When most of us think of Valencia, we think of the sweet oranges grown in Spain. Indeed orange trees are everywhere in this Mediterranean city. They shade parks, sidewalks and parking strips, reminding visitors of a time when the hope was that fruit might replace the silk trade as an economic driver.
The two days we spent in Valencia recently wasn't long enough to explore all there is to see and do, but it was long enough to make some memories that have nothing to do with oranges. When I think of Valencia from now on, I'll think of diving into a pan of paella at a beach restaurant, biking along a former riverbed transformed into lush gardens and parks, and wandering through one of Europe's biggest markets, sampling olives, chocolate and slivers of ham.
Most visitors to Spain make their way to Madrid and Barcelona, both filled with art and historical sites, but also bursting at the seams with tourists. As Spain's "third city," Valencia is more low key, attracting less of an international crowd and more Spanish visitors. Its historic center is filled with wedding cake architecture and cafes tucked into narrow streets with more bicycles than cars. Established by the Romans, occupied by Muslims and re-conquered by the Spanish, it's a city where it's possible to find within a few blocks walk or bike ride, Roman ruins, 10th-century Muslim-built walls, Baroque churches and a Jetson-like science complex surrounded by a pool of water perfect for paddle-boarding.
Picking a hotel in or close to the historic center (Barrio del Carmen) and a Metro stop is key for doing as much as possible with limited time. Ours' was the Zalamara B&B in a quirky neighborhood filled with Chinese shops, restaurants and hair salons. There wasn't much of interest in the immediate area, but the location was perfect, a five-minute walk into the old town, the Metro and the north train station.
Mercado Central: This is a historic, art nouveau-style market built in 1928, and given a facelift a few years ago. Artisan food vendors are generous with samples of cured ham, olives, chocolates and pickled vegetables. We spent an hour and a half here before visiting the 16th-century Gothic-style Llotja de la Seda -former silk market - next door. I bought several small gifts to take home including little cans of smoked paprika (it comes in sweet, mild and hot) for $2.50 each. The mercado is also the place to sample Horchata, a milky-colored drink made with ground tiger nuts and water.
The Valencia Cathedral combines Roman, Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance art and architecture on the site of a former mosque. As much art museum as church, the 13th-century cathedral is known for its alter pieces and side chapels filled with religious paintings. Admission includes one of the easiest-to-understand English audio guides I've used in Europe.
Biking: Valencia is bike-friendly, with dedicated street lanes and paths. Most scenic is the path that skirts the Jardines de Turia, a former riverbed transformed into six-mile green belt, with 14 parks and 19 bridges. The river had always been prone to floods, and in 1957, Valencia decided to divert it course, and use the riverbed to create one of the largest urban parks in Spain. Lots of places rent bikes by the hour or day, but we decided to go on a 25 euro, three-hour organized tour with Valencia Bikes Not only did we luck out with our guide, Mila Moro, an ancient history professor at the local university, we were the only ones to sign up for the English tour, meaning Mila became our private guide.
Leading us into the old city on a Sunday when there were few cars or pedestrians, she pointed out Roman ruins and ancient walls built by the Moors, then steered us into the 21st century with a loop around the City of Arts and Sciences, a futuristic complex that includes an opera house, science museum and planetarium.
The Beach: A tram ride to the beach, followed by a paella lunch is the classic way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Valencia. You won't be alone. This is a local tradition, especially for families celebrating a baptism, first communion or a birthday. Noisy groups filled most of the best tables at a string of waterfront restaurants when we arrived around 4:30 p.m., late for lunch by Spanish standards. Things quieted down 5:30 when we choose a restaurant for a pan of Paella Valencia (rice, chicken, rabbit and snails), and a platter of boquerones fritos (fried anchovies).
Dinner with a local: Eatwith.com is the Airbnb of dining. Go to the website, pick a host offering lunch or dinner at a destination (there are many listings for Spain), time and price that suits you, and make a request. Victoria Soriano, 40, a graphic designer who speaks fluent English, loves to cook, responded immediately when I wrote, inquiring about the Mediterranean vegetarian dinner she described on the website.
A few weeks later, we took the Metro several stops to a residential neighborhood, and rang the bell on her 3rd-floor apartment for an 8:30 p.m. dinner. Like most Europeans, Spaniards are used to living in small spaces. Victoria keeps her bike in the entryway. Bookshelves and racks of CDS line the walls of her living room furnished with a bright red couch and chair.
Joining us was her friend, Ampa, an English teacher who tutors students 8-9 hours a day. The conversation flowed as we sipped wine, and sampled Victoria's potato omelette; homemade tomato jam with goat cheese; spinach with onion, egg and pine nuts; and a noddle dish with vegetables and saffron. Victoria has been doing the meals for four years, once or twice a month. She's willing to take up to eight guests, but will book a dinner for a few as two. It was past 11 p.m., early by Spanish standards, but late for us when we finished a dessert of strawberry ice. Victoria called us a taxi, and we were back at our hotel before midnight, happy to have discovered a new neighborhood, new foods and new friends.
Meanwhile, there's always room for another Horchata. We found it, along with a brie and artichoke quesadilla, at Cafecito in the gentrifying Ruzafa district, once shabby barrio, now filled with hip cafes and restaurants.