Bored with Barcelona? Check out Spain's funkiest unknown pleasure
Short breaks in Europe
It's got history, it's got safaris, and it's got food and wine. Valencia could well be Spain's best-kept secret, says Mark Evans.
The Romans knew when they were on to a good thing. When done conquering the world and fighting lions in amphitheatres, they wanted somewhere nice and warm for those long, lazy days of retirement.
Their destination of choice? Why, Valencia.
Although often overshadowed by Barcelona, its neighbour to the north, this city blows the Catalan capital away in looks, fun and things to do. I'd be hard-pressed to name another with so much to offer adults and children on a holiday. Roman ruins? Check. Good cuisine? Absolutely. Sharks and safari animals? Yes, those too.
First up, don't go here if you're on a diet. The locals love to eat. When they're not eating, they're thinking about the next meal. Five nosh-ups a day is about normal. Seriously. Long before smoothies were invented, Valencians were knocking back horchata, a milky drink made from tiger nuts (you only get them in this area), accompanied by calorie-laden sponge biscuits.
Check out Horchateria el Siglo, in the centre of town, take a table outside and people watch.
Time for dinner? If La Salita Restaurant ( lasalitarestaurante.com ) was in Dublin, you'd need a bank loan to eat there It's one of the finest restaurants I've ever dined in, and its eight-course tasting menu is something straight out of Master Chef (Actually its chef won the Spanish equivalent of the British show).
Biscuits on washing lines, chocolates and cheese on a mini-tree, course after course of cuisine that's not just food, it's art.
I've probably lost you, as you're thinking 'I can't afford this'. But hours and hours of food will set you back just over €40. For the work put in, it's an absolute steal.
But that's the thing about this city: it looks posh, but it's cheap for eating out and drinking. Take another restaurant, Nou Gourmet ( nougourmet.com ). It looks like the inside of a five-star hotel, but with prices around half of what you'd pay in Dublin. Dinner with drinks? Twenty-five quid, with courses of meat and fish, washed down with wine. If you want to live the high life, and still pay the mortgage, then Valencia will grow on you.
And if you're hitting the town later in the night, you can get away with a steak for around €20, or fish dish for less than that, and sit outside in the balmy night air at the traditional Palacio de la Bellota ( palaciodelabellota.com ).
Okay, we need to lose some of those pounds. If you've got the kids in tow, they're in for a treat. The City of Arts and Sciences (cac.es ) doesn't sound all that enticing, but you'd be wrong.
Spain's most visited attraction, you'll soon see why as it boasts not just an amazing Imax theatre, but is also home to science exhibitions and Europe's largest aquarium. I've been to tunnels surrounded by sharks and stingrays in Australia, but this is even better as it's so close to home. Creatures from Europe, Asia and beyond, it's like Jurassic Park without the fear of being on the menu.
Even if you don't like zoos, the nearby Bioparc Valencia ( bioparcvalencia.e s) is something else. A full safari park in the heart of the city, you're surrounded by wildlife, with little tree monkeys checking you out as they bounce around you. There's an amazing family of apes with their own massive enclosure, and bring the camera to spot giraffes, elephants and anything you'd expect to find in Africa or Asia. Dedicated to conservation, you could easily spend hours here learning about the wildlife and their habitats.
Wildlife of another kind is to be found in the old city, a maze of beautiful medieval streets filled with shops and bars. It's home to two of the coolest bars anywhere on the planet. Owned by the very colourful Marc, from South America via London, El Laboratorio is part chemistry lab, part bar. It's here that Marc and co mix any alcoholic drink you can think of in the pursuit of scientific excellence, ie a great-tasting tipple.
His neighbouring bar, Cafe de las Horas ( cafedelashoras.com ), near Valencia's historic cathedral, is part bar part theatre. It's out there: camper than a marriage referendum, totally friendly, a place for art auctions, fashion shows, Alice in Wonderland parties and booze. Lots of booze. Try the local favourite, the delicious Agua de Valencia, and stumble back to your hotel in the wee hours.
It's hard not to like this city. I can't think of anywhere else where you can knock back wine while your other half goes clothes shopping - all in the same store. That's what you get at Envinarte ( envinarte.es ) and I have to say it was the nicest bit of non-shopping I've ever enjoyed.
Most places would boast about having Roman ruins - here they're just another part of the fun. The kids will love walking over Roman streets on glass floors, and they've even got ancient skeletons from far-off history.
Trips out of town are a cinch too. Most locals hit the nearby Albufera Natural Parc, an area where you can take a boat ride around the lakes and rivers to see the local birds in a place that feels more Deep South America than Spain.
Again, food is a big thing and you've got to try the dish that Valencia gave to the world: paella. Unfussy and traditional, Restaurant Mateu in the Parc's local village is filled with families and a great place to live life like the locals.
Another great trip (food again) is to the local winery, Bodega Mustiguillo. Grape fans come from far and wide to learn about winemaking, and the wines are good value but top-notch. It's a beautiful spot, and a great place for an escape when the summer heat hits.
The nearby historic town of Requena is straight out of a Medieval movie. It's home to historic caves where the locals lived in times of trouble, and it's a nice spot for some al fresco dining at the quaint Meson Fortaleza restaurant ( restauranteenrequena.com ) for local cheeses and breads.
Now for the diet.
Ryanair ( ryanair.com ) flies direct from Dublin to Valencia. I stayed at the four-star Confortel Valencia, near the shopping district and what will be the new stadium of Valencia FC. The staff are friendly and the hotel has a pool and cool outdoors leisure areas. If you want to book a package, Independent Travel ( travel.independent.ie) has a week there in high season, with flights, for around €500.
And if you're staying that long, you can also travel - and even Madrid is only and hour and a half away by high-speed train. See renfe.com for info. To find out more about Valencia, see visitvalencia.com
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