A culinary excursion in a land of plenty. The Avid Cruiser visits Michelin-starred restaurants, tastes the local Horchata and attends a Paella workshop. Valencia, along with the surrounding region, is a major port of call for cruise ships that skirt the Spanish coast.
Ah, Valencia, that sparkling region on Spain’s Mediterranean coast: home to fine food, exquisite wine, sparkling citrus orchards (the Valencia orange originated here), beaches and bodegas. The distractions here are plentiful enough to keep the energetic traveler on the go 24/7. But to truly appreciate Valencia and to tap into and understand its ancient soul, there is one thing you simply must do: nothing.
That’s what Valencians do for the most part each afternoon. Of course, siesta is to Spain what Starbucks is to America, a chance to re-energize and face the remains of the day. So plan accordingly when visiting Valencia. Sightsee in the morning, rest in the afternoon, and enjoy the evenings.
On a press trip to Valencia, our program called for dinners beginning no earlier than 9 p.m. and even that, by Valencian standards, was early. Our small group trundled into Restaurante Alejandro on the hour. How could this Michelin-starred restaurant (one of six in the city) be empty? And yet it was. By 10 p.m., however, more than half the tables were occupied, and by 11 p.m., the place was bustling.
Click to a view a slideshow of Valencia, Spain’s Alejandro del Toro’s restaurant.
Basically the rule is this: Dine before nine, and you dine out of time.
Another thing: Be prepared for long, lazy lunches and lingering dinners. Both are enjoyable, spanning time frames that we in North America aren’t totally accustomed to. One lunch, in the charming Valencian town of Denia, was conducted like a masterful symphony — all 11 courses! We sat down in Restaurante La Seu (where the chef is Michelin recognized) at 2 p.m. and stepped out the door at 6 p.m. If your pace seems too fast, come to Spain and slow down.
On Castle Hill, overlooking the city of Alicante, is the fine-dining La Ereta restaurant. From the city center, you could walk up in 30 minutes if you’re feeling ambitious. The walk down is easy and enjoyable.
There is so much to say about this special place, which is rich with history but also a modern center with numerous world-class attractions that have opened recently. As much as anything else, though, Valencia is a culinary adventure. Our trip began with a visit to one of Europe’s oldest-running food markets, Mercado Central, where we sampled Spanish hams and cheeses. Situated in a huge Art Nouveau cast-iron building, Mercado Central is still where Valencianos shop for fresh seafood and produce.
A quick morning walk through Valencia’s Central Market, where saffron, other spices, seafood, ham and vegetables are all on display. To view a slideshow click on Valencia’s Central Market.
We continued to Horchateria El Siglo, which serves up the “world’s best horchata,” according to our guide, Jose. Horchata, by the way, is nothing like what you may have experienced in Mexico. Valencian Horchata is made from tigernuts, water and sugar, and it originated in Valencia during the period of the Muslim presence here from the 8th to 13th century. So it’s an old tradition.
In Valencia, Spain, Horchateria El Siglo features the “world’s best horchata,” according to our tour guide Jose.
Horchata originated in Valencia during the period of Muslim presence here from the 8th to 13th century. As in the rest of Spain, Valencian Horchata is made from tigernuts, water and sugar. In the old part of the city, Horchateria El Siglo has been serving up the cold, refreshing beverage here since 1836. For more photos, click Valencia’s Horchateria El Siglo or view the video below.
At Restaurante Le Matandeta, we attended a paella workshop. The setting looked vaguely familiar and for good reason. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow had been here earlier to do a television series about paella and other Spanish foods.
There are three widely known types of paella: Valencian paella, seafood paella, and mixed paella. The term paella was originally the pan that the dish was cooked in, but it became so popular that in 1840 a local Spanish newspaper first used the phrase paella valenciana to refer to the recipe rather than the pan. Valencians regard paella as one of their cultural icons.
The marsh rats, which are nothing like the rats you’re thinking of, are no longer used in paella. During our workshop, we prepared paella that consisted of a special “Bomba” rice, along with chicken, duck, rabbit, snails, saffron, paprika, garlic, olive oil, butter beans, lima beans, and tomato sauce. It all went down well with the Sangria, featuring wines produced by local vineyards. In fact, the cultivated fields around Valencia stand among the richest farming regions in the Mediterranean. In addition to grapes and wine, major agriculutural products include oranges, rice, grapes and olives. Can you taste Valencia?
Before you go, a little history: Valencia was founded by the Romans in 138 BC, although much of the architecture in the old quarter dates back to the 14th century. The city, surrounded as it is by so many abundant resources and such a rich terrain and climate for agriculture, has been affluent from the start.
