Vamos Valencia

By | Category: Travel destinations

Spain’s third city should be your next city break says Kaye Holland

“Do you want to try Agua de Valencia?” My mantra has always been “When in Rome…” but, even if it wasn’t, there was no way my companions were going to let me leave without sampling Valencia’s signature cocktail. 

The Valencian classic may look innocent but packs a serious punch for the fresh orange juice base covers the cava, vodka and hidden beneath. I didn’t realise I’d had one too many until I tried to stand up….

It’s close to midnight – the only way to really discover Spain’s third city is to stay up late – and we’re propping up the bar at the baroque Cafe de Los Horas, a trendy drinking den dripping with chandeliers that’s loud with laughter and conversation in barrio Carmen.

The baroque Cafe de Los Horas
Valencian nights

It’s a chilly January night, a time of year when Brits are hibernating at home, but in Valencia people are still turning up to chatter and clink glasses. Make no mistake Valencia loves a late night: “There’s always somewhere to go, whenever you want,” says Tracy Ibberson, a Brit who has been based in Valencia since the 80s (and the brains behind local businesses Cambridge College and Rustic Escapes – more of which later).

Valencia may be the home of Agua de Valencia but the Spanish seaside city is also the birthplace of paella – but solely for lunch, only tourists order it for dinner – and horchata (a sugary drink made out of tiger nuts) accompanied by fartons. These sausage shaped cakes are similar to churros and slip down a treat.

You can try all of the aforementioned at the light-filled Mercado de Colon – at its liveliest (and loveliest) in the morning – where Valencians still shop for seafood, bright Valencian oranges, Iberico ham and turrón (nougat) before stopping to guzzle tapas with friends. 

The magnificent Mercado Colon
Eat like a local by enjoying a mid-morning snack or almuerzo

But Valencia isn’t just fantastic for foodies, it’s also a great destination for history lovers – Spain’s third city was established by the Romans, occupied by Muslims, and won for Aragon in 1238 – and culture buffs. And happily the atmospheric old town, home to the lion’s share of sights, is compact enough to explore on foot.

Close to Mercado de Colon lies La Lonja (the city’s gothic Silk Exchange) – a UNESCO protected Gothic masterpiece that was the city’s old silk exchange building. 

Valencia’s old town is stunningly beautiful.

From here I head to the astounding 13th century cathedral whose windows are filled with inch-thin alabaster (because Valencia’s light is too blinding for glass) to admire the mix of Gothic, Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture. Inside I find Francisco Goya’s eery 1788 painting – St Francis Borgia At The Deathbed Of An Impenitent – that has been scaring Valencian schoolchildren for centuries.

I spend the afternoon contentedly strolling through elegant squares and plazas, passing renaissance churches, before enjoying some time out in Jardín del Túria. An immaculately manicured riverside park that was created after Rio Turio’s catastrophic flood in 1957,  Jardín del Túria is crisscrossed by 18 bridges – some designed by local boy done good Santiago Calatrava.

The futuristic buildings of the City of Arts and Sciences are arguably the most famous landmark in Valencia
The show-stopping opera house of the Palau de las Artes

The former riverbed leads to Santiago Calatrava’s best known – and largest – project, the breathtaking Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences). Calatrava’s  architectural marvel mixes futuristic pavilions, an Imax cinema, aquarium, planetarium, botanic gardens and the tallest opera house in the world – the steel and concrete Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia – to stunning effect.

Exhausted after a long day of exploring, I retreat to Partida de la Mar – Rustic Escapes’ Valencian outpost – where the vibe is a home from home. All of Rustic’s properties (there’s one in West Sussex as well as Alicante and another opening imminently in Ibiza) are situated in a rural location but within easy access of a city and an airport – and the partida is no exception being only 5km from the city centre (and 1km from the beach).

Kaye can’t stop, won’t stop raving about Rustic Escapes’ Partida de la Mar
Partida de la Mar by Rustic Escapes

The enchanting partida is full of the kind of delightful touches (read luxurious freestanding bathtubs, open fires, wood-burning stoves, gourmet welcome hampers and complimentary tea and coffee throughout the day) you hope for, but don’t always get. There are three bedrooms and all are are a riot of colour, pattern, texture and artifacts that owner Tracy Ibberson has gathered on her travels.

The Master Suite
Have you ever seen a bath as beautiful as this?
A good night’s sleep is guaranteed

I’m staying upstairs in the master suite. Once a loft that was used to dry tobacco and silk, today it boasts a beautiful copper and antique silver roll top bath that I never want to get out of.

Beyond the bedrooms, there’s a lovely large open-plan living area where I happily curl up in front of the open fire and lose myself in a novel, and a sun-drenched terrace replete with a traditional paellero (barbecue) and a kitchen garden from which guests are welcome to pick their own produce for dinner.

The sun-drenched terrace

It would have been oh-so easy to have spent more time relaxing at the characterful partida but Silvia, part of Rustic’s incredible concierge team (who speak fluent English and are fiercely proud of their big little city) is keen for me to see more of Valencia proper.

And so the next morning, after a good night’s sleep in my king size bed, I venture out to Lake Albufera – Spain’s largest lake and an important bird refuge that’s the gateway to the paddy fields growing rice for the classic dish. I take my cue from the locals and hop into a traditional wooden boat for a leisurely cruise around the lake, passing unspoilt dune beaches.

Lovely Lake Albufera

Speaking of beaches, Valencia boasts miles and miles of wide, golden sands lined with Ibiza- style beach clubs to soak up the almost year-round rays. Bottom line? Valencia has all the pros of a Balearic Island break without having to leave mainland Spain.

As I stroll along the sand with the waves quietly lapping the shore, it’s hard to believe that in 30 minutes I’ll be checking-in for my flight back to London at Seville airport. 

Life’s a beach in Valencia

But I know I’ll be back for I still need to try Rustic’s Tiger Nut tour at Sequer Lo Blanch, their wine and tomato tasting experience – and to perfect my paella making skills, natch.

Barcelona and Madrid, eat your heart out: Valencia might just be the perfect weekend destination.

DON’T MISS: Las Fallas – Valencia’s spectacular festival of fire
Many visitors to Valencia arrive in March for Las Fallas, one of Spain’s most important fiestas. Expect an extraordinary five-day fiesta in honour of San José. Giant puppets are paraded before being set on fire. 

If you can’t make it to Las Fallas, you can see the ninots (figurines) that have survived the flames at the Museo Fallero all year round. 

Alternatively make Valencia your base for La Tomatina – aka the world’s biggest food fight. The famous tomato throwing festival takes place in the nearby town of Buñol on the last Wednesday in August.

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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