Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Weekend Getaway of Choice: Valencia

Hi everyone! I know I haven't been writing much, but I promise to get back in the habit soon. Although I have been here for about a month, I feel as if I am just now getting settled. The first week I was off to Oktoberfest, then the second weekend I was celebrating my friend's birthday all weekend with kayaking and hiking (a blog to come on all that fun when I get the photos from her) and then this last weekend I went to Valencia, Spain! It's nice to stay busy, but with my Spanish classes every morning at 9:15-11:15 in the morning, I have been just coming home and sleeping!

So this last weekend was a 3-day weekend, which automatically for me means, I need to go somewhere far enough away that I couldn't manage to do it on a regular weekend. Esther, my friend from California that lives here, and I decided that a 9-hour bus ride to Valencia was a pretty long distance and booked the tickets and the hostel two days before we left, very Spanish non-planning style.

Leaving Saturday morning, we managed to sleep most of the way and arrived at 6:00pm and somehow managed to find out way to our hostel, which was in an area nicknamed 'Little New York' because of the diverse residents. As we put our stuff down on the bed, the man who ran the hostel informed us that the day before had been Day of Valencia and that there was going to be a play performed in the plaza and we could watch it all from our window! How lucky! We still had some time to kill before the performance started, so with our hours of sleep we energetically headed out to explore the center of town!

Being only five minutes away from the center of Spain's third largest city, we were happy to be close enough but far enough away to all the hustle and bustle. Wandering past the bull ring, we made our way to the main cathedral in town, which was what I wanted to see most in the city. Built in 1292 on the site of an old mosque and even older site of the Roman Temple of Diana (hey mom! its like you were there!!!), this cathedral has a heavily gothic design but a stunning baroque entrance. We stepped into the church and immediatley headed for the Torre del Micalet (Tower of Micalet) - the 207-step belltower that leads you to the best view of the city! It is said that the French poet, Victor Hugo, counted 300 other belltowers from this vantage point. Seeing as it was sunset, I didn't manage to count that many, and instead basked in the glow of the sun falling behind the towers I did count. On our way down, the bells rang 8 times and being in the 14th century tower while the bells were clanging through the narrow tower was a surreal feeling that kind of transported me to that time, realizing that hundreds of years ago, someone else could have experienced the same exact thing I was now. We moseyed around the main area of the church for a bit, gaping at the exquisitely blue ceiling and the hand of Saint Vincent, but most exciting was when we excited the church and found left-over confetti from the multiple weddings that had happened that day and I threw it in the air and had my own little celebration!

After walking through about 5 wedding photo sessions, we made our way back to the center and stopped at an outdoor terrace to try the 'agua de Valencia' - the famous drink from this area. Made with basically champagne and orange juice, it just kind of a resembled a large mimosa to me, but I guess since it's a different country they can call it something different! Turns out that the drink actually has Basque roots, although it is on the complete opposite side of the country! A long time ago, Basque men would always order the 'Agua de Bilbao' (water of Bilbao) which meant they wanted champagne. The bartender got annoyed and said they should try something else and the Basque men said that if he made something exciting, they would try it, and then he invented the Agua de Valencia - by adding orange juice - very creative ha.

After our drink we headed back to our hostel to watch the play from our window. We were looking forward to it and were kind of disappointed to find out that the whole thing was in Valencian, the local dialect, so we couldn't understand it! We watched it however, and before it started, about 50 girls in traditional Spanish dress were announced. We couldn't figure out exactly WHY they were so special, but we decided that it must have been something like the main people of Valencian society or even better, the competitors of the Ms. Valencia 2009 competition haha. From Arabs trading in the street and belly dancing to kings dining in castles, we got to see part of the history of the city we were visiting and even got to cap the play off with a fireworks show. Good thing we weren't so tired we wanted to sleep!

