November 14, 2011

That Perfect Gift: Decorative Ceramics from Valencia

So if the "perfect gift" idea I mentioned last week is pretty well known, this week's recommendation is one that I think most visiting tourists know very little about. But, in that sense, it is (almost literally) a hidden gem: adornos cerámicos de Valencia (decorative ceramics from Valencia).

The history of ceramics in Spain is a long one, though things picked up during the Moorish occupation of southern Spain, and then really got going in the 15th century once Chinese ceramics, a.k.a. porcelain china, became popular and local artisans sought to import the technique into their own practices. Here in Valencia the tradition continues on, particularly in Manises and Paterna, where there is still a guild ("gremio") of Valencian ceramic makers and factories which reproduce the traditional ceramic production methods for making tiles, plates, and other decorative objects that appeared over the course of the 15th through 19th centuries. Here I would place these traditions into three categories of gift items.

• Azulejos: 

An example of the kind of ceramic tile plaques
one can find all over Valencia and its regional towns.
It was once quite typical in Valencia, and really all over the Iberian peninsula, to place decorative tiles ("azulejos") on building facades or hung/suspended on the ceilings of very fancy houses. People of a particular trade, lawyer, carpenter, and so forth, might hang a decorative tile outside their workshop ("taller") which showed a figure or image representing that trade. (Indeed, it is still the case that tiles play an important part in Spanish interior design. Spaniards' homes, more so than Americans', commonly have the bathroom and kitchen walls entirely covered by tiles, and might have (a different kind of) tile flooring.)

So one really lovely gift you can buy are ceramic tiles, following this tradition, which are mounted on wooden frames or adorn mirrors and other decorative displays. These traditional-style tiles tend to come in one of three modes. The oldest, based on a 15th century medieval style of production, is known here by its Catalan name "socarrat". The word socarrat, which literally means burnt, is also used to describe the (delicious) burnt rice at the bottom of the paella pan. (In other words, this is a _very_ Valencian word to know!) The socarrat is a red and black tile, red from oxidize iron and black from manganese, which is made by hand painting the tile and then super heating, baking it in an oven until the design is burnt into the clay ("arcilla"), thus the name. For more on the process, in Spanish, click here.

The other two traditional styles are the "gótico azul" (blue tiles) from Manises and "verde y morado" (green tiles) traditionally from Paterna. You can find images of ships, medieval trades, animals, kings and queens, dragons, or artistic geometric patterns.

• Decorative plates:

Ceramic plates can also make for a great gift and collector's item. (For European tourists, this could be an excellent local artisan item to build a collection around, as there are great ceramic traditions in Denmark (e.g. Royal Copenhagen) or in Italy, we got an artisanal plate in Sardegna with the classic "pavoncella" bird emblem of the island... just to name a few examples of local iconography and styles one can encounter. In Spain, there are many regions with local workshops who maintain their regional tradition and styles of producing ceramic plates. I have only limited knowledge of this, but I can tell you that once again Manises and Paterna have been historically important centers of innovation in this area. One particularly beautiful traditional style is this golden ornate plate from Manises. (To learn more about them, visit Valencia's Museo de la Cerámica, mentioned below)

• Other decorative items:

And if you are already in a shop buying socarrats and ceramic plates, then you can also look for decorative "pilas" (water basin for holy water or "agua bendita"), to hang on your wall, not to mention artisanal bowls, "cántaros" (jars or jugs), and so on. You'll find them emulating old and new styles, and in sets that can help brighten up a kitchen or mounted so as to add an accent to your office or living space.

A ceramic decorative holy water basin, the classic Spanish home decoration

Bowls, jars, plates, mounted tiles, mirrors, and many more beautiful, inexpensive gifts
made from Valencian ceramics that you can find at Artesanía Yuste

These all make for incredible gifts for friends and family back home. I've thoroughly tapped out this gift idea with my own family, who must collectively own an entire collection of Valencian ceramics. While there are plenty of stores in and around the Valencia capital, I am a very loyal customer of one shop in particular: Artesanía Yuste (Pza. Miracle del Mocadoret, 5 / Tf. 630 373 603), located in a small plaza just off the Plaza de la Reina. In my opinion, if you are making a visit to Valencia, the you _must_ stop by this shop. I am not kidding when I say that you can encounter a true piece of art at incredibly economic prices here, and its central location makes it easy to swing by before or after a visit to the Plaza Redonda or the Mercat Central or the Cathedral. In addition to reproductions, Yuste also sells a limited number of actual 18th and 19th century tiles.

