Situated between the dynamic glamour of Barcelona and the knicker-waving hedonism of Benidorm – both of which I return to like a moth to a flame or, more suitably, a worm to tequila – I never considered Valencia. It was just where the oranges come from, like Jaffa. But like Jaffa – the Medieval fortress suburb of Tel Aviv – Valencia is an awesome (in the pre-halfwit parlance) place.
We were drawn there initially because my husband, a Whovian, was highly impressed by the episode in which the Tardis lands in a bright white city of the type popular with sci-fi fiends. The City of Arts and Sciences, as it is splendidly known, is Valencia’s equivalent of our Millenium Dome – costing €900 million to complete over 10 years, three times the estimated budget – except that it’s a thing of eye-crossing, heart-racing beauty rather than a waste of space.
The pictures I’d seen on Wikipedia were so alluring that on that first morning when we went down there and saw all the kiddies queuing up outside the science museum, I felt oddly put out.
Of course, if I’d given any thought to it beforehand I’d have realised that such a place would inevitably become a brat-magnet but I’d been so enamoured of the idea of it that part of my mind had somehow assumed it would be solely populated by small, politely distributed groups of blurry-faced stick figures, as in an over-optimistic architect’s ‘vision piece’. Once I’d calmed down a bit, though, I could see how nice it all was (and not just because of the gorgeous bars onsite) and that, in fact, the presence of so many kiddies and oldsters in one place was lending the whole scene a distinctly Werthers Original flavour: so many smiles back and forth and strangers taking pictures of each other. It reminded me of Portmeirion in that everyone looked so pleased to be there for no better reason than what it looked like – such an unusual example of architecture making people happy.
When futurism gets old, you’re 10 minutes in a cab from the broad, beautiful beaches (and beach bars) and 10 minutes in a cab from the Old City (and pavement cafés). We walked through the marbled city centre and past the ceramic houses to the Plaza Lope de Vega, site of Spain’s narrowest house – 107 cm wide! – and had a splendid time *people-watching* – in my experience, doing this in Blighty simply means you’re bored of the person you’re with, but in the sunshiney haze of southern Spain it would be an offence against life itself not to.
The ancient part of Valencia is just about the most gorgeous old thing I’ve ever seen; while the sweeping curves and gleaming white struts of the City of Arts and Sciences look like they’d be apt to murmur, in a voice not unreminiscent of the late Peter Lorre, ‘I have a petri dish that could destroy the world 18 times over’. The balconies of the apartment buildings in the Old Town were definitely calling ‘Come up here and write a novel on me!’ In the Carrer de Cerrajeros – possibly the most picturesque street in the whole of an impossibly picturesque city – we chanced upon Devil Records, the most astounding record shop I’ve ever seen, the kind of record shop teenagers awake from dreams of with sweaty palms and guilty pleasure.
It was a Saturday, but a procession of little girls in mantillas and white dresses, like a cross between brides and Spanish dancers, were looking very pleased with themselves as they walked towards the cathedral in the frankly beautiful Plaza de la Reina where their triumphant procession to Confirmation was marked by tsunamis of celebratory bells and quite a lot of police tape – they take their religion both seriously and showily in Spain. In fact, every other female seems to be dressed as a bride in Valencia, whether influenced by Christ or TOWIE.
Of course, Valencia has its problems – it’s not Disneyworld. My friend James Maker, author of Autofellatio: A Memoir, lived there for years and told me: ‘Valencia is a proper, working city – it doesn’t rely on tourism in the same way as Barcelona or Benidorm. This also means that the prices aren’t inflated, and the place hasn’t turned into an amusement park filled with gormless pavement hoggers in Birkenstocks.’
He added: ‘The city does welcome visitors, unlike in Barcelona which has become a victim of its own success, leading city hall to rein in AirBnB-ers because of the “inappropriately dressed” British, littering the streets with their prostrate, drunken bodies. Valencia is the food capital of southern Europe, it’s warmer and sunnier than Barcelona and the locals don’t have a chip on their shoulder because you can’t speak their particular variant of Occitan.’
It pleased me that, unlike in Barcelona and Benidorm, lots of waitresses couldn’t speak English and we could both have a laugh trying to get what the other one meant; even though I’m a lazy tourist I’m not an entitled one and I like the way that even though it’s a very welcoming city it hasn’t gone out of its way to become principally a tourist city.
On the downside – though as a Brexiteer it did give me a certain bitter satisfaction concerning the alleged benefits of being in the Eurozone – I’ve never seen so many respectable beggars in my life; people dressed for the office but relying on the kindness of strangers. As well as the usual headscarved babushkas and stoned street performers reduced to panhandling, there were hot housewives rattling paper cups ‘for my family’ and most movingly a very neat man who resembled John Major repeatedly straightening his begging sign as he might once have arranged the pens on his desk, eyes downcast. But such is the human response to beauty that after I’d given them a decent denomination, I’d look up at the orange trees which line the humblest streets and think, ‘Ah well, at least it’s not the worst place to be a beggar…’
I love Spain – after decades of swerving it because my parents liked it. At a time when the economic future of the continent seems so precarious that flouncing off to go it alone actually seems the sensible thing to do, I’d put my money (sterling) on Spain to pull through stronger than ever when other more apparently prudent cultures fall. James Maker puts it well: ‘Antique shops are very thin on the ground here – probably because the Spanish are so forward-looking.’ Ironically, their futuristic city may well be the most nostalgic thing about Valencia.