Upon Spain's Costa Blanca - wedged in between Catalunya on its northern flank and Murcia to its south - sits one of the country's most fertile regions. The Comunidad Valenciana consists of three provinces: Castellon in the north, Alicante located in the south and the regional capital that lends its name to the region in the middle, Valencia. Here is found Spain's third largest city behind the national capital of Madrid and the Catalan centre of Barcelona. This Mediterranean-port City has a population of over 750,000 out of a total of four million in the entire region whilst also being virtually equidistant from its two bigger brothers. Yet Valencian identity is very distinct on the Iberian Peninsula as you'll find with most Spanish regions. Firstly, it has its own regional government (Generalitat) under the statute of autonomy granted from the early 1980s for local governance foments the idea of an individual community. Secondly, a majority of Valencianos are bilingual between Spanish Castilian and their own language - closely related to both Spanish and Catalan. Finally, to cement the image of individuality, the Comunidad identifies with its own flag known as the "Senyera" often flown from the top of the "Torres de Serranos" in the capital-city that faces the direction of Madrid. A defiance that has been admirably characteristic of the city throughout its history when, for example, it briefly served as the seat of Republican Government from 1936 until 1937 during the Spanish Civil War - a fact that did not endear it to General Franco. A clear assertion of cultural and political independence suppressed for so long under Francoism's strict conservative centralism.
Each of the main cities lie exactly on the Mediterranean coast whilst inland is where you'll find yourself among the more than four-hundred kilometres squared of Market Garden (known as "La Huerta" in Spanish) cultivating everything from oranges, olives and artichokes to even rice in orchards stunningly picturesque and hard to avoid once you leave the cities. The irrigation of water has been so carefully managed for more than a thousand years in this region since the time of Moorish rule, and the people maintain a close relationship to the sea. Decisions about irrigation are made public each Thursday at midday outside the Puerta de los Aposteles of the Cathedral in Valencia. The judicial order - widely seen as the oldest in Europe - is known as the "Tribunal de las Aguas." It only lasts a few minutes and takes place in the Valencian Language. The announcements reached are final without any recourse to appeal. Afterall, I don't know how many of you realize this but this is the place where the most famous Spanish dish of them all originates. Of course, it's Paella. Mmmmmm...
A Bit Of History
Valencia City has had an illustrious and colourful past.
Originally founded as Valentia in 138BC as a retirement settlement for Roman legionnaires upon the banks of the River Turia - now diverted around the city because of the continued risk of flooding (the last of which happened in 1957) - they were the first to develope the region's sophisticated irrigation system. It was from this period that helped the locals to realize the wealth of the land facilitated by its key position on the Mediterranean Sea. When Rome collapsed, the Visigoths moved in only to be expelled by the Arabs in 711AD. It was their rule that developed the province into a rich agricultural and industrial centre where trade thrived. The legendary Castilian knight El Cid ruled here from 1094 until his death in 1099, but the Arabic Moors were not finally expelled until the Christian King Jaime I incorporated the area into his burdgeoning Catalan kingdom on 9 October 1238. A date commemorated each year since then. Its Golden Age of growth and prosperity belonged to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but backing the wrong horse in the War of Spanish Succession saw its extensive autonomous powers known as the "Furs" abolished by the victorious Bourbon Felipe V. The granting of autonomy was not to be enjoyed to that extent again until after General Franco's death in 1975.
Things To Look Out For Round Valencia City
Visiting the region merits at least a fortnight of your time.
Outside of the three main cities, the towns are of such a manageable size where populations are little more than 60,000. However, on saying that, the cities themselves probably cannot be described as built-up. This is to cater for the Valencian passion for the promenade whether after meals, in the evening or on Sunday afternoon. Wide pavements and even wider roads help to spread out the central congregating districts which permit winding, narrow passages off the central Plazas.
The capital Valencia itself is a pleasant blend of the old and new with the old riverbed navigating its way through the city making it a great point of reference if you ever feel the need to get your bearings. The historic centre is concentrated around four main Squares in comfortable walking distance of each other. 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 8000m2, while to its south is the more modern shopping area. On top of the market building one can observe a green cockatoo (or is it a canary?) which, in the past, has been used by fathers as a means to distract one of their children before ducking away into the crowd when cannot afford to feed him/her anymore. 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 and the aesthetically stunning Estacion del Norte (North Train Station) built in the first decade of the twentieth-century. But the heart of the old city lies undoubtedly around the Cathedral where you can finally end your search for the Holy Grail. In front of the main entrance is the Plaza de la Reina; and behind but connected to the afore-mentioned Square is now located the Plaza de la Virgen named in honour of the region's patroness - Our Lady of the Abandoned. This was previously the site of the old Roman forum sat in front of the Regional Parliament and City Basilica. Observe the fountain here as the central figure represents the River Turia with the surrounding statues as the Turia's seven tributaries. It signifies how important water has always been to this region. You should be able to find this easily enough since the top of the belltower (known as the "Torre Miguelet") at the Cathedral is the highest point in the city. If you're feeling energetic, you will be able to climb the narrow-winding spiral staircase of 209 steps right to the top. Nevertheless, it is worth it as the views are guaranteed to take your breath away (if indeed you have any breath left!). 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 case of shopping for souvenirs, trying out the circular Plaza Redonda at the opposite end of the Square to the Cathedral teeming with market stalls and shops selling regional goods just off the high tower of the Santa Catalina church. Every Sunday, the market-sellers transfer their wares to the surround of the Mestalla (Valencia's other Cathedral) with a weekly flea market while the Plaza Redonda becomes a pet market.
