Valencia’s Old City

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Valencia, Spain’s 3rd largest city has been on my radar since starting my MBA. After unexpectedly realizing I had a free weekend in early February, I booked train tickets leaving on a Friday afternoon and returning that Sunday evening. The journey is about 3 hours each way.

As it turns out my friend Said was going to be visiting Valencia to celebrate his sister’s birthday. He is from Valencia and his entire family lives there. I was very excited to get a local’s perspective.

February 7, 2020: The Journey To Valencia

We arrived at Valencia’s Joaquin Sorolla station around 8pm. Said’s parents picked us up and took us to a burger restaurant in the city center. There, we met up with Said’s sister, her husband, and their two children. They only spoke Spanish, but did their best to include me in the conversation. It was clear that there is a lot of love in this family.

With Said on the train

Said’s family walked me to my hostel, located in the middle of the ancient medieval city. The hostel turned out to be a party hostel. At 11:30, everyone was planning to go out. Instead, I went to bed early so I would be rested for sightseeing.

The gates of Valencia’s old city

February 8, 2020 – The Old City (a BIG day)

I woke up around 7:30 and people were still walking in after a night out. I wandered over to a café for breakfast. Then I entered the famed Valencia Market. It seems that every medium-sized town in Spain has a covered market, but Valencia’s was by far the best one. Not only is it way larger than the other markets but the selection is strong- especially the seafood. Interestingly, this market does not have prepared food except for a single bakery.

The massive Mercado de Valencia

It was now about 8:30 AM. Unfortunately, nothing else in the entire city opens until 10AM (classic Spain), so I headed back to the hostel and took a nap.

At 9:45, I walked over towards the Cathedral. I got to take a peek into the stunning Basilica Descarampats. The church was relatively small, but had a beautiful painted rotunda.

Right at 10, I entered the Cathedral. This cathedral was strange- it was a mishmash of architectural styles. The main nave was unmistakably Gothic, but many of the chapels were Romanesque. The high altar was Baroque! Nevertheless, the result is a beautiful church.

Entrance to the Valencia Cathedral

The Cathedral had some unusual relics. Behind the high altar was the severed arm of St. Vincent- preserved in a glass reliquary.

The severed arm of St. Vincent

In a separate chapel, behind a glass barricade, is a 1st century wooden chalice. According to Catholic tradition, this is the Holy Grail that Jesus drank from during the Last Supper. Yes, THE Holy Grail. From Sir Galahad from the Knights of the Round Table to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this cup has been the objective of tales of adventures for centuries. I suppose therefore it seems fitting that I eventually stumble upon the Grail. A few popes have used the Grail in Mass including most recently Pope Benedict XVI.

Selfie with the Holy Grail

Having visited my fair share of churches and studied my European history, I doubt the authenticity of the cup. Nevertheless, the cup is famous.

Finally, the Cathedral has a fascinating museum. In addition to spectacular religious art, the basement contains Roman ruins and Visigoth human skeletons found during recent excavations.

A few blocks away from the Cathedral is the Church of St. Nicholas. This beautifully frescoed church is named for St. Nicolas of Bari…known my millions around the world as Santa Claus. The real St. Nicolas was born in the year 270 in what is now Turkey. He later served as Bishop of the city of Myra. He performed a number of miracles including, most notably, resurrecting three children who were murdered and then pickled in brine with the intention of being sold as pork meat.  He also had a habit of giving gifts in secret, which is the basis of the Western (and now worldwide) tradition of giving gifts during the Christmas season.

Interior of the Church of St. Nicolas of Bari

Unlike almost any other church on earth, the Church of St. Nicolas is closed to the public on Mondays. This is to host a most unusual ritual where faithful walk from their home to the altar in complete silence to ask for a wish.

I had 30 minutes to spare before lunch, so I headed over to the Església de Sant Joan del Mercat because entrance was free with a Church of St. Nicolas ticket. It was advertised as a Baroque church, but when I walked it I saw a half-destroyed church…

St. Joan del Mercat. The best audioguide ever!

While originally disappointed, I then put on the audioguide and was treated to perhaps the best audioguide tours I’ve ever heard (Empuries in the Costa Brava and Barcelona’s Casa Mila also come to mind). The tour was done from the perspective of the church. In other words, the church (voiced by a deep-voiced British man) was leading me on a tour. The church itself was constructed in the Gothic style, but turned Baroque in 1700. The church suffered extreme damage during the Spanish Civil War and has been undergoing a renovation ever since. While slow, the restoration work is top notch. This church, while not a top sight, is worth the visit.

It was now 1pm. Said and his parents picked me up from outside the church and drove me to the beach where we met up with the rest of the family. Just like in Los Angeles, Valencia has a very wide beach and bike path on the sand. We took a quick stroll and then headed to a nearby restaurant for paella.

The real paella

Valencia proudly proclaims itself the home of paella. While most people think of paella as a seafood dish, the “original” paella (called paella valenciana) is made with chicken, rabbit and snails.

It is amazing. And yes, it is that much better in Valencia.

We also got to celebrate Said’s sister’s birthday- a surprise!!

Next, we all went to the Mercado de Colon, a covered market with prepared foods, to try Valencia’s other major culinary contribution: horchata.

Horchata, fartons, and Bryce

Horchata is made from a nut called chufa, which originates in West Africa. The drink spread to Valencia during the Muslim conquest. From Valencia, it spread from Valencia to the New World where, in the absence of chufa, rice is used.

The perfect companion of horchata is the awkwardly named pastry called a farton.

Said and family had a surprise for his sister: an escape room. Since the experience was only in Spanish, I figured I would be of little use and decided to go sightseeing instead.

I walked over to the bullfighting museum- attached to the arena. The museum, while small, gave insight into the sport. I even got to watch a video of a real bullfight. Bullifighting is a contentious issue in Spain. While still popular in many places, there are many who want the tradition to end. In Catalonia, where I live, bullfighting is banned. I will reserve judgement until after I go to a fight (plan is Sevilla in May).

My final stop on this whirlwind day was the National Ceramics Museum. The museum is wayyyy more interesting than the name. After passing through an incredible entrance, I wandered a furnished French palace with incredible decorations…including ceramics. The top floor actually had the main ceramics displays, but the palace rooms are what you come to see.

National Ceramics museum

With that, I got dinner and then topped off the night with Valencia’s signature cocktail: aqua de Valencia. Imagine a mimosa but add in gin and vodka.

In need of an aqua de valencia after a full day of sightseeing

I saw a LOT today!

Click here to read about my second day in the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences. 


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