Category: Beach

Valencia: Spain’s city of surprises is one of Europe’s hottest tickets

 

Screen shot 2015-03-15 at 5.59.15 PMstory and photography Terry Lankstead

As our puddle jumper from Paris dropped below the clouds, my north facing window seat afforded me a breathtaking view of the mountains of the Valencia region, lush greenery and palm trees below. A convenient twenty-minute shuttle outside of Valencia city centre, Manises airport is quite small with only one runway, but it handles connections to more than 15 European countries.

When I stepped off the plane I expected to breathe in that warm moist air of the sunny south, but the skies were grey and the city was receiving unusually cool temperatures for late September. Located centrally on Spain’s east coast, average temperature here for September is 22˚ Celsius. Just a 1.5-hour flight from Paris or a relaxing 1.5-hour side trip from Madrid on the Renfe AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) high-speed train (travelling at 300 km/h), Valencia is easy to get to and it will not disappoint.

On the airport shuttle, the first striking impression of Valencia came in the form of a diverse range of apartment buildings all adorned with green and white awnings-a sure sign that things heat up here. Next, railway lines, bridges and open green spaces appeared as our bus weaved its way closer to the city centre and many of its stunning landmarks.

Garden of the TuriaGarden of Turia Valencia

Valencia has undergone a major transformation over the past few decades with a keen eye towards place-making in every sense of the word. The city’s strategy was partly born out of necessity. In 1957, the Turia River, which coursed through the middle of the city en route to the Mediterranean, flooded Valencia causing great devastation and a large number of deaths. To avoid future flooding, the river was rerouted around both sides of the city. A dramatic transformation of the original riverbed commenced in 1982. The goal was to convert the dried up river into a sunken garden for cyclists, pedestrians and other athletic pursuits. When financially possible, the city would develop in sections between bridges. The result is the magnificent Garden of the Turia, a place where people can explore pathways, playgrounds, ponds, cafés, soccer pitches, athletic facilities and of course, stunning gardens. The bike path is the best way to explore the Turia and the city has its own Valenbisi service with pay-as-you-go bike rental stands set up in strategic areas. There are also numerous bike rental companies. Because the city is so flat, exploring by bicycle makes much sense. Just make sure you always lock it up.

City of Arts and Sciences

The eastern end of the gorgeous 14km-long Turia garden park houses some of Valencia’s most identifiable landmarks. The City of Arts and Sciences, designed by world-renowned Valencian architect, Santiago Calatrava and Madrid’s Felix Candela, is a 2km long (approx.) archictectural masterpiece featuring an opera house, science centre, reflecting pool, aquarium and exhibition hall. The latter plays host to events like ATP Tennis and the MTV Europe music awards.

Rising 14 stories, the Calatrava-designed Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia is the tallest opera house in the world and resembles a giant warrior helmet. This is one of the most visually stimulating architectural features of this Spanish port.

Close to home, in addition to other notable structures the world over, Calatrava also designed the Allen Lambert Galleria in Brookfield Place, Toronto (see our GL facebook page) as well as the Mimico (pedestrian) Bridge over the Humber River.

Europe’s 5th Largest Port
Valencia, pronounced Ba-len-the-a in Valencian Spanish (which is very similar to Catalan) is the largest container port on the Mediterranean Sea and the fifth largest in Europe. Perfectly situated in the centre of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, the port is so busy that ships have to line up offshore to load and unload. The city’s main exports are oranges, rice and primarily the Ford Fiesta and C-Max. The local Ford plant produces close to 2000 units per week. The port has also seen its cruiseship traffic grow from 12 ships a year in the early nineties to in excess of 200 annual visits in 2011—another testament to the place-making endeavours.

A tiny bit of HistorySilk Exchange Valencia
Valencia was originally settled by the Romans in 138 BC. who erected their walled city between the fork of the river Turia with easy access to the sea. Although it changed hands several times, the next major conquerors were the Moors in 714 AD, followed by the Christians in the 13th century. The 15th century was the Valencian Golden Age of arts, education, culture and economic expansion, led by textile production and banking.

