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Saturday May 12, 2012

Valencia is full of vim

Old World charm and avant garde architecture sit side by side in the city of Valencia, Spain.

If travelling could be likened to eating, what would make a travel destination a truly enjoyable meal?

How about a bowl of rich history with a dash of Old World charm for starters, followed by a mixed platter of architectures accompanied by some cultural garnishing for mains? And – to finish it off – a slice of avant-gardism with a sprinkle of contemporary indulgence for dessert?

A fusion of the past and the future that brings out the best in both is what I would call a good “meal”. And Valencia, Spain’s third largest city, serves it just right.

Embracing the modern: Palau de les Arts Sofia Reine is used as a venue for theatrical performances.

A successful marriage

When you think Valencia, you might think oranges – and that would be appropriate. After all, Valencia oranges – known for their sweetness and juiciness – originated from here. It was brought to California where its commercialisation for world export really took off under the brand Sunkist.

(As a kid, I used to drink lots of Sunkist cordial).

Modernisation stepped in, and Californian orange farms were sold off for lucrative property development. Orange production was moved to developing nations such as Brazil and South Africa. Thankfully, in Valencia, modern development hasn’t resulted in the selling off of the old. On the contrary, through conscious and careful planning, the Generalitat Valenciana (Valencia government) has managed to marry the two successfully.

Valencia is on a hyper-drive to get itself on to the international tourism map. Having long played second-fiddle to Madrid and Barcelona, it’s out to assert itself as a hip and trendy destination.

The city currently stages the Valencia Street Circuit Formula 1 Grand Prix (June) and the Valencia Open 500 ATP Tennis World Tour (October). It also hosted the 32nd and 33rd America’s Cup, yachting’s most prestigious race.

One of the many colourful alleys that criss-cross old Valencia.

But the crème de la crème that draws in the visitors is the recently completed Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences) – ultra-modern, futuristic, avant-garde.

This new development (not a city per se), completed in 2008, sits on the south-easterly end of the former Rio Turia riverbed. After massive flooding in 1957, the river was diverted away from the city centre, leaving a 9km dry sunken bed which was transformed into the city’s green lung. A 1km stretch was reserved for the stunning City of Arts and Sciences.

Brainchild of local architect Santiago Calatrava, it consists of:

> Oceanográfico (Europe’s largest aquarium, shaped somewhat like the Sydney Opera House)

> Príncipe Felipe Science Museum (an organic, bone-white ceramic-glass building housing the science museum, of course)

> Hemisfèric (the most photographed building of the lot, shaped after the human eye of wisdom, with IMAX cinema and digital projections)

> Palau de les Arts Sofia Reine (my favourite, as it reminds me of Transformers - used for theatrical performances)

Valencia’s modernist Mercado Colon.

> Golden Bridge (it’s actually white);

> Umbracle (landscaped car park with art promenade – yes, even a car park can look futuristic)

> Agora (the final building to be completed, looking like a mean giant purple clam, with multipurpose function, it hosts the Valencia Open 500 ATP Tennis World Tour).

Each is amazing in itself, but together, they’re astounding. What really moved me was how well these architectural marvels of geometry, structure and materials were fused with the surrounding green parks and water, giving it an almost living sense, instead of just being cold, lifeless, man-made structures. Thumbs up!

The only downside is the pricey entrance fees, which range from ‚8-‚24 (RM32-RM97). So, choose carefully what you want to visit.

Historical Valencia

Just a couple of kilometres away from the City of Arts and Sciences is the historically rich city centre. The Romans established “Valentia” on the banks of Rio Turia way back in 138BC. Amazingly, some ruins have been preserved right beneath the city centre in La Almoina, under an ultra-modern, water-covered glass ceiling.

The old city is compact, colourful and abounding in various architectures – Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Modernist, to name a few. The main square, Place de l’Ajuntament, is flanked by the stately Neoclassical town hall, Modernist central post office and a green space.

Graffiti adds colour and humour to Valencia.

Some 400m away is La Lonja, a Unesco World Heritage site. Looking like an imposing Gothic fortress, it was actually a silk trading market built in the 15th century during Valencia’s golden age as one of the Mediterranean’s strongest trading hubs.

A few blocks away sits the ochre La Seu, Valencia’s cathedral, consecrated back in 1238. You must climb the adjacent El Miguelete bell tower – all 207 steps – to enjoy a 360° panorama of the old city and beyond.

