February 17, 2012

Valencia, Spain's Third Largest City: Part 3... Neighborhoods, Port, and Playa

Of course, tourist sights and churches doth not a city make. Despite all of my efforts to sell Valencia as a wonderful place to visit, Valencia is a place to live in. Its true richness is its distinctive and vibrant neighborhoods ("barrios"). Here I'll briefly characterize the most well known and visible neighborhoods of Valencia.

This official district map offered by Valencia-cityguide.com is pretty good,
though I've added in the names (all in Catalan) of a few subdistrict neighborhoods

• El Carmen:
I already introduced you to Valencia's most famous neighborhood, El Carmen, in the previous entry. Named for the part of the old town that used to be orchards and gardens, El Carmen in Valencia is distinguished by its windy medieval-style narrow streets, comparatively shorter buildings and lots of local color. El Carmen here is also one of several hotspots for nighttime activity, so it's always crowded with club-hoppers Friday and Saturday nights. (Other good clubbing spots: Cánovas in L'Eixample and in the summer the beach clubs at Malvarrosa, among many other areas. I know there are good places in El Pla del Real, near the University, and I suspect there are spots in Extramurs. But these are the three areas I know from back in my days of clubbing here.)

• L'Eixample:
This neighborhood, really an entire city district, has the same namesake as its sister neighborhood in Barcelona, which is Catalan for "the widening" or "urban expansion"... both of which are true of it. Just like with Barcelona, this is the "new" as in mid 19th-century extension to the old part of town (a.k.a. "Ciutat Vella"). While it doesn't have buildings designed by Gaudí, it does has the impressive broad avenues and that high modern form of urban planning, grid layout, and it has some pretty beautiful Modernist buildings, facades and balconies.

I highly recommend a stroll down the median of Gran Vía Marques del Turia, to take in the elegant buildings' skyline while laughing at the contrasting inelegant marks of globalization on the shops at ground level (i.e. Starbuck's, KFC, and such). (It's a schism much like the one I described for Madrid's Gran Vía here.)

Edificio Chapa, one of several beautiful buildings to be found by walking
along Gran Vía Marques del Turia

Club hoppers might be more familiar with the other side of Edificio Chapa, at
Plaza de Cánovas, a common meeting point for going out clubbing in the area nearby

Not quite Gaudí, but pretty wild. This building is also on Gran Vía
Marques del Turia right where it meets Antic Regne.

One place worth stopping at is El Contraste, which I learned
about recently because my wife referred me to it as one of the
few quality places that will make you these bunyols de calabassa
all year long. When I mentioned it to her dad, he got very excited.
Apparently El Contraste "es de toda la vida," in that he went there
when he was a kid. A good sign.
In recent years this neighborhood (technically a subsection of L'Eixample) has really come alive. For a while it has been the ethnic neighborhood, where you could find the best, or at least most authentic Chinese, Middle-eastern... and in the last few years, American food (it doesn't get more ethnic than that!). You might also recall "Russafa" from my earlier blog entry on Fallas. In mid March, this is ground zero for awesome neighborhood falles, and especially for seeing the most impressive light shows around Calle Cuba and Sueca.

Russafa also has many cool hangout spots. One such locale is Ubik Café (Calle Literato Azorín 13, 46006 Valencia; phone: 963 741 255), which is my dream of dream businesses, a bookstore / dining spot. Indeed, there is also a "carnicería librería" (bookstore meatshop) not far away with the excellent name Slaughterhouse (Calle Denia, 22 Valencia; phone: 963 287 755), that is a popular hangout. Perhaps for these reasons and others, Russafa has had a lot of recent activity organizing neighborhood events and festivals, most of which are targeted towards kids. Right now it is gearing up for its Carnaval festival. (Last December neighborhood shops started a "Ruzafa loves kid" fair.) There are a variety of websites and blogs which follow these events in the neighborhood. I direct you to Living Russafa as one such example, and Russafa CulturaViva as another, though there are others (on food; on neighborhood politics; etc.). All of this is evidence of how Russafa has really become a happening spot and definitely worth a pass through on your visit.

Café Ubik, one of many cool hangouts in the Russafa area.

I found this really nice collage of Ruzafa photos at Rincones de Valencia,
a pretty nice blog (in Spanish) about Valencia's different hidden corners and history.

An example of the "exotic" food you can find in Russafa. This Spanish chain, Taste of America,
just opened a store in Valencia last fall. It seems to be a hit as much or more with locals than
American expats. I saw a Spaniard outside it once pointing at a box of Americana food
and speaking an essay about how typical and amazing it was. When I looked
at the box it was Pop-Tarts. I almost laughed out loud.

Russafa also has a pretty large marketplace, Mercado de Ruzafa. Not so large and beautiful as the
Mercat Central, but it easily competes with the grand markets of other cities.

