Our Spanish escapade starts with Valencia. Situated on the Turia River, this is the third largest city in Spain. Why Valencia? It comes 7th on the list of the best cities to visit in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Seville, San Sebastian, Bilbao and then Valencia. I guess I am a bit weird – I always support the losing team when I watch a match (until and unless my country is playing), I always choose the broken piece of muffin that lies in the tray because no body else will probably buy it, I start visiting lonely shopping malls as if the shops are waiting for the few dirhams that I might end up spending.
Valencia didn’t fit into the above three categories (a losing match, the broken muffin or a lonely shopping mall category). There were absolutely 3 different reasons for visiting Valencia and in order of the lowest priority level to the highest priority level they were –
1) La Lonja de la Seda or the Silk Exchange – This Gothic styled civil building built between 1482 and 1548 is considered by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1996 as “the site is of outstanding universal value as it is a wholly exceptional example of a secular building in late Gothic style, which dramatically illustrates the power and wealth of one of the great Mediterranean mercantile cities” which when translated into my kind of English means ‘the most stunning, most important and best preserved examples of Late Gothic architecture in entire Europe’. One more place to add to my list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that we had already seen.
2) The Da Vinci Code – After reading this novel by Dan Brown, I’ve gone into various trails in search of the ‘Holy Grail’ or the Chalice*. The Valencians claim that a chalice known as the Santo Caliz, which is said to be the famous The Holy Grail lie in the Cathedral of Valencia, Spain. All evidence supposedly suggest that to the cup used by Jesus in his Last Supper is indeed in the Valencia Cathedral. So like a moth flies to the fire, I ran (flew, I mean) to Valencia!
3) Paella – this is perhaps the reason. Yes, Paella was invented in Valencia! If you ever tasted the Paella Valencia, you’ll forget that other Spanish cities ever existed or any other Paella existed for that matter!
World’s shortest essay on Paella
Paella (pronounced “pah-eh-ya”– the ‘ll’ is pronounced as a ‘y’) is a matter of local pride and every Valencian mother claims to make the best Paella. I had always associated Paella with sea-food but only in Valencia did I come to know that the dish originated as a poor man’s dish or should I say poor men’s (collectively) dish, a labourer’s meal cooked together in a large quantity over an open fire in the fields and eaten directly from the pan with wooden spatulas. Chicken was added only on some special occasion. Rabbits, ducks or the cheapest meat like snail meat were often added to the dish. And sea-food was just a random experiment that must have turned viral! Making Paella was an elaborate process and it would be eaten over the next few days – an USP that some restaurants actually use. Please don’t get surprised to find a placard like this – ‘Home-cooked Paella, made yesterday!’
You can actually find communal paella cooking and Paella cooking competitions in village festivals like Tomatina festival* (an annual festival which takes place in Buñol, 38 km west of Valencia. Spaniards and tourists from all over the world gather in the town to throw 115,000 kilograms of tomatoes at each other!) If you are initiated into Bollywood [Hollywood’s counterpart in Bombay] you must have had a fair dose of this Tomatina Festival as the very popular Hindi film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara had an entire song shot on this film. A song is an integral part in a commercial Hindi film and helps bringing in tourists in drove. If you don’t believe me then you may ask the Swiss Government. Infact, the Swiss Government has officilly recognised the importance of Bollywood in Switzerland’s tourism!
The Lonja de la Seda
As we enter the Lonja de la Seda or the Silk Exchange, reflections and shadows seemed to be following us. Sun-rays drifting through the stained glasses and falling on the mosaic-ed tiles or through the curved grills and onto the wooden doors. The Silk Exchange reflects the golden era of Valencia and was built lavishly. The main hall, Sala de Contratacion (The Contract Hall) is enormous, lavishly decorated space supported by gorgeous twisted columns. Here, merchants would meet, deal and sign. The honesty of its traders is honored by the inscription that runs around the main contract hall.
