February 10, 2012

Valencia, Spain's Third Largest City: Getting Oriented and the City Center, part 1

Today I'm going to talk about Valencia. This entry, or really these entries since this is the first of a four-part series, is _long_ overdue. First, it is worth saying that Valencia is Spain's third largest city. I'm going to say it again. Valencia is Spain's third largest city. No, not Sevilla. No, not Bilbao (not even close!). Yes, Valencia. It is not just some pitstop for beach paella, as Hemingway and many others would have you believe. I wouldn't be representing Valencia accurately if I didn't open with this common rant by other Valencia travel writers, and by sharing with you what is a deeply felt sentiment of Valencians: that their city is under-appreciated, always overlooked by others, and short-changed all around

There. I said it. There is something about being number three in a country Spain's size: "always a bridesmaid, never a bride". Call me a whiner if you want (but it's sooo true!). Well, if I have won any of you over with my other blog posts, and if you don't suspect me of complete and utter bias (guilty!), I'm going to go on the record here and say it: Valencia is a _must visit_ for anyone coming to Spain. Though maybe (hopefully) this no longer needs to be said. As early as 2005, Travel and Leisure was describing "Valencia's Renaissance", and Lonely Planet listed Valencia fifth on its top ten cities in the world to visit in 2011. There is way more going on here than paella (which arguably deserves a visit in its own right). So you need way more than 3 days to see even the basics (especially if you come during Fallas, which provides full-time distractions from Valencia's routine beauty). 

Top ten cities in Spain by population (though Bilbao as a metropolitan area jumps to #5).
I'm tired of having to explain where #3 Valencia is... It is halfway up on the eastern coast,
just above the little horn sticking out
(it is opposite Palma de Mallorca from the Peninsula).
(Note what two cities don't make the cut: Pamplona and Granada.)

The City Center:
Okay, got that out of my system. Now onto the content. Today I'm going to focus in on what is literally the core of Valencia, the city center. I always layout Valencia's center as a diamond formed by the River Turia riverbed park on the north (more to follow on that next entry!) and several important large avenues to the south. On the southside of the diamond, touching the southern point of what was once the old city wall, is the main train station (though it is no longer where long-distance trains arrive), the Estación del Norte next to the Plaza de Toros. The station is a marvel of modern architecture and regional iconography decoration, so I recommend you visit it whether or not you are catching a train there.

Aerial view of Valencia's historic center with general landmarks. Inside the
diamond you can see a circle formed by roads where the medieval wall once was.

The picturesque Estación del Norte and Plaza de Toros in the center of Valencia

The Station has just added a "Sala de Exposiciones" walled with "azulejos" and
classic regional and agrarian iconography

Heading north from the train station, the tourist center of Valencia flows out of three main plazas: Plaza del Ayuntamiento, Plaza de la Reina, and Plaza de la Virgin. Today I can only provide you a whirlwind tour, only briefly touching upon the main highlights of each. The Plaza del Ayuntamiento, as the name suggests, is home to the Town-hall. Opposite it is the Edificio de Correos (Central Post Office), whose metal and glass dome ceiling was recently renovated and is worth a look inside. Just to the west, on one of many pedestrian streets, you will find a great place to try typical Valencian dishes prepared by a quality and knowledgeable chef: Restaurante Navarro (C/Arzobispo Mayoral, 5, Valencia 46002; phone: 96 352 96 23). To the east of this plaza, walking along Calle de las Barcas (called such because allegedly in olden days the sea once reached here), you will see a lot of impressive building facades, not the least of which is the Edificio del Banco de Valencia. To the north of the Banco de Valencia shoots out Calle del Poeta Querol, Valencia's equivalent of the "Golden Mile". (It is there that you will find the Baroque Palacio del Marqués de dos Aguas, which includes the Museo de la Cerámica.) And starting at the foot of the Bank is a pedestrian shopping area leading east into the Colón shopping area (including the beautiful Mercado de Colón). For more on Valencia's shopping geography, see this guest post by Chic Soufflé.

The largest of the three, the Plaza del Ayuntamiento is often dressed up for
numerous events and public exhibits but also by the regular flower stands.

Valencia's Central Post Office in the historic Mail and Telegraph Building

The roof of the Post Office is worth a peak inside, which is free since this is an
ordinary functioning post office. This is also a peaceful place to sit and take a break.

The Banco de Valencia is one of many impressively decorated building facades in this area.

Located just to the northeast of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento is the Palacio del Marqués de Dos Aguas,
which is a must visit if you are interested in Baroque interior design and the history of Valencian ceramics.

