To an outsider that might not know much about Spain and it’s cities, Spain consists simply of the rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona. Most, if not all, people will know of the existence of these, the largest two, Spanish cities.
Having traveled a fair portion of Spain to this point, there turned out to be many other large centres of activity. Outside of Madrid, Sevilla was easily the largest of these visited and so it was a shock to learn, upon research, that it was in fact the fourth largest city in Spain and not, in fact, as assumed, the third largest.
It turns out that the Mediterranean city of Valencia had been completely overlooked.
The name was not unfamiliar and it didn’t come as too much of a surprise when it was found to be the third largest Spanish city but there was really no idea of what this city contained. Surely, there were things to be seen as a tourist in such a large city. Although, Madrid proved that there isn’t always a direct correlation between size and touristic appeal.
Immediately, Valencia impresses with it’s well designed, road networks. This was backed up by an equally effective metro system within the city that remains to be one of the few pieces of Spanish technology that worked without fail.
Valencia had a modern feel to it, keeping up with the latest technologies and not afraid to move into the future and develop the various regions for the convenience of it’s people. A key example of this is the redirection of the River Túria, the river that Valencia is built upon. A prime thoroughfare that would certainly increase real-estate values of the area and provide remarkable development opportunities, the river was instead redirected to flow around the south of Valencia after repeated floodings caused the city to take action. Today, the chasms of the former river have been turned into a series of central parklands enjoyed by the people and host a variety of Valencia’s most famous attractions.
Despite it’s effectiveness in moving forward, Valencia still holds a historic tinge to it. Much like other Spanish cities such as Sevilla and Granada, the old town of Valencia retained it’s ancient feel and provides a great insight into the history of the city. It is fascinating to take an hour or two to become lost in this center, which contains a plethora of quaint squares and churches to be inspired by. The cathedral, one of the many churches in this region, conforms to the styles seen in Granada and Málaga and doesn’t ever pose as a challenger to the impressiveness of the cathedral in Salamanca. What is impressive is the combination of the cathedral and it’s surrounding buildings, particularly as seen from the Plaza de la Virgen.
Valencia, keeping with the norm of coastal Spanish towns, hosts marvellous beaches and even more magnificent weather. It was here that probably the hottest temperatures of the entire Spanish trip were experienced, even more than those experienced in Málaga. Valencia is well prepared for this however, with the metro and most public buildings well air-conditioned.
It also proves to be slightly confounding in terms of tourism. Not necessarily for sights to see – Valencia is loaded with them – but in terms of how tourists are received and the ease at which foreigners can communicate and integrate. Despite being one of Spain’s most popular tourist destinations, communication can be difficult around train stations and most stores. Stick to the highly touristic areas such as the old city and the beaches and you will find the opposite, with large amounts of advertising attracting the foreign visitors with English and other languages written.
The beaches may be stunning, but the single best thing about Valencia is by far the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences). This architectural complex was constructed between 1996 and 2005 and situates itself on the drained riverbed of the River Túria. Hosting various artistic and scientific exhibitions, this center contains some of the most innovative architecture the modern era, and is most likely best appreciated by a mathematics lover who can recognise the level of trigonometry and calculus involved in the architecture and design of many of the buildings.
In fact, this struck a chord with me personally as the Hémispheric, the central eye shaped glass paned structure in the center of the complex had graced the cover of the much read calculus textbook that followed me for many of my Engineering University years. It was somewhat surreal to see this building for real after having seen it on the cover of my textbook for so many years and dreaming of perhaps one day being there. While I may consider the Hémispheric to be a gorgeous building well worth visiting, I can’t justify classifying it one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. But to me it probably is, because it holds somewhat of a sentimental value. A personal goal that had taken upwards of seven years to achieve. I admired that building for several hours, almost unable to accept the fact that it had actually come to life.
It was then that I realised that perhaps this it what the fuss over the Eiffel Tower is all about. I hadn’t understood why so many people had swooned over such an unimpressive architectural piece but for me there was not the sentimental value that likely many other people held after seeing it appear in so many classic films and literature. It started to make sense now, and I gained an appreciation of why some people might adore things that I can’t.
The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias contained five or six such buildings that were equally as awe inspiring but the Hémispheric held dear to me. So compelling was it, that I had to return a second day to prove to myself that it was actually real.
Valencia proves to be a very enjoyable city. Despite this, there were a few minor irritants. One such minor irritant is the pedestrian crossings at traffic intersection. As is almost universal, the green man means one can safely cross while the red man means the opposite. But most places leave a buffer between the time the green man changes to the red man, to allow the pedestrian to anticipate a change and, even then, there is another buffer between the time the red man is revealed to the time the traffic is then allowed to proceed.
Not so in Valencia, where the solid green man all of a sudden turns red and a second later the traffic is moving again. Valencia has many main roads, four of five lanes wide, which can mean that traversing an intersection can take up to ten seconds or so, particularly if you are the elderly. This means that it’s quite easy to get stranded halfway across the intersection before the lights for the cars turns green and you become a hindrance to them.
The people within the city of Valencia don’t seem to have too much time to spare to help you out, but they aren’t exactly hostile either. That’s not to say that they make you feel the most comfortable, but they’re just keeping up with the Spanish norm.
The train station there seems to always be overcrowded and it was here that I had one of the most nerve racking experiences of my trip so far. Attempting to buy a train ticket, I inserted my credit card in the automated machine. The card reader didn’t look to be the kind where you insert and then pull out so it was a bit strange when the card wasn’t taken by the machine. I persisted, pushing it further. By now, it had been inserted pretty much to the edge when I realised that something was up. The card reader wasn’t working, and now my card had become stuck, with only the slightest millimetre being exposed. I tried to jimmy it out with two other cards but it was not budging. I signalled over to a security guard and motioned to him about my problem. He motioned to go to the help desk while he waits and guards it. Upon entry in the help desk, there was only one worker there and a line of at least ten people.
It was evident that this was going to take some time to wait before I could explain my problem, and I wasn’t sure of the patience of the security guard. Then, after ten minutes of so waiting nervously, I received a tap on the shoulder, turn around and see the security guard holding my credit card with him. Such a relief.
My patience with Spanish technology was already thin at this point, and this instance only furthered my frustrations and trust issues with the machines around Spain.
But these frustrations were few and far between, particularly compared with other Spanish cities encountered so far and Valencia was one of the more comfortable cities to spend some time in within Spain.
Valencia impresses with it’s sights. They may not be as famous nor scattered around with the same frequency as many, more revered European cities and I guess this is why Valencia is never placed in the same bracket as those, but it is something that should be placed high on the agenda of a Spanish adventure.