Thursday, 13 November 2014

A brief interlude in Valencia

Back a few months ago, when I was originally planning my three month trip, I had highlighted Valencia as a place of interest to visit. While I was on the road however, I found it was nearly impossible to get to Valencia by train from Granada and decided to more or less cross it off my list of places to see. I had intentionally left the last 8 days of my trip unplanned as I wasn't sure how or rather where I wanted to spend the final few days. I thought about going to Salamanca as I heard it was beautiful, but when I saw that it was a 7 hour train ride from Barçelona, I decided to revisit the idea of going to Valencia. Especially as the weather in Barçelona had been cooling off considerably and I wanted another beach day, which looked promising if I ventured further south. 

Above: a sand sculpturist makes a large replica of some of the city's historical buildings on the Playa de las Arenas. 

Valencia is a three hour train journey from Barçelona, and the ride more or less hugs the coastline. Upon alighting from the train, I was struck by how beautiful the Estación del Norte (northern train station) was with its Art Nouveau columns, stained glass works, and ceramic murals. The outside is decorated with orange blossom and fruit motifs. Valencia is well known for its oranges worldwide.

Below: stained glass window from within the Estación del Norte. 

After rolling my suitcase to my hostel (The Home hostel, just across from the old silk market - La Lonja) and getting help lugging it up four flights of stairs, I decided to put on a sundress and go for a walk around the city centre. It was 26 degrees on November 2 around 4pm. The city is known to receive about 282 days of sunshine a year, hence the name of Costa del Sol (Sun coast).

Valencia's core is a jumble of maze-like streets that cross and intersect at strange angles. It's rather easy to get lost as most of the smaller streets aren't even named on some maps. I began land marking based on street art (of which Valencia has a staggering amount), or monuments. A brisk wind came up and I was obliged to buy a sweater from a nearby shop as I was miles from the hostel.

The next day was my planned beach day as it was forecasted to be sunny and 24 degrees. I rented a bicycle for the day through my hostel (€7 for a 24 hour period) and set off towards the Jardines Del Turia which is about 8 km of parkland and bicycle paths that runs through the middle of the city where a river used to be (this river was blocked in the late 20th century to help stop annual flooding in the city). An interesting fact, originally the park was designated to be a freeway to bisect the city to help reduce congestion on other routes. The people of the city opposed this plan, but the local government planned on moving forwards anyway. During the night for the following few weeks/months, locals planted trees in the dry river bed until the park was mostly planted. This action by the residents forced the local city government to give up their plans for a freeway and embrace the park. Talk about power to the people! The park is a really enjoyable way to see the city, especially by bicycle. 

Above: a large and imposing gargoyle protects the entrance onto the Puente del Reino.

Below: an ironwork piano art installation near the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias.

I rode my bike past the old port buildings with their carved statues and orange mosaics towards Playa Malvarrosa. I saw a few sand sculptures on the way - the one of Valencia (first photo above), one of the Last Supper, and one of a multi-level castle. The beach itself was pretty quiet, and it was nice and warm when I arrived. Most of Valencia's beaches are wheelchair accessible and have first aid/life guard attendants available. After about three hours, the wind picked up and started shifting the sand across the beach. I was getting sandblasted. After a cold but refreshing swim, I rode my bike back into town. When I hopped off my bike at one of the intersections, I literally ran into an acquaintance I met from my former hostel in Granada. We hung out for a while and had homemade snacks before heading back to my hostel to see who was around for dinner.

One of the questions I have been asked repeatedly on my trip has been: don't you get lonely travelling by yourself? The answer is no. In my opinion, travelling alone actually makes it easier to meet people. Being alone on the road means you have to stay open if you are to meet people/have connections with other travellers. Often I have met couples or groups of friends travelling together who get stuck in their insular relationships. Being alone on the road means you can talk to anyone, join (or avoid/ignore) any group that you want, or be completely independent in terms of activities. It's like being a free agent. I'm also fortunate enough to already be an open-minded, extroverted, and witty individual. I've met so many amazing people on my trip, some I would not have met if I was travelling with others etc. I would say where it gets hard is the lack of touch. Sometimes days go by without any touch from another individual other than handshakes. I was grateful for the European custom of kissing hello/goodbye on both cheeks. Sometimes my newfound friends would give me hugs. Those hugs went far for me. Other times, I would call on my support people back home and feel affection through a phone call or instant messaging. It was tough some days, but mostly, I managed to stay in the present moment and enjoy where I was.

After dinner, our little hostel group discovered a chocolate shop down the road called Chocolates artesianos de Autor y de selección where you could order drinking chocolate and a local type of pastry (a farton) to dip in it for a few euros. They had a display of how raw, unrefined cocoa beans are made into chocolate. I also bought a delicious 70% dark chocolate bar that was made in a nearby chocolate museum (the Meseo del Chocolate Comes). The smell was so unbelievably delicious, I kept sniffing my packaged chocolate bar. I still have a few pieces left - I'm relishing it slowly.

