You can't help smiling when a city is as Spanish as this

Valencia has sat in the shadow of Barcelona and Madrid for far too long. That's why it has got such an authentic atmosphere

Petrolheads the world over will be looking to Valencia today – but they won't see it.

Spain's third city will be a blurry backdrop to the eighth Grand Prix of the 2011 Formula One season, glimpsed through the blue haze of burning rubber and exhaust fumes. Motorsport fans are not alone. Mea culpa – I too have failed to see Valencia in more than two decades of racing around the major cities of Europe.

My friend Stephen has been living here for nearly three years and he is equally puzzled. "Valencia has a very low profile and I don't understand why," he says. "It's been all about the buzz of Barcelona, Madrid and other cities." Stephen and his partner, Claire, chose to move to the city on the basis of quality of life for their young family. "Obviously, No 1 is the micro-climate. Having the beach, the sea, 300 days of sun – you can't help but go around with a smile on your face."

The beaches are a revelation. The broad golden swathes of Las Arenas and La Malvarossa stretch for 3km up from the port, seemingly to the horizon. They have the sweep and generosity of Miami Beach. It is hard to imagine them becoming over-crowded. I can't think of a city beach in Europe that compares; up the coast, Barcelona's much celebrated Port Olimpic seafront is certainly popular but is largely artificial. Valencia's beaches are less showy, less developed and seem a more organic part of the city.

The string of bars and paella restaurants that fringe the beach are busy with families, getting their fingers stained with saffron as they pick though mariscos and chicken bones. An accordionist wanders by, scattering little melodies. Amid fits of giggles, a group of comfortably upholstered women egg each other on to dance in formation on the paved promenade.

Valencia has been slow to grasp the transformative effect that international sporting events can have. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics showed the way, but it was another 15 years before Valencia came looking for the sporting limelight. The city hosted the America's Cup in 2007 and has been home to Formula One's European Grand Prix since 2008. Though both events have contributed to raising profile and capacity, the past four years have also coincided with a general downturn in tourism to Spain. Valencia still awaits the gold rush.

However, all that simply means one of the great cities of Europe is still in astonishingly pristine condition. The most common riff I pick up from visitors, locals and foreign expats alike is that Valencia remains essentially Spanish. The Spanish way can, of course, be beguiling, but I learn soon enough it can also be bull-headed.

La Lonja de la Seda (the Silk Exchange), a Unesco World Heritage Site, is a stunning example of late Gothic exuberance – the Sala de Contratacion, with its soaring candy-twist pillars, is as imposing as the interior of any medieval cathedral. La Lonja is on every visitor's must-do list. I enter at 1.45pm and, after a few minutes in the grand Sala, I try to make my way to the rest of the building. A hatchet-faced official blocks my access. It's the witching hour – 2pm – siesta. She will not be moved. No pasaran. "It's bureaucracy; it's arrogance; it's typically Spanish," says Stephen with feeling. "There's still the 'I can't do this – it's siesta time. Come back at five'."

As it happens, I can't come back at five and have to be content with admiring the exterior – which has its consolations. The medieval stone masons were determined to prick the grandiosity of the architecture with a scatological sense of humour. One of the gargoyles flying off a corner of the building is pissing into a beer mug, while another is arse out, defecating on unsuspecting citizens below.

Cheerful irreverence is also on display in the Calle del Trench nearby. A shop called The Dog's Cojones (a wonderful example of Spanglish) is vending T-shirts two doors from a general store called Lovely Family. Across the road a shop front is occupied by multiple stockinged mannequin legs, while another offers devotional plaster cherubs and, er, water filters – it is retail anarchy.

Lunch is al fresco at Ocho y Medio in Plaza Lope de Vega – it specialises in superior paellas and surreal menus. One of the dishes is rendered in English as "Paella with Stroke". I play safe and opt for "Smooth Rice with Chick and Black Truffle", which turns up as a risotto with baby pigeon. There is so much to love in these Valencian improvisations and raw edges that I have forgotten my frustration.