Yuste carries all three styles of socarrat and a variety of traditional images,
already mounted on wooden frames as seen here.

If you call them, you can also ask to have tiles specially mounted however you want,
since they work directly with the producers in Manises and Paterna.

Despite its convenient location, it can be tricky finding Artesanía Yuste. Look for this
passageway ("Passatge de Giner") leading west off the Plaza de la Reina in Valencia.

Ceramics and textiles continue to be important in Spain, today, and particularly for the region along the coast between Valencia and Castellón/Tarragona, particularly around Benicarló. The region has grown rich from small scale, industrial production of these textile materials put to a variety of humble, but functionally important uses. However, Lladró, founded by brothers from the Valencian town Almàssera, has eclipsed these humble origins, and achieved an international renown. They specialize in very expensive high-end porcelain figurines. You can find Lladró shops all over the world, in London and New York (off Fifth Avenue near Central Park). Their figurines are collected by designers the world over. And such ceramic mastery is not limited to Valencia. There are traditional ceramic styles of production in Teruel, and I'm told that Sargadelos in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, is also a very reputable. (For that matter, Portugal also has its own traditions.)  In fact, there must be tons more of these places throughout Spain, so any readers who have suggestions, please post comments!

One of Lladró's more contemporary girls.

Lladró's 1950s 'Valencia Girl' figurine

As with all high art and artesanal craft in Spain, these ceramic traditions not only make for great gifts, but also for interesting tourism. So here I can briefly point you to several nice tours you can do in and around Valencia: 1) the Museo Nacional de Cerámica y Artes Suntuarias, located in the impressive baroque palace of the Marqués de dos Aguas in Valencia's city center, 2) the town of Manises, located just outside to the west of Valencia (better known for being the location of the airport) has a Museu de Ceràmica which explains the production techniques, and 3) Lladró has a museum, "City of Porcelain," in Tavernes Blanques just to the north of Valencia (right next to Alboraia).

The amazing baroque palace of the Marqués de Dos Aguas,
which houses the Museo Nacional de Cerámica in Valencia

I personally love the Valencia ceramic museum's cuina, "typical Valencian kitchen," display shown here

Postscript: Please note that I have had to leave out entirely a discussion of pottery (alfarería), which, though related in some respects, has its own long history and tradition throughout Spain, but would also make for wonderful gifts and collectors items. I'll make a note of this for an entry next year around Xmas time!


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An American Spaniard said...

Thanks! I hope Valencia makes the top 50 travel destinations list.

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mensajes claro said...

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Lauren said...

I just found your post after Googling "Valencia ceramics". I lived in Valencia (actually, Rocafort) for a summer, and bought beautiful gifts for my family at Artesania Yuste! I loved that shop. Thank you for sharing! It takes me back to beautiful Valencia...

An American Spaniard said...

Hi Lauren! I'm glad the entry helped to take you back. Yuste really is one of the better shops for getting nice gifts and keepsakes from Valencia. I'm always trying to send business their way, since this economic crisis has been tough for them and the Manises and Paterna tile producers. Gotta support local businesses! I hope you are able to come back regularly in the future. Valencia continues to be beautiful!

P.S. I love the name of your blog! ;-)

SOCARR-ART said...

I invite you to visit my web socarrats and Valencian ceramics. hope you like it. SoCaRr-ArT

An American Spaniard said...

Thank you for sharing SOCARR-ART. Your work looks good and I think this these tiles make for great gifts. So I wish you the best and hope some of my readers will check out your site.

Rajev said...

Yeah, all ceramic artwork shown is amazing.

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