Our first stop on a little road trip from Carcassonne to the Costa Blanca of Spain (about which in an upcoming post…) was the city of Valencia. As in Valencia oranges. But more about the oranges in due course.

Our intention was to get a taste of this coastal city, to see if we’d like to return later for more. Just a day and a half visit. We arranged a walking tour through WithLocals.com. We met in front of Valencia’s main train station, the Estació del Nord. It turned out that this was a private tour — just our guide and the two of us. We were delighted at the prospect of having the guide all to ourselves. We could ask all our questions; and we had so many questions.

Alas, our guide didn’t have as many answers as we had questions. He is a son of Valencia, a self-described foodie and proud valenciano. But remarkably unprepared for more than the surface info about buildings and history. We are very good at helping a reticent guide by gently suggesting topics: Why was there a burst of construction at the start of the 20th century? What food dishes are uniquely and proudly Valencian? It’s interesting that the bull-fighting ring is right here next to the rail station, isn’t it? Why is the Holy Grail supposed to be in the medieval cathedral? What was it like to grow up in Valencia?

We couldn’t get him to bite at anything. Sigh. He led us on a path through the historic heart of Valencia, keeping us company. Afterwards, our questions hanging unanswered, we did our own research online. Which we now serve up along with photos from our walk. 

This post and the next focus on historic Valencia. The one after these will focus on a futuristic slice of the city.

A dose of historical context first: As always in this part of the world, Valencia goes waaaay back. It was founded as a Roman colony in 138 BCE. Islamic rule and acculturation began in the 8th century CE, with Christians pushing back in in the 13th century. Muslims, Christians and Jews lived for the most part in their own districts of the city: together, but not together. At the end of the 15th century, the Christians pushed the Jews out; by the end of the 17th century, the Christians had expelled the remaining Muslims. Lots of turmoil and conflict, but the result is a city rich in heritage.

Context provided, so: ¡Vamos!

Our meeting point of the tour was in front of the main train station, the Estació del Nord. In many European cities, major train stations date from the second half of the 19th century; this one was inaugurated in 1917. This was the first spark for our questions, “Why so late? What happened in the early 20th century to transform Valencia?” Silence from our guide! Some hints at the answer will come as we “walk” through the city.

The fun of this train station is its exuberant local version of Art Nouveau or Viennese Secession. These are architectural styles that bubbled up in the 1880s and 1890s in response, in part, to the brutality of the industrial revolution. For inspiration, Art Nouveau artists and architects looked to the nature around them: plants, vines, leaves, flowers, water. The architect of this train station, Demetrio Ribes, looked to the personality of Valencia. Among the most obvious emblems are the oranges on the facade and in the interiors. Production of ceramics, including ceramic mosaics, is a proud tradition of the Valencia region. Architect Ribes and his team of artisans obviously reveled in this colorful medium.

Right next to the Estació del Nord, we see the exterior of the city’s bullring, Plaza de Toros de Valencia. Our guide didn’t say a thing about the bullring (which was built between 1850 and 1860). But here it is, right in the heart of the city. 

Isn’t bullfighting part of the Spanish identity? One Spanish source says, “…Bullfighting (the set of artistic and productive activities, including the breeding and selection of the fighting bull, which converges in the modern bullfight) is a relevant expression of the traditional culture of the Spanish people and is part of our Immaterial Cultural Heritage.” 

However, where we live in southern France, bullfighting also has a long history, and its practice is fiercely controversial. From our first visits to our region, we saw graffiti against “Corrida,” which is the southern French term for the bullfighting culture. Bullfighting is still legal in a few parts of southern and southwestern France — although not without strong efforts for a ban throughout the country. 

We’ve learned that, in Spain, in recent years, less than 10% of the Spanish population even attends a bullfight. 20% don’t even know the rules. And yet, more than 9000 bulls die during bullfights in Spain each year. Bullfighting is not permitted in Catalonia, the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands. There are still bullfights in the Plaza de Toros de Valencia. “The bullfighting season in Valencia is divided into three parts: the Fallas Fair, which is held every year in March, and ends on March 19; the July Fair, in the summer, and some spare bullfights in May, through Corpus Christi, and in October.”  

The Guardian newspaper noted in an article in August 2022 the steep decline in interest in bullfighting in Spain. “Most bullrings occupy prime, city-centre real estate and the logical thing would be to demolish them and build something more useful. However, even those that are not listed as being of architectural interest remain just as much an essential feature of the urban fabric of Spain’s cities and towns as the town hall and the cathedral.”  