The heart of the historic centre lies principally within the old riverbed. 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 afore-mentioned Torres de Serranos were constructed over a period of six years and today is considered on of the finest examples of Gothic military architecture in Europe; and the "Torres de Quart", dated in 1444 and inspired by the Castel Nuovo in Napoli, Italy. So-called because it was formerly the gate to Quart de Poblet, an old settlement on the Valencian plain. 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. This is all of them except one since it no longer stands. The old restored Royal Gate built in 1946 now stands on the very site of the "Porta de la Mar" (Sea Gate). This used to be the last gate to close at night, and if you were unlucky enough to be late in returning, you would have to spend the night out under the stars with only a bonfire and some benches for shelter. From this is derived the popular Valencian expression: "Under the Valencian moon."
As was mentioned previously, the River Turia has had an unfortunate tendency throughout its history to burst its banks. However its diversion around the city has given Valencians the opportunity to show their resourceful initiative. 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 along with the soon-to be completed Concert Hall contribute to Spain's rich hertiage for music, but the cultural tour does not end here as the city has more to add - look for the huge blue dome (so symbolic of the region) of the Museum for Bellas Artes together with the Valencian Institute of Modern Art. Yet perhaps the most emblematic symbol of modernism in the city takes shape in the distinctive City of Arts and Sciences opened only recently by the heir to the throne Principe Felipe of Asturias. It was composed in four separate parts by the architect Santiago Calatrava: L'Hemisferic, an IMAX laser cinema in the shape of an eye; the interactive Science Museum; L'Umbracle, a manmade tropical park containing inside a structure resembling the ribcage of a whale; and Europe's largest marine park in L'Oceanagrafic. Also famed for the modern Puente Calatrava known locally as "La Peineta" in Spanish as it looks like a comb. By contrast, one of the oldest that has stood the test of time is the Puente Real (Royal Bridge) that used to connect the old Royal Palace with the rest of the city. Pedestrianised, it is characterised by the statues honouring past Spanish royalty, and the two Patron Saints of the city: San Vicente Martir and San Vicente Ferrer.
There is of course plenty to fill your tourist itinerary by day but you must remember that this is Spain, the nation of "Vivir sin Dormir" (Living without Sleeping). Most Spaniards won't have their evening meal until between 9 and 10 at night and many of the larger shops will stay open until about 10pm. In addition with two established universities in the north-east district of the city along with an extensive coastline from the harbour along the promenade at Playa Malvarrosa, the bars and clubs are guaranteed to be buzzing particularly in the summer months. For this check out the tapas and paella at the Las Arenas beach-restaurants whilst overlooking the Mediterranean (but it may be advisable to book ahead as peak-time can be popular). Just up from here is the sky-raking Mestalla of Valencia Club de Futbol at the junctions of Avenidas Blasco Ibanez and Aragon around the city's University. This team can play a bit too having been crowned Spanish Primera Liga Champions in 2001 and European Cup runners-up in both 2000 and 2001 (how unfortunate!). 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.
If you haven't much time or just need to orientate yourself, hop on the Valencia Tourist Bus and it will take you around all the major sites of the city at around €7.50 leaving from Plaza de la Reina every half-hour between 10.30 and 21.30. You'll be hard pushed to miss it, it's orange! Otherwise travel in more style through the streets in a horse-drawn carriage departing from the same place.
Other Features Of The Region
Apart from Spanish passion for football (there's another professional team in the city - the second division team Levante play on the other side of the city are are in more need of your support), other sports are well-represented. For instance, there are 20 golf courses in this region alone including the famous El Saler within a half-hour bus ride of Valencia City to the south, a course which has hosted previous Spanish Open Championships and has a long-standing course record from the mid-1980s. Whilst the Circuit de Catalunya hosts the Spanish Grand Prix each year, it's the boys on two wheels that principally race here for Superbikes and MotoGP. Though, if you're looking for a typically Spanish occasion, bullfighting is usually staged to coincide with local fiestas. This last event is probably something better appreciated by Spaniards than the rest of us.