One of the parts of La Lonja is the Orange Garden – a walled court-yard. Suddenly we are all out in the open as we whiff in the fresh aroma of oranges. Valencia, located near the fertile east coast of Spain is known for it’s very sweet oranges and rice. Infact, the Valencia orange is one of the sweetest oranges used for juice extraction. But if you think that the Valencia Orange that we squeeze into making delicious orange juices came from this Valencia, then you are absolutely wrong. Wikipedia tells me that the Valencia Orange is a sweet orange first hybridized by Californian agronomist and land developer William Wolfskill, on his farm in southern California. This patented orange hybrid was later sold by him to the Irvine Ranch owners, who planted nearly half of their lands to its cultivation. The success of this crop in Southern California led to the naming of Orange County, California!
By the way (well its me and not the Wikipedia anymore!) oranges are so important in this country that the official mascot of the 1982 FIFA World Cup, which was held in Spain was an orange. The mascot was called Naranjito (little orange) and wore the colours of the Spanish football team uniform. How cute is that?
La Catedral de Valencia
Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, The Holy Grail, The Chalice, a Cathedral, the sun-rays reflecting on the Cross etc – all these resulted in, well what can I say – the blurriest pictures I’ve ever taken in my life! I have always refrained from making any political or religious comments on my blog. My blog was meant to be filled with only ‘Travel and Road and Food Banters’ and wishing that we could travel the world without boundaries and visa formalities. So I feel the need here to clarify the reason behind my excitement – The Da Vinci Code! The essence of growing up in a multi-cultural city like Kolkata was that we would celebrate all festivals from all religion and we were interested by many aspects from different religions (Previous articles – Living by the water as Sunset as Prop -Kolakta & the Ganges, The Magic of Christmas!). And The Da Vinci Code added more fuel to the drama! Even in Paris I had been on this ‘chalise’ hunt (won’t spoil the fun for those who haven’t read The Da Vinci Code and also preserve a topic for writing on another day).
Anyway, apart from the Chalice, there are 2 paintings of Goya as well in the Cathedral museum – the feather on the cap or cup, should I say?
The Moorish influence
From the 8th to the 13th century, Valencia was under the Moors. This is evident from some of the architecture, the decorated tiles, the courtyards intricate arches and lancets. There were intricate tile work everywhere – in the staircase, verandas, walls. To be honest I was planning to uproot one tile from one of the restrooms in a restaurant that we visited!
The Spanish Siesta
The traditional local market above actually reminded me of a local market that we used to have in Park Circus Kolkata. Now, modern walls have taken over the old walls and probably will not look like this anymore. If you have been wondering why every picture has been shot in two modes – day and night, then there’s a very big explanation to that. The day we landed in Valencia, it was mid-day. Everything was closed. The entire city looked absolutely run-down. Chairs were turned upside down over tables, in-front of the restaurants, shops had their shutters down, there were no cabs anywhere – it seemed as if a spell was cast on Valencia. Or there was some curfew.
My internet search before going to Valencia had overlooked one single word Siesta. The siesta is the traditional daytime sleep that every Spaniard is very proud of. And siesta is definitely the biggest and the most popular Spanish export to the world as well! So strong is the influence that the siesta culture has spread to whichever countries Spain had set up colonies or settled themselves, starting from many Hispanic American countries to the Philippines!
The Siesta time is maintained to the tee! The restaurants don’t serve lunch before 1pm. And lunch seemed to continue till 4pm. Then suddenly the entire city goes into a deep slumber. And they won’t open till 9pm. Even at 8:45pm if you stand in-front of a restaurant it looks as if they have shut down business!
I am sharing an answer that I found really funny over the net on the exact Siesta timing –
[Q: What time is siesta?
A: If you are visiting a foreign country that has a siesta, the siesta starts about a quarter of an hour before you get hungry. So when you want to buy some food or have a mid-day meal, all the shops, cafes and restaurants are closed because it is siesta time.
The siesta continues until you are no longer hungry, but all the shops, cafes and restaurants have re-opened.]
So true! I had a long list of what we should be eating in Valencia and we ended up having our first meal in Spain at McDonalds! This is all because when we were hungry the restaurants would still not serve lunch and then after the whole day when we would return to our hotel around 8pm the locals would stare at me – as if I was a ghost pushing a sleeping baby in the pram so early at 8pm! I would look at the local parks which were now getting crowded slowly with skids screaming happily and playing football. And I would watch them from the window of our hotel room. At 11 pm the kids are still playing football. Slowly around mid-night they would start packing up. What a life for the kids, I mean!
