BY Dan Allen
September 15 2009 9:00 AM ET
Wrapped about its one-of-a-kind Turia Gardens centerpiece, the warm city of Valencia, Spain’s third largest with about 810,000 inhabitants, brims with still more stunning visuals. Successive waves of Romans, Visigoths, and Moors added to the architecture of what’s now called the Old Town, where two of the medieval city’s original gates still stand watch at the perimeter. Inside, the showstoppers are Plaza de la Virgen (Virgin Square) and its adjacent cathedral, within which resides the literal Holy Grail of Holy Grails: a chalice deemed by the Catholic Church to be the drinking cup from the Last Supper. Nearby, the Plaza Redonda (Round Market) offers a fascinating glimpse into bygone Valencia, with small market stalls selling cloth, lace, and ceramics as they have for centuries.
El Carmen, which sits at the top of the Old Town where the former river used to bend, was one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the ’57 flood and, at least initially, one of the least renovated. Following a few decades of debauchery-laden decline, in recent years El Carmen has seen a powerful resurgence, becoming the city’s hub for artists, hipsters, nightlife, and -- surprise, surprise -- the gays. By both day and night it’s a magical onslaught of energetic sights and sounds, largely free (for now) of the tourist throngs commonly found in Barcelona and Madrid.
Valencia’s sizzling weather during summer means no shortage of Mediterranean beach days, best indulged either at the city’s main strip, Malvarrosa (a quick 10-minute bus or tram ride from the city center), or the clothing-optional Pinedo (a further five-minute bus ride south). But never is Valencia more vibrant than in mid March, during its famed annual Fallas festival. A throwback to an earlier pagan springfest but now officially an homage to St. Joseph (patron saint of carpenters), the party is thrown by several hundred neighborhood groups who spend months creating elaborate and massive wood and papier-mâché sculptures, often with bawdy or satirical themes (George W. Bush was frequently lampooned in years past). The creations go on display throughout the city on March 15, ushering in a lively many-day festival of fireworks, parties, and fallas sculpture (or ninot) viewing that culminates at midnight on the 19th, when fires rage across Valencia as all of the effigies are burned -- save for one, the people’s favorite, which goes on display with previous years’ winners at Museo Fallero (Fallas Museum).
The gracious Valencianos (who speak both Spanish and Valencian, a dialect of Catalan) are proud of their city and its varied delights, both old and new. This is, after all, at once the homeland of paella, the headquarters for Lladró porcelain, and the site of the most recent America’s Cup sailing regatta. As the city steams ahead (the City of Arts and Sciences’ new multifunctional Agora structure is set to open in November), this a place clearly destined -- and ready -- to be one of Europe’s brightest stars for many years to come.