February 20, 2012

Valencia, Spain's Third Largest City: Part 4... El Río Turia

This locally famous fountain in Valencia is not a
Greek god, but rather an embodiment of the Turia River.
The 8 female statues surrounding him represent the main 8
"acequias" (irrigation ditches) in the historical medieval
Turia River (thus the water flowing from their jars).
So there are many ways to slice and dice Valencia so as to best present it to the newcomer... by its historic center (part 1 and part 2), or by its diverse neighborhoods. But in this four-part series on my beloved city, I've decide to feature one aspect of Valencia, its natural beauty, which often gets overlooked in other guides. Valencia has some incredible greenery. Sure, Valencia has those oh-so-classy natural touches like orange tree groves in city squares and along the streets all throughout the city, evidence of its great climate ("el clima") and regional pride and joy, L'Horta de València, the surrounding fields of delicious and fresh produce. Like many other elegant European cities, you will find little plazas throughout town with nicely manicured gardens and beautiful trees. And yes, as I discussed in the previous entry Valencia has its Port and Beaches, which are clearly also prominent natural features of the city and popular tourist spots (discussed in the next entry).

Probably the most widely planted tree in the city of Valencia is the orange tree.
If you visit around January you can take plenty of photos of the trees bearing fruit
with classic local landmarks in the background. (But don't eat the fruit, it's inedible!)

Even more than the orange trees, I love all the huge and old Ficus trees, a kind of
fig tree, that you can find all over town. This one, which must be one of the largest
and where there are always kids playing on it, is in Parque Parterre near Colón.

This pretty plazita in the median of the Gran Vía del Marques de Turia has four Ficuses,
one in each corner, with a statue to Poet Teodoro Llorente in the middle.

But what I'm talking about when I say that Valencia is one of the nicest cities in terms of parklands is El Cauce del Río Turia, the vast emptied riverbed ("cauce") where the Turia River once flowed, which cuts through the middle of the city and which has been converted into a multi-use park of incredible splendor and tranquility. It is a gem, and I dedicate today's entry to it. The River Park, itself an incredible city treasure, is also home to or adjacent to four major tourist attractions, all must-sees when you come here: el Bioparc, el Jardín Botánico, los Viveros (a.k.a. los Jardines de Real), and the famous Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias. (It is for this reason that I always encourage my visitors to rent a bike for a day, so that they can tour the River Park in style, stopping at each of these locations.)

This Google Earth shot of Valencia shows you the new actual Turia riverbed to the south,
but also the old riverbed which is now a large park with numerous impressive attractions along it.

Photo of the Oct. 14, 1957 flood of the Río Turia in VLC
Amazingly, according to my in-laws, the park almost never was. The riverbed was first cleared in the late 1950s, after a 1957 flood devastated the surrounding center of town. The river was rerouted to the south of Valencia where it still flows today. (Or at least in theory flows, since drought and overuse by farmers often leaves the river dry at its end at the sea.) In the 1960s, the City explored possible uses for the empty riverbed, and initially favored introducing a major highway (urban planning of the midset of a Washington DC Beltway or Boston Big Dig). Valencians (including my in-laws) protested in typical Spanish style, holding large "manifestaciones" (political street marches and protests), arguing it was public space and should be put to better public use. The result was to transform it into a park... and in the last twenty years, to repurpose relatively wild parts of that park into spectacular (though admittedly also very costly) tourist attractions.

Another kind of tree that you will find throughout Valencia, curious because of its
"chubby" base. You can find this grove of them in the Riverbed Park, in an area
where there are always plenty of picnickers and friendly stray cats.

The Riverbed Park has lots of quiet trails and is green most of the year.
(For example, I took this photo in January!)

And the river has most certainly been put to good public use... Over six kilometers in length from the CAC to the Bioparc, the Riverbed Park has exercise stations and muscle machines sprinkled throughout, many soccer fields, a track and field arena, even a baseball field and separate rugby field. These along with 15+ kilometers of running paths and bike paths (a.k.a. bike lanes: "carril-bici") make it an incredible spot to get fit while enjoying Valencia's almost-always great outdoor weather. Of course, you can also just take a stroll through it to enjoy the beautiful manicured garden areas and fountains. There's a rose garden ("rosaleda") on the east end of the river, in an area with numerous impressive metal statues. And the bridges you will walk under are all impressive —some historic, others new— but most adding an incredible aesthetic touch.

