TRAVEL SHORT BREAK: If it's Valencia, it must be fiesta

Bridget Stott joins the party in this historic Spanish city and comes to understand why El Cid was prepared to die for it
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The Independent Travel
Founded 2,100 years ago by the Romans, and ruled by El Cid from 1094-99, when he died defending it against the Moors, Valencia still treasures its churches, museums, old streets and squares. A sensitive approach to tourism has so far left the city with an undiscovered feel. That may change though, as Valencia puts itself on the tourist map with an ambitious City of Arts and Sciences. The immense project, south-east of the city centre, will cement its cultural reputation and rival Bilbao's Guggenheim with its futuristic architecture. The Palace of the Arts, the Science Museum and the Oceanographic Park are all due to open by Spring 2001.

When to go

With temperatures never much below 13C, Valencia is balmy and sunny year- round, although January and February can be wet. In August, Valencians vacate, leaving shops closed and sights tourist-heavy. During July, the city hosts a major cultural fair, and there are more than 600 popular fiestas held in the area every year. Every fiesta has a historic or religious theme, all of which are marked with awesome firework displays. At Valencia's most acclaimed fiesta, Las Fallas de San Jose (12-19 March), 400 huge Fallas (papier mache figures) are paraded through the streets accompanied by music and dancing. At midnight on the last day, the Fallas are burnt to the ground while the crowds party the night away. Other significant fiestas include Fiestas de Moros y Cristianos at the end of April, Semana Santa Marinera during Easter week, and the Procesion de las Rocas in June.

Getting there

Manises, the nearest international airport, is 8km from the city centre. British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) offers daily flights from Gatwick; Iberia flies from Heathrow (tel: 0171-830 0011). The best way to arrive overland is via Valencia's central RENFE Estacion del Norte, with its stunning Modernist edifice and impressive facade.

Getting around

The city centre is flat and compact, so it's easy to get around on foot. Cheap taxis, buses or the new and efficient Metro system can take you further afield. The renovated tramline from the old train station, Estacion de Pont de Fusta, delivers you to the long, sandy beach at Malvarrosa, 4km east of the city.

Where to stay

There is a good range of hotels in the city centre, but prices rise during fiestas, festivals and international business fairs, so check tariffs before you go. Modern, executive facilities and a rooftop swimming-pool can be found at the four-star Melia Plaza, Plaza del Ayuntamiento 4 (tel: 00 34 96 394 0251), and the Astoria Palace, Plaza de Rodrigo Botet 5 (tel: 00 34 96 352 6737) has a good restaurant serving Valencian dishes. Both have double rooms from about pounds 50.

For more characterful three-star accommodation, at about pounds 40 per night for a double room, try the Hotel Ad Hoc, Boix 4 (tel: 00 34 96 391 9140) or HR Sorolla, Convento Santa Clara 5 (tel: 00 34 96 352 3392).

If it's all-out luxury you're after, then try the five-star Melia Valencia Palace, P de la Alameda 32 (tel: 00 34 96 337 5037), five minutes' walk from the city centre, where double rooms start at around pounds 67. At the very cheap end of the scale, try the Hostal del Rincon, La Carda (tel: 00 34 96 391 6083), where rooms cost pounds 14.

What to see and do

Many of Valencia's museums are housed within beautiful and interesting buildings dotted around its medieval centre. The must-sees include the Gonzalez Marti Ceramics Museum (tel: 351 6392) within the 15th-century Palace of the Marquis of Dos Aguas, and the baroque Museo des Bellas Artes Pio V (tel: 360 5793) which houses works by many famous Spanish artists. The impressive collection of the Valencian Institute of Modern Art (IVAM) (tel: 386 3000) is located within the ancient walls of the Convent of El Carmen. Museums and galleries are closed on Mondays, but entry to most is free.

The cathedral of Valencia, on the site of a Roman temple, was built between 1262 and 1426 and contains a merry mix-up of neo-classical, Gothic, baroque and Renaissance architectural and decorative styles. Climb the 207 steps of the Gothic-style Miguelete Tower for stunning views of the old city.

