The urge to go: Choosing to return to Europe after a two-year break
We also knew that Valencia has world-class beaches. We love real cities with great beaches.
An apartment rental seemed like the best choice for having more privacy and being able to cook meals if it was too cool or rainy to eat outside. When we found an Airbnb listing for a bedroom literally opposite Valencia’s famous central food market, we were all in. The discount for a month made it the same price as 11 days. April, when the orange trees bloom and their fragrance fills the air, was available. Decision taken.
Entering Spain was child’s play. After filling out simple online forms, the Spanish government checked the US vaccination database and sent us a QR code to enter. (Vaccinated Americans are welcome in Spain.) Our flights on Iberia were uneventful, aside from David causing a stir by spilling a cup of coffee. We heard no complaints about mask-wearing and observed no chatter, even on the long transatlantic leg.
Until we arrived, we didn’t know that Valencia had been selected as European Capital of Smart Tourism 2022. Honestly, we don’t know what that means. But Spaniards seem smart about setting up accommodation to stay safe and get on with their lives. The COVID vaccination rate exceeds 91%. Spaniards are so accustomed to wearing masks that El País, a major national newspaper, published an article on how to cope with the trauma of going without a mask to prepare readers for the expiry of the term of the indoor mask. April 20. At least initially, many Spaniards continued to wear masks indoors and even outdoors, especially in crowded places.
We branched out into tourism, focusing on smaller, uncrowded museums dedicated to individual artists. These were the kind of attractions we used to skip, but soon realized how short-sighted we had been. We discovered singer Concha Piquer, who sang on Broadway as a teenager, had her first walkie-talkie with Al Jolson and eventually married a bullfighter. Best-selling author and political agitator Vicente Blasco Ibáñez occupied a gracious villa on the beach where he wrote on the balcony facing the sea. The hidden garden between the house and the tiled studio of painters José Benlliure Gil and his son José Benlliure Ortiz has become one of our favorite outdoor spots in a city dotted with gardens.
Valencia’s signature green space is the Turia Garden, a 5.6 mile linear park in the riverbed revealed when the Turia River was diverted after a flood in 1957. We consider it Valencia’s greenway , although it took even longer to develop. (The gardens were dedicated in 1986.) The entire length has walking paths, a cinder track for runners, and dedicated bike lanes. In fact, Valencia has dedicated bike lanes everywhere and cheap bike rentals on virtually every corner. The old riverbed is filled with lush plantings, small ponds and fountains, and playgrounds. There are a few picnic tables, but most people lay a blanket on the grass.
The Turia Garden leads “downstream” from the city’s two main art museums to the spectacle of the City of Arts and Sciences. Largely designed by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, the complex includes Europe’s largest aquarium, a huge 3D cinema, a science museum that resembles the skeleton of an incredibly massive creature, a soaring opera house and a semi-covered garden. The scale of each building is immense. People visit museums and attend concerts, but the main attraction seems to be taking photos or posing for pictures in front of buildings that might have been straight out of a futuristic sci-fi movie.
Since the advent of COVID, we have set ourselves the goal of walking at least 10,000 steps a day. In this city made for strolling, it’s child’s play. Getting lost in fascinating old neighborhoods really increases the number of steps. For long distances, Valencia’s metro and tram system was easy to navigate. Most of the time we rode to urban beaches, where the white sand stretches for more than two continuous miles. When the winds picked up, Malvarrosa beach has big breakers that attract surfers. Closer to the cruise port, the flat stretch of Las Arenas Beach is often covered with sunbathers even when it’s too cool for swimming. All city beaches fly blue flags – the highest degree of cleanliness in Europe.
Some of the oldest and most famous paella restaurants in town line the beach. The Moors brought rice cultivation to the region in the 8th century and Valencia prides itself on its distinction as the birthplace of paella. It’s true that you can get paella anywhere in Spain, but you really can’t do better than eating it from the source.
One day we took a hybrid city bus to El Palmar, a rice-growing village six miles south on the lagoon known as Albufera, also a natural park. When villagers are not growing rice or fishing, they organize nature tours or operate restaurants. We joined about 20 other passengers for a cruise through the swampy ecosystem aboard a flat-bottomed wooden boat. Then we settled on the edge of the canal to enjoy a lunch of local specialties: eels and red pepper followed by a dish of paella presented to us with great fanfare by our waiter.
It’s hard to say what we enjoyed more – the food or eating outside in the sun in a special natural spot. It was just one of many simple but memorable meals we ate at outdoor tables. We might think of cities as asphalt, concrete and stone, but our memories of Valencia will always be water, gardens and trees.
We wondered if we would be restless staying in one place for so long, but we learned to feel more like residents than tourists. We had our favorite stalls at the central market – the bakery with great multi-grain half loaves of bread and the fruit vendor with the sweetest strawberries who always offered a sample. We started greeting dog walkers in the park near our apartment and knew the best bar for afternoon glasses of wine in the square near the cathedral.
We even knew where the wild parrots were building their nests in the university’s botanical garden, which we visited from time to time to observe the progress of the flowers. An exhibition of whimsical artwork scattered around the garden is in place until early October. Created by a duo of Spanish graphic designers, it’s a brave response to the times of COVID: Life wins!
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be contacted at [email protected].
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All prices based on an exchange rate of 1 Euro equals $1.08.
The tourist site of the city of Valence, visitvalencia.com/en, contains comprehensive information in English about museums and other attractions. Most museums are closed on Mondays and admissions are modest. Many are free and others range from $1.10 to $8.65. Adult admission to the Oceanogràfic (the aquarium) is $34.50.
The metro is cheap, clean, modern and efficient. At the airport, we bought a TuiN paper card from the same vending machine that pays out one-way tickets and charged it 10 euros ($10.80) for convenience. This reduced the cost of each subway ride to $2.15, including the normally $6.25 ride to or from the airport. People traveling together can share the same card. City buses are $1.65. Bike rentals can be found in all neighborhoods and usually cost between $8.65 and $13 per day. Valenbisi’s self-service bicycle system is primarily designed for long-term residents. Many operators in El Palmar offer 45-minute boat trips to Albufera, starting at $5.40.