So, a month in Valencia. Why? Well, its friggin great.
We had six weeks or so before cousin Katy’s 40th and cousin Edward’s wedding in Southwold, Suffolk and I was delighted to be invited. Mum had always been the connection with the extended family and I know that I now need to take every opportunity I have to keep in touch with a bunch of people I have always liked.
We wanted the adventure to continue, had to go easy on the budget, wanted a bit of stability for a while and also wanted to get something out of our time, so continuing to learn Spanish was perfect. I got a bit geeky and developed a spreadsheet of about 6 Spanish cities, scoring each place for temperature, cost of living, Airbnb availability, quality of Spanish school etc and Valencia hit the sweet spot.
Valencia is a wonderful city. It has a tremendous history, a thriving city centre and some reasonable beaches. It is also flat, easy to get around in on bikes or foot, has a great public transport system (in a city of 1.7 million, it has a system far more joined up and capable than the one that served Sydney’s 5 million inhabitants) and some great public spaces.
The park that sits in the bed of the old river is particularly special. In the city’s history there has been some terrible flooding, destroying property and taking lives, so in the 60s the decision was taken to divert the river away from the city. What was left was prime realestate in the centre of town. Many cities would have made the most of it (i.e. most money) by building roads on it or selling it off to the private sector, but with great vision the city resisted and turned it into public parkland, with football fields, outdoor gym equipment, lovely trees and flower beds, walking routes, running routes and cycle paths. It is a vein of green happiness running through the centre of the city.
At the start of this century some exceptional buildings were added to it, in the shape of the Opera House, Science Museum, Aquarium and botanical garden. They really are incredible works of art: space age, striking, beautiful. The opera house is on a par with Sydney, perhaps winning on design and losing on setting.
The park provided the foundation of my many runs as I returned to fitness over the month we spent there and every time I went into it I loved it. I have come to realise that having nice places where I can exercise easily is really important to me, and this is where Valencia beats many places, including Medellin.
When one learns something new and complicated, it is a simple fact that you will know far les than you know as you start out. As a language is a lifetime in the learning, a couple of months into trying to learn a new one, it is impossible not to feel incredibly stupid, as the gap between the known and the unknown is huge and seems insurmountable.
In the early days in Medellin, for me, this resulted in minor sulks, tantrums and by each Friday, the need for huge amount booze within minutes of walking out of school.
By Valencia, I was a little better. Importantly I had stopped getting obsessed that some things make no sense in English coz they aren’t supposed to. It is a different language with different meanings and structures. It seems a simple thing to understand but it really isn’t and to do so is a real “coin dropping” moment.
The school we went to - Elealeph (www.elealeph.com) - was great. Mostly our teacher was a bearded giant called Paulo. When he wasn’t a teaching, he was an part time actor and opera singer and he brought his stage presence with him. He wasn’t just funny and engaging, he was really patient with our stupidity and had a great way of getting us to understand stuff. It made learning a pleasure.
The students with us were great too and a real international mix: South Korea, Turkey, Italy, Ireland, the UK, Russia, Poland, the Netherlands, Australia (us), Canada. Everyone had a different reason for being there, some for a week, others for 6 months or more. One was sailing around the world with her partner, another renovating a house close by, one juggling classes with being a single dad in Valencia for 6 months, some with desires to work in Spain. The oldest was in his mid sixties and the youngest 19, at the younger end of the spectrum, and everyone played nicely.
To practice our language skills we went to a couple of intercambios in Rufaza and had mixed results. I had been to one in Medellin, when I could barely order a beer and it was great, using games to get people talking. Neither was up to this standard but the worst was hosted by a disinterested youth and seemed to be orientated towards older English speaking men wanting to talk to backpacking women. All very sleazy. The other was better.
5 hours a day learning one subject is more than a little taxing, so we broke the day up with a glass of wine at lunch, afternoon tea, and once or twice, for breakfast too. This didn’t make us odd, it made us Valencianos!
The city has a great rhythm. Firstly they have 5 meals a day: breakfast (for many, this involves wine or beer, or wine and fizzy water), a late morning snack (sandwich and coffee.... or wine/beer), Lunch at 2-3 pm (a three course Menu del Día with wine), tapas hour at about 5.30, pre dinner snacks and then dinner at about 9pm... at the earliest.
One morning, early on in our stay, we went to the cafe in the market next to our school at about 8.30 am and I was disappointed to see they had not cleaned up from the night before; there were empty bottles of red wine, beer bottles etc on the tables. Observation over the next few days made me realise that it wasn’t from the night before, just breakfast. Don’t be scared by this; it doesn’t feel like a city full of winos as it’s all very civilised. I guess people just like to take the edge off the morning (some really try to blunt it, drinking neat brandy or whiskey with their morning pastries…..).