Munching on baby pigeon (which tastes surprisingly livery) my reveries are interrupted by a large tour group from a cruise liner. The guide barks a commentary at them through a loud hailer completely leaching the little plaza of its sleepy charm. As they are marshalled out of the square, the group seems like a premonition.

Valencia suffered a great flood in 1957, when the River Turia caused havoc in the city. The authorities responded by re-routing the water course out of town. The dead river bed was finally reinvented in 1980 as a green ribbon running for 9km through the city. Locals still refer to it as the "River" – and in a sense it still flows, with formal gardens morphing into forested glades, playing fields, children's adventure playgrounds and picnic venues as it progresses through the city.

The Turia Gardens are bookended by two of Valencia's most striking attractions. At the eastern end is the City of Arts and Sciences, the sprawling cultural complex designed by the city's most famous son, the architect Santiago Calatrava. The buildings demand visual metaphors – a swan, an armadillo, a stegosaur, a giant eye, a whale ribcage, a grove of palms and a harp. It is a flamboyant theme park of civic space containing an opera house, a science museum, a planetarium and Europe's largest aquarium. It is a great adventure in itself and requires another weekend to see it properly.

At the other end of the Turia is the Bioparc; it is nominally a zoo, but that's like saying an F1 Grand Prix is just a car race. It occupies 100,000sq m and brings Africa to the heart of the urban sprawl. Not just African animals but entire ecosystems. Species are grouped together as you might find them on the great plains – zebras, impalas, blesbok, marabous, crowned cranes and giraffes all roam the one hectare savannah enclosure together.

Some vistas are engineered to make it appear as though predators are sharing the same spaces as their prey. Lions prowl within yards of impalas with no discernible fences or bars. To avoid tears before bedtime animals are kept in their enclosures through cleverly concealed ditches and "natural" barriers such as rock walls and water obstacles.

It may be the Bioparc's cleverest illusion that the animals seem extraordinarily content. A baby warthog leaps and jinks with joy before digging holes under a boulder; chimps are totally engrossed in grooming each other; elephants roll magisterially across a colossal enclosure featuring en-suite waterfall and a "forest" of concrete baobab trees; ringtailed lemurs are fascinated by the visitors wandering through their "Madagascar" – so much so it's hard to distinguish who is watching whom.

Feeding time is one of the undoubted highlights of life in the city. It is difficult to eat badly and only a brave foreign chef would consider setting up shop here. German incomer Bernd Knoller opened his first restaurant in the city nearly two decades ago. Three years ago, his Riff Restaurant received the recognition of a Michelin star. "I cook Valencian food," he insists, "but I cook my Valencian food."

The first course at dinner sets the bar high; chilled oyster served with a warm oyster mayonnaise topped with a granita of seaweed. I suspect it's designed to silence sceptics in one mouthful. Other dishes that lean on Valencian traditions include a salad of chipirones (small squid), aïoli, morel mushrooms and watercress and a course that is billed only as "Dirty Rice". The last is a delicate risotto flavoured with fish stock and locally sourced olive oil ("to sweeten it") and dusted with desiccated squid ink.

The fishy ingredients taste as if they were swimming around just hours ago. And indeed they were. "I buy at the fish auction down in the port," says Bernd with infectious enthusiasm. "It's late in the afternoon every day. It's very mad – like a school class with very upset kids. I like it very much."

The fish auction will no doubt be interrupted for a few days by the beasts of Formula One roaring around the port. But the city will return to its real mission when the circus has moved on. There will be sunshine, squid and siesta. And amid the clatter of lives being lived well, there will be an incipient smile on most faces.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Expedia ( offers return flights to Valencia with easyJet and three nights' room-only accommodation at the Hotel Las Arenas Balneario Resort from £496 per person, based on two sharing.

Further Information

Valencia Tourism (

Suggested Topics
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Russell Brand at an anti-austerity march in June
peopleActor and comedian says 'there's no point doing it if you're not'
Arts and Entertainment
Sister Cristina Scuccia sings 'Like a Virgin' in Venice

Like Madonna, Sister Cristina Scuccia's video is also set in Venice

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say


Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album