Valencia seems to have a bit of an inferiority complex as it views the more famous Spanish cities around it getting more attention. This makes it a great place to live. Housing is somewhat cheaper and tourism is at the stage where it is appreciated, rather than overrunning the place. With 330 days of sunshine a year (today was not one of them) and a mild winter climate, I can imagine Northern Europeans enjoying a lengthy winter stay here. A Gran Prix race tracks runs through the city and the track includes the area we walked in the port from our ship. When a landlocked Swiss team won the America's Cup, they looked for someplace in Europe to host the next one and Valencia was happy to oblige. Each team entered in the race built huge team training and press buildings around the port. They are still here, but most are looking for a new purpose. Nevertheless these two sports helped to put Valencia on the map.
When the European Union was first formed, those countries with a higher standard of living (mostly Germany) agreed to subsidize their poorer cousins to bring them up to speed. This may seem like a radical idea, but we are used to it. Our state always sends more tax revenues to Washington DC than we get back. We, too, are subsidizing our poorer cousins, but we are more inclined to think of Alabama as part of our country than Germany may feel about Spain. We saw evidence in Ireland of all the good that could come of a sizable infusion of cash properly spent on infrastructure. Here, Valencia, built a magnificent collection of buildings called the City of Arts and Sciences. In 1996 Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava designed the massive cultural complex in the dry river bed of the Turia River, which had been diverted due to massive flooding. If you have been to Ground Zero in NYC, you have seen his work in the soaring new transportation terminal. Our town had plans to build a skyscraper he designed that twisted and turned its way into the sky. The foundation was dug and we ran out of money.
Even here with the deep pockets of the EU, his designs were so ambitious that some of the buildings were not totally finished as he had envisioned them. Some of them are already in need of renovation. His imagination sometimes exceeds his abilities to design practical structures. For example, the magnificent bridge he designed that we drove over to get to the city had a stoplight in the middle. When cars descend from the middle of the bridge, it is so steeply banked that they cannot see the traffic at the bottom and this caused fatal accidents. The light helps to slow things down.
The City of Arts and Sciences contains six buildings: The first one built, L'Hemisferic, was designed to look like a giant human eye. It contains, among other things, a 3D cinema. The Prince Philip Science museum has a collection of ever changing exhibits. Another part of the complex houses L'Umbracle, which is a landscaped walk of plants native to the area and various artistic and thought-provoking sculptures. Then there is L'Oceanogràfic, which is a small version of Sea World, They have a dolphin display and the largest glass water tunnel in Europe to walk through, directly underneath the massive fish tank, with sharks swimming a few feet from your face. El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía is an impressive looking opera house and theater. The last and newest building is L'Àgora, which is a covered exhibition space and sports arena with the shape of an ellipse. Each building is totally different from the others, but together they are a jaw dropping collection of futuristic and inspirational design. The reflecting pools built around some of them add to the effect. All we could do is say "Wow!" as we wandered around the place.
Another amazing building here from the 15th century is the Silk Exchange. From the outside it looks like a cathedral or a palace, but it was built and financed by ordinary people who participated in the silk trade when it first was imported from the Orient. Today this trading hall stands empty, but its height and breadth are silent testimonials to all the money that was made from this lucrative business. They were lucky that Barcelona was in political turmoil during this time or those fortunes would never have made it here.
We did not go inside the cathedral of Valencia, but it has a unique claim to fame since it houses the Holy Grail that was brought back from Jerusalem during the Crusades. Retrieving the cup that Christ used for the Last Supper was a major goal of the crusaders. The one here is made of stone and dates to fifty years before and after the birth of Christ, so even the cynical are left wondering if it could be true.
We've become accustomed to the magnificent food markets in Spain and Valencia has a great one. Our visit today was turned into a contest as we were each given five euros by our guide and challenged to buy two foodstuffs whose names we did not recognize. You would feel stupid going up to a butcher and asking for something that turned out to be beans. One of our items was a rather pungent sausage. As we carried it around the market, I wondered if a pack of dogs would soon be trailing me. Vendors were kind and patient as we tried to figure out what we needed and how much of it to buy. I do not relate well to metric measurement.
Our last stop was at a cooking school where we helped to make paella, which was invented in Valencia. We were surprised to learn that the real stuff bears little resemblance to what we call paella at home. It's a simple one pot meal of rice, chicken, rabbit and a variety of cut up fresh vegetables including artichokes and huge flat beans. It is yummy, but lacks in eye appeal. When the Sevillian chefs entered international cooking competitions, they changed the dish drastically, adding the seafood and sausage that we expected to see to make it more attractive.
We would love to come back here again, especially during the time of the Fallas Festival. We don't understand what it's all about, but 55,000 women here have bought elaborate Marie Antoinette-style tailor-made dresses that cost over $2,000 to wear as part of the celebration. Towards the end of the fiesta, they all gather within the centre of the city for various parades, one of the most important being the offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary. A huge wooden statue of Mary is erected in the center, and each fallera girl or woman brings flowers which are then attached to the statue via a scaffold and some nimble efforts by the men who decorate the effigy. At the end of the fiesta, the statues that took a year to make and in some cases coast up to 100,000 euros, get burnt down to the ground by their creators, who then start again for the following year! Mardi Gras on steroids.