We prepared ourselves accordingly on the next day. We stuffed ourselves with cereal bars bought from the local supermarkets during our lunchtime so that we could just eat and eat during the Spanish Lunchtime! Again stuff ourselves with cereal bars during our dinner-time and again eat and eat to our heart’s content during the Spanish dinner-time! And then try walking back to our hotel after mid-night amidst the shops and restaurants trying to pack up for that day and that night. Conscious eaters, aren’t we?
One lesson learnt – the restaurants around the La Catedral de Valencia doesn’t follow the local rule – they adhere to the tourists. They serve lunch and dinner whenever the tourists want!
We walked through each road and place thrice – once during the day when nobody was around (during the Siesta time), then again during the evening (8pm!) when the roads were bustling and finally after mid-night when the shutters were down and everybody was packing up! And I took lots of pictures when we were walking through the empty streets – the urban dilemma of modern architecture vs traditional architecture, the narrow alleys vs newly-constructed broad roads, the run-down houses vs swanky apartments, the rich vs poor – all these seemed familiar. Very much like Kolkata, the city where I come from originally.
Some pictures from those little walks…
Found the above house so unusual – torn out soft-toys hanging from the balcony. I was curious but it seemed eerie as well. But couldn’t see anyone I could ask for some explanation – it was Siesta time and Valencia was under a spell from Sleeping Beauty’s witch!
Finally, Spanish Food & Paella
Either I can write on Food or Travel. The last few posts I’ve concentrated on Food, hence this post focuses on Travel. In any-case, I have already written the World’s shortest essay on Paella in the beginning and am not venturing further into food apart from another food myth of mine that got busted – Tapas is not actually a type of food but the way of making it. And it comes free in most restaurants in Spain, specially in Granada, Andalusia from where Tapas originates! Or Barcelona! Tapas comes from the word – tapa which means a small snack. Tapas can form an entire subject of study with the following topics – Tapas Tours in Spain; Where You Can Get Free Tapas in Spain, Free Tapas in Spain; Tips on How to Get Good Free Tapas etc. The serving of tapas has been designed to encourage conversation as people otherwise tend to focus only on the big meal that is set before them. Also, in some countries it is customary for diners to stand and move about while eating tapas.
Well then, Tapas is probably not for us. We talk till we order the food. And when the food comes (big meal or small meal that is, whether it is Tapas or it is Biriyani) we just start eating. No food can ever encourage conversation amongst us! Or make us move around!
The You will find more images of our Valencia journey – some blurry as well!
The following is a renewed check-list so that we can come back to Valencia one more time just to tick off the following list:
1) Didn’t eat a typical Tortilla de patatas(potato omelet) or buy very typical pots and pans from the local markets to make it at home in-case we came across an
2) Same for Spanish Omelette – missed it as well (the first day we had all our meals at McDonalds, remember?)
3) Attend Las fallas (15th to 19th March) – the festival that celebrates the tradition of different communities that are trademark of Valencia. There are huge bonfires, fireworks over the river each night and flower offering to the Virgin.
And another thing that happens during this time is Bull Fighting – a sport for which I might not be strong enough to watch. Bull Fighting also happens during the July Festival though there is very little Bull fighting tradition in Valencia. But might not want to miss out altogether if it’s happening!
4) Tomatina festival – We have to experience this once for sure. Check out this video –
Well, in case we lose the above list, we can always come back for the crispy blue skies, to smell the aroma of cooking drifting through the windows, to see the children playing out in the open parks till mid-night, eat every type of Paella that is made in Valenica and finally to eat more tapas but this time at places where they serve them for free!
And by the way, if you Google search paella valenciana in the hope that you’ll get an authentic paella recipe – you’ll be connected to a catering service in San Diego, CA (http://www.paellavalenciana.com/). My friends staying in CA can order some Paella from there. And the rest of us have to Google re-search!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
You may like to read my other articles on Europe
Relates articles over the web –
La Catedral de Valencia
The Da Vinci Code
Tapas, More on Tapas
Spanish Cuisine, Spanish Food Recipes
Paella, More on Paella