Valencia was captured by the Moors in the early 8th century and in 1021 was established as the independent Moorish Kingdom of Valencia. As you will see during your visit, the Moors’ traditions and culture are still reflected in many aspects of life in Valencia. The Christian reconquest from Muslim rule occurred about 1245, and Valencia’s first “golden age” of the 14th and 15th centuries is reflected in the beautiful Gothic and Renaissance buildings found in its old quarter.
The old quarter offers more than a few landmark buildings, and we found it quite illuminating to join The Ultimate Architecture tour. Leave plenty of time for the Miguelete tower that adjoins the Romanesque-Gothic-Baroque Cathedral where an agate cup is considered to by some experts to be the Holy Grail. Nearby, the splendid 15th century Palau de la Generalitat is now home to the regional government so it is only available to visitors two weekends a month, but it’s still got plenty of curb appeal.
Open to visitors and host of many cultural events, the silk exchange, La Lonja de la Seda, also dating back to the 15th century, is a wonderful example of Gothic style, with its gargoyle-covered exterior façade . Inside, the elaborately-sculpted stone columns support the vaulted ceilings. Nearby, the 18th century Palacio del Marqués de Dos Aguas – its fabulous Baroque façade embellished with ceramic fruits and vegetables – houses the National Ceramics Museum. And for more art, cross the Turia River to the Museo de Bellas Artes – in a lovely 17th century Baroque seminary. It contains one of the best art collections in Spain with over 2,000 paintings and statues by such renowned artists as El Greco, Murillo, Ribalta, Van Dyck and Goya. Works by Valencian artists like Sorolla, Pinazo, and Degrain are also included.
Even with its rich historical bounty, Valencia has continued to progress. Less than four yeas ago, for instance, the futuristic Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, the City of Arts and Sciences complex opened. This is a world-class culture center, that has four venues for opera, theater and dance. The complex is the centerpiece of part of the city’s ribbon of green parks and gardens along the Turia. Its stunning exterior features two symmetrical cut-away shields – 3,000 tons of white concrete – that “embrace” the exterior and are crowned by a sweeping 778-foot-long steel sheath, or “plume.” The roofs glisten with trencadís or delicate ceramic tile.
Surely one of Alicante’s best restaurants, operated by a mother and daughter team, La Taberna del Gourmet attracts a slew of celebrities, including Francis Ford Coppola and Gerard Depardieu. To view a Flickr Slideshow, click La Taberna del Gourmet.
Visitors enter the City of Arts and Sciences complex through the Umbracle, a dramatic white “portal” measuring 1,000 feet long and 60 feet high and shielding a colorful collection of tropical plants and palm trees. Opened in 1998, the Hemispheric – one of Spain’s most visited buildings – is a dramatic eye-shaped planetarium and IMAX theatre surrounded by a huge rectangle of turquoise water. The Museo de las Ciencias Príncipe Felipe, (Prince Felipe Museum of the Sciences) debuted two years later and features interactive displays and exhibits of “Life and the Genome,” “DNA” and “Vaccines for Everybody.”
Europe’s largest aquarium, the Oceanographic, designed by Spanish architect Félix Candela, opened in 2003. Spread over 20 acres, the complex of parabolic buildings provides a high-tech tour of the world’s oceans and their habitats. A striking restaurant below ground level at the Oceanographic has walls that are floor-to-ceiling aquariums and serves fresh fish and, of course, paella.
With its glorious climate, Valencia is worth visiting any time of the year, but the city is probably at its most festive during the Las Fallas celebration every March. Rooted in the Middle Ages when bonfires were lit in honor of Saint Joseph, the carpenters’ patron saint, the festival is one of the most significant in Spain. Highlights include giant paper-mâché creations, fallas, that depict cartoon characters, politicians, celebrities or animals and are erected in plazas throughout the city and then paraded around the streets before being burned in a pyre on the evening of St. Joseph’s Day.
The five-day festival is marked by fireworks and bonfires, and as you would expect if you’ve been paying attention, pleny of great food and wine. In Valencia, they know how to have a good time.
Alicante celebrates the arrival of summer with the Bonfires of San Juan. In an atmosphere of music, color, fireworks and extravagance, thousands of people throng the streets to experience this fiesta that pays tribute to fire. To view a Flickr slideshow, click Fires of San Juan.
A Bounty of Bodegas
One of the more popular bodegas in the Valencia region, Bodegas Mendoza. To view a Flickr slideshow, click on Bodegas Mendoza.
Yet another wonderful bodega in the Valencia region. For a Flickr slideshow, click on Bodegas Sierra Salinas.
At Bodegas Gutierrez de la Vega near Valencia, Spain. To view a Flickr slideshow, click Bodegas Gutierrez de la Vega.