The cathedral contains paintings by Goya and Velzquez as well as the Holy Chalice of the Last Supper. Other churches worth a visit include the Santa Catalina with its slender baroque tower, San Martin, San Esteban and the 14th-century Convento de Santo Domingo.

Behind the cathedral, you'll find a fascinating on-going excavation of ancient Roman, Visigothic, Islamic and medieval buildings. The nearby Lonja de los Mercaderes (Silk Exchange) (tel: 352 5478) dates from 1482. Its exterior is dominated by fierce gargoyles, carved animals and demons. Inside, the atmospheric market hall contains beautiful helicoidal columns supporting a fine, rib-vaulted ceiling.

Close to the dry Turia riverbed, on the eastern edge of the old city, is the 14th-century Torres de Serranos, the largest Gothic city gateway in Europe. Open spaces can be found at the Jardin Botanico (tel: 391 1665), the oldest botanical gardens in Spain, and the Jardines de Monforte (tel: 352 5478), listed as a national artistic treasure.

Food and drink

Valencia created the paella and you'll find a hundred variations all over town. An authentic feast with wine at one of Valencia's many restaurants will cost around pounds 15 a head.

The Cerveceria Madrid, on Carrer la Badai; Ocho Y Medio, on Plaza Lope de Vega; and Navarro, on Arzobispo Mayoral 5, all offer fine regional dishes, including paella. At Galbis, Marua 28 (tel: 380 9473) you'll find modern Spanish food inspired by the Valencian tradition (about pounds 10 a head). Oscar, on Dr Sumsi 4(tel: 373 2949) has a very good wine list and serves innovative dishes cooked by chef, Oscar Torrijos for about pounds 30 a head.

Los Madriles, Avenida Antic Regne de Valencia 50 (tel: 374 2335), is a small, family-run restaurant, exuberantly decorated with bullfighting motifs, and specialising in excellent- value home-style cooking.

Cierva, Lerida 11 (tel: 347 5917) is one of Valencia's leading seafood restaurants, as is La Pepica, Avda Neptuno 6 (tel: 371 0366) at Malvarossa beach.

For good tapas bars, try Taverna Clot or Tasca Borgo, just off the Plaza Redonda in the old city centre.

Oranges are a regional symbol and the local fire-water - agua de Valencia - is a lethal mix of orange juice, cava, vodka and gin. Try it at Cerveceria Madrid, Abadia San Martin 10. Local muscats, cavas and other wines from vineyards around Valencia, Alicante, Utiel and Requena are also worth trying.

Finally, look out for lively horchata bars serving the traditional milky health drink made from tiger nuts.

Nightlife

Atmospheric nightclubs include Johann Sebastian Bach, Mar 31 - a baroque- cum-Surrealist palace decorated with hundreds of religious icons, antiques and even caged animals (including lions). Alternatively, try Al Babal, Carmen and Cafe Infanta Bolserias on Calle Caballeros. Lively bars, clubs and discos can also be found along the seafront promenade of Malvarrosa beach. While you're there, pay a visit to La Champaneria, Eugenia Vines 118 - a champagne bar for lovers of good cava, which is open every day.

Out of town

Ancient Xativa, 58km south of Valencia, has a rich artistic and cultural heritage with its cathedral, baroque fountains and vast Gothic castle.

Sagunto, another well-preserved town, 25km north of Valencia, traces its history back to the Bronze Age. Visit the ancient ruined fortress and the restored Roman amphitheatre, now used for staging plays and concerts.

For long, sandy, unspoilt beaches head for Malvarrosa, El Saler, Corinto, Almarda or Puerto Sagunt.

Deals and packages

Cresta (tel: 0870 161 0900) offers short stays in Valencia. Three nights in a three-star hotel, between January and the end of March, costs pounds 306 per person, based on two sharing. Price includes flights and b&b accommodation.

Further information

Valencia's most central tourist office can be found on Plaza del Ayuntamiento 1, 46002 Valencia (tel: 00 34 96 351 0417; fax: 00 34 96 352 5812). In the UK, contact the Spanish National Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (tel: 0171-486 8077).

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