Friday, 21st October/Saturday, 22nd October 2005 – Valencia
Friday got off to a bad start with torrential rain all over Southern England, and us needing to get to Gatwick Airport to fly out to Spain. The 2005 Girls’ Weekend Away was scheduled to start as soon as we got to the airport. Lynne, Steffy and I were driving round from Silverstone (normally about two hours in total), and the others were getting trains from various directions. As a result of the abysmal weather, the M25 was at a complete standstill, so we ended up cutting cross-country and getting to the airport a little later than planned. It still left enough time for us to check in and meet up with Irene, Janice and Angela in time for breakfast/lunch at the seafood bar (crab salad, sushi, smoked salmon, good stuff). After a leisurely lunch, we ambled to the gate only to find the flight was boarding. We strolled on board, managed to snag a double row of emergency exit seats with lots of leg-room, and settled in for the two-hour flight to Valencia. An apple juice and a sparkling white wine later and we were there.
There followed a taxi ride to the hotel, with our cab driver playing Elvis Presley’s greatest hits very loud, and telling me how much he loved Ella Fitzgerald! And I don’t speak Spanish (or rather I didn’t before the weekend – I’ve picked up a few bits and pieces since)! Anyway, we arrived at the Ad Hoc Monumental, and were delighted by the rooms. The hotel looked very nice from its website, and from the outside. The whole place is a restored 1881 merchant’s house, over 5 floors, with high vaulted ceilings, and beautifully restored brickwork. The beds were comfortable, the floors tiled and cool, and the furniture was all highly polished wood in antique styles.
Anyway, a rest was needed by then (two of us had had bad nights with little sleep), so we unpacked, cleaned up and took a siesta. See? Gone native already! After that, we sortied out to see if Lynne and I could remember where we’d eaten a really good paella the year before… First though, we strolled down the side-streets to the Plaza de la Virgen, behind the Cathedral and in front of one of the other monumental churches, where we admired the fountain, which may be a representation of the Turia river and its associated canals. Then we rounded the cathedral and took a pre-dinner drink in one of the bars along the Plaza de la Reina. This is one of those places you can enjoy watching the world go by, including the many bridal parties that come round to be videoed and photographed in front of the Cathedral doors, or the old, gnarled olive trees that line the square.
After we’d enjoyed the warmth of the evening we manged to locate the restaurant Montalban, down near one the of the old council offices. A stunning paella was forthcoming, in what is a proper local restaurant, and we drank plenty of local red wine, and ate the local ham as an accompaniment. After that we were all too tired to keep going, so we wimped out (by local standards anyway), and went back to the hotel for an early night.
Saturday saw us breakfast in the hotel (excellent churras, and for that matter very good Manchega cheese, jamon, and tortilla), before wandering out to test out our Valencia Tourist Cards (bought for 12 euros each for three days). They got us a discount straight away on the Tourist Bus round trip, which was an hour an a half (and 8 euros) well spent, as it took us round a variety of sights, including the incredible plaza that has the main Post Office on it, streets full of Art Nouveau and Modernist architecture, as well as medieval monasteries, churches, and the old town walls. They also throw in the City of Arts and Sciences, a stunning complex in white concrete, steel and glass, surrounded by water. It contains the Science Museum, a Performing Arts complex, the Oceanarium, and I’d not sure what else. This is towards the port end of town, an area that I gather had been allowed to become quite run down, but that has been rejuvenated as part of Valencia’s successful bid to host the 2007 Americas Cup (for Switzerland, because the previous winners – the Swiss in this case – get to host the next event but it has to be held on the open ocean somewhere, which isn’t easy when you don’t have a coastline).
It was wonderful sitting on the top deck of a bus, the sun shining and the wind ruffling your hair. By the time we got back to the plaza we were about ready to have lunch, so we settled in on a sunny terrace, and drank a cold beer, while we debated what to have. Various tapas were ordered, and a bottle of chilled rose, and we passed a couple of hours watching the world again, including the film company that was setting up on the grass, and generally getting in the way of everyone else trying to go about their business.
The tapas were terrific – tiny octopus fried in olive oil and smothered in garlic, black pudding studded with rice, tiny peppers grilled and mixed in with everything. Great lunch, and enough to keep us all ticking over till late at night – we really had gone native this time round.
Once we could all raise the energy to move we wandered into the Cathedral, trying to avoid the wedding parties, and again got a discount using our tourist cards. I wanted to climb the tower of St. Miguel, but as I was still in the grip of bronchitis, the others threatened to sit on me if I tried it… so I settled for wandering round the ground floor, and gaping at the glorious Gothic architecture, particularly in the Chapel of the Holy Grail. Apart from the fact that I wanted a book about the cathedral and the fierce nun in the book shop wouldn’t sell it to me because it was in Spanish, I loved the Cathedral. Some of the side chapels have been remodelled in neo-classical style, and they were attractive enough in a “oh, they have these in Vienna but better,” sort of way, but the Gothic ones were utterly amazing.
Once we’d investigated the Cathedral at length, we took a wander down the streets outside, where we discovered two things. The first was that there are a lot of wonderful historic buildings in Valencia, but they’re mostly closed between 14.00 and 17.00, and the second was that while Michelin Guides give you a lot of useful information, their “guided” walks would work better if they told you which way to turn and if they actually gave you the correct street names! We wandered for a while and ended up at the Serranos Gate to the old city.
