Spain’s third city, Valencia has plenty of hidden treasures to explore by day, and a nightlife that lasts till dawn the day after
I stared in awe at the object in my hand. This was surely it – the Holy Grail we were told could be found in Valencia by the dedicated few. It was a rich, almost golden colour and the sunlight seemed to shine on it more than elsewhere. But it was when I took a sip of the amber nectar bubbling inside the glass that the real magic happened…
OK, so a pint of cool lager, or cerveza, is not quite the Holy Grail – but it certainly feels like it after hours tramping the cobbles in the searing heat. It was the first day of our pilgrimage to discover Valencia’s buzzing, lively heart and we had stopped for sustenance in true Spanish style – ordering drinks and tapas in the charming taverna, Bar Pilar.
The real thing – the chalice used at the last supper, as verified by Pope John Paul II – was around the corner, housed in a chapel at the city’s beautiful cathedral. This gothic building is a good first stop for visitors. Obviously, you can gaze upon an object people have died for, fought wars over and travelled thousands of miles to discover. But if that is not enough you can admire the cathedral’s ornate ceilings, sit in on a mass or even crash a wedding. In Valencia, they are virtually public events and passers-by are encouraged to pop in for a peek.
The cathedral sits at one end of Plaza la Reina, one of the city’s main squares, where bars line up around a central grassy courtyard. From here you can jump on a tour bus to get an overview of the city – or hire a bike for around £1.40 an hour and pedal your way through the charming streets at your own pace.
Take a turn through the lush gardens of Rio Turia, a riverbed until a flood in 1957 prompted the government to divert the water’s course. Whether you choose to explore on wheel or by foot, follow the gardens, under bridges and along ancient walls, up to the new City of Arts and Sciences. If a Bond villain were an architect, this is the sort of thing he might design – a sprawling, space-age village which, thanks to the water features and a bit of greenery, manages to look at ease with Valencia’s slightly rustic feel. It houses the city’s aquarium, where you can watch the fantastic dolphin show, beer in hand. There’s also a science museum and an IMAX cinema, housed appropriately in a building shaped like an eye. For around £20 you can see everything – but don’t bother paying the £5 extra to see the pitiful Titanic exhibition. It consists of photographs of photographs and a tiny replica ship – definitely no treasures.
The real gem of Valencia is the nightlife. The redevelopment of the marina, in preparation for the America’s Cup, has given the once slightly drab city a much-needed facelift. In fact, before travelling out here, we read one review that claimed it was ‘the best nightlife in Spain, therefore Europe, therefore the world’.
A short tram ride from our hotel – the rustic Ad Hoc Monumental, situated in the Old Town – took us to the harbour, where beautiful people sup rum cocktails and inhale the warm, salty breeze. After sampling just a few of the bars along the palm tree-lined seafront, we were buoyed up for a big night. One of Valencia’s hippest hangouts is the rooftop terrace bar Las Animas. The dance floor was crammed with sweaty, wriggling bodies as strains of Shakira pumped from the speakers. It could have been any nightclub in the Med – cheesy Euro-pop mixed up with booty-shaking Spanish beats, huge goldfish bowls of lethally tasty cocktails and more leery lads than you could shake your maracas at. But that lovely breeze and the stunning views over the marina – plus the fact that it proudly does not close 'until brunch' – make this place pretty special.
As we spun across the dance floor, around palm trees and under the woven straw umbrellas, it was easy to see why Valencia is now being touted as a rival to party cities Barcelona, Madrid and even Ibiza.
At 6am we dragged ourselves into a cab and headed back to our hotel for a few hours sleep – before doing it all again the next day. Somehow – even when you have sunk gallons of cerveza and industrial-strength rum cocktails the night before – hangovers do not seem to last long in the sunshine. In extreme cases, another cool beer and a selection of tapas should sort you out pronto. By far the best way to sort out your headache, though, is to head to the beach, which is exactly what we did.
Fringed with palm trees and lined with lovely bars and restaurants serving perfect paella, it is a dead ringer for Miami Beach – but without the poseurs. Fine golden sand stretches out for miles and, even though it is always busy, Valencia Beach is never crowded. It was easy to find a spare umbrella and a couple of sun-loungers. Stretching out, pushing my toes into the warm sand and watching the world go by I knew I’d found my holiday grail.