Gerry Blackwell snapped a picture of this Art Deco building facade in Russafa,
next to the train station. Like the rest of L'Eixample, it is worth checking out
the architecture and buildings of this neighborhood.

More than anything, Benimaclet is an interesting example of how much Valencia has changed and grown over the last half century. Not long ago it was just a "pueblo" (town) on the outskirts of the city. Now it is a fully integrated neighborhood. Benimaclet is in no way a tourist area. It is a neighborhood to be lived in. (This is my tip off to those future fellows and English teachers who ask me: Benimaclet, along with Russafa are the two neighborhoods I usually direct exchange students to on where to live and find a rental.) But like Russafa, Benimaclet is a vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural neighborhood. This is a popular area for Erasmus students (I've noticed the Mercadona here carries more products from other EU countries than other locations); it also has a street with many Arabic Halal meat shops. And yet at the same time it is a "de toda la vida" neighborhood, too. It is an interesting fusion, and while I couldn't say it's a "must-see" for tourists, it's a nice area to get to know if you want to get off the beaten path.

It also, as you can see from the pictured fruit shop below, has some surprising finds nestled into an otherwise humble area. One such pleasant surprise is En Bàbia Café, which I've mentioned earlier as one of a handful of place I've discovered in my adopted city that reminds me (pleasantly so) of my oh-so-missed coffee shops from back home in Austin, a chill, hip place to hang out and just chat. And like Russafa, it seems that the local business and neighbors are starting to organize a bit here, and create cool events and synergies. You can find out about them on "Yo Soy de Benimaclet," one of several Benimaclet blogs that have sprouted up recently which follow these neighborhood happenings with that kind of local, local pride that is typical of continental Europeans.

Deep in the neighborhood of Benimaclet, there is an amazingly beautiful fruit shop,
with purple tile exterior. You can find it at the following intersection:
Calle de la Murta and Calle de Mistral. Apparently it was in a scene in
Almodóvar's movie La Mala Educación (2004).

Plaza de Benimaclet in 1955
"Fotografía No. 22" digitalized by Víctor Serna, from an interesting blog
"Benimaclet com a poble" (Benimaclet as a town)

Plaza de Benimaclet today
"Fotografía No. 21" by Víctor Serna, from an interesting blog
"Benimaclet com a poble" (Benimaclet as a town)

Rita Barberá, who's been Valencia's city mayor forever,
will take some blows in Fallas this year for her rough
handling of the disadvantaged Cabanyal neighborhood
This is easily the most humble of Valencia's famous neighborhoods, Cabanyal has been at the center of a political storm the last three years over the very question of its continued existence. The debate can be summed up as follows (for a fuller and more colorful account of the debate, check out this website): Cabanyal is right next to the sea on prime beachfront real estate. Yet Cabanyal is a poor neighborhood with many social problems. (I am always having to warn incoming exchange students to _not_ look for apartments here, despite its proximity to the beach... Let's just say it's not a pleasant neighborhood at nighttime.) Enter the powers that be and urban planners. Cabanyal, the humble neighborhood, sits right in the path of an ambitious plan to extend the large and upscale Avenida Blasco Ibáñez (some of you may recognize it as the avenue where the University of Valencia's main campus is located). The idea is that Blasco Ibañez would become Valencia's Rambla, an open avenue that would reach the sea, thus further enriching Valencia's visual appeal as a tourism city.

Cabanyal has that characteristic fishermen's village look to it.
Because of recent economic decline, it can be patchy so far as
some areas looking picturesque but others looking run down.

Needless to say, many of Cabanyal's residents don't want to simply pick up and leave (particularly during an economic crisis) just to satisfy the grand architect plans of the city. Instead, they propose the city invest in renovating the neighborhood and lifting it up as a kind of Barceloneta, Cabanyal being the historical fishermen's village for Valencia much as Barceloneta is for Barcelona. I confess, part of me would love to see the urban reform and extension of the avenue to the sea. As it is, the neighborhood can be a bit of a disappointment to pass through on your way to the beach. Still, I can't help but also agree that the local government's handling of the whole thing has been inconsiderate and awful. Certainly, if you have time while visiting the beach, it is worth a stroll through this neighborhood to see a few of the restored historical buildings, which give you a glimpse of what the area could look like were the city to expend its resources on building it up rather than tearing it down.

Cabanyal stands in between the Avenida Blasco Ibáñez and the sea

El Teatro de Marionetas is one of the quaint historical buildings in Cabanyal
which makes the stroll through it worth it. It has also become
a site for those protesting the City's efforts to bulldoze the neighborhood,
their common chant: "Rehabilitació, ja! Sense destrucció"
(Rehabilitation, now! Without destruction).