After that we were all too tired to do much more, so it was back to the hotel for a nap before pre-dinner drinks in the Plaza de la Reina, followed by dinner at El Ocho y Media, a wonderful restaurant near the main Plazas. I’d booked in advance, and we were settled into an upstairs room, with the windows open to the warm evening air, and crisp linen table clothes on highly polished wooden furniture. The meal was fabulous, with some of the party opting for the foie gras madness, which turned out to be small helpings of the various foie gras starters on the menu. I had sauteed foie gras, with bits of duck, in a sweet, smooth dressing for starters, and we all drank a lovely Moscatel de Valencia, followed by a duck and wild mushroom risotto. No one could manage dessert, though we did manage to attack a glass each of Pedro Ximenez sherry, “christmas pudding in a glass”, as I’ve been heard to utter when faced with this wonderful liquid.
Afterwards we walked slowly back through the historic quarter, watching the clean up operations after the filming in the square (they’d been filming some sort of Winter scene with artificial snow everywhere), and marvelling at how busy the streets were at one in the morning. And so to bed a little before 2am, having gone completely native!
On Sunday we had a quest. There is a local drink, which may or may not be confined solely to the region. Horchata is apparently made with tiger nuts, and is described as “sweet and refreshing”. It may well be, but I couldn’t find anywhere that would sell me any so I could find out for myself. We did find Agua de Valencia, which the others said was good, but as orange juice does not agree with me, I steered clear of it. Apparently, you mix fresh orange juice, sparkling Spanish cava, and vodka… It certainly seemed to refresh some of the party!
To cut to the chase, on Sunday we decided we would go to the City of Arts and Sciences, and at least take a look at the Oceanarium. Using our Valencia tourist cards we all got the bus free of charge, and were at the venue around 11.30. We joined the queue to buy combined tickets to all the attractions, as this was a very short queue and we figured we’d soon be in and might well have time to go to the Hemisfere as well. Big mistake. For some reason, the queue for combined tickets took forever, with most transactions taking at least five minutes, and frequently more. In addition, they’d only opened one window, while the standard ticket queue, despite snaking out of the grounds, had three windows, and had vanished completely by the time we got to the window. It took over an hour to get tickets, and we were not at all impressed. However, we were impressed with the various marine environments, including the penguins, and the beluga whales, which have wonderfully friendly faces. We were also very amused by the effect Janice has on animals; she seems to be a human aphrodisiac, and the walruses were proof of that. I’d just finished reading the plaque that informed me that walruses only mate in water, when they all suddenly took to the pool and proceeded to demonstrate the truth of that proclamation! We were also much entertained by the dolphin show, with the trainers riding round the pool on the backs of a half dozen chirruping dolphins. It was most a most impressive sight and I wanted to go and join them!
While I would recommend the Oceanographic centre to anyone, I wouldn’t recommend the restaurant there. Out attempt to get lunch was odd, to say the least. We ordered starters and main courses, only to have everything arrive at once. It wasn’t particularly good, it was served so fast you could hardly draw breath, and at the end they tried to charge us for bread when we’d never been given any, and also for Irene’s hamburger that never did arrive. I wouldn’t eat there again.
After we’d been thrown out of the centre at closing time, we took a walk through the Umbracle, which is a white skeleton-like structure full of tropical plants, and odd sculptures. We stood on the edge of the path and looked at the arts centre, and the Hemisfere. These are both stunning pieces of modern architecture, surrounded by water, and they looked very pretty, especially with what looked like they wanted to be storm clouds in the background. It never did rain, but for a short while it was almost cold. Anyway, we decided to get the bus back – we may have bucked the system but as we didn’t understand what the bus driver was telling us we had no idea whether we were allowed to use our cards or not. In the end he just shrugged, so we got on anyway and stayed on all the way back to the hotel!
Of course that evening we ran into the Sunday restaurant problem – everyone’s been out for Sunday lunch and they want to get an early night, so half the restaurants are shut. After a bottle of rosada we wandered around a bit before we finally found the restaurant El Generalife, where the fideua (paella made with noodles instead of rice – or with “noddles” as the charmingly mistranslated menu had it) was very good and packed full of seafood, and the waiter was very funny – and kept acting like he was scared of Janice. Smart man… By the end of the evening, all the other tables had been cleared away, and we were left sitting in splendid isolation in the middle of the pavement, a situation that kept us giggling all the way back to the hotel…
Monday morning, we got up, packed, had breakfast and then wandered off to the Plaza de la Reina by yet another set of winding mediaeval pathways. We took a brief wander round the Rotonda, and then headed out towards the Post Office, where I took lots of photos. We also went to the Mercado Central, which is a fabulous building being restored to its art nouveau glory at present. Outside there were stalls selling the usual tat, but inside it’s magnificent. It has separate satellite halls for things like fish or vegetables, and the tiles around the cupolas reflect this. The displays of food were stunning, and I was so tempted to try and bring a wedge of jamon de serrano back with me, but then decided the weight would be an issue. We then inevitably wended our way back to the Plaza de la Reina, via a shop selling mantillas, and shawls, where Lynne got tempted by a black silk shawl with white embroidery, and I got even more tempted by a black shawl with multi-coloured embroidery all over it. They weren’t cheap, but the embroidery is hand-done, and they are very beautiful. I shall take mine to Macau instead of an evening jacket. After that, we settled in for lunch while Angela legged it off to climb the St. Miguel tower, and after a final round of excellent tapas, we reluctantly headed for the airport and home.