It was obvious we were lost. It was so obvious in fact that a well-dressed couple stopped on the sidewalk where Peter and I stood peering at a map in Valencia’s old town and asked if we needed help.“Where are you trying to go?” the lady asked, smiling. She was obviously American, but looked like she belonged in this exotic city, the third largest in Spain.
“The Westin,” I answered.
“You’re going the wrong way,” she said. “You need to turn around and go that way.” She pointed over our shoulders. “It’s at least a half hour walk.”
We sighed, thanked the lady, turned around, and trudged off. We’d been wandering around the labyrinthine streets for a half hour already after having visited Valencia’s fabulous Mercado Central, where we oohed and aahed at the luscious fresh produce and fish from the nearby Mediterranean Sea.
Luckily, getting lost in Valencia’s old town wasn’t unpleasant. We were in sunny Spain after all, and the brilliant sun cascaded down into the narrow streets, shafts of light that lent a golden hue to the centuries-old buildings whose wrought-iron balconies overflowed with geranium-filled flower boxes.
Soon we found ourselves in Plaza de l’Ajuntamenta, a large square with fountains and pink azaleas blooming. Peter and I looked longingly at the sun-splashed terraces and ceramic shops, but we needed to get back to our hotel to check out and head south to our rental house in Benissa. After just two days in this vibrant city, we had become enchanted by its unique combination of Old World ambiance and 21st-century vision. Next time we visited, we would stay much longer.
One example of how visionary leaders have made this city into an urban paradise is Turia Gardens, a green swath undulating through the city center. Bordered on both sides by solid stone walls and criss-crossed by bridges, this green park is about 30 feet below street level. At first glance, you might expect to see a river flowing along this six-mile route, but instead of water, the riverbed swells with trees, grassy fields, playgrounds, bike paths, and families enjoying the warm Spanish sun.
Before Turia Gardens was a park, it was indeed a river, but a devastating flood in 1957 caused city leaders to divert the river to the edge of town. A highway was proposed for the riverbed, but Valencia’s townspeople objected, and the idea for a city park was born. Today, Turia Gardens is Valencia’s showpiece and boasts a number of attractions and architectural masterpieces along its trajectory.
We chose to stay in a lovely hotel near Turia Gardens, the Westin Valencia, an architectural marvel in its own right. Housed in a former wool factory, the hotel opened a couple years ago after extensive renovation and features a stunning art-deco style, elegant rooms, and an upscale vibe. Our spacious room on the second floor overlooked the center courtyard with palm trees, fountains, and a terrace where you can enjoy the hotel’s signature Mojitos. In fact, it was hard to leave this enchanting property, but the city called out to us, and we were happy to respond.
Valencia, home to 800,000 residents, is easy to navigate and extremely bike-friendly. Peter and I rented bikes from Valencia Bikes, which also offers guided tours. But we opted to explore Turia Gardens at our own pace. Ramps provide easy access for cyclists, and once you descend, you’ll feel a world away from the bustling city streets.
As we biked, we admired the diverse bridges that span the park: one, the Puente de la Flores, features waist-high geraniums along its entire length. Another, the Puente del Mar, is studded with statues of saints and city fathers. A third, La Peineta, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, arches gleaming white across the park.
At the eastern end of Turia Gardens, the City of Arts and Sciences rises up like a futuristic vision. The stunning buildings—an aquarium, science museum, IMAX theater, and opera house—display elements of a style of architecture called Structural Expressionism with exterior steel components, curving lines, and gleaming white concrete. The fountains and water features everywhere echo the river’s past.
First we explored the aquarium. I could have stared at the beluga whales for hours. Doesn’t it seem like they smile and wink at you when they glide gracefully by? The dolphin show was also a hit.
And even though our kids are grown, we still love science museums. This one was among the best we’ve ever visited with three floors of interactive exhibits about everything you can imagine—memory, DNA, outer space, electricity, and more. Kids were everywhere, pushing buttons, banging pipes, controlling miniature cranes—hands-on learning at its best. A colorful Superheroes exhibit taught science lessons with comic book characters. Wood was the focus of another exhibit, which included deconstructed musical instruments that revealed the intricacies of woodworking. On the first floor, Foucault’s Pendulum offered us a meditative break. Here one of the world’s longest pendulums—112 feet—swings lazily back and forth in sync with our planet’s rotation.
After visiting the City of Arts and Sciences, we headed west and discovered an astonishing sight: a huge, reclining statue of Gulliver in the middle of Turia Gardens. Scampering all over the statue like Lilliputians were dozens of children, swinging on ropes, climbing ladders, and sliding down slides. Nearby teens careened in a skateboard park, making us miss our sons back home. Turia Gardens is a popular spot for picnics and birthday parties, but there are plenty of peaceful spots for those who want to relax in the sun with a good book.
Someone recommended we visit the Valencia Museum of Fine Arts, located right by the park. Considered Spain’s most important art museum after El Prado in Madrid, its prized collection includes Renaissance and Baroque paintings, gilded altarpieces, marble sculptures, and antique furniture. The building, which dates to the 17th century, was originally a seminary and features an octagonal church with a brilliant blue dome at the entrance. Don’t forget to look up! Another cultural stop next to Turia Gardens is the Palace of Music, where you can hear everything from jazz to flamenco.