You can find such pretty buildings all over Cabanyal. (Photos source: ARCA, see below.)

ARCA, or the Associació per a la Revitalizació dels Centres Antics, has photographed
some of these buildings in its effort to promote its campaign to restore Cabanyal rather
than bulldoze it for the extension project. I must agree that these buildings are its
most compelling argument. Why not create an L.A.-style Venice Beach instead of
a Barcelona-style Rambla?

This video offers a nice historical summary of Cabanyal 
and the current political debates about it.

Dear Valencian readers, don't be upset if I didn't mention your neighborhood. Don't worry, I didn't mention my neighborhood here either. This is not an entry about the best neighborhoods to live in (a contest I wouldn't want to enter in, since it would be incredibly difficult to judge). Just an entry about those more prominent neighborhoods that we all know about. I think you're neighborhood is great, too. I promise.

Port and Playa:
And of course then there is the Port ("puerto") and city beaches ("playas") of Valencia. These two features, perhaps more than any others, have been what put Valencia on the map. (Though in the next entry I'm going to write about what I think _ought_ to put Valencia on the map.) In part this makes sense. Valencia's Port is the third largest (in terms of cargo movement) on the Mediterranean, and Spain's most important economically after (I believe) Bilbao. In other words, the Port of Valencia is a major economic engine for the region.

Its port is the reason Valencia is so economically important to Spain.
Contrary to what people often think, Valencia's is the largest cargo port
on Spain's eastern seaboard, substantially larger and economically
more important than Barcelona's

More recently, the Port has experienced an aesthetic renovation as a result of its hosting world famous boating race, The America's Cup for two years: the 32nd Cup in 2007 and the 33rd in 2010. Another change in the last few years: it is now common for at least one large cruise ship to dock at the port on a given day, and there are plans to increase its capacity to handle two. (In 2011, Valencia got around 200 cruise ship visits.) Indeed, when the AVE between Madrid and Valencia was officially opened last year, Rita Barberá famously said, in typical Valencian exaggeration and regional posturing, that the high-speed train transformed the port "en el puerto de Madrid" (the port of Madrid). (The AVE has radically transformed the economic possibilities for Valencia to capture some of the Madrid tourism traffic, since it is now only an hour and 20 minutes away by train!) All of this has powered much of the city's growth as a tourist destination in the last ten years.

Work in progress: Valencia has had a more mixed experience trying to build up the
touristy side of its port. The America's Cup helped to give it a major facelift. But there
is still a ways to go before it can compete with the Mediterranean's many
jetsetter-and-yacht themed ports.

The beaches, obviously, are its other major tourist draw, particularly in the summer. There is not much to say about them that is self-evident. They are nice for city beaches (real beach lovers will obviously avoid them for more secluded cleaner beaches). And there are several large beach clubs that ensure the beach is alive and awake late on a Saturday night. Perhaps it is only worth adding that _the_ city beach is recognized by locals as three beaches, listed here from south to north: Las Arenas, La Malvarrosa, and La Patacona. La Patacona is actually the beach belonging to Alboraia, a town to the north (renowned as the home of the famous Valencian drink, orxata, but that I'll save for a later entry). So even in high season there is plenty of beach to go around for everyone.

Valencia's beaches have both the wide paved esplanade for strolling and a _lot_
of beachfront. I sometimes wonder at the width of the sand, but it means that there
is always room for people, and also plenty of space for beach sports like beach
volleyball or soccer with friends.

The beach has become Paella Row
If you just _have_ to eat paella on the beach (in the Las Arenas zone), I recommend you skip La Pepica, which is designed to be informal and family-style, or Marcelina next door. They get all the tourist reviews, but this just reflects the snowball effect such reviews can have. Hemingway eats there, and suddenly everyone goes there thinking it must be the best. Instead I recommend you go for the more elegant, and by my friends and family's standards, better quality L'Estimat (Avda. Neptuno, 16 Playa de las Arenas, Valencia; phone: 96 371 1018), which is just a few more buildings down from the other two. I ate there recently and it was exquisite!

La Pepica and Marcelina Restaurants are oversold to foreign tourists,
appearing in almost every guidebook.

Let's face it, the number one reason to visit Valencia is the fresh quality food,
and especially the paella. Not only is it excellent at L'Estimat, but the chefs
were really cool about letting me photograph them cooking. The head
chef even invited me in to take a picture of me, and we started talking about
recipe books. So I could not recommend this place more highly!

