The peaceful Jardin del Turia on Sunday afternoon
THE VALENCIA TRIP, which started with so many bangs, ended with the pleasant Sunday hush common to most European cities. Doubly so, because it was the day after the culminating ceremonies of the five-day Fallas festival (pronounced FI-iss, by the way). I’m glad I had at least one day to experience the city at its most mellow, after the insanity of Fallas.
The festival ended Saturday night with the crema, or burning, of hundreds of massive but lightweight sculptures that decorated many of the city’s blocks and squares during the week I was there. These dubious works of satirical art were torched city-wide on Saturday night, above, along with, of course, more fireworks.
But let me backtrack a bit, for the sake of continuity…
Saturday began on a civilized note with a visit to the Museo Nacional de Ceramica, above. It’s housed in a palacio with an astonishing Baroque exterior and second French Empire interior (the building’s Gothic origins have been thoroughly obscured by a series of remodelings).
Inside are furnishings and decorative arts through the ages, 19th century period rooms, including a characteristic tiled kitchen, above, and cases of ceramic wares from pre-history through Picasso.
A street in Rusaffa strung up with lights for Fallas
We walked through Rusaffa, an attractive 1920s neighborhood of student bars, Middle Eastern cafes, and at least one butcher shop-turned-bookstore, and checked out a couple of boutique hotels for future reference. We hoped to do some shopping, but — it being the last day of Fallas, a national holiday — stores were closed.
There was one notable exception, above: a store selling fireworks and other noise-making explosives – yes, in plain sight and perfectly legal.
Valencia’s over-the-top Arts and Crafts era train station, Estacion Del Norte, above, merited another look, this time to view the stained glass and mosaics, below, in the lobby and waiting rooms. (High-speed train service to and from Madrid, which takes just 90 minutes, started last December.)
Onward to the 3-year-old L’ Almoina archaeological museum, below, built over the city’s most important ruins, from 1st century A.D. Roman roads and the earliest Christian cathedral of 304 A.D. to an almshouse of the mid-6th century Visigoth period, which gives the museum its name. (Almoina is the Arabic word for charity.)
Glass walkways suspend visitors over excavated floors and roadways, which would mean little were it not for the fascinating animated video displays that take you up from ancient foundations to watch how the city grew.
Outside the archaeological museum, above
A last-minute invitation to a VIP luncheon for Fallas bigwigs and beauty queens at a magnificent 1909 exposition hall, below, turned out to be a highlight.
Queen of the Fallas festival
The hall is an exuberant Valencian version of what they call Modernismo, hardly as austere as that which was going on simultaneously in, say, Vienna. I couldn’t get over the sight of women in costumes that must have cost thousands, smoking cigarettes and talking on cell phones. I enjoyed the company of Brazilian and Mexican journalists at our table, and there was another welcome opportunity to eat paella, below.
Dinner was at Aarop (“Syrup”), near the archaeological museum,with sections of flooring removed to reveal Roman cobblestones. The chi-chi restaurant has a Michelin star and serves a 10-course tasting menu of dishes like chilled vegetable and tuna soup, fried ray with artichokes, and snail risotto.
Then a race through the streets, dodging crowds, to the city’s main square, Ayuntamiento, above, where the biggest conflagration of all was to take place at 1AM. This post-9/11 New Yorker is not especially fond of crowds, sudden very loud noises, or massive fireballs in my vicinity, but I have to admit I had a pretty good time. As a VIP with a coveted press badge, I was on the roof of City Hall, looking down on the action, and then in a cordoned-off press area most of the time.
Fallas is extreme. It is astounding that Times-Square-style crowds, explosives, fireworks, and bonfires in very tight quarters come off without a hitch. Fire fighters from all over the region converge on the city for this night; we saw them hosing down nearby buildings before setting alight the wood and polystyrene fallas sculptures. Black smoke billows into the air, but fortunately it seems short-lived.
If Saturday night was sheer Fallas madness, Sunday morning was eerily quiet, as the city slept off all the excitement. Nevertheless, a small pack of American travel journalists just had to get a couple more items ticked off their lists. We taxied to the University of Valencia botanical garden, above, founded in 1597, moved several times, and refurbished most recently in 2000.
It’s another green respite where gravel paths wind through endemic Mediterranean plantings, with a cast iron ‘shade house,’ above, that’s a re-creation of an 1897 structure designed by Merida, the same architect who did the majestic Norte train station.
Next, we explored the city’s Museo de Bellas Artes in a blue-domed former monastery, above, Spain’s most important fine arts collection after the Prado in Madrid. The ecclesiastical art comes mostly from churches closed in the 19th century.
I spent more time on the top floor, above, among the Valencian interpreters of Impressionism and Post-impressionism, admiring landscapes and domestic scenes by artists entirely new to me.
“Las does Madres” Vicente Gomez Novella, 1873-1956
We strolled once more through the Turia riverbed park, stopping to see Santiago Calatrava’s Alameda metro station, whose swooping parabolic shapes and white broken-tile decoration echo those at the City of Arts and Sciences.
There was one last blow-out dinner at a well-known but authentic Spanish restaurant, below, tucked in a narrow lane of the city’s historic center.
The ceiling of Palacio de la Bellota (chestnuts) is hung with ham hocks. That didn’t seem promising to this lapsed-but-still-trying-vegan, but ultimately I loved the restaurant for its vegetable tapas, as well as its traditional décor and friendly red-scarved waiters. Not to mention the wine: Spanish rioja has become my new favorite red.