I visited Valencia, Spain's third city, to learn Spanish, the world's third most spoken language. I discovered a place with sun, sea, history, food and nightlife and am looking for an excuse to return
Carmen, my Spanish teacher, had all the qualities of a flamenco dancer - perfect rhythm, she knew just when to change the pace and she was infectiously passionate. She was just what I needed as I must admit I wasn’t ready for a Monday morning and twenty hours of Spanish in the week ahead. Arriving in Valencia the day before had given me a taste of the city, but Carmen grabbed my attention right from her first words of “Buenos dias”.
The Babylon Spanish school, Babylon Idiomas (Plaza de la Reina, www.babylon-idiomas.com), is situated in the middle of the city, surrounded by cafés and bodegas. The main route from my student apartment (arranged through Babylon) to the school was along Calle Quart, which runs like an artery from the western edges of El Carmen (the Old Town) to Plaza de la Virgin in the heart of the city. I first ambled along Calles Quart on the Sunday, after climbing the 150 stoned steps of the towered gateway, Torres de Quart. I was greeted by a flapping Spanish flag and a view of red tiled rooftops, moorish domes and the street below. As I headed towards Plaza de la Virgin, a nearby building distracted me and invited me through its wide open medieval doors. La Llotja Mercarders is a former 15th century silk and commodities exchange. Inside its huge atrium, stone maypole pillars sprout into a palm tree style ceiling. Across the road there is also another distraction - the Mercardo Central (metro: Colon). The market is housed in an Art Deco arching steel structure, which celebrates light and food.
Plaza de la Virgin is dominated by a cathedral that is a symbol of Valencia’s rich history as it is an assortment of architectural styles. Inside there is a chalice, which some claim to be the Holy Grail. Next door there is a pink basilica, with a green vaulted door which hides the Virgin de los Desamparados.
Although I was only in Valencia for a week it didn’t take me long to slip into a routine: Spanish in the morning, take a siesta, before seeking out the city’s treasures. The highlights included the Museo de la Historia de Valencia (Paseo de la Pechina 15), which is a must if you want to learn about Valencia from its origins to today and the futuristic domes of the Ciudad las Artes y las Ciencas (Calle de la Rambla de El Saler 7). It consists of an auditorium and three museums: the Oceanografic aquarium; Museo de las Principe Felipe – an interactive science museum and the beetle shaped Hemisferic, which encases an IMAX cinema and planetarium.
After my second day of class I found myself heading to La Albufera with Felix and Tom (two classmates) and two new companions, Nils and Maarten. Maarten was staying at the Indigo Youth Hostel, which he recommended as a clean, cheap and easy going place to stay.
Albufera is a freshwater lagoon, some fifteen kilometres south of Valencia. There are twice daily `Bus Turisticas´ that leave from Plaza de la Reina for the lake. The other option to get there is of course to drive. Lucky for us Nils had a car and he drove us speedily along a road that ran through a narrow strip of paddy fields, between the lake and the Mediterranean. We were in Bomba region, home of the special rice that is essential for Valencian paella and we arrived in the perfect place to sample the dish. The village of El Palmar is on the north banks of the lake and is made up of some 30 paella restaurants! L´Andana (Plaza Sequiota, 7. El Palmar. Tel 96 162 0019) had been recommended to us and we ordered two large pans of seafood and chicken paella and, of course, a beer or two. It was a bit pricey at €25 a head but "delicioso!" After lunch we took a boat tour of the lake for €6 a person.
I got my first proper taste of the city’s night life at the school’s weekly ‘Happy Miercoles’ (Wednesday) night. We were an international crowd giving us good opportunity to converse in Spanish. Silvia guided us to our first watering hole and we sat outside a bar in El Carman. Later, Felix, Mike from New York and I wandered back up the subtly lit but buoyant Calles Quart and past a variety of night time venues; my favourite of which were the smoky bodegas.
We found a table outside Café San Jaume and decided to cure our ills by drinking the local tipple – Agua de Valencia. This cocktail of orange juice, cava, vodka and any other spirit that comes to hand is meant to have medicinal qualities and it kept Felix and Mike out until sunrise! By the end of the week nocturnal habits also devoured me and on Friday night I followed my classmates to a crowded beach party or ‘Botellon’ (large bottle!) as the locals call it before hitting the city’s famous roof top night club Las Animas (Marqués del Turia 22/ Pizarro 31).
My flight on Sunday wasn't until the evening and so I had time for a final stroll down Calles Quart and went to see the Virgin’s annual pilgrimage to the cathedral. The street was a stream of crimson as religious embroideries hung from balconies. The Virgin wasn’t due to make an appearance for a couple of hours but it didn’t stop me from seeing the sacred lady as the basilica’s doors were now wide open.
Valencia had been the perfect place to immerse oneself in the native language as Spain’s third city is yet to be really discovered by the British. It’s just a pity that on that final afternoon as I ate one last paella my eager waiter couldn’t understand a word I was saying! Oh well, I had a good excuse to return. And that would be easy as both Ryanair and Easy Jet fly daily to the city.