Within 15 kilometres of the centre of the city is a fresh water lagoon called La Albufera separated by only a narrow strip of sand dunes and pine forests known as La Devesa. The lake's current area, which expands and contracts according to season, averages around 2800 hectares but is scarcely one metre deep in places making flat-bottomed boats a feature that the local fisherfolk use to harvest fish and eels from the waters. The lake and surrounding area acts as a sanctuary for birds affording it nature park status. Moreover, the water is carefully managed to permit rice paddy fields along parts of the shore. Yet the area is especially noted for its spectacular sunsets.
Head in the other direction, about 25 kilometres north, you'll arrive at the historic Roman town of Sagunto (previously named Saguntum by the Romans). Most people visit as a day trip from Valencia for the ancient acropolis formed as a group of hilltop defenses. Its acoustics are such that it is still in use as the setting for the town's three week open-air arts festival in August (mainly theatre).
The Provinces of Castellon and Alicante
Stretching north from the capital into Castellon province is the Costa de Azahar - the orange-blossom coast. Orange groves back onto the mountainous hinterland from whose fragrant flowers (azahar)lends 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 once you have penetrated to the centre of town at Plaza Mayor and just beneath Plaza Santa Clara. Not forgetting, of course, an attractive marina called El Grau where an active fishing fleet bustles with commercial traffic.
In the north-western corner of this province and moving into Aragon is the mountainous land of "El Maestrazgo" (El Maestrat in Valencian), sparsely dotted with ancient towns/pueblos huddled on rocky outcrops and ridges as if seeking protection from warrior enemies and the area's harsh winters. One such town, San Mateo, was chosen by the maestro (hence the area's name) of the Montesa order of knights as his seat of power. One of the best ways to see this part of the region (little trampled by foreign tourists) 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 in the cities, particularly in August.
The southerly province of the Comunidad, Alicante with its capital of the same name, is much more inclined to the foreign and native tourist alike than Castellon. Rich in cafes and famed for its nightlife, the region's second-largest city is a magnet for partygoers. Of course it does help that the famous party hotspot of Benidorm is just up the coast. Nevertheless, this city does hold a fair share of history. It is overlooked by the sixteenth-century castle of Santa Barbara containing a permanent display of contemporary Spanish culture. Also to be found is an archeological museum with particularly Islamic finds as well as a modern and traditional arts museum. In addition, like Valencia City, Alicante is also home to a covered market.
Along the Costa Blanca
Famous as one of the most popular resorts in Europe as well as Spain because of its lively social scene and good beaches. Yet it isn't all sprawling resort towns. Indeed venturing away from the coast could be a pleasant surprise as you stumble upon beautiful Mediterranean villages.
- Cullera -
Strictly not a part of the "White Coast" as the first resort south of Valencia City, nevertheless it is very much of the same ilk as those more accurately situated. 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, once home to a branch of the infamous Borgia dynasty, it is now 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 its large harbour and smaller marina.
- Xabia -
The region's most easterly town stretching between two promontories, but is probably not the best place to meet the locals. Two-thirds of the visiting population are non-Spanish, but 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 palm groves, originally planted by the Muslims which are the most extensive in Europe. The Arabian irrigation system have ensured a richly-cultivated town. In terms of population, this is the Comunidad's third-largest town.
- Torrevieja -
47 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 this 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 alot of fire and smoke, gunpowder and explosions reaching its crescendo in the ear-shattering "mascleta" - in short, a frenzy of pyromania which is often televised live. Of course a few bulls have to be added too for the truly authentic festival.
By far the most significant takes place in March each year from the 14th until the 19th 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 when little runs on time for the week except for the bullfights. Click here to find out more about these explosive celebrations on h2g2.
Yet the fiesta most intrinsically linked to regional identity as an overt display occurs on 9th October - the anniversary of the Christian expulsion under King Jaime I of the Arabic Moors from the region bringing it into his Catalan kingdom. Once again the earth-moving mascleta and bullfights are central facets of the celebrations on this the Official Day of the Comunidad. Although, the more specific celebration of this Christian conquest is held at various times throughout the year according to the pueblo in question. In re-enactments of the battle, the Muslim contingent takes its drubbing in good faith but in truth does have the best costumes. Its most colourful event takes place in Alcoy - a centrally located town of Alicante province - around St. George's Day on 23rd April.
The first of the fiestas in the annual cycle (apart from the more common Epiphany on 6th January) occurs for many villages inland amidst this same month. San Antonio Abad, also known as Sant Antoni del Porquet (San Antonio of the Piglet) lived in the third century living out his days in the deserts of Egypt where he reputedly lived to be 105 years old. He is now the Patron Saint of farmers, cowherds and shepherds celebrated with, naturally, fire. Huge bonfires are lit but a more gentle aspect to this celebration involves the blessing of all sorts of animals.
