Upon Spain's Costa Blanca sits one of the country's most fertile regions. The Comunidad Valenciana consists of three provinces: Valencia (the regional capital), Castellon to the north, and Alicante to the south. The Mediterranean port city of Valencia is Spain's third-largest city, with a population of over 750,000.
Outside of the three main cities, the towns are of such a manageable size where populations are little more than 60,000; actually, even the cities themselves probably cannot be described as built up. Wide pavements and even wider roads help to spread out the central congregating districts that permit winding, narrow passages off the central Plazas. This is to cater for the Valencian passion for the promenade whether after meals, in the evening or on Sunday afternoon.
Originally founded as Valentia in 138 BC as a retirement settlement for Roman legionnaires, the city was subsequently occupied by first the Visigoths and then the Arabs. The legendary Castilian knight El Cid ruled in the 1090s, but the Arabs were not finally expelled until the area was incorporated into the growing Catalan kingdom of Jaime I in 1238. The city also has a history of backing the defiant (but losing) side in various rebellions, which still influences the identity of the area today.
Valencian identity is quite vibrant, and strengthened by having its own regional government (Generalitat) under the statute of autonomy. The majority of residents are bilingual, speaking their own language (related to both Spanish and Catalan) as well as Spanish Castilian. The Comunidad also has its own flag, known as the Senyera.
The main cities of the Comunidad lie on the Mediterranean coast, while the inland areas are home to what is known as the Market Garden ('La Huerta'), where everything from oranges to olives and artichokes are grown. Not surprisingly, this is also where the famous Spanish dish of paella originated.
The irrigation of these lands has been carefully managed for more than a thousand years, with public decisions made each Thursday at midday outside the Puerta de los Aposteles of the Cathedral.
Things To Look Out For In Valencia City
If you haven't much time or just need to orientate yourself, hop on the Valencia Tourist Bus to see all the major sights of the city. The orange bus leaves from the Plaza de la Reina every half-hour between 10.30 and 21.30. Horse-drawn carriages can also be hired at the same spot.
Historical Hot Spots
The historic centre is concentrated around four main Squares in comfortable walking distance of each other. The old city walls were demolished in 1865 as a works project for the expanding city, but a few monuments remain from that time. What remains used to be the gates into the city. The 'Portal de Valldigna' was inaugurated in 1400 as access to the moors; the Torres de Serranos were constructed over a period of six years and today is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic military architecture in Europe; and the Torres de Quart, constructed in 1444 and inspired by the Castel Nuovo in Naples, Italy. Look up and you'll notice the potholes left by the cannonballs of Napoleonic troops during the War of Independence at the start of the 19th Century.
The heart of the old city lies undoubtedly around the Cathedral; the top of the bell-tower is the highest point in the city. If you're feeling energetic, you can climb the narrow, winding, 209-step spiral staircase. Spectacular panoramic views of the entire city and beyond out to the sea in one direction and the plains and hills in the other. In front of the main entrance is the Plaza de la Reina; and behind but connected to the Square is the Plaza de la Virgen, named in honour of the region's patroness - Our Lady of the Abandoned. Observe the fountain here as well - the central figure represents the River Turia with the surrounding statues as the Turia's seven tributaries.
Natural and Cultural Attractions
As was mentioned previously, the River Turia has had an unfortunate tendency throughout its history to burst its banks. The old riverbed has been renovated into seven kilometres of gardens providing numerous attractions en route. Beginning in the southern area of the riverbed near the mouth to the Mediterranean, the Gulliver Park provides a magnet for young children. Further up is the Music Hall with two theatres seating over 2,000 people with its glass structure providing stunning views of the city. Next, look for the huge blue dome of the Museum for Bellas Artes together with the Valencian Institute of Modern Art. Modernism truly takes shape in the city, however, in the distinctive City of Arts and Sciences opened by Principe Felipe of Asturias. It was composed in four separate parts: L'Hemisferic, an IMAX laser cinema in the shape of an eye; the interactive Science Museum; L'Umbracle, a man made tropical park containing inside a structure resembling the ribcage of a whale; and Europe's largest marine park in L'Oceanagrafic.