Perhaps it is because of all this deep history and controversy that our guide chose not to call attention to the Plaza de Toros de Valencia.

From the Estació del Nord and the Plaza de Toros de Valencia, we strolled along the Avenida del Marqués de Sotelo to the Plaça de l’Ajuntament, or City Hall Plaza.

Our guide pointed to the symmetric facade of the Town Hall; more specifically, to the elaborate crest of the city at the base of the tower. And the significant creature atop the crest. Calling Batman?

It turns out that the bat is a symbol of the city. It’s even a prominent part of the logo for the Valencia Club de Fútbol. But why?

The classic legend is that a bat helped James I of Aragon lead the Christians to victory over the Moors in the 13th century. A bat landed on his flag (or was it his tent?) before he entered the city where he was victorious. He interpreted the arrival of the bat as a very good sign.

Or maybe it’s something much more practical: Valencia was built on a swamp adjacent to a mosquito-infested lake. Bats ravenously dine on mosquitos. There’s an estimate that bats keep two-thirds of the neighborhood mosquitos from getting to the skin of valencianos and tourists alike.

Taking our eyes away from the Valencian bat, we turn 360 degrees to take in the Plaça de l’Ajuntament. This plaza is the heart of commercial and institutional Valencia. It’s a vast triangular urban space, defined by grand and heavy neoclassical buildings.

A five-lane boulevard runs along one side of the plaza; the rest is car-free. It turns out that this pedestrian-dominated situation is a byproduct of the pandemic. During the eerily quiet times of the early pandemic, the city closed off the plaza to give residents more space outside with lots of social distancing. There had long been plans to reduce cars in the space, but they had never been politically successful; local merchants and residents refused to give up car access. Once vaccines and masking were succeeding, when the city started coming back to life, city officials just didn’t rescind the pedestrianization of the plaza. We don’t know specifically, but it sounds like urban planners saw a silver lining and locked it in.

As we took in the most prominent buildings around the Plaça de l’Ajuntament, we realized that this place isn’t terribly old.

While the core of the current Town Hall, or L’Ajuntament, dates back to the 18th century, the symmetrical facade we see today was built around 1910.

The Correos y Telégrafos, or Post and Telegraph Office, was designed in 1915; its iron telegraph tower atop the rambunctious classical facade celebrated the high-tech of its day.

The 1920s was a prosperous time for the city of Valencia, and the Banco de Valencia building was built at the peak of this booming age

Slightly beyond the Central Post Office is the Ateneo Mercantil, a building designed for an association of merchants by the architects Cayetano Borso di Carminati and Emilio Artal during the 1940s (although the association itself has actually been in existence since 1879).

So the center of town is a creation of the early 20th century. Why then? The answer brings us to oranges! (Are you surprised?)

OK, but for you Americans, a Valencia orange at Safeway is actually a sweet orange cultivar named after the famed oranges in Valencia, Spain. It was first hybridized by pioneer American agronomist and land developer William Wolfskill in the mid-19th century on his farm in Santa Ana, southern California.

Long before California innovations, the oranges actually from Valencia had changed lives of Northern Europeans as well as those of the valencianos. The Moors brought the first oranges to Valencia in the 10th century. Commercialization of oranges — establishment of orange tree plantations — began in the 18th century, but mostly for the European aristocracy. In the mid 19th century, the advent of steam trains and ships brought these vitamin-C-rich fresh fruits to Britain and northern Europe. By the end of the century, Valencian sweet oranges and mandarins became the winter fruit of choice from the south of France to Scandinavia.

Here’s where we get to big Plaça de l’Ajuntament: Orange production and export had a profound effect on the Valencian economy. The orange trade financed huge urban development projects in the city. The Plaza del Ayuntamiento with its modern “European style” buildings was developed, the Port was expanded with its new “Modernist” docks, and new public markets and railway stations were built. That’s why orange motifs cover the Estació del Nord and other buildings of the period.

Now that we’ve answered that urban-development conundrum, let’s get something refreshing to drink. Valencian horchata will do just fine, gràcies.

Valencian Horchata is different from the rice horchata (horchata de arroz) consumed in Latin America. Tiger nuts are the basis of this drink even if it looks like it’s a dairy beverage. Tiger nuts are not nuts; they’re a tuber that has been grown in the Mediterranean since at least antiquity. Ironically, this plant has spread around the world as an aggressive weed. But prepared and mixed just right with water, cinnamon, and sugar, it becomes light, fresh and very sweet horchata.