Before continuing on north to the Plaza de la Reina, turn west on Calle de María Cristina to head towards the Mercat Central de València. This beautiful, main market is located in a modern building built between 1914 and 1928, which is easily one of the largest and most impressive still-functioning marketplace buildings in Spain. I'll save a more in depth discussion of it for later, but must say a couple of things about it here. First, it is a must visit, but you have to go in the morning (only open in the morning, until 3PM; closed on Sundays) and I'd avoid Mondays when the fish market is closed. Opposite the Market is La Lonja de la Seda, the 15th century Silk Market. Impressive if for no other reason than that it is an old, historic building in Spain that is _not_ religious in nature, the interior of this building is breath-taking, and I highly recommend the tour, since the history and iconography inside is really interesting. Rounding out this whirlwind detour is La Plaça Redona, a.k.a. the Round Square. There is little more to this square than its peculiar shape, but it is also home to market stands which sell traditional handmade products.

Inside the Mercat Central de València, both an architectural and cornucopian splendor.

See my entry on the Pardal i cotorra for some fun lore on the Market and
the nearby Iglesia de los Santos Juanes

The gargoyles of the Lonja, which stare across at the Mercat Central

A round square? Yep, the Plaza Redonda located a block off Calle de San Vicente Mártir
in between the Plaza del Ayuntamiento and the Plaza de la Reina.

The recently restored baroque Iglesia de San Martín is also worth a visit, and is located on
Calle de San Vicente Mártir between Plaza del Ayuntamiento and Plaza de la Reina.

Evidence for the descent in popularity of los Borgia:
In the 17th century these 15th century frescos,
commissioned by a Borgia, were covered up,
only to be uncovered again in 2004.
Historian's digression: The key to understanding what I will call "la Valencia profunda" is to think back to 1492 and its many cultural and economic ramifications for Spain. 1492? "What?!?" you might say. Well back in the 15th century Valencia was a cultural center not only for Spain, but for all of Europe. I have had many a medieval historian friend pass through Valencia and "go gaga" over all of its fascinating historical landmarks and namesakes for this period. For historians of science, for example, Valencia was one of two major ports of entry for important scientific ideas imported from the East and Mideast (the other port city being in Italy). Thanks to the silk trade among other things (whose importance is marked by the building of La Lonja), the city was also an economic powerhouse. (Another case in point, Valencia's most famous family, the House of Borgia, was at the height of its power during this period, giving the world two popes and investing in the city's local buildings and arts.) So when tanto monta, monta tanto Isabel and Fernando (through Christopher Columbus) opened the way to the West, the New World and all its riches, they were essentially undercutting Valencia's importance as a port to the East.

... In the next post I will continue through the city's center, where the we turn to those two oh-so-important genres of Spanish tourism: religious sites and art museums. And then we'll shift to one of the city's oldest and most vibrant neighborhoods, El Carmen...


Tumbit - Mr Grumpy said...

After 8 years of living in the region I guess I really should make the effort to check out the City itself !

An American Spaniard said...

It's definitely worth a visit. Aren't you curious to know what Camps's old stomping grounds look like?

Though I can understand. There are a lot of towns and cities of the Valencian region that I should have seen by now. But there's something about them being so close that paradoxically causes one to put off the trip.

Tumbit - Mr Grumpy said...

Well its about an hour up the road and having a phobia of Spanish drivers makes the trip less than tempting. That said, Mrs Grumpy has an Ecografica in some Hospital in the City Centre in a couple of weeks time so I may be inclined to join her and make a day of it. How hard can it be ?

An American Spaniard said...

Baby steps, so to speak. Valencia is a great spot for "medical tourism": according to some of my colleagues who'd know, it has some of the best fertility and natal care treatment centers in Spain. It can't hurt to come for a day, right?

Tumbit - Mr Grumpy said...

Will bear it in mind.
Hope you have a McDonalds and a Starbucks up there so I can get something half-decent to eat.

An American Spaniard said...

Oh, Mr. Grumpy, Valencia is a very cosmopolitan city. We have a KFC, more than one Starbucks, many McDonalds, even several Burger Kings. Plenty of dining options for you here.

Trevor Huxham said...

So I'm making a trip to Valencia in 2 weeks before visiting college friends in Alicante, but probably wouldn't've planned such a visit had you not written so much about this city. Thank you!!!

An American Spaniard said...

Hi Trevor, Glad to hear it! If you are visiting after March 1st then be sure to catch the mascletà show at the Plaza de Ayuntamiento every day in March at 2PM (up until Fallas). Trust me, it's worth it!

Unknown said...

THANK YOU so much for this wonderful blog!! For someone (myself) who is trying to learn everything about the area for retirement your blog is perfect. Again thank you.

Sam Anderson said...

Very informative post about this historical city. Tourists may plan for a tour of this nice city and explore its history.
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