The Plaza del Ayuntamiento is the seat of municipal government, but formerly the site of a convent and Franciscan gardens. Around here is the key commercial district: to its north is one of Europe's largest enclosed markets in the Plaza Mercat at around 8000 square metres, while to its south is the more modern shopping area. Look out for El Corte Ingles shopping mall along Calle Colon. On this same route, you'll also find one of the oldest bullrings in all Spain dating from the 1860s, as well as the aesthetically stunning Estacion del Norte (North Train Station).
When shopping for souvenirs, try out the circular Plaza Redonda (at the opposite end of the Square to the Cathedral) teeming with market stalls and shops selling regional goods. Every Sunday, the market-sellers transfer their wares to the flea market near the Mestalla (Valencia's other Cathedral), while the Plaza Redonda becomes a pet market.
Sports and Leisure
With two universities in the north-east district of the city, the bars and clubs are guaranteed to be buzzing particularly in the summer months. Just up from here is the sky-raking Mestalla of Valencia Club de Futbol, at the junctions of Avenidas Blasco Ibanez and Aragon. This team was crowned Spanish Primera Liga Champions in 2001 and European Cup runners-up in both 2000 and 2001. The club's shop is along Calle Pintor Sorolla just off the Plaza del Ayuntamiento where tickets can also be purchased for games both home and away.
There are also 20 golf courses in this region alone including the famous El Saler within a half-hour bus ride to the south of Valencia City, a course which has hosted previous Spanish Open Championships. On the other hand, if you're looking for a more stereotypically Spanish event, bullfighting is usually staged to coincide with local fiestas.
In the Surrounds
Within 15 km of the city is a freshwater lagoon, La Albufera, separated by only a narrow strip of sand dunes and pine forests known as La Devesa. The lake's area expands and contracts according to season, but averages around 2800 hectares. However, it is scarcely one metre deep in places making flat-bottomed boats a common sight as local fisherfolk harvest fish and eels. The lake and surrounding area also act as a sanctuary for birds, and the water is carefully managed to permit rice paddy fields along parts of the shore.
Head in the other direction about 25 kilometres north, you'll arrive at the historic Roman town of Sagunto (née Saguntum). Most people visit as a day trip from Valencia for the ancient acropolis formed as a group of hilltop defences. The acoustics are such that it is still in use as the setting for the town's three-week open-air arts festival in August.
The Provinces of Castellon and Alicante
Stretching north from the capital into Castellon province is the Costa de Azahar - the orange-blossom coast. The fragrant flowers (azahar) of the orange groves lend the coast its name. Its main town, Castellon de la Plana, is an industrial and commercial centre as well as a university town. It boasts a recently renovated arts museum and some fine monuments as well as an attractive marina called El Grau where an active fishing fleet bustles with commercial traffic.
In the north-western corner of this province is 'El Maestrazgo' (El Maestrat in Valencian), sparsely dotted with ancient towns/pueblos huddled on rocky outcrops and ridges. One of the best ways to see this part of this little-visited region is to travel along the angles of the large triangle between Vinaros, Morella and Castellon de la Plana. This mountainous hinterland is a popular escape for Valencianos from the stifling heat of summer.
The southerly province of Alicante is rich in cafes and famed for its nightlife; the region's second-largest city is a magnet for partygoers. Nevertheless, this city does hold a fair share of history. It is overlooked by the 16th-Century castle of Santa Barbara containing a permanent display of contemporary Spanish culture. Also to be found is an archaeological museum with historic Islamic finds as well as a modern and traditional arts museum. In addition, like Valencia City, Alicante is also home to a covered market.
Other Towns Along the Costa Blanca
This area is famous for its resorts because of its lively social scene and good beaches, but venturing away from the coast could be a pleasant surprise as you stumble upon beautiful Mediterranean villages.
Cullera - The first resort south of Valencia City, this is a very Spanish resort where many people from Madrid and the north keep second homes. The town's Castle offers awesome panoramic views of the area.
Gandia - 65 kilometres south of the region's capital lies a prosperous commercial centre with what is considered to be one of the finest beaches of the coast.
Denia - This is the closest mainland port to the Balearic Islands with a large harbour and smaller marina.
Xabia - The region's most easterly town, but is probably not the best place to meet the locals. Two-thirds of the visiting population are non-Spanish; if you come here off-season, you'll find a relaxed, gentle sort of a place. It features a reputable historic quarter.