As with most European cities, you want to savour Valencia slowly. Meander through its streets and remember to veer off into its narrow alleys where surprises often await. Stop every now and then, and remind yourself that it took a century to build what’s around, whilst the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences was finished in 10 years.

Food

Also in the historical centre is the busy Mercado Central (Central Market), housed in a semi-elaborate building more suited for a theatre or gallery. With 900 stalls, it was a veritable wonderland for my wife who absolutely loves cooking.

Rovelló – orangey-brown wild mushrooms with green fungus on them – were in season, but not knowing how to prepare them, we opted for the deliciously fragrant Portobello mushrooms.

The seafood section was overflowing with fresh Mediterranean treasures including lobsters, langoustines and octopuses. There were, of course, many stalls selling the quintessential strong-smelling jamón (Spanish cured ham), a standard local diet.

Our noses, however, brought us to a paella stall. Paella, an iconic Spanish rice dish cooked in a shallow pan with meat or seafood, originates from Valencia. Word has it that the rice and saffron, which gives it a distinctive fragrance and vivid yellow colour, were brought by the Arabs who conquered southern Spain between the 8th and 13th centuries.

Today, the short-grain sticky rice (arroz), is still grown on the outskirts of Valencia. The saffron, though, is more likely to have been replaced by cheap synthetic colouring.

We took three different types of paella since the price (‚3 or RM12 per serving) was a steal compared to the restaurants (minimum ‚9/RM36). The best was paella valenciana, supposedly the original recipe, with a mixture of chicken, beans and snails. My wife, who eats everything, gave the snails a pass because you could still see its two feelers!

On another occasion, at La Cueva restaurant, we tried arroz caldoso racion, a paella originally meant for low-wage labourers during the 19th century industrial age. This was like Teochew porridge with rice floating in a broth. Taste wise, though, it was similar to the one in the market.

Even for food, there is an old and a new side. Besides the traditional paella, there is another long-time favourite, Spain’s culinary symbol: jamón serrano. Apparently, these cured hams have been eaten since Roman times. There are many types and qualities, and the best would be to take an assortment to have a taste of the different meaty flavours.

They go really well with bread, olive oil and red wine. A more expensive variety would be jamón ibérico which is produced from a different breed of pig. Contemporary food, on the other hand, is not so common and served only in upmarket restaurants, with more focus given to creativity, experimentation and presentation. I wasn’t about to pay ‚25 (RM101) for a little morsel made to look like art on an oversized plate, so we gave it a miss.

Good shopping is found in downtown pedestrian-only Boulevard Joan d’Austria, with high-street fashion houses ZARA, MNG and Mossimo Dutti amongst the many shops and boutiques. It’s also an ideal place to put up your tired legs and relax with some churros con chocolate (pastry sticks dipped in hot chocolate).

For a contemporary take on shopping, you can head to the City of Arts and Sciences’ eastern side where three new shopping malls await: El Saler, Aqua and El Cortes Inglés. While many tourists prefer to shop at Spain’s largest department store chain, El Cortes Inglés (because of the 18% tax refund), I found the prices to be 30% to 50% higher than other shops (for toys and household goods). Beware!

Perhaps the pricing is better for clothes.

Bioparc

A final example of Valencia’s excellent fusion of old and new is the Bioparc. This is the city’s reinvention on an age-old attraction, the zoo. Whilst most zoos cram in as many animals as they can get away with into a small confined space, Bioparc’s emphasis is on quality – quality landscaped environment for animals and quality up-close experience for visitors.

Opened in 2008, they only have two “environments”: savannah and equatorial, which means you won’t see many animals, but you’re guaranteed a good immersion and, very importantly, the animals are well-treated. Indeed, the animals were active and not scared of people.

The Savannah is the big favourite as it’s themed around the ever-popular Madagascar movie. Our kids had a great time with King Julian the ringtail lemur (by nature they’re very animated, just like the movie character), Marty the zebra, Alex the lion, Melman the giraffe and Gloria the hippo.

The commando penguins were absent, though – obviously. I had a hard time explaining why to my youngest. All in all, a very well-done contemporary approach to an old attraction, a perfect fusion that gets you moving. Just like the whole city of Valencia itself.

As the hilarious Madagascar group would say, “We like to move it, move it!”

> Useful websites for flights: Air Iberia (www.airiberia.com) from Madrid and Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) from UK. For tourism: www.turisvalencia.es/en/home (Valencia Tourism Office) and www.cac.es/home (City of Arts and Sciences).

The best time to visit is from March to May, and September to December. The peak season is from June to August.

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