I think all of us know the feeling when the grey Manchester autumn becomes too much. It was mid-November, summer was a distant memory and Christmas was still just that bit too far away for my wife and I to fully get into the spirit. We needed SUN!! With that, we booked some cheap flights to Alicante and planned a week of vitamin D, blue skies, and San Miguel.
We had a few relaxing days by the coast planned already, but with a hire car at our disposal we decided to book a two night stay in Valencia and go on a road trip! After an early start, two hours of religiously following the satnav, one promise to not argue, and far too many cheesy Spanish pop songs, we arrived. If I’m honest, we picked the hotel mainly on price, so weren’t expecting much but we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the modern and spacious Hotel Renasa. Set just on the outskirts of the city, it wasn’t the best for quick exploring, but definitely saved a lot of stress navigating the maze of busy Spanish traffic. We parked up, checked in, got up to the room, threw our bags on the bed (I did my best Richard Ayoade impression from Travel Man) and got straight out on the streets to find our way to the city centre.
It’s about 30-minute walk into the centre along a sunny avenue, and my eye for an interesting street led us to stumble upon the beautiful Mercat de Colon. Housed in a grand 1914 building with Gaudi-inspired details in the centre of a Valencian neighbourhood, this semi-covered market hall has a local feel and is bustling with food and drink venues that spill outdoors onto the surrounding streets. We passed through this morning, but promised to return!
We continued on our way, with the Mercado Central and old town in our sights. Wandering through the upmarket shopping district on our way there (plus the obligatory shop around El Corte Ingles), and you begin to really get the sense of the size of Valencia. I’ve heard it’s the third-largest Spanish city, however it still holds a quaint charm with the traditional architecture and citrus trees lining the streets.
We made it to the busy central market near the old town in the early afternoon, and as always in European cities I was blown away by the array of produce. My all-time favourite market is La Boqueria in Barcelona, but this one is a close second!
We did a circuit of the vast hall, selling everything you can imagine in the way of fresh produce: fish, meat, dairy, fruit and veg – and got our bearings before deciding to try a traditional Valencian drink, the Horchata. I’d already heard of this tigernut-based milk drink, and even seen it on a menu of a coffee shop back home, but this was my first time trying it. Now I can’t lie, it was just ok. Extremely sweet and had an off putting plant taste. I guess it’d be a good option if you’re dairy free. Still, you never know if you don’t try these things. The traditional accompaniment to the horchata is a farton (which was better than it sounds!) – a sort of long sugar-glazed doughnut that is baked instead of fried. Cue the sugar rush!
Despite what felt like an entire sugar bowl coursing through our veins we needed a coffee. There are some great little bakeries in the market and a couple that will even brew you up a cortado to sip on whilst you stand at the counter, so we stood at the bustling bar for this.
Sugar and caffeine hit complete, and now buzzing like hummingbirds, we needed something savoury and a seat in the sun to while away the afternoon. We found a traditional bar/restaurant and ordered a couple of beers and a selection of tapas: an albondigas, and a Russian salad, and enjoyed the last of the day’s sun before a stroll back to the hotel.
Day two was a busy day hitting all the tourist hotspots in the city, taking photos of the beautiful buildings and squares, and of course working up an appetite! The Plaza de la Virgen is a beautiful cathedral square surrounded by boutique shops, bars and cafes – and there seems to be another ancient monument or museum around every corner of these winding streets.
Another highlight is The Garden of the Turia, a dry riverbed-turned-citrus garden that runs through the heart of the city to the sea. Back in the fifties, the city was badly flooded, and following this the river was diverted to skirt the edge of Valencia. The result is a beautiful pathway that leads you to another must-see: the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences [below, centre].
After the sun goes down in Valencia, the tight labyrinth of streets comes alive. Stores, restaurants and bars spill their chairs onto the street, fighting for space, and even though it is much colder at night at this time of year, people are still sitting outside – huddling under blankets or around heaters. By this point, we’ve seen signs everywhere for an interesting cocktail: Agua de Valencia, and our curiosity gets the better of us. We’re so happy with what arrives to our table! Two large ballon glasses filled with a delicious mix of freshly squeezed orange juice, cava, vodka and gin. Halfway down, the spirits are hitting us and we know we can only manage a couple of these! A portion of patatas bravas and calamari helped us soak up the alcohol! If you ever visit, be sure to find a good version of this drink, as we had our second in another bar that was more like a cheap Buck’s Fizz. You can spot locals and tourists alike enjoying this drink as you wander around the city.
Sufficiently oiled, we get the urge for another little snack. Now this is why I love Spanish cities. You can walk from place to place nibbling all day, never feeling hungry but never getting uncomfortably full either. We walked past a number of tourist-filled restaurants and Spanish chain establishments that we recognised, before we stumbled into an unassuming looking pinchos bar.
From the outside it didn’t look like much, but inside it was bouncing with life: groups of locals and couples out enjoying their evening. We’ve picked up a word on our recent trips to Spain that for me sums up their socialising culture. It’s caña. It’s a simple word that has a simple meaning. It’s just a small local draft beer – usually around a third of a pint served in a beaker-like glass, but you’ll see so many locals drinking them in the cities, instead of the tourist favourite, grande cerveza! It’s just big enough for grabbing a couple of pinchos from the ever-replenished selection on the bar. In these traditional Basque tapas venues, you pick up whatever you like the look of, return to your table, and you’ll pay for how many sticks are on your plate when you’re done. The options are many: a bite sized Spanish tortilla, spinach croquette, a small piece of bread with jamon…the list goes on.
If you want a slightly bigger beer order a caña doble (about half a pint) and don’t be afraid to ask what everything is – the menu will change daily and new dishes come out in a quick stream every ten minutes, with even quicker explanations in Spanish!
As we had a bit of a long walk back to the hotel we called back into the Mercat de Colon to see what it was like after dark, after discovering it yesterday. The establishments here are generally more trendy than traditional. Interestingly, we were both reminded of the Altrincham Market food hall, although maybe a bit more branded (it can be so hard to tell if some places here are chains or independent). This is definitely a fashionable place to meet, eat and drink in the city, and a great place to while away the hours with a good selection of menus on offer. A very happy accident that we’d stumbled across this place earlier! What we found in the evening was a cosy little plaza filled with inviting bars with warming fire heaters. We picked a busy one near the entrance, ordered a bottle of Spanish red, a plate of jamon and finished our trip off perfectly.
We came to Valencia knowing very little about the city but we’ve left already planning our next trip!