population of nearly a million, Valencia rarely figures on tourist itineraries. I rather contrarily hope it stays that way, since it’s a real charmer and one of the most fascinating cities in Europe. Not only is the Old Quarter enchanting, the new districts of town showcase some of the most exciting avant-garde architecture in Europe. Valencia is also a superb destination for food lovers. Famous for its paella, the rice dish garnished with meat, seafood or vegetables, it also has some of the best contemporary restaurants in Spain.
Being a major train buff, I also love dropping down to Valencia on the Euromed from Barcelona. This exceptionally comfortable high-speed train makes the journey in three hours, hugging the coast for most of it and thus offering one of the most beautiful train rides in Europe. I enjoy arriving at Valencia’s romantic Estación del Norte, which is in the same league as New York’s Grand Central as a brilliant piece of civil engineering.
Its pedestrian-level fittings are made of Cuban mahogany, and its exterior is decorated with fetching mosaics of pretty señoritas working in the citrus groves. I never walk through this modernista (early 19th-century) masterpiece without thinking of the first time I passed through Valencia.
Suffice to say that in 1982, going from Barcelona to Seville took the better part of a day, and after catching a very early train south after a lively and late night on the town, I dozed off as soon as it left the station. The next thing I knew, I was staring out the window at a scene of mayhem.
The train had stopped and the people on the platform were wearing bizarre papier-mâché masks and carrying peculiar-looking statues. Our empty carriage quickly filled with excited Valencianos, who generously offered this bewildered traveler his first churro, extruded choux pastry cooked in olive oil and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar (not recommended for anyone with a hangover).
Little did I know that I’d just caught a glimpse of Valencia’s liveliest and most colorful festival, Las Fallas (“The Fires”), a five-day March celebration of Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. Reminiscent of Mardi Gras, it’s at once wilder and more devout. As I discovered some years later, it’s one of the most passionately interesting carnivals held anywhere in Europe, and so March is an ideal time to visit the city. Should you miss Las Fallas, you can still get a glimpse of the antic fun of the festival by visiting Valencia’s Las Fallas Museum, where the best ninots, or papier-mâché statues, are exhibited.
Located a few miles inland from the Mediterranean, Valencia is a compact city that’s easy to get around on foot or by bicycle (rent one from Valencia Guias), since it has many well-marked bike paths. The Old Quarter, or the neighborhoods once enclosed by the original walls, is surrounded by handsome residential districts with lavish modernista villas. The former bed of the Turia River (after floods in 1957, the river was diverted) has been landscaped into a popular park that’s filled with gardens, paths and playing fields.
Valencia’s most famous building, the magnificent Lonja de la Seda, or old Silk Exchange, is a fantastical 15th-century building with a magnificent great hall supported by spiral-carved stone columns, and the nearby La Seo, Valencia’s cathedral, dates to 1262 and is a fascinating mixture of Romanesque, Gothic and baroque architecture. This church overlooks the Plaza de la Virgen, a busy fountain square with wrought-iron gas lamps and rows of orange trees; lined with busy cafés, this is a great place to settle in and watch the world go by.
Following the 2007 America’s Cup, Valencia’s formerly dull hotel offerings improved considerably. Unless you want to be at the beach, my favorite is the 66-room Hospes Palau de la Mar, which occupies a handsome modernista townhouse on the edge of the old town. In Hospes’ signature style, the hotel has dramatic modern décor and furnishings, including lots of top-flight Italian furniture.
Valencia has plenty of new to mix with the old. Local-born architect Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences, which contains a science museum, IMAX cinema and oceanographic park, is a stunning structure that looks like the sun-bleached skeleton of a whale. It’s a stark contrast to the Old Quarter and shows off Valencia’s love of avant-garde architecture. Other spectacular modern buildings include the aquarium by Felix Candela and the new annex of the Valencia Institute of Modern Art (IVAM) by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa.
This is also one of Europe’s great food cities. In the heart of the Old Quarter, wander the beautiful Gaudí-esque Mercado Colon to familiarize yourself with the local larder, especially the ingredients of an authentic paella. This dish, born in Valencia and the city’s gastronomic signature, has been as badly abused by foreign cooks as Naples’ beloved pizza. For Valencianos, an authentic paella can only be made with short-grained Spanish rices such as Senia or Bomba.
Try the dish at a legendary Valencia paella house such as Casa Roberto ( Maestro Gozalbo 19, Tel. 34-96-395-1361, $50) or La Pepica ( Paseo Neptuna 6, Tel. 34-96-371-0366, $55), founded in 1898 and a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. Here, you’ll discover that the rice is just the essential backdrop of this dish, which is made by sautéing chicken and rabbit in olive oil, then adding broad beans, a few snails, maybe some tomato purée and finally the rice with hot chicken stock, saffron and sea salt.
Other excellent restaurants here include Albacar (Sorni 35, Tel. 34-96-395-10-05, $75), where well-known local chef Tito Albacar does first-rate paella and fideu, a variation of paella made with stubby vermicelli. We also like Riff ( Conde Altea 18, Tel. 34-96-333-53-53, $80), where German-born chef Bernd Knöller does delicious modern Mediterranean dishes such as chilled vegetable soup with marinated sardines and John Dory filet with cuttlefish fideu. Perhaps the trendiest table in town is Ca’Sento (Méndez Núñez 17, Tel. 34-96-330-17-75), where Raúl Aleixandre, who trained with celebrated chef Ferran Adrià, offers boldly creative dishes such as cannelloni stuffed with dátiles del mar (sea dates, or rare mollusks that live inside rocks on the seabed).