A city of science, a city of arts, a city of colors and impressions: Valencia, the third largest city of Spain has many different epithets and epic adjectives, and once you visit this place, you will realize that they are not exaggerating at all. During the Arabic times it was even called as the ‘city of joy’, and one has to admit that this expression is totally right about Valencia, because it is indeed a city full of dreams and opportunities if you learn how to open your eyes.
Located along the Spanish coastline of the Mediterranean sea (the Balearic sea to be precise), this place is a true capital of tourism, culture, transportation and trade; therefore, it is almost impossible to miss its magic for those who are in love with traveling and this country.
I have to confess that this is the first time in my life that writing about a new place is a real challange and it needed plenty of preparation, discovery and research.
Diving deeply into the sights and characteristics of Valencia was an extremely slow process, and after spending here months by now, as usually, I can still find something new every single day. That is the simple explanation for the fact that I am going to release my Valencian adventure unusually not in one nor two, but in three (!) chapters starting with the current one.
Shapes, shades, voices and tones are floating in the air and being exchanged, like if we were in the middle of a huge market of living art and poetry. The tour guide and the journalist inside me have so many things to say this time, that it is difficult to decide what to start with.
Maybe let’s begin with some history - it is always a good point, even if it seems unnecessary sometimes.
Valencia was founded by the ancient Romans and was called Valentia Edetanorum, and just like Barcelona, it belonged to the same province (Hispania) that was conquered by Rome after the Punic Wars. Ruins of the ancient towns and Roman viaducts can thus still be visited all around the region.
Being a port city, and also as a religious and administrative centre, Valencia quickly became one of the most important settlements on the Iberian Peninsula, and it was also the capital of the Kingdom of Valencia, as it is still the heart of the Province of Valencia (Provincia de Valencia) nowadays.
During the Reconquista ('Reconquest'), the kingdom, which belonged to Aragon managed to expand its territory, while the architecture and culture of Moors had a key influence on the city’s profile, just like in many other parts of Spain.
There is also one specific connection that it is worth to mention, and which makes the area a little bit more interesting for someone from Hungary: namely, one medieval princess from the House of Árpád, Jolán (Violante de Hungría) married Jaime I, the ruler of Valencia and Catalonia and apparently she became one of the most popular foreign queens in the history of Spain.
There may be other connections as well: if you have a look at the flag of Valencia that you can see everywhere, it reminds one not only to the Catalan flag with its red and yellow stripes, but if you change the colors a little bit, you will see the red and silver (white) pattern of the first royal dinasty of Hungary...
Let’s leave this historical debate though, and pay some attention to the vivid life and presence of this miraculous city. There is something that you will surely notice everywhere, whether you speak Spanish or not.
If you hang out in the city, you will see that the instructions and texts are usually written both in Castilian Spanish (castellano) and in an interesting, or, I would even say, in an exotic Romance language: this is Valencian (valenciano or valencià), which is a distinct dialect of Catalan spoken in the region.
However, the language and its identity is a kind of sensitive topic, and if you ask locals and native speakers, most of them, particulary youngsters will tell you that it is practically Catalan, but some others will highlight that Valencian is something else, and Catalan identity originates in Catalunya, the region of Barcelona, where the people are more like ‘independistas’.
Whatever they think about this situation, one thing is for sure: Valencian people have a sort of localpatriotism, strong relation and pride to their province, and they tend to claim that they are from Valencia, even if they are outside of the city from other towns or villages (Burjassot, Xirivella, Alboraya, Sueca, Calicanto and so on).
At the same time, the city itself, due to its large population of more than 800,000 inhabitants, the beautiful environment and the dozens of attractions, is indeed a very international and intercultural place, and it could not be such a colorful world if the locals were not as open, friendly and hospitable as they are, even if they do not know you.
Even if there is a kind of language barrier sometimes with English, it is very easy to start a conversation with new people, which helps a lot not to feel like an alien here, even if it can take more time to get used to everything.
