If you are visiting Valencia for the first time or you’ve heard about this great city, the first thing that will call your attention is the incredible light that reaches every corner, the great weather lasting all year long, or the friendly nature of its people. All this is true, as is the fact that together with Barcelona, these two cities are the most important on the Spanish Mediterranean coast, and within the last few years, Valencia has grown tremendously.
But perhaps what might surprise you even more is its incredible diversity. Moving from one area of the city to another means being surrounded by completely different urban landscapes; so much so that you might even think you’re in a different city altogether.
A good point to start a sightseeing trip through the city is without a doubt the historic center of town. The Ayuntamiento (Town council) and Correos (Main Post Office) buildings stand out as some impressive buildings worth visiting. If you head towards the Plaza de la Reina, this large square introduces you into an older part of town with turn-of-the-century buildings and just beyond that, the historic Old Quarter and the Barrio del Carmen neighborhood. Some of the buildings in this area date from the period of Arab domination of the city and others incorporate the old walls into their structure. The palaces in this part have been restored and turned into luxury restaurants or official government buildings. A walk along the narrow, cobble-stoned streets will give you a flavor for the past, combined with the modernity that the many bars, cafes and clubs of this area have to offer.
The new Town Council was built in this area as was Calatrava bridge. The latter is an example of the innovative architecture found in Valencia. It joins the two shores of the Turia river bed which has now been turned into a fantastic garden and recreational area running through the entire city. This area in fact, is almost like a triangle of modernity between Alameda-Blasco Ibánez-Avenida de Aragón streets where you’ll also find a good part of the university campus in the city. It is also where you’ll find modern glass skyscrapers, some of the best restaurants, pubs and night clubs in the city, together with the best parks and gardens, such as the Jardines del Real o ‘Viveros’, Jardines de Monforte, or the Alameda. It is here in front of the river Turia that you will find the Palau de la Música, with its huge glass dome and main venue in the city for concerts and all sorts of cultural events.
Classicism, harmony, good taste, luxury shops and restaurants, without a doubt, that is what you will find in the Cánovas area and its streets lined with turn-of-the-century buildings. This is the traditional residential area for the Valencian bourgeoisie, and nowadays home to some of the best clubs and high standard, quality restaurants in the city. Bordering on the old quarter, you’ll find Colón street, which has some of the most elegant boutiques and shops in the city, and of course, the Corte Inglés department store.
We cannot end without talking about the most characteristic feature of this city, which gives it colour and life: the Mediterranean, of course. That inseparable part of our culture is very easily reached, and if you get to it by walking along the Avenida del Puerto, your efforts will be rewarded. This last avenue is lined with typical and traditional restaurants, some of them with the honour of having been visited by Hemingway on one of his visits to Valencia. Others more recently opened are a display of modern Valencian design, a city with a reputation for great creators.
The city’s coast consists of three beaches: Las Arenas, la Malvarrosa and Alboraya, in addition to the Cabañal neighbourhood, where the city’s fishermen once lived. If you are fit enough, try to walk along all three in just one morning. If not, just enjoy the landscape and the sea breeze while sipping on a refreshing drink in any of the open air terraces facing the sea.
This is Valencia in very general terms, but if you decide to get to know it on your own, you will discover lots of details, beautiful plazas and charming neighbourhood that will probably have you back here again and again to try to find even more.
History of Valencia
Tracing the historical origins of Valencia will take you back in time to 138 B.C. when the Romans, after the Second Punic War, set foot in this land and founded the city they called “Valentia”. Not much is left from this period, although some archaeological remains have been found in the Plaza de la Almoina. In nearby Sagunto, a historical town just a few kilometres from the city center, you will find, however, fantastic ruins, including a Roman theatre.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, came the barbarians and later, the Visigoths. Both left their mark on the city. Not much is known about the Visigothic period, although, once again in the Plaza de la Almoina, archaeologists have found the remains of a funerary Visigothic chapel. During their reign, there were countless battles and terrible periods of economic strife which, together with an outbreak of the plague, led social havoc. This situation was taken advantage of by the Moors, who occupied the territory peacefully in 709 A.D.
