Weekend in Valencia: From Bang to Hush

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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.

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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…

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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).

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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.

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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.

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There was one notable exception, above: a store selling fireworks and other noise-making explosives – yes, in plain sight and perfectly legal.

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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.)

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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.)

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Photo: holavalencia.net

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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Valencia: Cabanyal and Calatrava

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

Valencia’s River of Green

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VALENCIA IS FULL OF MADDING CROWDS RIGHT NOW — the week-long Fallas festival,which takes place March 15-19 as it has for hundreds of years — involves lots of noise, color, and activity. Brass bands march through the streets, following parades of girls from toddlerhood to adolescence in elaborate brocade and lace costumes. The sound of firecrackers is incessant, and the city’s ancient plazas and narrow streets are closed to cars but thronged with people.

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Fortunately, when you start to feel like a man or woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Valencia has no shortage of tranquil green space to which to retreat. The city’s central axis is the singular Turia park, a 5-1/2 mile-long artery of green in a re-purposed riverbed.

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I had to see it up close, so this morning, with the weather typically sunny and warm — after spending a bit of time milling with the crowds preparing for today’s Fallas ceremonies (bedecking a colossal statue of the Virgin with flowers, for one) — I descended a steep flight of stairs to investigate.

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Like almost all European cities, Valencia was established — by the Romans in 138 B.C. — on the banks of a river. The old city grew up inside a bend of the Rio Turia, a few miles inland from the Mediterranean. It persisted through Iberian, Moorish, and Christian times, but the wide river was prone to flooding, and in 1957, it flooded once too often, taking about a hundred lives. The city undertook to divert the river’s course and, in an enlightened move, rather than create a super-highway, the original Turia riverbed was converted to parkland.

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The Turia is still crisscrossed with bridges — some 500 years old, others ultra-modern, like Santiago Calatrava’s “Comb,” below. The singular riverbed park is bookended at by the Bioparc, the animal habitat that is a chief pride of the city, and at the other by Calatrava’s glittering $3billion City of Arts & Sciences, which we will visit tomorrow.

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Today, the Jardines de Turia seemed a true oasis of calm, with just a few bikers, picnickers, sunbathers, and dog-walkers along its length. Parts of the park are given over to playing fields and tennis courts; other stretches contain grassy lawns studded with native palms, banyans, and fruit trees beginning to bloom. The area near the hotel where my press group is staying has a more formal boxwood topiary design.

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Alongside the Turia is the Monforte garden around a onetime private villa, below, often described as romantic, but I could only peer up at the cypresses towering above its gates; I found it closed today.

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The much larger Jardines de Real (also called Los Viveros), once the grounds of an artistocratic family, form a sort of wing to the Turia, with plantings of box and bay, flowering shrubs, and early spring bulbs, and a pleasant cafe and fountains where it joins the Turia near the Museo de Bellas Arts, below, second only to Madrid’s Prado for Spanish ecclesiastical art.

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Some day, the area around Valencia’s Estacion de Norte, below, built during the city’s 1920s expansion in its characteristic Modernismo style, will also be parkland. A new 57-acre Parque Central has been designed by the London-based firm Gustafson Porter, with bowl-shaped lawns and spectacular water features.

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In the meantime, Valencia is already a city built for park-hopping.