City of Arts and Sciences futuristic architecture
is stunningly beautiful
Valencia, Spain is Burning Hot
Story and photos by John Blanchette
like an orange above Valencia, the sun peeled the darkness from night,
as my Iberia flight from JFK descended on the first day of summer into
third largest city.
Situated halfway between Madrid
on the central plateau and second city Barcelona on the northeast corner,
the Valencia region forms a crescent mouth that bites into the west
coast of the Mediterranean,
gateway to one of the countrys great gastronomic areas.
Young creative chefs and Michelin starred restaurants
are in abundance. This is also the home of paella, Spains national
dish, horchata beverage, turrones candies, and of course, Valencia oranges.
Throughout the week of my stay I dined at a variety
of restaurants and discovered a lesser-known wine area growing some
non-traditional red and white grapes and creating unusual blends. This
is a place of experimentation and excitement for the Spanish food and
The Central Market of Valencia (Mercado Central) is
one of the oldest food markets in Europe and everything is sold here:
bread, cheese, jamon (ham), wine, fruits, vegetables, and even
a shop devoted to saffron (indispensable in a good paella).
The city boasts some of Spains finest modern architecture
as well, blended into a mix of stately government buildings and a charming
old town. Unfortunately modern urban sprawl composed of brick and concrete
high-rise flats blight the edge of town, an all too familiar sight throughout
Running through the center of the city is a dry riverbed.
Several years ago the water was diverted into a concrete canal to avoid
the annual flooding along its banks. It is now Turia Gardens, a walking
park full of trees, flowers, pathways, restaurants, athletic fields
and the magnificently modern City of Arts and Sciences created by Spanish
architect Santiago Calatrava.
This striking span of buildings stretches over a mile
and includes the city aquarium, new convention center, opera house and
art and science museums. His remarkably unique architectural achievements
draw tourists from around the world.
Valencia is a major port city and harbors several Mediterranean
cruise lines. The mild, year round climate attracts tourists to the
stunning coast south of the city where the white sandy beaches roll
into bays and sweeping mountains come into view along high arid plains.
About 10 miles south of Valencia, La Albufera is an
inland lagoon and source for most of the bomba rice used
in making traditional paella. The dish was created here in the town
of Alfafar. Sitting on the edge of the expansive rice fields is La Matandeta
restaurant, where Gwyneth Paltrow and Mario Batali were served a seafood
version in their PBS series on Spain.
The areas traditional paella is made in a giant
flat pan, cooked over wood and composed of chicken, rabbit, duck, snails,
broth, tomatoes, onions, salt and rosemary. The saffron which flavors
the dish is crushed before sautéing, never used whole. The bomba
rice is added last and the paella is complete when the juice has been
absorbed. Proper paella is always dry and almost always cooked by men.
Other area specialties are olives, almonds, pomegranates
and of course, citrus. My favorite discovery was the Valencia tomato,
an unattractive pink, yellow and green-stripped fruit that is spectacularly
good. Sweet, deep in flavor and best served chopped on thin-sliced toasted
bread rubbed with garlic, drizzled with olive oil and dusted with sea
salt. Valencia oranges are also good, but you expect that from a fruit
named for a region.
My favorite red and white wines from the area are the
lush Monastrell and the crisp and fruity Verdejo. Some excellent Bodegas
in the southern Valencia region include Felipe Gutierrez in Parcent,
with daughter Violeta now taking over the wine making duties; Pepe Mendoza
in Alfas del Pi; and Sierra Salinas in Alicante, which received a score
of 95 from Robert Parker for their 2004 red blend.
West of Valencia, Requena is a lovely medieval town
perched on a hill dominated by its Gothic church. My favorite hotel
on this trip, Dona Anita, lies across in the towns open plaza,
where I shared dinner al fresco with other guests one warm evening and
we were joined at the table by a neighbor and local wine maker who shared
his Macabeo white.
Dominio de la Vega is located in an historic wine cellar
in Requena and the Museo del Vino in nearby Utiel offers an interesting
introduction to the history of the wine industry in the Valencia region,
with photos, old artifacts and wine available.