Fastforward to the middle of the year now, Midsummer's Day has been celebrated long before the Christian reconquista. The night of 23rd June, just beyond the summer solstice and longest day of the year, also doubles-up as the Feast of San Juan (St.John) marked once again by fires both big and small. The most spectacular takes place in Alicante with its "Las Hogueras" and replicated in other towns across the Costa Blanca resembling, at least in part, the region's own Las Fallas(see above) if on a smaller and less grand scale.
Another good excuse for a street party arrives on the ninth Sunday after Easter with the feast of Corpus Christi. Valencia's huge procession is headed by eight whopping great big heads out of all proportion to their tiny bodies followed by Biblical figures from the Old and New Testaments.
Castellon de La Plana still celebrates the day after liberation from the Moors by King Jaime I when the locals descended from the nearby hills to settle on the plains which is today crowned by the La Magdalena Chapel. Hence it is known as the Magdalena pilgrimage that occurs on the evening of the third Sunday of Lent beginning with the Prego, a procession depicting the town's long history. Next morning the crowd assembles in the central Plaza Mayor. The pilgrims each wear a black blouson and a kerchief round their necks and carry a staff with a twist of green ribbon to help them up the hill. After the pilgrimage, Les Gaietes recalls the first descent from the hills turning the night into day with 19 large bright floats converging through the town in a single parade - in effect, a strong burst of light without either fire or smoke (a complete novelty for this region's revelry!).
What distinguishes the peculiar Sexenni in Morella (a town deep in the Maestrazgo region), is that it takes place only every six years as its name implies. The next will be in August 2006. Though they make up for the irregularity with a huge fervour for colour and parades all in honour of the Virgen de la Villavana, the town's patroness, who saved the town from the Plague in the Middle Ages.
Yet this section would not be complete without reference to the bizarre tradition in a town some 40 kilometres west of Valencia City. Bunol is an otherwise ordinary industrial town, except for the last Wednesday in August (the date varies) when it just goes wild. It stages La Tomatina which, believe it or not, is a tomato throwing festival. You must have heard of it! Its origins are unclear, but the participating public pelt each other with ripe red tomatoes for an hour between noon and 1pm.
One can only say that this Comunidad Valenciana has a fiesta for every occasion!
Apart from giving Paella to the world for which we should all be truly grateful, the region really does have the ability in the fruits of its "huerta" to produce a truly stunning array of dishes. For example, the artichokes of Benicarlo along the Costa del Azahar are so well prized that they have been awarded a "Denominacion de Origen" signifying good quality. Incidentally, there is a noodle variant of Spain's most famous national dish in "Fideua". Apparently invented in Gandia when a fisherman found himself without rice but had some noodles instead. So he just changed one for the other and cooked the noodles in fish broth with the usual ingredients. Nevertheless, rice remains a staple of the Valencian diet as is seafood - fresh anchovies, juicy and pickled in vinegar, make for a popular tapa. Or another favourite all-i-pebre, hunks of eel in a peppery sauce (more than likely fished from the Albufera Lake). Or even try escarrat consisting of strips of salted cod and roasted red pepper bathed in olive oil.
If you're feeling a winter chill, gazpacho manchego should warm you up, steaming and rich in protein with pasta and meat.
Meanwhile, as a side dish, try the Ensalada Valenciana consisting of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, peppers, olives and tuna with either olive oil or vinegar.
But if you're not after a full meal but a simple merienda (afternoon snack), don't leave Spain without having churros dipped in hot melted chocolate. Essential for those with a sweet tooth!
Drink to Good Health!
It was the Romans who introduced the vine to the Comunidad and still remains extremely profitable today with its low tariffs concentrated in particular around Valencia, Alicante (named after the provinces) 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. Though, there is also a classic cocktail called "Agua de Valencia" of Catalan cava, orange juice and a healthy slug of vodka. Yet for those teatotal amongst us, fret not for you have not been forgotten! Enjoyed from the Comunidad Valenciana along the south coast through Murcia down to Andalucia in particular, but a popular beverage across the Iberian Peninsula - the refreshing "Horchata de Chufa" - a tiger nut milk. Best served chilled. Legend has it that prior to the Christian takeover of the region, a maid brought King Jaime I a goblet of this drink and, after downing it in one turned to say in Catalan, "Eeeee that's gold lass!" And thus the liquid got its name. Well, that's the poetic version of events anyway.
Links to More Information on the Web
Looking for more information on this charming Spanish region? You probably won't find a better link than to the official site for the comunidad @ comunidad-valenciana.com (also in English along with other European languages). Plus, try fallas.com for more on the famous fire festival (in Spanish, but with many images and video footage).