The Silk Exchange (Llotja de la Seda) erected in the early 1500s was integral for attracting merchants from all over Europe. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a magnificent Valencian Gothic style building, and well worth a visit. Valencia’s prosperity in the 15th and 16th century was replaced by an economic crisis until Valencia’s road to recovery began in the mid 19th century under the reign of Isabella II, with infrastucture improvements like cobblestone roads (still impressive today), municipal water, gas and gas lighting. The population tripled from a little over 200,000 in 1900 to close to 750,000 in 2000, and today Valencia remains as Spain’s third most populated city.

Sightseeing

Parc Natural de l’AlbuferaScreen shot 2015-03-15 at 6.08.36 PM

The Albufera, a freshwater lagoon and estuary which lies about 11 km (7 mi) south of the city, is one of the largest lakes in Spain. It is a popular eel-fishing locale but only local fishermen are allowed to fish the shallow (1.5m) waters. Each year a lottery is held to determine where each eeler is allowed to cast his nets. They also fish for bass and the recently introduced American blue crab. It forms the main portion of the Parc Natural de l’Albufera (Albufera Nature Reserve). The Parc contains a large variety of rare birds like the purple heron, which we spotted on our delightful up-close-and-personal Albufera boat excursion. On the traditional Albufera boat trip you will also see the rice fields, which act as natural protection for many rare birds and yield the area’s famous Valencian rice—a unique somewhat round rice that is popularly used in paella dishes.

Buy some rice in the local village, El Parmar the local village, or enjoy Paella or La Espardenya (containing eels from the lake). Paella Valenciana is the regional dish of Valencia that originated from the Albufera and it is widely available in the city’s restaurants. Although Valencia is right by the sea, the traditional recipe surprisingly does not contain seafood. Instead, Valencian paella consists of white rice, green vegetables, meat (usually rabbit), beans and seasoning. I enjoyed mine at LaLola, an ultra-hip restaurant (the owner Jesus is a local DJ legend and the restaurant is a Flamenco dancing hot spot) in Valencia’s historical district.

Historical CentreHistorical District, Valencia

Don’t let a spot of rain spoil your day in Valencia. It brings out the patina on all the gorgeous stone buildings and footpaths in Valencia’s historic district. Here you will find Europe’s largest market, the Mercado Central, with everything you would expect from a world-class market from incredible seafood, cheese and produce stalls to paprika by the bag and an opera performance perhaps. There is always something going on at the central market and it is a great place to refresh after exploring Screen shot 2015-03-15 at 6.08.25 PMthe numerous historical sites. In fact, it is just across the street from the Silk Exchange mentioned earlier and not far from the Plaza de la Virgen, a spectacular stone square that hosts heritage edifices like the 13th Century Valencia Cathedral (which also house the Holy Grail!) and the Basilica of the Virgin. You will also find a few outdoor cafés and Valenbensi bike rentals. Every Thursday outside the Portal of the Apostles of the Valencia Plaza de la VirgenCathedral, you can witness the tradition of the Water Court meeting. The Tribunal de Las Aguas is a democratic process originally introduced by Moorish farmers to regulate the irrigation of farmer’s fields. One of Europe’s oldest democratic institutions, this Water Court of elected judges continues to this day.

The Beaches

Valencia’s beaches are not too far from the city centre. I was unable to visit them but Marc Insally, a co-owner of local artsy hotspot Café de las Horas and a man of passion when it comes to all things Valencia, made a few recommendations. Marc explains that “Malvarosa Beach is the closest, pretty much in the city. It’s lined with restaurants and is handy for a few hours of sunbathing or beach volleyball, but it’s not the best for swimming. I do recommend El Saler Beach: It’s out of town but you can get the bus every half hour during the summer from the Gran Via Germanias and it takes about an hour to get to the sand itself. The beach is an empty long stretch of quite well-maintained, clean sand and water (no shade though, so if you burn do take an umbrella).”