My greatest fears and stereotypes from the past also vanished: namely, I thought that the locals would judge my way of speaking Spanish, but it turned out that they are more than happy if they hear foreigners using it, and I also got a lot encouragement and an access to a new and unknown culture in spite of all of its challenges.
Before getting into sighseeing, there is one interesting detail that you would probably notice on the map of the city: there is a long, green line meandering like a snake until the port area of Valencia.
This is the garden of Turia (Jardi de Túria), a huge park embracing and accompaning the historical city (Ciutat Vella), and the simple reason of its shape its the fact that it used to be the bed of river Turia, which was diverted due to new constructions in the industrial port.
It is quite strange at the beginning to walk in a garden full of palms, cedars, mandarins and orange trees, while you are much lower than the ground level and feel like being inside an empty river (where you well, actually are). This park is a living, photosynthesizing river of plants, bike tracks, football fields and many open areas for outdoor activities from Latin dances like chachachá, salsa or bachata to sports like football and skateboard.
The stone walls along Turia and the wonderful, cozy bridges bending over the park also boost the impression that basically the traveller is in the middle of some kind of river, which has got a new and creative function in the city life and is usually full of people when the sunny season begins. Wine festivals, championships, open-air concerts and many other free time activities take place within this unique green heart of the city.
To name some of these fabulous bridges, you should definitely see and cross Pont dels Serrants, Pont de l'Àngel Custodi, Pont d'Aragó, and my personal favourite, Pont del Regne with its winged, beast-headed guardians.
The easiest solution is to have a nice bike trip or a romantic evening walk in this garden, and then you will have a chance to cross under all of them, and while you pass by the Music Palace (Palau de la Música) and other sights of the park, you will not even sense the time in the same way as you did before.
There is one very iconic building which is even visible from the sidewalks of Turia: it is the Torres dels Serrans or Torres de Serranos (Serrano Towers), which is probably the most famous gate of the medieaval city with its massive and breathtaking structure.
If you have a chance to go through the gates or even to look around upstairs, you will really feel that you are traveling back in time and will maybe understand and respect the people more who had built everything up many centuries ago.
Although Valencia is full of remarkable monuments, maybe this gate is the number one association for some people in terms of the sights of the city, and you can also meet the towers on many souveniers, especially in the form of postcards and fridge magnets.
A similar experience may be the Torres de Quart, another remained city gate not so far away from Serranos. The Quart Towers (just as their famous twin gate) can be visited for free, and there are no words to describe the view that welcomes you when you reach the roof levels of this amazing place.
Domes, bell towers of churches, facades, balconies and decorative ornaments vibrating together in a blurry, mystical and chaotic order. A view that reminds me to the very best of my staying in Italy like the towers of Bergamo, but especially the streets and the architecture of Palermo, which is not a surprise taking into account that the Arabic expansion of the early Middle Ages also left is mark on the face of Sicily, just as it did on the image of Spain.
The unity of different identities is also represented by the fact that one of the towers has the Spanish, and the other one has the Valencian flag. This fact also showed me somehow that different cultures and values can coexist together - just like many locals hang one of these flags sometimes in their own windows.
Sometimes there is a Spanish flag in one of the windows and a Catalan or a Valencian one in the neighboring one - what is more, I have aready seen the Republican flag of Spain too (yep, the one back from the Civil War). Unlike in some other countries, they can all share the same space with the rainbow flags or with the ones of Ukraine both exposed recently in order to express solidarity.
One should not forget about another gate, Porta de la Mar either: although it was originally built only as a symbolic monument of a roundabout and had never been a real city gate.
However, it was exactly erected in a place where there was another medieval entrence of Valencia before. The place is really a a sort of junction point which lets you to discover something interesting, no matter which direction you choose.
If we continue our route for example from Porta de la Mar and discover the elegant and vivid streets of the area, we can see many palaces and eclectic or revivalist buildings (Neoclassical, Neobaroque, etc.) that made this part of Valenca similar to any other European key cities from Paris to Vienna, and from Warsaw to Budapest.
(to be continued)