Once the crowd broke up, we were able to finally get some quiet and fell fast asleep until the next morning when the bright sun burst through our huge window and woke us up! Seeing as it was raining in San Sebastian, we were happy to be awoken in such a manner and happily got up early to take on the city. We started the day off with the required Starbucks and then headed off to an outdoor flea market, right next to the city's regular food market downtown. From gorgeous wooden fans with intricate designs on them and hand-made jewelry to old Spanish coins and stamps, we were just part of the massive crowd that flowed between booths. My favorite part of the entire market was when I was buying a ring (no suprise) and was asking the lady about the price and then was talking to my friend and the seller remarked on how good my English was. I kind of chuckled and said, 'Well, thank you, I would hope it is good because I am Americana!' to which she replied 'I don't beleive it! Your Spanish didn't sound like a forgeiner at all!'. I didn't know if she was serious or just trying to be a nice to a customer to get a better sale, but it gave me a laugh. At the main road we crossed and entered the historic Lonja de Seda (Silk Exchange) that was built in the 1480s and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I've seen my fair share of Gothic buildings, but this was my first time seeing gargoyles, so I was pretty estatic!

After getting lost we fell upon a small plaza with a building that had snippets of famous Spanish works of art painted next to the real windows of the building. If you look closely at this picture, you will see that the 'windows' to the far right aren't really windows at all, but merely paintings made to look like them! I immediatley recognized one of the works as a Diego Velasquez painting (it's the one on the top right) I had seen in Madrid and was happy to be able to have some Spanish art knowlege seem useful although my friend Esther had no idea what I was referring to!

From this lost location we took a street that ended at an old watch tower and climbed to the top to catch a view of the area in hopes of figuring out where we were! It was a successful 50 stairs and when we came down we headed towards the 'river'. I put that in quotations because the 'river' is not really a river at all, but that is what it is referred to as. Valencia used to have a river running throug it, but after a vicious flood, the residents diverted the river through a different part of town, dried up the Turia River bed and filled it instead with parks, gardens and museums. We strolled through the 'river', dodging rollerbladers, listening to the bubblibg fountains in the gorgeous Turia gardens, and admiring the multiple sculpture peices scattered between the bridges. With all of the flowers, art pieces, musicians and fountains, my actual favorite part of the river bed was the playground. We accidentally walked into a gated play area with hundreds of kids playing on a very odd peice of play equipment. From far away we couldn't tell what it was, but as we walked around it, we realized it was a huge playground in the form of Jesus. Hahaha! You could slide down Jesus' hair or climb up the steps in his sandals. I couldn't help but love it and smile and think that only a super Catholic country would erect a Jesus playground! After 45 minutes of walking, we ended at the City of Sciences and Arts where Valencia houses its famous aquarium (the largest in Europe), a laserium (I dont even know what that means), a science museum and a IMAX/planetarium. The architecture of these buildings is very fluid and constrasts drastically with the old-feel of the city.

After about 5 miles of walking we were pooped and slowly dragged ourselves back to the hostel, where we immediatley passed out for an hour. We woke up on a mission and found a local restaurant for dinner and some local bars for the night. We did manage to sneak into an Irish pub where I sneaked a peak at some American Football, but spent most of the night in Spanish bars. Oddly enough, we were sipping our drinks when we were approached by a man who asked if we had been drinking earlier. Kind of put off, we replied 'no' and he said, 'yes you were, you ordered water and sprite at my bar earlier today!'. What are the odds we would see our waiter from 5 hours earlier at the same bar in downtown?? Although its the 3rd largest Spanish city, it seemed pretty small to us.

Monday brought more sun which was perfect for our plans at the beach. It was about 90º and we spent the afternoon napping on the beach, gazing at the Mediterranean Sea, strolling the boardwalk and eating paella. This rice dish is very famous and originated in Valencia, so there was no way we could come and not eat any! The Muslims were the first to make the paella, as they used rice to make casseroles when they occupied the area in the 14th century. Although they were driven out, the custom of eating rice stayed and over time developed into the national dish of Spain! With rice, meat or seafood, and spices, the inexpensive dish is served in a huge round steel pan (thing bigger and shallower than a Wok). We ordered the Paella Valenciana, which came with chunks of chicken and rabbit. Yes, I said it! I ate RABBIT! Tasty as it was, I don't know if I would ever crave a little bunny again.

Full and warm we headed back to the downtown area to kill the last hours of the day before we caught our night bus home. We sipped wine in the area we decided was our favorite location in the city - the Plaza of the Virgin. From here, you could see the cathedral we visited, the belltower we climbed, a huge fountain and listen to local musicians playing in the open air. With a Valencian wine in hand, it was a great way to end the 3-day weekend.

As I am writing this, it is now about 48º and I am wearing sweats and it's only October. Reminiscing about our cloudless weekend made me feel warm inside and I hope it put a smile on your face!


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