When Islamic culture settled in, Valencia prospered thanks to a booming trade in paper, silk, leather, ceramics, glass and silver-work. The architectural legacy from this period is abundant in Valencia and can still be appreciated today in the remains of the old walls, the Baños del Almirante bath house, Portal de Valldigna street and even the Cathedral and the tower, el Miguelete, which was the minaret of the old mosque.
After Almanzor’s death, the state was divided into various kingdoms, known as “Taifas”. These would soon be conquered by legendary Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, el “Cid Campeador” during the Christian re-conquest of Spain. After “el Cid” died, king James I would be who finally took over the city for the Catholics in 1238 A.D.
Medieval and Renaissance Valencia
Continuing on this quick journey through time, we reach medieval Valencia. In the 15th century, the city experienced an unequal period of prosperity, which, thanks to a rapid development in agricultural and industrial production, expanded its trade around the Mediterranean. During the reign of Alfons the Magnanimous, in fact, Valencia was considered to be one of the richest capitals in Europe, both for the range of its cultural activities as well as its financial power.
Unfortunately, there soon came a period of economic and political turmoil. The financial support provided by Valencian bankers to the Spanish Crown for the discovery of the Americas, created serious economic problems in the city, while the upper-classes lived off their unearned income, not investing in any existing or new industries. The result of all this instability was an uprising by local trade unions and the wars known as the “Guerras de Germanías”.
But the worst was yet to come. Total economic collapse would come when the Moors and Jews were definitively expelled and the ruling nobility were reaffirmed in their position. During the War of Spanish Succession between the Hapsburg and Borbon royal families and their supporters, another conflict erupted in Valencia between peasants (“maulets”) and nobility (“botiflers”). The upper-classes won at the battle of Almansa in 1707, resulting in a period of severe repression and the consolidation of a centralist monarchy which meant a loss of political and cultural autonomy.
The “Ciutat Vella” (Old Quarter, in the local language) is the historic center of the city and still has marvellous examples of buildings dating from the Medieval period, such as part of the walls and the only two remaining gates: the Torres de Quart and Torres de Serranos towers, or the incredible Lonja de Seda (Silk Market). Even the layout of this part of Valencia can be traced in large part to this period (Calle de los Caballeros street, Plaza de Manises, etc.).
The splendour of the Renaissance also left its mark on the city and perhaps the most beautiful example is the monumental Real Colegio del Patriarca seminary, which has one of the most exquisite cloisters from this period.
Blasco Ibáñez’s Valencia
The 1800s did not get off to a good start, with terrible epidemics and the restoration of an absolute monarchy under Ferdinand VII. However by the turn of the century, Valencia experienced another surge in economic well-being thanks to improvements made in agricultural techniques and the export of citric fruits, wine and rice, as well as new means of transport and industries.
An important historical reference from this period is Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, a notable Valencian writer. In his work, he perfectly describes the land, sea and passions of the people who lived in Valencia at this time. Blasco Ibáñez talks of a Valencia full of art and life, welcoming and majestic, with old palaces (Palacio de Benicarló, Palacio de Justicia) and elegant mansions, or the religiousness of the land and the stones of its churches (San Agustín, Santa Catalina); he also highlights the contrast between the hustle and bustle of the Estación del Norte train station or the Central Market, and the open, friendly character of the seafaring inhabitants along the coast.
Luckily, there is still a lot of old Valencia to be found in the city today. Modernity blends in harmoniously with the historical past, combining technological developments to historical ways of life. The latest great project, the City of Arts and Sciences, is perhaps the best reflection of the enterprising nature of Valencians. Valencia is a city that legends are made of; it looks to the future expectantly, but is proud of its past.