February 13, 2012

Valencia, Spain's Third Largest City: The City Center and El Carmen, part 2

... As I was saying in the last entry, at this point our tour of the city center becomes a bit religious in nature, with art museums sprinkled in for good measure.

Continuing north we arrive to La Plaza de la Reina, whose principal landmarks are the main Catedral de Valencia with its "Miguelete" bell tower (on the north side) and the bell tower of the Santa Catalina church (on the southwest corner). If you are ever hungry or thirsty and in need of a break, I highly recommend you try Valencia's most famous drink, "orxata", at the Horchatería de Santa Catalina, just opposite the tower of same name. It is reputedly the oldest horchatería in the center of Valencia, and the horchata there is pretty good. The Catedral de Valencia is another must visit, and I highly recommend you take the audio tour which helps guide you around inside, where you will see two works by Goya, the bones of Valencia's Patron Saint, San Vicente Mártir (Saint's Day: January 22nd), and... the Holy Grail! Yes, that's right, Valencia is home to "El Santo Cáliz", one of only a couple artifacts in the world to have a claim to being the cup Christ used at the last supper. Whether or not you do the Cathedral tour, you _have_ to pay the small charge to go to the top of El Micalet (a.k.a. "Miguelete"), the Cathedral's bell tower which offers spectacular views of the central city (if you go around noon you can hear a bell show). 

The view of Plaza de la Reina looking south from the Miguelete.
On the right side you can see the bell tower of Santa Catalina.

The main entrance to the Cathedral, facing the Plaza de la Reina.

The "Santo Cáliz" a.k.a. Holy Grail is sitting in Valencia's main Cathedral,
in case you were looking for it.

Once again, the guys at the Hola Valencia blog do a better job than I
could at visually documenting this city. This video gives you a
nice sense of the Plaza de la Virgin and Micalet views of the city.

(Recommended additional detour: If you head east on Calle de la Paz, you will see a lot of beautiful building facades and fun shops, and arrive to the cute Parque Parterre next to an El Corte Inglés. (Right next to the little park is the Fundación Bancaja, which has excellent free rotating exhibits, such as a recent photo exhibit of turn-of-the-century Spain, by the Hispanic Society of America. It's always worth double-checking what its exhibiting when you come to town.) You can return by Calle del Mar and see the cute little Plaza San Vicente Ferrer where you can find the amazing Museum and heavily frescoed church of El Patriarca.)

Though the collection is small, the Museum of El Patriarca is quite impressive,
including works by El Greco, and the entrance is cheap and
there are few visitors. So it's a nice place to visit.

I was stunned to have only recently learned about the Chapel of Patriarca,
which the guide explained is the second most frescoed chapel in the world
(I believe #1 is the Sistine Chapel).

The beautiful facade of the Palacio del Arzobispo next to
L'Almoina, photo by Gerry Blackwell
If you follow along the Cathedral to the west, you'll come to the Plaza de la Virgen. This square is marked by the Turia fountain in the middle (more on that in a later entry), the Basílica (a.k.a. Real Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados), and the Cathedral's Door of the Apostles. This last is of interest because on Thursday mornings it is the site of the "Tribunal de las aguas", a water tribunal run by regional farmers which has been dubbed a UNESCO cultural heritage institution for being the longest continuous, still valid legal institution in Europe. Not far from Plaza de la Reina is L'Almoina, an archaeological museum where you can see over 2000 years of Valencian history, layers upon layers of civilizations starting with the Romans who founded "Valentia" in 138 B.C. (You can peer into the archaeological dig site, enclosed below ground-level by a glass ceiling covered with water, at the little square "Plaza del Arzobispo".)

The view of Plaza de la Virgen looking to the north from the Miguelete tower.

Plaza de la Virgen on a regular day, the fountain is a classic meeting point for locals

This plaza transforms during Fallas into the site of "la ofrenda", the offering, to the Virgin

Peering into the old Roman ruins of L'Almoina,
on Plaza del Arzobispo, photo by Gerry Blackwell

• El Carmen:
To transition away from touristy Valencia to a more utilized and lived Valencia we'll now head over to El Carmen, a neighborhood known for its lively nightlife and vibrant bars and hip restaurants. In this neighborhood you'll find many works of "art" by street artists tagged on the walls of abandoned buildings

But before you head there, continue north from Plaza de la Reina up the pedestrian street Calle de Navellos. You'll walk by the Corts Valencians (once known as the Palacio de los Borgia), the seat of the regional government, until you come to the old riverbed. (If you look across the river park and slightly to the right, you will see the Museo de Bellas Artes, a.k.a. San Pío Quinto, an amazing and highly underrated, free art museum which recently added a Sala Sorolla to celebrate this local favorite of Valencian artists.) If you turn left, you'll see the Torres de Serranos, one of only two remaining large gates from the old city walls.

The Torres de Serranos, a fixture of the Valencian river skyline.

Across the river, but not that far, and worth the visit: the Museo de Bellas Artes

You can walk south down Calle de Serranos back into El Carmen neighborhood, and turn right onto Calle de Caballeros, a small street but one of the main arteries of El Carmen. I recommend sitting in Plaza del Negrito, not far from there, and sipping some "agua de Valencia". Or wandering up and down "Carrer de DAlt" and "Carrer de Baix" which connect several important squares in the area and give you a feel for the neighborhood. Locals claim some of the best "mejillones" (a.k.a. "clótxinas" in Catalan, or mussels) can be found at nearby "La Pilareta" (C/ Moro Zeit, 13; 963 910 497). A hidden gem in this neighborhood: the Parroquia de San Nicolás, whose interior is incredible but the entrance is hard to find as the church exterior is disguised by regular street walls. If you wander to the Calle del Museo, you might spot the "Casa de los Gatos", one of many examples of the playful, local color of this area. Take nearby Calle de Na Jordana towards the river and you arrive at the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, or el IVAM, Valencia's prized Modern Art museum.

Plaza del Negrito, a nice place to chill and have a drink with friends.

Plaça del Tossal, another hip square in El Carmen, where Carrer de Dalt and Baix meet

Leave time to stroll around and get lost in El Carmen. You will discover
interesting alleys like this one, with a building built over an arch.

A reader of my entry on Escif, Gerry Blackwell, emailed me some of his street art finds
 in El Carmen, including this lovely mural on (or near) Calle de Moro Zeit.
Further proof of the wonderful art you can find in this neighborhood. Thanks Gerry!

La casa de los gatos, a miniature house for cats in El Carmen.

And if you continue on Calle de Caballeros past Plaça de Tossal the street becomes Carrer de Quart, which ends at the other remaining old city wall gate, Torres de Quart. (Not far away is a nice tapas bar I recently discovered, El Peix Daurat, with creative and delicious twists on tapas classics.) Such is the historical importance of these city gates, that there is an expression still in use today, "estar a la luna de Valencia," which means a bit out of it (a.k.a. "despiste"). It makes reference to the fact that back in the day people would be locked out of the Valencia city gates if still out after nightfall. These people, who were literally "out of it", would have to spend the night sleeping under the moon. So I'll leave you there for now, "a la luna de Valencia", until the next entry which takes us outside the old city and into a new and vivid one... 

"A la luna de Valencia" outside the Torres de Quart.

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