One of several soccer fields in the River Turia as seen from the Pont de Fusta.
Saturday mornings you can watch the future of Spain's incredible soccer culture play.

The Alameda Metro stop is located in the Turia Riverbed near an open space
set aside for special fairs, such as visiting Circuses or the annual Food and Wine Festival

The Pont del Mar pedestrian bridge is very picturesque, connecting
the City Center with the University of Valencia campus area

You can see the beginning of the City of Arts and Sciences in the distance, from the Pont del Mar

You can always find people strolling around the Palau de la Música.
They often play classical music on speakers outside, and in the summer
there is a film screening series outside just next to it.

The "Puente de las Flores" is a particularly striking example, always lined with seasonal flowers, something which has recently invited criticism because of the expense of it (half a million euros per year by one account!), but which is beautiful and adds an undeniable element of romance and charm to the city.

For the Christmas season they planted Poinsettias along the bridge,
which was especially bright and beautiful. 

About a week or two ago they planted Geraniums,
which should be spectacular once they're in full bloom.

Is this too expensive a frill for a Community in crisis?
Hard to say. It is a beautiful frill.

And above all, there is the amazing Gulliver Playground, very, very popular with the kids, but I suspect equally popular with parents who are looking for an excuse to climb the fallen giant's arms and slide down his waist. It is based on the Jonathan Swift novel, Gulliver's Travels (1726), and in particular the scene when Gulliver is capture by the tiny residents of Lilliput. On this playground, Valencia's kids become the miniature Lilliputians.

The Gulliver Playground as seen from the ground...

But a Google Earth view of Gulliver reveals its incredible craftsmanship and realism.

In case you didn't have an idea of the scale, I include this slightly zoomed out Google Earth image.

As if this was not enough, there are those four spectacular sites you can visit on or adjacent to the river, all of which feature nature in its many forms and values. Here I'm going to follow the path of the river from West to East, and offer you mostly photos rather than textual explanation (that I'll save for another day). I think the images will convince you more than I can that El Río Turia is a gem, "un lujo"... further evidence that Valencia is a magnificent place to visit, if not to stay, settled down, and live the rest of your life here.


Last summer I bought a "Entrada Berde! Básica" pass, which for 34€ let's me go in to Valencia's Zoo, Bioparc, all year long at no (additional) charge Monday through Friday. (The regular "Berde!" card, which includes weekends, is 51€ for the year.) This is an incredible deal. I like to visit zoos. You could almost say I'm a zoo connoisseur. I've visited San Diego's, Washington's, Chicago's, Barcelona's, among many others. Valencia's is incredible, easily on par with the best of the above. Since it is located at the opposite (west) side of the Río Turia as the City of Arts and Science, we start or tour here.

After you enter the Bioparc Entrance, you cross a bridge over the old Turia riverbed.
On the other side is the zoo. Here you can see the view of this new Parque de Cabecera
public park area as seen from the Bioparc entrance bridge

I'll keep my introduction here very lite, since I can alway give you a more detailed description later. Highlights of the zoo include it's incredible (breathtaking) landscaping, that it is focused around two regions of Africa (split into Equatorial Africa and the Savanna) [sorry, no Asian animals in this zoo], the usual lions and tigers and... well, no bears [again, Africa-focused], an excellent avian show (a.k.a. "exhibición de aves y mamíferos"), and a walk-in lemur exhibit... a walk-in lemur exhibit! I repeat this last feature because it is the coolest zoo thing on earth. (Forgive my hyperbole, but trust me, you gotta try it!) Here you can find the zoo's floor plan, including the animal exhibits they have.

Lemurs! While you're not allowed to touch them, you can watch them run
back and forth right around you (or above you on the branches). It is incredible!

As amazing as the animals are, sometimes I think the protagonist of Valencia's
Zoo are the designed habitats. Some of the views are magnificent.

There are tunnels and cave-like spaces, such as this one where you'll find the hippos

In the tunnels, you never know what animal might peer back at you from around a hidden corner

One day I caught the elephants taking their late-afternoon bath. (Maybe some
day I'll upload the video I recorded of it.) Check out those faux Baobab trees!!!

Always a fan of cats, it was a special day when I saw the black panther resting on a tree

The Savanna section with rhinos, zebras, and ostriches. 