Below: raw cocoa paste, beans, and scales on display in the shop.

My second full day in Valencia I took the free walking tour around town to get better acquainted with local history and to (hopefully) orient better around the rat maze of small streets. Valencia isn't as packed with history as some other Spanish towns, but it is interesting to note that the town was the "football of Spain" in that it changed hands back a forth a few times between the Christians and the Moors, before finally becoming apart of the kingdom of Aragón in 1238. Valencia also has its own dialect, and one cannot teach in Valencia without fluency in this dialect. 

Above: a model of the remains of the gateway that survived the demolition of the Medaeval walls to allow the city to expand in the 19th century. The three-sided rooms were used as prisons for the gentry or well-to-do people who had been arrested. The reasoning for lack of a fourth wall to close off these cells is twofold: 1) three walls are cheaper than four, and 2) the commoners could throw insults up at the higher class prisoners being held within the gate's cells. A Spanish idiom about this gate exists that goes something like "to be left in the moon of Valencia." What this idiom refers to is that when the door to the gates was shut at nightfall, anyone who didn't make it within the walls were "left in moon" which was a real issue due to the highwaymen and crocodiles that lived in the river not far away. I think it might be similar to "being left in the lurch."

Next two photos: the cathedral (gothic entrance) and bell tower in Valencia.

The cathedral was originally built in 1262 but has been added to over the ages. It has three separate entrances, each in a different architectural style (Romanesque, gothic, and baroque). It is rumoured that the Holy Grail is housed in this cathedral (a rumour that applies to two other cathedrals in Spain as well). Two paintings by Goya are in the first chapel on the right. A visit to the cathedral costs €5 (which I forwent as I have seen so many cathedrals on my trip). The bell tower is octagonal in shape as a conical round tower was not feasible when it was first built. The bell on top is boasted to be both the oldest and the heaviest bell in Spain (although my fact checking shows that the bell in Toledo's cathedral is heavier). The bell weighs more than 7000 kilos and is one of the loudest sounds I've ever heard! It costs €2 to go up 209 steps to gain great views of the city. 

Next two photos: views from atop the bell tower of the cathedral. First view is looking south towards the arts and sciences "city."  The second one is looking northeast with a tiny rainbow visible just next to  the right of my head. You can see the gate with the three-sided prison cells on the far left of the photo's frame.

Below: Valencia is the birthplace of horchata, a drink made from ground sweet earth almonds, water, and raw sugar. It's most popular in summer as a cold, refreshing drink, but our walking tour guide wanted to give us the opportunity to try it out. I liked it so-so. It's different from the horchata of Mexico (which I think is made with rice instead of earth almonds). This horchateria has a mosaic of a woman serving up the beverage on the building's façade. The real woman this tilework is based on is still employed here, only about 40 years older than how she looks in the tiles out front.

Valencia is also the birthplace of paella, but to be honest I didn't have the greatest luck finding good paella here. I did go out on my second night with some hostel folks to try out paella at a local restaurant recommended by my hostel, but I wasn't too impressed. And it was pricey for what it was.

A special mention of the Mercado Cento (central market) is warranted. The art nouveau styled market was opened in 1928 and is one of the most beautiful and largest in Europe. Everyday except Sunday, approximately 350 stalls selling all matter of foodstuffs open for business (7am to about 2pm). It's the best place to buy produce in Valencia. The choices are overwhelming! A friend from the hostel and I spent a couple of hours enjoying both the sights of the exterior of the market as well and browsing for lunch items.

Below: the Mercado Centro from the back. The scale of this market can only be appreciated by walking through it.

Below: the view of the colourful houses and hotels across the street from main entrance to the market.

My only regret is not having enough time to go inside La Lonja (the old silk market). It was formerly a market for luxury items (like silk) etc but now is used to host cultural events. It is the only building in Valencia that has UNESCO historical status (built between 1482 and 1498). It's also the only building I've ever seen that has masturbating gargoyles. Yes, you read that correctly. My walking tour guide said that these gargoyles were supposedly depicting sins that lead mortal souls to hell. The building is covered with an assortment of naughty gargoyles that made me scratch my head as to why someone would want to create and affix these things to a building. There's been some debate that the builders of this market were thumbing their noses at the church, but it's not known for certain.

I left that third day in the afternoon and caught an AVE (high-speed train) to Madrid. The train went about 300 km/hour and only took an hour and a half. It was dizzying looking at the landscape whipping past the windows. Fittingly, I peeled and ate a Valencia orange as the train left the station and headed north.

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