by Ron Bernthal
As a warm Spanish sun begins to set over the Mediterranean, evening activities get started in Valencia, a sun-splashed metropolis that feels more like a small town than Spain’s third largest city.
Although lagging behind Madrid and Barcelona in population, the crowd that has gathered in front of the reflecting pool and fountains next to the Palau de la Musica (www.palaudevalencia.com) for an outdoor performance from the Municipal Band of Valencia all seem to know each other. I am in the middle of Valencia, a city of almost one million people, yet the ambience is similar to the summer band concerts in Callicoon Center, a rural town of about 500 residents near my home in upstate New York.
When the Banda Municipal de Valencia, organized in 1903, begins to play Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capricho Espanol, the kids stop running between the lawn chairs, adults put down their programs, and the sea birds, which had been squarking in the palm trees, become quiet as music fills the late summer air. “Everyone in Valencia loves music, in any form,” says Ana Cogollos, 25, one of the band’s clarinet players, pronouncing the city name as “Balenthia” in her lovely accented Spanish. “We have a large audience here every week here at the Palau de la Musica, and they have been supporting the town band for many, many years.”
On this same evening, just a fifteen-minute walk from the band concert, an opera is being staged. Opera has been performed in Valencia for decades, but only in the past few years have the opera performances in this city become known world-wide, due to the completion of Valencian-born Santiago Calatrava’s futuristic City of Arts and Sciences (www.cac.es), which includes the spectacular looking, white concrete and glass Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia.
“We are now in our third year of the Festival del Mediterrani (www.lesarts.com), with our festival president Zubin Mehta. He conducts all performances and concerts, and the aim is to invite our local supporters, as well as the overseas fans of opera and symphonic concerts, to hear the quality of our performances in our magnificent facilities,” says Helga Schmidt, general director and artistic director of this stunning five year-old building. “We are now known by the international press as a top quality house, as good as New York’s Metropolitan, LaScala, Milano, or Paris as the very top of the world’s theaters.”
Tonight’s performance of Bizet’s Carmen, directed by Carlos Saura, had Elina Garanca as Carmen, Marcelo Alvarez as Don Jose, and Angel Blue as Micaela. Ms. Blue, is a 26 year old soprano from California who is as beautiful as her name, has studied under Placido Domingo, and had several singing roles for the Los Angeles Opera. “I love working in Valencia during the festival and playing for Zubin Mehta,” she says during a backstage interview at the end of Carmen. “The people here in Valencia really appreciate opera and they always give us a great ovation at the end of the shows. I have been here for seven months and the opera house is wonderful, especially for a relatively new performer like myself, to sing in this environment and be appreciated by a European audience is terrific.”
After the band and opera performances Valencians go out for dinner, and then perhaps stroll through the old city, or along the Mediterranean beach front, where more music, in the form of jazz, blues, or classical guitar, flow into the streets from nearby clubs, dance halls, and local street musicians.
Since Valencia was founded by the Romans in 138 BC, this lovely city on the Mediterranean has been over-shadowed by the political and economic power of Madrid, Spain’s capital, and the cultural and educational influence of Barcelona, the country’s second biggest city which lies about three hours up the coast from Valencia.
Other destinations in Spain have also attracted more visitors, including Seville and Granada, and the tourist beaches of Malaga and the Balearic Islands. But with Valencia hosting the 2007 and 2010 America’s Cup (www.americascup.com) sailing races, and winning for the right to hold an annual European Grand Prix (www.valenciastreetcircuit.com) auto race along city streets near the Port district, Valencia began to catch the eyes of the international sports and travel media. As the City of Arts and Sciences project began to take shape, and the enormous, futuristic-looking Calatrava-designed white concrete and curvy-glass buildings actually became a reality, there was no doubt that Valencia had entered a new phase in its urban development.
The city is now not only attracting sailing and racing fans, but upscale international visitors who want to see if Valencia really has everything — cultural attractions, great cuisine, weather, excellent hotels, and miles of pristine city beaches. Nearly six million passengers passed through Valencia Airport last year, and city hotels are reporting increased occupancy rates. Clearly, visitors are coming, and liking what they are seeing.
Valencia has more than 40 museums, 15 theatres, and 30 city parks and gardens, including Turia Gardens (www.culturia.org), the serpentine-shaped, five-mile park created out of a former river bed, that cuts through the middle of the city in a beautiful swath of green grass and palm trees. There are over 1600 restaurants and cafes in Valencia, over four miles of beautiful city beaches, and more than 300 days of sunshine every year.
First time visitors are discovering numerous neighborhoods to explore, some with churches and plazas dating back to the 12th century. One of these is called el Cabanyal, a former fishermen’s district in the middle ages where local residents began building two and three-story houses here around the turn of the century, using brightly colored ceramic tiles to cover the facades. This was not a rich neighborhood, and residents used whatever was inexpensive at the time, concentrating on shades of blue and green, and often putting mosaic design patterns into the tiles.
Of course, this eclectic neighborhood, only a few blocks from the sea, has been discovered by both European tourists who love its ambience, and local developers, who are eyeing the narrow streets as potential commercial projects. “Improving the district’s economics would be ok, as long as the character of the neighborhood is preserved,” says Alejandro Garcia llinares, who helps run his family’s popular restaurant, Casa Montana (www.valenciavalencia.com/restaurant-guide/tapas-bars/casa-montana-tapas-bar.htm), located in the middle of el Cabanyal.
As a flamenco guitarist played in a corner of the historic bar and restaurant, Mr. Ilinares looked around at the crowd of Valencians drinking wine and eating tapas selections, and spoke quietly, “Valencia is all about having fun, eating well, and enjoying life. We have seen some modern development in the city, which is good, but these historic neighborhoods need to be preserved, the traditions need to be respected, the music and melody of the city must continue.”
Riff Restaurante (Chef Bernd Knöller presents eclectic menu in exclusive, Michelin-star restaurant located in lovely neighborhood. Fresh fish always available on a menu that changes daily and seasonally)
La Pepica (Beachfront restaurant, famous for paellas, popular with locals, has served Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway since opening 100 years ago)
Casa Bodega Montaña (Located in El Cabanyal district, historic and traditional bar and restaurant with fresh fish, innovative tapas selections, and full wine cellar)
nou Racó (Modern restaurant located on a lagoon, near the Mediterranean Sea a short distance outside Valencia. Marine birds and lush foliage outside picture windows, with excellent fish and paella)
Ad Hoc Hotel (Three-star boutique hotel, brick walls, private bath, breakfast room, clean and friendly, free WiFi, on quiet street near historic district and Turia Park)
Barceló Hotel Valencia (Modern, deluxe business hotel during mid-week, leisure hotel with great weekend packages on weekends. Rooftop fitness club and spa, large breakfast room, Cena restaurant, located across the street from City of Arts & Sciences. Request CAS view at check-in.
Norman Foster-designed Palacio de Congresos (Valencia Conference Centre)
Valencian Museum of the Enlightenment & Modernity
Valencia Region Association of Contemporary Art Galleries
Valencia Institute of Modern Art
Valencia Wine Council
Turis Valencia offers brochures, maps, city transport information, and the useful Valencia Tourist Card (www.valenciacard.es), a booklet filled with money-saving coupons and restaurant, Metro, and attractions discount coupons.
Delta Airlines offers seasonal non-stop service from JFK to Valencia.
© Ron Bernthal – No editorial content, portions of articles, or photographs from this site may be used in any print, broadcast, or Web-based format without written permission from the author or Web site developer.