Calpe - 62 kilometres from Alicante, this family resort is very much characterized by the Gibralteresque giant Penon de Ifach protruding from the sea. The small old town is about charming narrow streets and intimate squares but is not totally divorced from the sea.
Altea - Separated from Benidorm by the Sierra Helada, its rocky and pebbly beaches could be the main reason why the travelling masses have yet to arrive. Nevertheless its whitewashed hilltop old town is possibly the region's most gratifying sight.
Benidorm - Reputedly Europe's largest tourist destination, it can get tawdry but does retain a certain dignity. Its white sandy beaches are majestic sweeping from Playa del Levante to Playa del Poniente under Plaza del Castillo. This is also the home of the Terra Mitica theme park, which also currently sponsors Valencia's Primera Liga football team.
Elche - A mere 23 kilometres south-west of Alicante, this pueblo is renowned for its mystery play - Misteri d'Elx - and its extensive palm groves. In terms of population, this is the Comunidad's third-largest town.
Torrevieja - About 50 kilometres south of Alicante and a company town for the salt industry, it features an elegant casino and a luxurious coastline.
As should be expected in a predominantly Roman Catholic country, Spanish festivals tend to be religious in origin even if the spiritual element may be somewhat less evident today. Characteristics especially peculiar to the Valencian fiesta involve a lot of fire and smoke and explosions. Of course a few bulls have to be added for the truly authentic festival.
By far the most significant takes place from the 14-19 March, annually, in honour of San Jose, father of Jesus and Patron Saint of carpenters. The festivities take place all over the Comunidad, but the largest celebration by far takes place in the region's capital.
Yet the fiesta most intrinsically linked to regional identity occurs on 9 October - the anniversary of King Jaime I expulsing the Arabic Moors. Once again the earth-moving mascleta and bullfights are central facets of the celebrations on this Official Day of the Comunidad. Local celebrations of this event also occur on dates specific to the pueblo, with the most colourful event takes place in Alcoy - a centrally located town of Alicante province - around St. George's Day on 23 April.
Other fiestas include:
San Antonio Abad - The patron saint of farmers, his feast involves huge bonfires and the blessing of animals.
San Juan - This feast also falls on the summer solstice.
Corpus Christi - This feast is on the ninth Sunday after Easter; in Valencia, there is a huge procession is headed by eight whopping great big heads out of all proportion to their tiny bodies, followed by Biblical figures.
Castellon de la Plana - This feast celebrates the day after the liberation from the Moors, when the locals descended from the nearby hills to settle on the plains which today are crowned by the La Magdalena Chapel. Today, the Magdalena pilgrimage is a procession depicting the town's long history.
Sexenni - This feast only occurs every six years, in Morella, and is in honour of the Virgen de la Villavana, who is remembered for saving the town from the Black Plague during the Middle Ages.
La Tomatina - The origins of this feast are unclear, but it is a tomato-throwing festival in the town of Bunol. It occurs every year on the last Wednesday in August at noon.
Apart from giving Paella to the world, the region really produces a truly stunning array of dishes. Rice remains a staple of the Valencian diet, as does seafood; fresh anchovies, juicy and pickled in vinegar, make for a popular tapa. Another favourite all-i-pebre, hunks of eel in a peppery sauce.
Other popular dishes include:
- Escarrat - strips of salted cod and roasted red pepper bathed in olive oil.
- Gazpacho manchego - rabbit and chicken stew, often served on a flat bread.
- Ensalada Valenciana - lettuce, tomatoes, onions, peppers, olives and tuna with either olive oil or vinegar.
- Churros - fried cinnamon pastries, dipped in hot melted chocolate.
Drink to Good Health!
The Romans originally introduced the vine to the Comunidad; the industry still remains extremely profitable today, and is concentrated in particular around Valencia, Alicante and Utiel-Requena with its 'Denominacion de Origen' label.
Most Alicante wines come from the basin of the Rio Vinalopo. The Marina Alta area around Denia produces mistela, a sweet muscatel dessert wine. The Upper Turia River produces subtle dry white wine whilst Utiel-Requena is famed for its red wines. There is also a classic cocktail called 'Agua de Valencia' of Catalan cava, orange juice and a healthy slug of vodka. A non-alcoholic drink enjoyed along the south coast through Murcia down to Andalucia is the refreshing 'Horchata de Chufa' - a tiger nut milk that is best served chilled.