DID I SAY Valencia was ‘lively’? Make that crazy. The Valencians are very fond of firecrackers. As I write this, around midnight Friday, explosions are resounding throughout the city as they have been for days, building toward a fireworks display known as the ‘Night of Fire.’ Even four-year-olds are throwing caps around with abandon.
I just made my way back, index fingers at the ready to protect my eardrums, from a fine vegetarian paella at La Riua, a typically Valencian restaurant with framed art and decorative plates on every inch of wall. They say only tourists eat paella at dinner — it’s meant to be a lunchtime dish. So be it.
I left my colleagues at the restaurant “early” — if you can call 11:30PM early for finishing the evening meal — in order to wend my way back to the hotel before the gathering mobs made that impossible. Crowds of an estimated 400,000 are thronging the Turia’s bridges and nearby streets to watch the pyrotechnics scheduled for 1:30AM. (I’ll have a partial view of the display from my 4th floor room at the SH Valencia Palace).
The parades of people in traditional regional costume are still ongoing, including infants in strollers in elaborate dress, and men and boys in ballooning pants and medieval-looking footwear, with striped serapes and head wraps. Women and girls in brocaded full-skirted dresses with long lace mantillas covering their heads and shoulders carry flowers to place on the skirt of a colossal statue of the Virgin Mary, some crying with emotion as they march.
Those over-the-top ‘Fallas’ sculptures seem to be getting bigger and more outrageous; they’ll all be burned tomorrow night (except for one which will go on permanent exhibition in the Fallas Museum here).
I can’t say I’ll be sorry to see them go; in my view they obstruct the elegant architecture of the city, particularly in the district known as L’Eixample (Expansion) — the stylish apartment buildings of the teens and ’20s, with iron balconies and infinitely varied detail, their corners cut on the diagonal to facilitate the turning of trams around street corners.
Today I was happy to get away from the madness in the city center to the seaside area called Cabanyal. Like many Spanish coastal cities, Valencia was built a few miles inland as a defense against invasion from the sea.
There’s a wide beach, Malvarossa, lined with well-regarded seafood restaurants and a few hotels, but what interested me most are the old fishermens’ cottages — row houses, actually — from the 1920s.
Most of these are currently in a state of near-ruin and fighting for their lives against the city and developers who would raze them for roadways and beach parking. Many of them bear signs: “Rehabilitation, Not Destruction.”
We had lunch at a venerable restaurant in Cabanyal, Casa Montana, where a group of about a dozen of us sat around a huge table and were presented with a never-ending series of tapas.
The staff kindly brought me, the sole vegetarian, such things as quartered tomatoes, roasted leeks, artichokes with olive paste, all swimming in good olive oil, which I mopped up with excellent peasant bread, while my colleagues chowed down on ham, sausage, deep-fried anchovies, and more.
This followed a morning at the spectacular City of Arts and Sciences, some of the world’s most advanced architecture, on which Valencia has bet a couple million euros.
The hoped-for ‘Bilbao effect’ on tourism to the region appears to be working; numbers have soared in the past decade. The complex consists of several buildings constructed of concrete and iron over the last dozen years, most designed by Valencia-born architect Santiago Calatrava.
These playful structures, each a feat of engineering as well as creativity, would look at home in any sci-fi movie. The first building to go up, in 1998, was the planetarium or ‘Hemispheric,’ resembling a human eye, below right (with the helmet-shaped opera house on the left).
The Umbracle is a long and skeletal winter garden, open to the elements. You could liken the city’s science museum, below, to a massive dinosaur skeleton, one side a waterfall of glass, while the new opera house is something like a knight’s helmet, with a plume of steel.
Surrounded by pools, and faced with white ceramic mosaics that reflect the water and glitter in the sun, the City of Arts & Sciences is a shimmering, blue and white tour de force of form and light.