Cultural Valencia, Spain

Rupert Parker is impressed with the architecture, museums and art of this historic Spanish city

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Valencia is an easy hop from London, an ideal weekend destination and if you’re interested in local food then Valencia fits the bill – it grows rice and vegetables, gets fish and eels from its lakes and has an abundance of seafood. Of course, it’s also the birthplace of Paella, traditionally a poor person’s dish containing only rice, chicken, rabbit, green beans and butter beans.

The river used to run through the city centre until they diverted it back in the 60’s, after serious flooding. The dry riverbed was planted with trees and turned into a huge recreation area and today it’s a green artery dividing the north and south. Valencia must be the only city in the world where this has happened and it’s a tremendous idea.

At the far end is a cluster of impressive modern structures designed by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava known as the City of Arts and Sciences. Fortunately they were all finished before the recession hit and I like the huge silo of the Museum of Sciences, particularly when it’s lit up at night. There’s also an Opera House, an IMAX Cinema and Oceanografic, the biggest aquarium in Europe. For an overview take a two hour guided ride with Valencia Bikes and enjoy the city’s new cycle lanes.

The best way of seeing the old town is on foot. The Cathedral claims to have the top part of the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper, and the Vatican agrees. You can take a Holy Grail tour which starts with a visit to the San Juan del Hospital church, the oldest in Valencia, before continuing to the Saint Nicolas church. This was originally a mosque but the present Gothic structure dates from the 15th century. Its stunning 18th century Baroque frescoes have recently been restored, and you can see why it’s known as the “Sistine Chapel of Valencia”.

The newly opened Silk Museum, in the 15th century Higher Art College of Silk, details the history of silk manufacture in the city. They’re still weaving silk fabric here on traditional looms, but there are also traditional Fallera costumes on display. Nearby, the Lonja de la Seda, the old Silk Exchange building, is a remarkable example of Gothic civil architecture, and has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. On the steps outside, every Saturday morning from 11 am, groups in traditional costumes perform regional dances, accompanied by traditional Valencian instruments.

After two years of restoration, the privately financed cultural centre Bombas Gens is finally open. Originally an Art Deco engineering factory, they’ve preserved the underground shelter where workers gathered during bomb attacks in the Spanish civil war. More importantly, it’s a space for displaying thematic works from the foundation’s Per Amor a l’Art collection, and there’s a temporary exhibition by photographers Bleda y Rosa entitled “A Geography of Time”.

Valencia is also famous for its street art and it’s worth taking a guided tour so you can distinguish the graffiti from the real thing. One of the most famous artists, Vinz Feel Free, has teamed up with photographer Txema Rodríguez, for an exhibition at the Centre del Carme, a converted medieval convent. Their exhibition “Joc”’ is composed of more than 100 huge photo montages on the theme of Pilota, the street handball game popular throughout the Valencia region. Vinz has painted bird heads on black and white photographs of naked players, depicting their passion for a sport that is played neither for money nor for fame.

Every July, Valencia holds its traditional Gran Fira de València, the Great Valencia Fair, with a month of cultural activities. I get to attend an outdoor concert with violinist Ara Malikian mixing classical and rock music to a sold out crowd. Later there’s a spectacular fireworks display by the beach. Unfortunately, I’ve missed the Fallas Fiesta in March, when enormous cardboard, wood, cork, plaster and papier-maché figures all over the city are filled with fireworks and set on fire. That sounds like my idea of fun and a good enough reason to return.

Valencia Tourism has information about the city.

The Valencia Tourist Card offers free public transport and entry to museums and discounts on tours, restaurants etc.

Hotel Sercotel Sorolla Palace makes a comfortable base.

Goya Gallery Restaurant serves local dishes.
Habitual by Ricard Camarena offers fine dining.
Marina Beach Club, by the sea, is good for fish.
Orio serves Basque specialities.
La Cigrona is good for traditional Paella.