Tuesday 19 April 2016

Paella of the Past and Buildings of the Future: Valencia

Spain, 11th – 14th April 2016

A bus journey from the hustle and bustle of Valencia, Spain’s third largest city, lies the lagoon known as l’Albufera.  You can glimpse the lagoon from the road running directly south of the city, where egrets stalk the water beyond the rushes that shelter it from the rush of traffic.  One particular turn-off from this road takes you towards El Palmar, down a road running between fields of rice paddies and various growing vegetables.  In contrast to the plastic sea of tomatoes further south in Spain, the fields appear to be more like allotments with potatoes, cabbages and the like.

Of course, any area known for lagoons and rice is generally going to be a flat wetlands area where mosquitoes thrive in the summer, and there were already a few of the blighters about at this time of year.  A few of you who have been reading for a while may have picked up that I generally don’t do well where mosquitoes are concerned, so you may be wondering: why?  Why had we chosen to come to this particular area?  Was it to wage war on their species?  Well, no, although it has to be said that at least one met a squashed end that night in our van.  To justify our visit, these three words should explain all: origin of paella.

Long before paella became a staple of tourist cuisine in Spain, the Valencians maintain that the dish originally came from the area around l’Albufera, where one of its most well-known ingredients—seafood—was nowhere to be seen, as the traditional ingredients reflected what was commonly found in the area such as snails and duck.  I’ve been doing some research in preparation for a proper paella experience, and amongst it is this Telegraph article, where guide Josep Alberola is "horrified by paella atrocities committed elsewhere in Spain", such as including ingredients like peas or stock.  I’m sure he’d be disgusted with the bastardised version of the dish I usually cook up in the van, especially if he learned I’ve never invested in saffron; at least Matt and I think it tastes nice.

At El Palmar we parked up in the car park (GPS: 39.31479 -0.31808), where the key parked vehicles were a handful of tourist coaches.  It was a Monday, and so most of the locals would have made their paella visits the day before for Sunday lunch, leaving the village a fairly quiet place during the week.  There are a couple of traditional adobe houses (barraca) here as well as a canal of docked fishing boats, but the main attraction by far is the couple of dozen paella restaurants.  When you’re as indecisive as we are choosing from 20+ restaurants serving the same thing is no easy feat, so out came the TripAdvisor recommendations where we settled for the #2 restaurant, Bon Aire (#1 was closed).  Many restaurants had the normal seafood variation on the menu but we ordered a Paella Valenciana, the traditional type.  The meat was rabbit, duck, snails and chicken, and the vegetables were butter beans and green beans; no peas in sight.  The dish was probably a better fit for us than what we’re used to; all the nice flavour of the rice was still there, and with none of the faff of peeling prawns and the like.  And the snails?  It was the first time either of us tried them and the verdict is they were okay; the texture wasn’t too offensive, but they didn’t leave much of an impression and we wouldn’t order them specifically from a menu.

In the afternoon after lunchtime was over the car park emptied out, leaving just us behind for the day.  We spent the rest of the day plotting our visit to Valencia, although we did make an evening journey back into the village to visit the local shop and purchase a small sack of local rice.  Perhaps soon I may even splash out on a bit of saffron; who knows?

A traditional barraca
The emptied out parking area
We travelled north to Valencia Camper Park (GPS: 39.58043 -0.44577, €12 + €3/4A or €5/6A electric, Free WiFi and showers), which marked a momentous moment: the first time we’ve coughed up for electric hook-up in 48 days.  We could have lasted longer, but Matt’s hair was getting a bit unruly and his trimmers need mains power, so we treated ourselves to the luxury.  The lady at reception was very helpful, providing a tourist map as well as tickets for the nearby metro, with instructions on how to use them and which stop to get off at.  They also give you vouchers for a complimentary drink of sangria at the on-site bar/restaurant, which was a lovely touch.

So, Valencia.  Its current form is rather different to how it would have looked in centuries past, when it was a walled city on the edge of a river.  Unfortunately the walls were knocked down in the 19th century and replaced with a ring-road, and the river has been diverted elsewhere as it was a flood risk.  The old riverbed has been utilised to great effect however, as it has been converted into a huge park that circles around the city centre.  Just a short way from the throngs of people and traffic, locals and tourists alike can come here to relax in the shade of the trees or cycle along the marked paths.

Speed activated smiley & sad face sign for bikes
Torres de Serranos - One of the original gates in the city walls

If you’re anything like me and you spend way too much time thinking about your stomach, the city centre is littered with restaurants offering cheap menu del dias and there are plenty of tapas bars to be found around the Barrio del Carmen.  The food market is a thing to behold for its sheer vastness in size, as well as for the variety of appetising things on display.  Saffron was sold in several places by the gram and you could get any size paella pan you desired up to 100cm; if not for the thought of carrying a huge piece of metal around all afternoon and then trying to find it a home in the van, I may have considered the investment.
Tapas for lunch!  This round of goodies: cod and peppers in garlic, 'Titaina' (the restaurants signature dish, with tuna and peppers in an amazing tomato sauce), and good old faithful patatas bravas
The Catedral contains the alleged Holy Grail but at €5 a ticket neither of us felt compelled to see it, instead opting to spend €2 each to enter through an alternate door and climb the attached tower to see views over the city.  At the base of the tower a man has CCTV footage of the stairwell as well as a green light at the bottom indicating if you’re allowed to go up, which became very understandable why when we made the ascent; the circular stairwell has few passing places and gets very tight towards the top making it a little nerve-wracking, to the point where when we met a man going the other way near the top he started repeating ‘Oh my God’ to himself until he went out of earshot.  And, as we saw one visitor learn the hard way, a word of warning should you happen to be up there when the bells start to chime; get out of the way of the big bell before it starts counting the hour.  It’s loud.

We weren’t sure whether to make another trip in the next day to see more of the city, but we’re certainly glad we did.  After stopping by the Mercado de Colón, an attractive market building filled with cafés and bars, we walked along the riverbed park to the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences).  It’s a large, recently built complex with various buildings housing a science museum and aquarium as well as a few other attractions.  The attractions aren’t cheap and it’s a fair walk (although you can bus it too), but you don’t need to spend anything to justify coming here.  It’s worth a visit just for the sake of seeing the buildings.  They’re fantastically futuristic, with lots of sharp lines and curves amidst shallow pools of pale water.  I’ve never seen anything like it; it felt a little bit like something from science fiction.

After two nights it was time to carry on so we moved on to Benicàssim, the first free coastal aire (GPS: 40.05587 0.06094, Free inc. service point) we’d found since Rota south of Seville.  It was a fair walk from the beach but we love a freebie, so spent a night there.  The Rough Guide described it as "heavily developed for package tourism" but it seemed a pleasant enough resort to us, worlds away from the skyscraper horrors of Benidorm.  There are lots of traditional 1930s villas along the seafront with information signs telling you about the days when they were the coastal retreats of high society, and although a few have now been knocked down and replaced with apartment blocks it was still a nice enough stopping point on a coastline otherwise devoid of free aires.

The next point of call was Morella, but we’ll cover that next time.  All I will say about it for now is this: I won’t be mixing drinks again any time soon.

- Jo x

A few more Valencia shots:

Plaza del Ayuntamiento
Mercado de Colon
A model of the region's water tribunal, who meet in Plaza de la Virgin every Thursday morning to discuss and judge issues related to water supply and irrigation

1 comment :

  1. Fantastic blog ,I love following your trip... even more so today it's a very Stormy day here in the North Highlands of Scotland.