I take it as a sign of the zookeepers' hard work making the animals comfortable that last summer (2011) they had an incredible number of newborn animals (hyena, lion cub, baby giraffe, baby chimp, baby monkeys, baby lemurs, to name only a few).

Last summer this guy was the star of the year, the newborn giraffe.

Here was another newborn baby. The summer of 2011 was the year of the zoo baby in Valencia.

Jardín Botánico:

There is too much to say about this Botanic Garden (for now I'll just direct you to this person's post on it), so I'll summarize. It serves several functions: It's didactic (to educate children who regularly visit on school trips). It's research (run in association with the University of Valencia as an agricultural station for university students to train with). It's home to a colony of cats who, in a wonderful example of social conscientiousness, are looked after by volunteers and thus probably live like kings (and queens). (A while back fellow Valencian blogger Chic Soufflé wrote a great post in Spanish about it, and Travelocafe just posted about it here.) And it's incredibly peaceful, a wonderful spot to come when you want to be surrounded by quiet and nature.

An herb garden marked with signs for you to see what common (and uncommon) herbs look like.

"La huerta" – a garden area where they grow typical produce of the season and from the region

They have a series of posts like this in Catalan for kids. (Hint: "Pista" means "clue".)

And they have a series of great greenhouses with more exotic plants,
including this one with "carnivorous plants"!

Here on the left you can see the main "Hivernacle" (greenhouse)
and on the right the "Umbracle" (threshold or covered area)

Plenty of shade and places to sit and contemplate life's beauty

Cool trees!

Hundreds of kinds of trees, some familiar, some not, all amazing.

And an impressive cactus garden. Made more impressive by all the friendly cats roaming around.

Perhaps the best thing about the Jardín Botánico is that its exhibits are alive, so with each season it is an entirely different place to visit. Trees and cats, what a wonderful combination!

Viveros (a.k.a. "Jardines de Real"):

While it is called "Jardines de Real" on the map, because it was once just that, royal gardens for a palace there, locals call the rectangular park that juts out north of the riverbed, "Viveros". This manicured garden park is at one and the same time a city park, in the sense that it hosts special events (e.g. the City's annual book fair, a summer concert series), and yet also an over-sized humble neighborhood park, in that it is where neighbors will go for their late afternoon or Sunday stroll, and where dog owners walk their dog (particularly on the northside of the park, where pet owners congregate and dogs, often running off the leash, meet and greet other fellow dogs). One fun, albeit unplanned for feature of the park is the large flock of wild parrots that live here, whom you can regularly hear chatting it up in the trees above.

Among its more notable features are the following: a pond with ducks and swans on it, a miniature traffic zone for kids on bikes (designed for them to practice learning the traffic signs and roadways), an incredible rose garden ("rosaleda"), a large bird cage where dozens of exotic birds are kept, various verandas where you'll regularly see wedding couples and falleras being photographed, and several cafes which, when the weather's nice, are excellent places to chat with a friend and relax.

You'll see plenty of people walking their dogs, or walking their kids at this park.

The Rose Garden is spectacular in late April, early May, though it is amazing
how many months in the year there is some kind of rose in bloom here.

Lots of manicured hedges

This tree, next to one of 2-3 park cafes in Viveros, turns an
incredible purple color around late May.

Here you can see wide-open space in the south center of Viveros,
where the City holds fairs and summer music concerts.

One of the wide "avenues" of the park on the southeastern corner.
On the right you'll find the ruins of the 19th-century palace,
a popular hangout spot for the many stray cats who live here.

La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciéncias (City of Arts and Sciences):

If anything, I probably need to say the least about this place, since after paella it is probably now Valencia's most iconic tourist feature. (One of my Facebook followers —and fellow expat Spain blogger— shared this excellent architectural and historical profile of the complex she wrote last fall, which I recommend you read.) But, again, very schematically... the City of Arts and Sciences is by Valencia's most famous architect, Santiago Calatrava. It is composed of 6 principle elements, each a cultural center:
1) El Ágora: a public space so far mostly used for sporting events, most notably the Valencia Tennis Open ATP 500 in November, but also this week it hosts Valencia Fashion Week,
2) El Museo de las Ciencias Príncipe Felipe: a Science Museum (more kid-focused),
3) L'Hemifèric: an IMAX theatre,
4) Oceanogràfic: Europe's largest Aquarium,
5) L'Umbracle: which translates to "threshold," it's an open air exhibit space with sculpture garden, and
6) El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía: an underutilized art museum and exhibition space.