Events

The biggest annual event in Valencia is referred to as Las Fallas. This Valencian celebration takes place from the 1st to the 15th of March. It is a celebration of St. Joseph, the Holy Patron of carpenters. Community groups burn satiric papier maché effigies of iconic figures from the realm of politics, history and celebrity. Historically families would spring clean, throwing out leftover wood and candles no longer needed after the winter and they would bring all these items to a massive bonfire. These days it’s a major celebration where everyone gathers in the Town Hall Square to enjoy a fireworks display choreographed to music.

Valencia also hosts the European Grand Prix of Formula One auto racing, the Valencia Open 500 tennis tournament, and it is home to Valencia CF, one of the big soccer clubs in La Liga (outside of Barcelona and Real Madrid of course).

Dining and DrinkingMercado Central Valencia

If you are looking for somewhere to soak up the Valencian atmosphere, the restaurant and nightlife options are plentiful. Meeting Marc Insally and sampling the Agua de Valencia at his neo-Baroque style Café de la Horas was a personal highlight on my visit. The cocktail blends cava (Spanish sparkling wine) with orange juice, vodka and gin. It goes down easy and is lip-smackingly delicious. The café itself is colourfully described by Marc as “a classic literary café, Plaza de la VirgenParisian café and tea room serving English and American cocktails, all in a flamboyant neo-Baroque motif.” It has a cool cosmopolitan feel, a place where local artists gather just to hang out or take part in various theme nights. If you are looking for that “wow-that’s-so-cool” factor, you must drop in and say hola to Marc.

In the trendy port area, visit Casa Montaña for a wine tasting and gastronomical journey. Opened in 1836, it remains a meeting place for good conversation and discerning taste. This is a perfect setting to sample numerous tasty cold and warm tapas dishes. Derived from the Spanish word tapar, meaning to cover, tapas is hugely popular in bars and restaurants all over Spain. Although some consider tapas as an appetizer, at Casa Montana it is a several course meal experience. Delightful combined with wine and artisanal cheeses, try the cod croquettes, grilled sardines, grilled squid and fried anchovies. The Spanish love their fish. They also love their Iberian ham, and here it is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Salty with very little fat, Iberian ham is meatier and less chewy than prosciutto, but they are similar.

Before boarding the train to Madrid, I lament not experiencing Valencia under warmer and less damp circumstances, but that just gives me one more reason to return. Rain or shine Valencia offers a world of surprises to explore.

Terry Lankstead visited Valencia, Spain on a sponsored press trip, compliments of the Tourist Office of Spain in Canada and Turismo Valencia. TJ

 

TraveLinks

Restaurants with unique atmosphere, character and
authentic Spanish cuisine.

alma del temple at the Caro Hotel (accented by Roman ruins)

LaLola (Flamenco dancing at night)

Casa Montaña (Tapas, wine and Iberian ham)

El Huerto

Café de la Horas (for cool atmosphere and Agua de Valencia)

Places to stay

If you are on a budget try the fairly central Expo Hotel. Their excellent buffet breakfast includes Horchata—a favourite Spanish milky drink that includes ground tiger nuts. See our GL facebook page for a must-try recipe.

Caro Hotel is a romantic ultra-modern boutique hotel built amongst Roman ruins in the heart of the historical district.

For more info please visit Spain.

Nantucket: The Old Grey Lady of the Sea

Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.13.07 PM

She can be shrouded in fog for days and she’s populated by grey-weathered shingled houses. Her wide-open vistas offer an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic. Combine innate beauty with centuries-old charm and it is befitting that Nantucket is nicknamed The Old Grey Lady.

