Why go now?
Why go now?
Valencia is Spain's third-largest city and the prosperous capital of the region. Throughout the year the city hosts numerous fiestas, but the most famous, Las Fallas, a seven-day celebration of fireworks and bonfires, takes place from 12 to 19 March. Each day at 2pm in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in the town centre there are deafening displays of fire-crackers, or "las mascaletas". The fiesta culminates in the Nit de Foc on the 19th when "las fallas", the vast wooden satirical figures of politicians, pop stars etc, which have been built by each barrio (neighbourhood) are judged, awarded prizes and consigned to the flames.
Iberia has daily flights from Heathrow to Valencia (0845 601 2854, www.iberiaairlines.co.uk), with fares from £110.40. British Airways (0845 773 3377, www.ba.com) flies daily from Gatwick, and currently has a special offer of £114 if booked by 28 January, valid for travel until 21 March. The airport is 8km west of Valencia, and is served by regular, cheap buses to the city centre. If you're in a hurry, a taxi takes 20 minutes and costs about €12 (£7).
Get your bearings
The most interesting part of Valencia is the area within the old city walls, snug in a bend of the old route of the river Turia and remarkably compact. After disastrous floods in 1956, the river was diverted to the south of the city and the wide river-bed turned into a series of parks, gardens and playing fields, forming a green ribbon running through the centre. The main square is the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. The tourist information centre, where you can pick up an excellent map, is on its west side (00 34 963 510 417; www.comunitat-valenciana.com; www.turisvalencia.es).
I stayed at the four-star Melia Plaza Hotel, in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (00 34 963 520 612, www.solmelia.com); it's comfortable and modern, with doubles from €110 (about £67) a night. For old-fashioned splendour try the Hotel Ingles, Marques de Dos Aguas 6 (00 34 963 516 426, www.solmelia.com), part of the 18th-century Palace of the Dukes of Cardona; doubles from €108.25 (£66). A cheaper hotel is Hotel Alkazar, Calle Mosen Femades (00 34 963 529 575), where doubles cost from €52.29 (£32).
Take a hike
Valencia is a handsome city of winding old streets and grand Baroque palaces. It's worth spending an hour strolling in the old city, admiring the architecture and stopping for a coffee or beer. Start at the small but delightful Plaza Redonda, where women sit outside all day making lace and gossiping. You can buy the lace from several of the shops around its perimeter. Move on to the pillared hall of the Lonja de los Mercaderes, (Tues-Sat 9.30am-2pm, 5-9pm; Sun 9.30am-1.30pm), the former silk merchants' exchange and a fine example of elegant 15th-century Gothic (on Sundays it's used as a market for stamp and coin dealers). Then wander up through the old town to the imposing Torres Serranos, a set of 14th-century gates, one of the few remaining sections of the city walls (open Tues-Sat 9am-1.45pm, 4.30-7.45pm; Sun 9am-1.45pm).
Valencia is one of the prime agricultural areas of Spain, famed for its fruit. Check out the amazing variety and quality of local produce at the spectacular covered market, Mercado Central on Avenida Maria Cristina. It's a vast 19th-century construction of steel and glass, and one of the largest in Europe. From Monday to Saturday (6am-2pm) there are fabulous displays of seafood and stalls devoted to everything under the culinary sun, including saffron, a key ingredient in Valencia's most famous dish, paella. Saffron is never cheap, but it's nevercheaper than here. Fans of homemade paella can buy the essential wide pans from stalls at the main market entrance, in sizes catering for three to three hundred: excellent value, a five-portion pan costs about a fiver. All the smart shops and designer stores are on the Calle Colon and the streets around it. The enormous El Corte Ingles department store on Calle Colon has a wonderful supermarket in the basement where you can stock up on luxury brands of tinned anchovies and tuna and buy Murcian calasparra rice for paella.
Lunch on the run
Order a selection of tapas at Bar Pilar, just off Calle Moro Zeit (00 34 963 910 497). The mussels (mejillones) are particularly good. With a carefree gesture you should pitch the empty shells into the buckets under the bar. Try not to miss.
Take a ride
For a taste of the beautiful coast north of the city, take a suburban train from the cool and stylish Estacion del Norte to the straggling but attractive town of Sagunto. Its heart is Roman, but it bears the traces of successive waves of invaders. There's a beach at Canet de Berenguet, close to the centre of Sagunto, while the hills inland from the town offer the opportunity to indulge in some hearty walking. The outlying village of Gilet is notable for its imposing monastery, run by friars with an eye to commerce: a bar caters for hikers.
Back in Valencia, try an Agua de Valencia – a typical cocktail, it's a tantalising mix of Cointreau, orange juice and champagne – in one of the bars in the Barrio del Carmen, also known as Carmentown. Take a slow stroll down the Calle Cabelleros to the Plaza San Jaime until you find something to your taste. Slavia at Plaza San Jaime is one of the most popular, the Gaudi-decorated Canovas in Calle Caballeros one of the smartest.
Dinner with the locals
Ocho y Medio (that means "Eight and a half"; the owner is a Fellini fan) at Plaza Lope de Vega, 5 (00 34 963 922 022) provides Spanish and French cooking in glamorous surroundings.
Sunday morning: Go to church
Valencia's cathedral stands at the top of the Plaza de la Reina, an impressive if not actually beautiful construction, composed of styles ranging from the Gothic to the Baroque. There's a superb view of the city from its roof, if you can face the climb. Inside there is a fine painting by Goya in one of the side chapels (on your right facing the altar) showing St Francis Borja at the deathbed of an already cadaverous impenitent at whose shoulder crouch a set of devils gleefully grimacing in expectation of his soul. The chapel is that of the noble Valencian family Borja, better known as Borgia, whose members in Renaissance Italy included the notorious Lucrezia and Cesare and that most flamboyantly corrupt of popes, Alexander VI.
Book ahead (00 34 963 922 448) for the justly popular Barbacoa at Plaza del Carmen 6. The name means barbecue, and that's what it does supremely well.
Valencia, like Barcelona and Bilbao, is very conscious of the power of contemporary architecture to raise a city's profile in the world. Its flagship project, begun 10 years ago and still in progress, is La Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciences (City of Arts and Sciences; 0034 902 100 031, www.cac.es); a site on the former bed of the Turia is being redeveloped as a vast cultural and intellectual leisure zone. Among the buildings already completed are L'Hemisferic, a giant Imax cinema, planetarium and laserium, and the Museum of Science, with a constantly changing series of displays, many of them interactive and very popular with children. These dramatic and audacious works are both by the Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, who has been acclaimed across the world. Calatrava's massive but elegant seedpod of an opera house, now well advanced on the site and expected to open in 2003, will be the spectacular centrepiece of the Ciutat. Also under construction is an oceanographic theme park.
The icing on the cake
For a snack, try a glass of the local speciality, horchata, a refreshing milky drink made from tiger nuts and served with fartons, long thin sponge cakes to nibble between sips. There are horchaterias throughout the city, but there is a good one beside the Mercado Central entrance. The other traditional snack is hot chocolate with churros – essentially long deep-fried strips of dough, rolled in sugar and used for dipping. Popular at breakfast and throughout the day and available at any café.Reuse content