Sunday 22 October 2017

Valencia: Spain's tasty city break with a difference

Short breaks in Europe

Valencia is the home of paella - but the locals take every sort of cuisine very seriously indeed, as a visit to the central market will prove
Valencia is the home of paella - but the locals take every sort of cuisine very seriously indeed, as a visit to the central market will prove
City of Arts and Science, Valencia, Spain
Willy at Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences

Willy Brennan

One of the first things I ever attempted to cook for a dinner party was paella.

Inspired by my very first trip abroad and the discovery of an 'authentic' Spanish cookery book, it was back in the days when you had to go to the chemist shop to buy olive oil, and a pinch of saffron - if you could get it - cost nearly a week's wages.

Nonetheless I ploughed on and the result was a reasonable success, although I'm not sure how 'authentic' my effort was and nobody had told me you should only serve paella at lunch.

Naturally then, when the opportunity arose to visit the city of Valencia - home of paella - I jumped at the chance.

Willy at Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences
Willy at Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences

The locals take their cuisine very seriously, as a visit to the bustling Mercado Central in the historic centre of the city proved. This 8,000sqm covered market houses almost 1,000 stalls that sell every type of foodstuff imaginable with mesmerising displays of the freshest of vegetables, meat and a huge section devoted to fish.

You can even buy live eels here, but that might prove a difficulty on the flight home!

Many of the stalls specialise in the ingredients for a traditional Paella Valenciana (although there appears to be some disagreement as to whether garlic and tomatoes are authentic ingredients).

A true Paella Valencia, we were told, must include artichokes, flat green beans, broad beans, rabbit, chicken, snails and, of course saffron, and the correct type of rice. Under no circumstances should onion or peppers be used and if you were to put chorizo into it (as Jamie Oliver once suggested) you should be deported immediately.

Even if you are not interested in cooking, the Mercado Central is a fascinating place to visit. Blazing with colour and activity, strolling around it is a great way to work up an appetite and if you feel peckish there is a popular snack bar run by Michelin-star chef Ricard Camarena where you can get a traditional sandwich with peanuts and olives. Or you could buy the fish of your choice and take it to one of the many restaurants surrounding the market where, for a small price, they will cook it for you and you can take your own wine.

Just across the road from the market stands the Silk Exchange, a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1996. This imposing merchant house, built in the 15th century, was once the centre of the silk trade and is a gem of Gothic architecture. Indeed, there are many gems in the old city, dominated by the Cathedral of Santa Marta, built in the fifteenth century by the King of Aragon and which numbers among its treasures several Goya masterpieces - and a chalice which they claim is the one used by Christ at the Last Supper.

There is much speculation and debate as to whether this chalice really is the 'Holy Grail', but carbon dating proves that it does date from the first century.

In the courtyard outside the cathedral, an interesting session takes place every Thursday morning at noon - the judges of the Water Court, which has been in existence for more than 1,000 years, meet to settle any water disputes between local farmers. It's an ancient system that still seems to work today.

City of Arts and Science, Valencia, Spain
City of Arts and Science, Valencia, Spain

You can easily spend hours rambling through the narrow streets of the historic quarter, taking in its charming houses, shops, cafes, bars and churches and there is currently much work being done to restore many of the ancient buildings.

The Borgia family originated here and the facade of the family's original palace can still be seen in the heart of the old town.

But we were heading to the Jardines del Turia, which are very much the lungs of the city. Apparently, due to very severe flooding back in the 1950s, when many hundreds of people were killed, the drastic decision was taken to divert the river away from the city centre.

In the 1980s, the city fathers began to create a fantastic parkland from the dusty, dry river bed. Today, the 10km long parkland includes a huge biopark, a very well designed urban park with mature trees, paths and cycle tracks, sports pitches for all sports (including rugby, surprisingly) playgrounds and the occasional coffee shop.

The park culminates at the magnificent City of Arts and Sciences - a series of ultra-modern architectural wonders incorporating an opera house, iMax cinema, science museum and a raised botanical walkway all designed by local architect Santiago Calatrava (with whom Dubliners should be familiar from his two Liffey bridges; the Samuel Beckett and the James Joyce) and the Oceanografic Marine Park designed by Felix Candela.

The best way to see the Jardines del Turia is by bike and there are numerous places to rent bikes throughout the city. There are very few cities lucky enough to have such a wonderful park right in the centre.