When the mystical fog lifts – and this can happen as surprisingly quick as its arrival – a magical land of vibrant colour is unveiled. From incomparable ocean views inward to endless sandy beaches, open heath-like moors with abundant wild Rugosa roses, Scottish heather, pines and grasses, to serene ponds, salt marshes, creeks and cranberry bogs, Nantucket’s diverse natural landscape has everything to offer. The flora and fauna reflects the island’s rich history of settlers who were originally lured there to hunt the great whales that flourished primarily off its southern shores.

Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.15.31 PMThe Way To Go
Getting there is not the easiest of tasks and islanders wouldn’t have it any other way. They know it is well worth the added effort created by being isolated from the mainland. It is about an eleven-hour (960km) drive east from Mississauga– in our case it was 15 hours in torrential rain– via the New York Thruway, the Mass Turnpike and down the 495 to Hyannisport, MA.

From here you will scramble to park your car and catch a one or two-hour ferry depending on whether you choose the quicker but more expensive fast ferry or one of the slower boats. You can take your vehicle on to the island, but this involves booking well in advance. Bicycles are the preferred mode of transport; bring your own or rent once you get to the island. Jeeps are available for hire and there are also taxis and buses to get you to your beachhouse with all your luggage.

If you are looking to maximize your time there, flying might be the best way to go. A flight to Boston and a connection to Nantucket could get you to ‘ACK’ the airport code for Nantucket Memorial Airport in as little as four hours, if you time it right. You may recall that this famous airport was the setting for the hit 90s hit TV series, Wings, although, it was renamed Tom Nevers Field for the Nantucket sitcom. However you get to the island, once you set foot on its sandy soil, breathe in the salty air, and prepare to fall in love with the old grey lady.

Whaling and Cranberries
Settled in 1659, the island 25 miles (approx.40 km) southeast of Cape Cod Massachusetts, was a whaling centre until the late 1850s. Cranberries and tourism are now the island’s mainstays. In fact, the Milestone Road Cranberry Bog is one of the largest in the world.

Some of these cranberries are added to the famous juices of Nantucket Nectars, a growing juice business launched by the Two Toms– Nantucketers, Tom Scott and Tom First who attended Brown College together. Their juice products are hugely popular in the New England area and they are available here through Cadbury Schweppes in Mississauga.

Cisco Brewers and Nantucket Vineyards
When it comes to libations, Nantucket has it covered, with Cisco Brewers, Triple Eight Distillery and Nantucket Vineyard all at the same location on Bartlett Farm Road near Cisco Beach. I highly recommend the aptly named Whale Tale Pale Ale. And if you visit the brewery, I do recommend a visit to nearby Bartlett Farm to pick up one of their famous fruit pies and take in their wildflower farm.

Cisco is the island’s hottest surfing destination. When I say hot, I mean you can sit there on the beach and watch more the 20 surfers of all ages and skill at any one time. Surf schools and camps are available, and Nantucket Town has a few surf shops to get you started. Cisco is also a popular destination to try out the latest craze, Skim Bungee. Check it out on youtube.

A Beach Lover’s Paradise
Cisco is just one of several different kinds of beaches available to island visitors. Boogie-board, big surf destinations on the south and west sides include the picturesque Surfside Beach, Nobadeer, Miacomet, Madaket and Cisco. These all offer foot-therapy cushioned sand, protected by a picturesque backdrop of grassy moorland. Surfside is perfect for morning walks, where you will find large clamshells amongst other attractive seashells and even the occasional sand dollar washed ashore. You are almost guaranteed to see a few seals frolicking just past the surf break, as well as the occasional ‘protected’ colony of Turns that enjoy dancing around the wash, looking for small sand crabs.

Family swimming in calmer waters is available at the town’s Children’s Beach as well as on the north shores of the island, at beaches like Dionis and the hugely popular Jetties Beach that also features a beachside café, shop and boardwalk. At Jetties you can watch the ferries arriving, yachts racing and fishing boats leaving to collect their haul of lobster or crab. There are also gorgeous tennis courts available to rent by the hour. Before you play, be prepared to sweep off the seashells dropped by hungry seagulls.