The paella and fideuà is better quality at L'Estimat, and the view is just as good

Coda: Day-trip to Albufera & El Saler
If you have a full week in Valencia, then I highly recommend you make the trip down to El Saler beach and nearby Albufera Park. El Saler is where Valencians go when they want a nearby beach and are able to get our of the city. And as I've already said in my entry on Valencian rice, the Albufera and nearby towns of Sueca and El Palmar is the heartland for paella, and the place to try it. You'd only need about half a day to take a ride on a boat on the lake there, followed by a delicious lunch at one of the many quality restaurants in the area. And then you can take a siesta on the beach at El Saler. The only catch is that you will probably need a car, though you can technically catch a bus there, or even ride a bike.

Why wait for a summer day to visit the beach? I snapped a photo of
tumbleweed on the El Saler beach on a wind, wintery day a couple of years ago.

I have one more entry to offer you on Valencia, and it is on my favorite feature of the city. So stay tuned!


Mother Theresa said...

My husband was on a thesis committee there a couple of years ago, so we took advantage of the opportunity and spent a few days with the whole family. I really loved it, but I would have liked to have more time to visit the city more thoroughly. We spent quite a lot of our time at the City of the Arts and Sciences, since that was more appealing to the kids than regular tourism. Maybe next time we'll get to see some of the places you've mentioned in this post.

An American Spaniard said...

Hi Mother Theresa! Hopefully you can make it back sometime, though the CAC is pretty fun and as you say, along with the River Turia park and the Bioparc, probably among the best areas to enjoy with kids in tow.

HappyHammer said...

This a great article thanks.

I am thinking of living in Valencia for 6 to 12 months. I am interested in food but want a safe neighbourhood preferrably close to a market and not too far from the Nou Mestalla. I would like to be close to Spanish eateries, maybe in the old town? If possible I would like to walk to most places day to day for shops, bars nd restaurants. It will be me and my wife and I am looking to rent an apartment. Any recommendations?

An American Spaniard said...

Hi Happy Hammer, I'm glad you found this helpful! I've replied to a few emails on this question, and I hope you don't mind if I share with you a standard reply I give:

El Carmen and Russafa are hip, youngish neighborhoods, lively with lots of cafes. They are by and large safe, albeit a little rundown in places, minding the usual rules about walking down dark alleys alone at night, or through parks after dark. Though you'll find a lot of well-lit foot traffic on most streets in those neighborhoods. A third neighborhood that is not as central, but also hip, and a lot cheaper, is Benimaclet. For example, I recommend it to the poor exchange students who pass through, and can't afford El Carmen or Russafa.

The only places to avoid would be the beach neighborhood (great during the day, but not so great to stay in at night, and too far from the city life) and the area southwest of the Mercat Central and north of the Main Library (it's just two streets or so, but it's prime central for prostitutes... a very surreal, disturbing localized area to stumble into by accident... though not dangerous as there are --cough, cough-- plenty of cops there all the time).

I think with all three neighborhoods mentioned above you'll be in good shape. I'm sure you'll have a great time in Valencia.
Email me if you have any further questions about it.

Rocio said...

Amazing blog!I really enjoyed it. I especially like the part of the neighborhoods. It would be really useful for people who want to move to Valencia.

Judith said...

Great blog for tips on places to explore beyond the main tourist attractions. We were in Cabanyal today and loved it. Would hate to see it destroyed. So many buildings worth restoring.

Anonymous said...

Very nice blog about Valencia. One one of the best I've read on the Internet. Excellent!

Valencia tourism and sights

Anonymous said...

This is so useful! We are thinking about moving to Valencia in the future and are looking at investing in property there. If you ever had time to recommend any nearby suburban areas that would also be really really interesting!

Rozzy Gadsden said...

I love your blog. Incredibly interesting. I would love to hear what you think of my post on a recent trip to Valencia,

Obviously I have to go back for more exploring!

Anonymous said...

Excellent. Thank you very much!! Also thinking of buying a flat in Valencia. Previously I've looked at old Town, but now I will look further!

Unknown said...

Hello. Thanks for the great information. My family and I are considering a move to Valencia from The U.S. this summer. We are considering the neighborhood of Eixample-Gran Via but would also like to know if you recommend any more suburban neighborhoods outside the city. We are torn between city living and suburban living as we are traditionally "House" people and not apartment goers, but we are considering a change in that are as well. We are a family of four, two adults and two children ages 7 and 12. Any input you have to offer would be greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Hi, would you please recommend a nice neighbourhood for a family with 1yr old baby. We don't want night life or student life, we want cal, quiet, parks, green, walkable and safe. Any recommendations? For 6-12 months.

Marina said...

very nice blog about Valencia. Too bad you don't want to enter the debate about the best neighborhoods to live in, since you seems to really know your city.

Could you please at least direct me towards some neighborhoods I should concentrate my research on. Neighborhoods for young families with a little baby (no night life), quiet, parks, green, walkable and safe.

thank you in advance for your reply

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