Western Europe is such an ultimate travel destination that anything worth seeing has already been triple-packed. It is practically impossible to find a place that has major attractions, yet has retained its innocence. Out of all countries, Spain – the place where annual tourist head count overtakes that of its residents – is a very unlikely candidate for such a description.
One of Europe's best kept secrets
Valencia leaves you perplexed. When you see the vastness of its treasury, you canâ€™t help but look for a catch. It is such a multi-dimensional city, truly sporting everything you could ever ask for from a destination (and at a top scope and level, not just a promotional token), that you simply feel lucky to have found it on your way. Many of the more popular European locations donâ€™t have half of what Valencia has, yet here it is all business as usual, consuming you into its culture, forcing you to leave yours behind and truly banning all tourist conventions. Valenica is a real journey and definitely one of Europeâ€™s best kept secrets.
The basic attraction of any European city is its historic core â€“ the Old Town. Valenciaâ€™s is a rich kaleidoscope of styles, spanning eight Christian centuries of its history. Not just architecture on the streets, but spectacular monuments worthy of any important European city â€“ two pairs of gigantic Gothic city gates, a gothic castle-like palace, a gorgeous basilica â€“ one of the first baroque buildings in Europe, an elaborate cathedral sporting a mixture of styles and cultures (plus the only viable claim in the world to hosting the Holy Grail), and not to forget La Lonja â€“ one of the most spectacular European Gothic structures protected by UNESCO. There are even Roman ruins. These are just some of the highlights amongst a myriad of other beautiful churches and buildings from all epochs.
These riches reflect Valenciaâ€™s history â€“ it is a place that has always been a city, ever since the concept of the city was formed in the early Middle Ages. A curious place, Valencia has been somewhat of a runner up â€“ perhaps not one of the major European centres, but definitely one of the most forward-looking and dynamic ones. The printing press entered Spain through Valencia. The Renaissance had its first Spanish roots here. The Enlightenment found its Spanish core here. The shock of the French Revolution was felt here the most. The coronation of the first constitutional monarch in the First Spanish Republic took place here, and it was here that the Second Republic centralised to fight Franco in 1930s.
And in the 15th century â€“ the Golden Age of Valencia â€“ it was the most populous, prosperous and cultural city in the whole of Europe.
Yet, when you walk around all this legacy, there is no sense of distance, like in many other destinations. Here you remain close. On the streets it is business as usual, as if time stopped a few centuries ago. Full of cosy corners and genuine snapshots of the past, the Old Town is an insane maze of old Arabic streets. Itâ€™s impossible not to get lost; accept this fate easily. You will be rewarded with stunning finds all the way, and the surprise element makes your walk more exciting.
City of many names
Part of Valenciaâ€™s charm is how green it is. I have heard it is one of the greenest cities in Europe. There is some kind of park, garden, shady alley, anywhere you go. The city is split in half by nine kilometers of a wide green belt â€“ the Turia Garden which used to be a river until it got diverted. The calm and tranquillity of a sunny Spanish afternoon in that river of greenery, right in the middle of this metropolis, is the essence of Valencia. Valencia is also called the City of Flowers â€“ they are abundant and the locals make incredible things out of them for their numerous fiestas.
Valencia is also named the City of Contrasts. Ancient monuments in the centre are interspersed with some of the most spectacular and imaginative ninth and tenth century architecture. Even deeply residential districts tend to sport something curious on their apartment blocks. In recent years a whole range of purely futuristic buildings have sprung up, culminating with the mind-boggingly ambitious City of Arts and Sciences. Built by Santiago Calatrava, it is an enormous educational-leisure complex that would have been selected as one of the New Wonders of the World, had it been completed in time for nominations. A totally unique idea, it takes you right into the 23rd century â€“ onto some distant space base. Gigantic futuristic shapes are surrounded by crystal clear water. If you keep in mind that Calatrava bases his designs on skeletons, this becomes an insane intergalactic graveyard of giant alien creatures. More than just a pretty face, the City hosts the biggest marine wildlife park in Europe, an ultra-interactive science museum, an IMAX cinema and an opera house.
Cities like London or Paris embody the individual culture of that nation. Cities such as Jerusalem or Istanbul incorporate the constant flux of cultures in mankind. Valencia is one of those. Built by the Romans and taken over by the Visigoths, it later flourished under the Moors (Muslims) for six centuries until it was finally re-built by Christians.
Yet, curiously, throughout this process a strong Valencian cultural identity emerged in, once again, the City of Contrasts. The locals see themselves as an ethnic kingdom within Spain. What is spectacular, though, is that tradition is still in fashion, preserved mainly in music, costumes, customs and fiestas. A good third or so of Valencia proudly sports regional costumes (said to be the most colourful in Spain), and music on even the smallest occasion. That includes a lot of youth. Here, it is still cool to be traditional in the 21st century.
Falleros, neighbourhood co-operatives, are unique to Valencia. It is a bizarre concept â€“ clan-like, almost tribal conglomerations, reminiscent of medieval Muslims, the core of the city, usually uniting for Catholic fiestas. There are around 350 fallas, co-operatives, and they have their heyday every year in the middle of March, for five days of urban insanity named Las Fallas.
Huge and colourful effigies (monuments, sculptures) get built from wood and papier-mÃ¢chÃ© on the streets of Valencia – around 800 in total – some as high as 25 to 30 metres. They are usually satirical or provocative in their content. The whole city dresses in traditional costumes, and takes to the streets with music and warzone level of fireworks. Paella is cooked on the streets, the crowds party until dawn, and on the last day, all the effigies get burned.
Thatâ€™s not all. There is always some kind of fiesta. The locals love noise, spectacle and partying. Fireworks and petards are kept in kitchen cupboards for daily use. You get the impression they spend the whole year making costumes, spectacles, floats etc. Music is abundant – wind and percussion â€“ Valencia, the Vienna of Spain.
This love for noise and party doesnâ€™t stay only in the traditional way. Valencians are some of the most hardcore party animals in Spain; their nightlife is nationally famous, going well until dawn (and in some places until lunchtime!). They say people go out from Monday to Sunday. There are numerous bars, discos and nightclubs, as well as concerts and live music performances.
Valencia's culture goes beyond the traditional. It doesn't want to turn into another Benidorm. More and more, Valencia gets into the circuit of world music, arts and cultural events. There is something going on constantly; a truly cosmopolitan and avante-guard spectrum of events. Add to it scores of museums, theatres, art galleries, classical music venues resident in Valencia, and you really donâ€™t have an excuse to be bored.
Yes, there is a beach; about the best city beach I have ever seen. It might not be a deserted island, but it is large, clean and lively, plus the climate is amazing, the water is great and the sand is of top quality. To think it is a mere 20 minutes from the central sightseeing and culture. Right on the beach, you can have paella – famous Valencian cuisine and a Valencian invention.
With all its buzz and ambition, and a million things to offer, Valencia remains cosy, warm, friendly and laid back. The people are still welcoming and open. The city injects a good dose of tranquilliser as soon as you step off the plane. They call Valencia "the biggest Spanish village". It is extraordinary and totally incomprehensible. Perhaps it might not last long. We will have to see.
For now though, what else could one ask for from an urban destination?
Apart from writing travel articles, Alex also runs his Valencia Travel Guide – an online travel information resource.