At the garden’s western end, Bioparc, Valencia’s state-of-the-art zoo, promises an immersion experience, thanks to carefully planned barriers separating visitors from the animals. Peter and I found it to be one of the nicest zoos we’ve ever visited. Pathways lead you to four different natural habitats, where an amazing array of creatures frolick and cavort. On the African savannah, giraffes lope languidly along and lions laze in the sun. Another area recreates the habitat of Madagascar and offers up-close encounters with bright-eyed lemurs. In the equatorial forest, you’ll see bongos, leopards, gorillas, and African spoonbills. The wetlands area features hippos, tortoises, and a recreated cave. Bioparc also offers animal shows and storytelling—all in a beautiful setting, one that will make you feel as relaxed and happy as the animals.
All this fresh air, exercise, and culture were making us hungry. So after returning our bikes and freshening up at the hotel, we headed toward a restaurant in the old town called Sagardi, which specializes in pintxos, Basque-style tapas. We fell in love with pintxos while in San Sebastian years before, so I couldn’t wait to try them again. We found a couple seats at the bar of this cozy restaurant, ordered some lovely Spanish red wine, and stared at the treats lined up before us on the bar: dozens of little white plates, each one crowned by an artful combination of flavors and textures atop a slice of crusty bread. How about smoked salmon with olive tapenade, a frittata slice with a pickled pepper, or tuna salad with wispy fried onions? Yes, these were just as good as the ones I remembered in San Sebastian many years ago.
Peter and I chatted with a smiling Spanish family sitting next to us. The teen-aged daughter spoke English fluently; the dad spoke a little, and the mom none at all, but we had a lot of fun chatting nevertheless. They were in fact from the Basque coast and were seeking a taste of home at Sagardi.
Servers patrolled the small restaurant carrying trays of pintxos to customers seated at tables—or you can just get up and help yourself to the pintxos on the bar. When you’re ready to pay your bill, the server simply counts up your plates and charges you accordingly (around $2 each). Peter and I loved the food, the relaxed setting, and the family we met. Sagardi was another kind of immersion experience, the kind you always seek when you travel.
FEAST FOR THE SOUL
The next day after getting lost and finding our way back to the hotel, we hopped in our car and headed to the beach. Besides a lovely mild climate, a chic city with lots to see and do, an old town with history, charm, and culture—Valencia is also right beside the Mediterranean Sea and has miles of white sandy beaches with breathtaking views of the curving Spanish coast.
Peter and I had been invited to check out Las Arenas, a grand beach resort overlooking the sea. Wow. The five-star property, one of the Leading Hotels of the World, features elegant waterfront rooms, meeting space, a spa, and a huge, luxurious pool. In fact, the resort has a historic spa tradition and, since the late 1800s, has attracted spa goers in its earlier iterations. Las Arenas takes this historic tradition to new levels, promising a spa journey you won’t soon forget. Their thermal circuit features a Scottish shower, sauna, cold pool, steam room, ice fountain, heated loungers, aromatherapy showers, bubble beds, indoor and outdoor Jacuzzi. Don’t forget to take a dip in the heated pool overlooking the gardens or recline in the poolside loungers and let the Mediterranean breezes caress your skin.
Our visit didn’t allow time for the spa, but we did enjoy an amazing paella in Las Brisas’ fine restaurant, Brasserie Sorolla. The region of Valencia is famous for its paella—featuring rabbit, chicken, and beans. In fact, to the south of the city, rice fields produce much of the short-grain rice that makes paella so yummy. For our first course, Peter and I shared delicious prawns—fresh from the sea. Next glistening mounds of creamy paella were served. The savory flavors of the rabbit and chicken, the toothiness of the saffron-flavored rice, the texture of the large fava-like beans—the paella was a masterpiece in flavor and texture, one that lingers in my memory.
I brought home the recipe for Valencian paella, but I haven’t tried it yet. I’m sure I couldn’t capture the authentic flavors Peter and I enjoyed that day—flavors that extended beyond just the food of Valencia to include the way the city’s myriad components—old and new—combine to create a feast for the soul, a place where culture collides with modernity, and the result? An enticing European city we can’t wait to revisit.
• Served by a variety of European airlines — as well as Delta during the summer months — Valencia’s airport is just six miles from the city.
• Valencia Bikes offers bike rentals at three locations, as well as bike tours in English every day at 10 a.m. valenciabikes.com
WHERE TO STAY
• Westin Valencia right in the city center is just a stone’s throw from Turia Gardens. westinvalencia.com From $190
• Las Arenas, a grand beach resort just a few minutes from the city center, offers waterfront rooms, a spa, and a terrific restaurant. hotelvalencialasarenas.com From $170
WHERE TO EAT
• Brasserie Sorolla serves luscious paella and offers al fresco dining overlooking the Mediterranean. Their paella is authentic, creamy, and delicious. hotelvalencialasarenas.com/gastronomia/sorolla
• Sagardi offers tasty pintxos, Basque-style tapas, in a relaxed setting in the old city. sagardi.com
• Bioparc, Valencia’s state-of-the-art zoo, located at the west end of Turia Gardens, offers a true immersion experience. bioparcvalencia.es
• The Lladró Museum, where Lladró porcelains are created, offers tours of artisan workshops. It’s 30 minutes north of the city center via Bus 16. lladro.com
• Nature lovers will want to explore Albufera Nature Park just seven miles south of Valencia, where much of the region’s rice is grown. Hiking, birdwatching, and boating are just some of the activities available at the park. albuferadevalencia.es
For general information about the region, visit en.comunitatvalenciana.com