Down the rabbit hole

Horchata-lovers are very enthusiastic, saying:

Horchata is extremely healthy! It contains vitamin C and E and is rich in the minerals phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and iron. It stops any nasty stomach upsets, and everyone can drink it, as it’s free from lactose, casein, and gluten and contains almost no sodium. (But beware: It is very high in calories (100 kcal per 100g).)

It’s good for your eyesight! It’s official. Scientists in Valencia have recently discovered that drinking a little Horchata (or anything else with tiger nut in) every day will keep your eyes healthy, too.

It’s an aphrodisiac! As if you needed another reason to try it, locals swear that Horchata is much more potent than oysters, chocolate, or any other supposed aphrodisiacs out there. And who are we to argue? Try it and see.

The recipe hasn’t changed since the 13th century! Recipes can vary from one horchateria to the next, but the Horchata imbibed in Valencia today is made using more or less the same simple process and recipe as recorded back in the 13th century, when it was called llet de xufes. (source)

If you’re interested in making your own, here’s a recipe!

– The tiger nuts are washed thoroughly, and when completely clean they are left to soak in cold water for 12-14 hours.
– When the time is up, they are again washed, repeatedly changing the water until completely clear.
– The tiger nuts are then drained in a sieve and are crushed, adding a small amount of water so they do not release oil (They can also be shredded).
– Water and a section of cinnamon stick are added, and they are left in a cool place for 2 hours.
– Then sugar is added, and it is well stirred until completely dissolved and then passed through a wet metal sieve over the colander.
– This produces a milky liquid which is refrigerated in order to be served cold.
– It only lasts for 2 days. (source)

Our guide took us to a particularly attractive Horchatería just off the Plaça de la Reina: Orxateria Santa Catalina (“Orxateria” is the spelling in the Valencian dialect). Orxateria Santa Catalina has been here for two centuries, first as a chocolate shop and now as one of Valencia’s most emblematic horchaterías.

To complement glasses of refreshing horchata, colorful ceramic tiles clad the walls. These relatively modern tiles come from the nearby town of Manises. However, the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, Manises ceramics were celebrated all over Europe for their shiny surfaces and blue edging; they were requested by princes and popes alike.

Part two of our Valencia walk is coming soon…

Paella Valenciana

Valencia is reputed to be the birthplace of paella. You’ve undoubtedly had paella: a platter of rice, some of which is carbonized and crispy; along with seafood and perhaps some vegetables. Well, this isn’t the original paella! Paella is a bit like pizza: you can make it any way you want. 

The first paella was probably cooked around Valencia. Valencia has been one of the most significant rice-producing areas in Spain since rice is brought by Arabs. Indeed the word arroz, rice in Spanish, is derived from Arabic.

The dish paella is, in reality, a perfect union of two cultures in Spain: the Romans for the pan and the Arabs for the rice.The paella pan shape and characteristics are essential for a proper paella. It is always large and round with a flat bottom. The feature that doesn’t change among paella pans is the height; the pan is shallow so that the rice can have as much contact with the bottom as possible. Linguists believe that the word paella comes from the name of the pan it is made in – the Latin term patella.

The first paella was probably cooked by Valencian farmers. They used rice from the nearby rice fields, and whatever was at hand in their countryside: tomatoes, onions and snails, with a few beans added for flavor and texture. The original Valencias paella included snails since they were cheap; rabbit and later chicken were added for special occasions. 

In case you feel like making your own authentic Valencian paella, and you have the proper paella pan, here’s a recipe!

1 cup of extra virgin olive oil.
1 chicken cut into pieces.
1 rabbit cut into pieces.
300 grams of fresh Ferradura (green beans).
1 medium tomato.
1 tablespoon of sweet paprika.
6 cups of water.
200 grams of Garrafon (lima) beans.
Salt to taste.
3 cups of rice.
A bunch of rosemary.

It’s common to add snails, artichokes and even duck to paella in València. It is sometimes served with lemon wedges and there are also those who add a touch of garlic to the sauté, although opinions on this are somewhat divided. It all depends on individual tastes.

Once the paella is ready, there are some age-old Valencian traditions worth bearing in mind, such as eating the rice with a wooden spoon or directly from the paella pan itself.

We’re not so ambitious. We sought out what the internet says is one of the best restaurants in Valencia for authentic local paella: Restaurant Levante.


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