Located in a beautiful wine valley that runs through
the hills of San Antonio de Requena, Chozas Carrascal winery offers
tours and tastings at the facility.
Leaving Requena, I arrived in the southern Valencia
coastal city of Alicante, (330,000) the day they celebrate the Fiesta
de Sant Joan. The revelers welcome the summer with a sort of 4th
of July all night long fireworks display, featuring the burning of giant,
whimsical, brightly colored sculptures that they work on all year.
Scheduled for a hot time tonight, these beautiful
sculptures will be torched after a year of preparation
These go up in bonfires around the city over the evening
amid firecrackers and fireworks. Its a busy night for the fire
department, hosing down the embers, nearby buildings and soaking the
pyromaniacs who welcome the water with chants of agua, agua.
This was also the night that the U.S. soccer team defeated
Spain in the Confederation Cup. I felt a little like Joan of Arc amid
all these fires and upset fanatical soccer fans, so I kept a low profile
and pretended, eh, to be Canadian.
One of my best dining experiences was in the local tapas
restaurant La Taberna Gourmet. Most items were 1.5 Euros and cheaper
when ordered for the table. All were delicious, including the best rice
dish on my trip. I ordered a second helping of this deeply flavorful,
saffron infused tapas, washed down with my favorite Spanish beer, crisp
and hoppy Cruz Campo. This is a popular hangout for celebrities as well.
Francis Ford Coppola and Gerard Depardieu have made multiple visits.
Also in Alicante is de Pura Cepa delicatessen where
owner Mariano Tortosa poured me Spanish superstar chef Ferran Adrias
signature beer Estrella. Its Five Euros per bottle. Ill
stick with Cruz Campo.
Elche (216,000), just southwest of Alicante, is famous
for its palm forest of over 200,000 trees, originally planted by the
moors and forming an oasis within the city. The place is magical and
feels like youre in a Pre-Raphaelite painting.
Michelin-starred chef Jose Miguel Ruiz is the creative
force behind La Seu in the seaside town of Denia about 45 miles south
of Valencia. I had a three-hour, 12-course meal here that was an amazing
display of talent.
Tapas and conversation ease the heat of midday
After all of this indulgence it was time to check into
the hotel at the Sha Wellness Clinic, a beautiful modern facility in
Sierra Helada del Albir, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea by the picturesque
village of Altea.
View of the Mediterranean sea and the town of Altea
The clinic offers spa treatments, weight loss programs,
and healing and well being regimens using eastern and western techniques.
The restaurant is macrobiotic. I must say it was a nice respite from
the overeating I had indulged in most of my trip. But I will remember
the other restaurants more.
If You Go
Barceló Valencia is a modern hotel with views
of the opera house and the City of Arts and Sciences across the street.
Michelin-starred chef Alejandro Toro of his eponymous
restaurant in Valencia is a rising star in the culinary world.
For a traditional tapas menu Casa Montana in the old
city is full of character and customers and its huge wine list is presented
in book form. A favorite stop for Mario Batali, Gwyneth Paltrow and
crew on their travel series about Spain.
The modern Restaurante Vertical features a spacious
and elegant dining room inside the Aqua 4 hotel.
La Horchata Valenciana serves the refreshing local drink,
made of crushed tiger nuts (chufa, which looks like dehydrated
garbanzo beans). Locals believe it has miraculous curing effects.
Carnicerias abound in ham loving Valencia and hind legs
mounted on special slicing racks are common throughout the city. Look
for the black-footed pigs fed on acorns.
And for dessert, the local almond, honey and wafer confection
turrones is best at Turrones Ramos, founded in 1890.
In Alicante I stayed at the restored Hospes Amerigo,
a quiet hotel off a gated entrance that kept the arsonists and mad bombers
away from me on the night of Sant Joan. That evening I had dined at
Restaurante LEreta perched on the craggy hill overlooking the
city, where we had a full view of all the pyrotechnics, smoke and fury
taking place down below. The Valencia region, it was a burning hot,
For information contact the Spanish Tourist Office at
(323) 658-7188 or www.comunitatvalenciana.com.
of Madrid; Madrid
and the Art of Armor; Northern