We had come to Valencia to experience Cuina Oberta or Restaurant Week which takes place in the city twice a year (the next one is October 19-29). This is a terrific opportunity for food lovers to experience some great restaurants for a very reasonable price. More than 50 of the top restaurants take part and offer a fixed price menu costing €20 for lunch and €30 for dinner (Michelin Star restaurants cost €15 extra).

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)

So after working up an appetite cycling through the park, we headed to the waterfront where The Marina Beach Club had our names on a table. With magnificent views over the marina on one side and the long, sun-drenched beach on the other, this was the perfect setting for our first authentic Paella Valenciana. We began with some traditional starters, local tomatoes with tuna, Russian salad, calamari and a salmon tartare. Then came the main event - with a small surprise.

Instead of the golden yellow colour one would usually associate with paella, this one was a rich earthy shade of green. It tasted earthier too and this, we were told, was due to the fresh artichokes used in the cooking. Personally, I think I would have preferred it without the snails!

Later, we went to the Michelin-starred El Poblet restaurant, owned by chef Quique Dacosta (whose main restaurant boasts three Michelin stars) where chef Luis Valls had prepared an exciting tasting menu.

The next morning, we took a 20 minute drive south of the city to the rice fields and nature reserve around Lake Albufera, the largest lake in Spain. We passed through the charming village of El Palmar, on the very edge of the rice fields, which is a very popular spot at weekends for Valencians seeking the finest paella and rice dishes in the many 'arrosseria' or rice speciality restaurants in the town.

The whole area of over 140 sq km hectares of wetlands is a very important bird sanctuary and a protected area. Part of the wetlands is reserved for the study of birds and wildlife and it is a haven for birdwatchers. There are more than 300 species of birds living here, including storks, herons, ibis and flamingos and you can take a boat trip out on the lake to spot lots of exotic birds and water creatures. In summer you will see the jumping mullet fish leaping out of the water.

If you are interested in marine wildlife or even if you just want a good day out, the Oceanografic Marine Park, Europe's biggest aquarium, is a great place to visit, but give yourself plenty of time as the park is worth taking time over. Host to more than 1.2m visitors every year, the aquarium has nine spectacular buildings representing the different oceans and habitats. There's even a new 4D cinema where you can catch such classics as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as you've never experienced it before.

All the exhibits have signs in English and are easy to follow. Particular favourites are the dolphin show, the recently-born beluga whale with its mum, and dad, and the shark aquarium which has a tunnel through it so you can walk among the toothy beasts. There are also giant sea turtles, penguins, seals and sea lions and lots of restaurants, snack bars and playgrounds for the kids. For the really adventurous, Oceanografic offers a night package where you can take a torch light tour of the park, enjoy dinner in one of the aquariums then bed down in the shark tunnel. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'sleeping with the fishes'!

For me, one of the best things about Valencia was the food, and on our last night we went to El Colmado de La Lola restaurant where I had some of the best tapas ever. It's a lovely little traditional bar just across the road from the Cathedral in the historic centre and specialises in local products and craft beers.

The tapas we tried included sea urchin with egg, tempura of sea anemone, Bellota ham with artichoke hearts and clams, smoked eel and herring montaditos and a modern take on the classic patatas bravas. So the next time I attempt to cook paella, I'll be thinking of Valencia and I will try to source the most authentic ingredients, but I think I'll leave out the snails!

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Healthy street treat

Street carts sell cups of the Valencian delicacy ‘horchata’, a vegan milk made from local tiger nuts (chufas) that is said to reduce cholesterol and be good for your heart.

Touchy-feely science

The philosophy of Principe Felipe Science Museum is ‘No Touching is Prohibited’. Audience participation is actively encouraged in this vast space of interactive exhibitions about science and technology.

Get there

Willy flew to Valencia direct from Dublin with Ryanair (ryanair.com) who have several flights every week to the city.

During the summer months the city is full of open air events and festivals such as the July Fair, with many open air concerts in the central Viveros Gardens. Every August the famous food fight La Tomatina is held on the last Wednesday of the month in Bunyol, a small town just outside Valencia. (Yes, it’s all about throwing tomatoes!)

To learn more about Valencia or to look for accommodation, see www.visitvalencia.com

For information on Albufera see visitalbufera.com

For information on Restaurant week see www.valenciacuinaoberta.com

Oceanografic bookings and information at www.oceanografic.org

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