Catch of the Day
If fishing is your thing, look no further than Nantucket’s Straight Wharf, where you can charter a boat to catch bass, stripers bluefish and the highly-sought-after blue fin tuna. If that is too ambitious for you, just take your rod down to the beach and fish for the mighty bluefish. At the end of the day I recommend fishing on the west side of the island at Madaket, where you can enjoy spectacular sunsets. Madaket is also a decent bike ride (8km) destination from town. The loop will also take you past the picturesque Long Pond.

Tales and Great Whites
Nantucket has proven to be an inspiration to artisans and writers – including Elin Hiderbrand, Nathaniel Philbrick, Peter Benchley and Herman Melville. The 1851 classic, Moby Dick is based on the tragedy of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, which was attacked by a sperm whale while at sea, and sank. This storied whaling past is highlighted at the Nantucket Historical Society’s recently renovated whaling museum.

In addition to the museum, the old grey lady supports three lighthouses including Brant Point, America’s oldest lighthouse station, as well as four golf courses, an 18th century windmill, the Maria Mitchell Observatory, 50 miles of beaches and a town centre that oozes history.

According to local author/photographer Robert Gambee “No other town in America today has as many homes (over eight hundred) built in the period 1740 to 1840, almost all of which are located in their original settings.”

Also of note, Nantucket has no traffic lights, neon signs, or fast food franchises. The 10,000 year-round residents prefer it that way. At the height of the season this population surges to 50,000 during peak season.

Shopping
From its marina of luxury yachts, sailboats and fishing charters to its cobblestone streets and world-class restaurants, the town centre has it all. Enjoy unique souvenir shops and knick-knacks for the home and don’t forget to check out the famous Nantucket Reds clothing available at Murray’s Toggery Shop and the Nobby Clothes Shop. You can easily spend an entire weekend exploring the historic town. Its unique character and charm are reflected in its classy hand-carved shop signs. Traditions have been maintained in every picture-perfect streetscape.

From the moment you venture off Nantucket Centre’s Main Street on foot, blades or bicycle– Nantucket has an extensive picturesque path system –the sweet perfume of the well-manicured privet hedges overwhelm you. The island’s grey-weathered complexion is partly due to its strict building codes that see any new build adhere to Nantucket’s traditional cedar shingled and dormered appearance. These shingles grey rapidly courtesy of the salty sea air.

Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.15.13 PMSiasconset Village and Sankaty Head

If you are staying at one of the many Inns or B&Bs in town, do not forget to venture out to the quaint village of Siasconset (pronounced ‘Sconset for short). ‘Sconset is a hot destination for tourists and garden lovers alike and it was the first spot in America to welcome the dawning of the millenium. From June to early July, witness the intense display of climbing roses that grace most of the charming centuries-old cottages.

Carry on from ‘Sconset to Sankaty Head Lighthouse, which was cleverly moved 400 feet away from the bluff in 2006, to avoid the ravages of soil erosion. Some say, from this vantage point if you look out past the sheer drop, you can see Portugal (perhaps with the Hubble telescope).

In July, in addition to the blossming privet, hydrangeas reign supreme. Their unique purples front numerous cottages and beachouses on the island. In August, the Rose of Sharon and Black-eyed Susan come to the forefront. The Town gardens never fail to impress passers-by when strolling along the red brick walkways. They greet you when you get off the ferry and they are one of the last things you see before boarding for the melancholic return back to the mainland.

At the end of your visit, after the ferry pulls away from the dock, find yourself a penny, as it is a Nantucket tradition to launch one into the sea as the boat rounds Brant Point Light. This will assure that one day you will return into the welcoming arms of ‘the old grey lady.’

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