Different angles on the CAC: Here you can see the Google Earth of the complex,
though Google's clearly out-of-date, since the Ágora doesn't appear on it.

Different angles on the CAC: Here you can see a fisheye lens picture of the complex,
because let's face it, it's way too big to snap a regular photo of.

Different angles on the CAC: Here's a 2D angle... the City of Arts and Sciences'
schematic map explaining the layout of all the buildings.

While I could spend several days writing numerous entries on these different buildings and spaces, let me just get to the point, they are amazing to see even if just from the outside. The buildings have Calatrava's signature style, looking oddly natural, like enormous fossilized animals. (The science building is said to resemble an ankylosaurus, while the Ágora clearly looks like a venus flytrap. The Hemisfèric is an eye.). The entire area around the buildings utilizes the broken tile style, "trencadís" (made famous by Gaudí).

You can find all the pretty, standard images of the City of Arts and Sciences
that you could possibly ever want here at the CAC gallery of photos

One of my favorite things to do, self-therapy when I'm trying to shrug off the dire mood
caused by the economic crisis, is to ride my bike through the river right around
late afternoon or dusk. That is right when you have "magic light", which any
photography geek will tell you is when there is the most even depth focus.
This is also when you'll see the most people out for a stroll. The City of Arts and
Sciences, seen from the seat of a bike, is breathtaking at this time of the day.

Christmastime at the City of Arts and Sciences

L'Hemisfèric lit up at night, when the hemisphere casts a reflection on the pool
outside to form this eye.

As for actually going into any of the museums, all I can say is that they are expensive, so you should choose wisely factoring in your own budget. Indeed, even Calatrava has been quoted as saying:
"I am proud of the fact that people can walk through and around the main buildings without paying. It is a city to be discovered by promenading."
However, you _must_ see the Oceanogràfic. It is currently the largest Aquarium in Europe and features a lot of the Mediterranean sea animals. So it makes for a great compliment to a beach visit to the city. What's more, as with all the Calatrava-styled facilities, the Aquarium space is quite impressive to walk around and through on the inside, so the aquarium space itself adds to the visitor's experience.

The Ágora as seen from inside the Oceanogràfic's Seabird Aviary

Half the fun of the Oceanogràfic are the maze-like facilities, including underground
tunnels like this shark tunnel.

And there you are. These are all probably, more than anything (except food), the reasons why I love living in Valencia. It's natural beauty, it's lush, serene public spaces. All of this make Valencia a jewel of the Mediterranean and a place I'm proud to call home.


Laura said...

What a great post! Thank you for mentioning Travelocafe ;)

An Expat in Spain said...

Thank you Laura! It is my pleasure mentioning your blog. Your photos are incredible, so I'm always happy when you post on Valencia or Spain.

Anonymous said...

Just read your entry. Wonderfully presented indeed. Thank you very much for this splendid account. I lived in Valencia for a while and am currently considering moving back. — Maybe this time I would attempt to connect up with some other expats.

An Expat in Spain said...

My pleasure. It is definitely worth coming back, if at least for a visit. In the last ten years the city has really grown and transformed, for the better, especially the Turia Riverbed Park. The expat community here is pretty fun. As is always the case, you have your daytrippers, who are different than the more settled expats. A good spot to connect up with Anglophone expats for me has been Portland Alehouse. It is like stepping into an American brewery, excellent hamburgers and all. I go there whenever I'm feeling homesick, or just wanting to eat a good burger with good beer.

Trevor Huxham said...

Thank you for this lovely 4-part series about Valencia!!! I only have space for 3-1/2 days in the city, but I’m really looking forward to exploring it now because of these posts.

An Expat in Spain said...

Trevor, I'm glad to hear it! This is what we expat/travel bloggers live for, and you can probably tell from my entries that I'm always happy to help people appreciate Valencia however I can. I hope you have a wonderful visit here!

Junu Jinnie said...

I just love to travelling and i think it is very necessary to learn the language of that place. The Spanish Language Program which includes provisions and learning techniques for teens goes by the name of total immersion program for teens. Their goal is to have teenagers find in the process fun and excitement and not be bored down, owing especially to the tedious nature of the usual exercises.

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