One of the great Valencia inventions is agua de valencia. It is a drink containing cava, orange juice, gin and vodka. It’s as good as it sounds, is very refreshing and can be a great start to a Friday at school!
There are small bars and cafes everywhere, mostly with great fresh food at ridiculously low prices. I constantly had to check the bill because I thought people had missed stuff off – it was too cheap.
We lived in a barrio called Rufaza, a vibrant place that is being gentrified and sits close to the city centre. There are great places to eat, drink and shop. It has most definitely been ‘found’ though and there are lots of tourists as well as hen and stag parties in the area.
There are many things I like about the Southern European lifestyle; the small markets in many neighbourhoods selling fresh produce, the sociable routine (partly enabled by the low cost of socialising), the little friendly bars, the outdoors stuff (walking to work, cycling in a safe environment, sitting in pavement cafes etc) all combined with a good climate and heaps of history. Perfect.
We had one major frustration whilst there, and this involved the car. WE had concluded that the most economical way to travel to and from Valencia, and to visit places whilst there was to hire a car, picking up and dropping off in Paris (one way rental across borders is horrendously expensive). Avis give me grate rates but you can only book for 1 month and we needed a car for 7 weeks. I asked the office in Birmingham how to solve this and was told it was simple; book for a month and extend before the end. The guy in Paris confirmed this too. It wasn’t simple and in fact took 10 emails, 22 phone calls and three visits to the local office to sort, against a background of some reps suggesting I had effectively stolen the car. It was solved without me spending any time in the slammer with Mr Big, but it was challenge. That said, to go to the office, explain the situation and have a long conversation about it….. all in Spanish……. Often using the right tense, was a bit of a high!
Things we really enjoyed doing there:
• Running and cycling to the beach.
• Treating ourselves to great paella at Casa Camilla near the beach
• Going to a Paella cooking class (lots of booze; still don’t have a clue how to make the stuff)
• Getting the 7 day valencia card and enjoying the bus tour, free/discounted entry to things and free wine and tapas.
• Going to the food and wine festival. Go early as it gets really feral after about 7pm.
• Finding the Bodega Baltasar Segui, a great locals bar in the very local barrio of Benimaclet
• The perfectly sized mini pizzas and perfectly cooked baked cheese at La Finestra in Ruzafa
• The Ruzafa market for morning coffee and a class of wine.
• Doing a behind the scenes tour of the opera house.
• The park. We loved the park.
The bottom line is that my spreadsheet worked. We had a great time in a city I thoroughly recommended visiting and we left a little under budget. Hurrah!
It was great to cross the border into Spain and, for me, I was delighted to be able to start to communicate again…in a fashion. I was glad to remember the word for approximately (aproximadamente) when we crossed the border and I declared that we had approximately the correct amount of duty free in the car……….
We were heading to Valencia for another month at Spanish school and drove via Tarragona and Peniscola, both on the Mediterranean coast.
Tarragona is an ancient city with lots of Roman sites, impressive buildings from every other period after that and lots of modern stuff making it a very liveable city. We also discovered that there thing was cheap aperitifs in the early evening; two glasses of vermouth, olives and crisps for a few euros. It’s that kind of thing that can help us really warm to a country.
One of the attractions of Spain is just how inexpensive it is to live. We found that we could travel, eat and drink well and stay within budget. Everything seems to be about 1/3rd cheaper than France, and booze and food seems practically free.
Peniscola is a little more touristy and expensive, but is a beautiful small town on a rocky peninsula and worth a detour to. Bits of Game of Thrones were filmed here, as well as other films and it’s easy to see why; dramatic vistas, old streets, crashing sea. All very lovely. Like France though, much of it was closed; we think it opened in May, but we still got to sit in a café on the walls, overlooking the sea and watching the sun go down.
Sometimes train travel should be fast and efficient, like on a Thursday evening when we are leaving Sydney to visit The Folly, Freddie and Mr P. Other times you want a slow, ambling, shambling journey on an old fashioned train with quirky service, for example, when traveling between Barcelona and Montpellier on yours hols. Life is rarely perfect and J and I find ourselves hurtling through the Spanish countryside towards the French border at a disappointingly fast rate. In our parallel life , we rarely get to Bundy on time, adding to the frustration.
We have had a lovely 6 nights in easy, historic, vibrant Barcelona. Firstly up a bloody big hill and then in the centre next to the old port.
The big hill was the Tibidabo area, a National Park overlooking the city and a magnet attracting very serious people in Lycra who want to start their day in much pain by cycling to the top (I don’t even think they shout ‘weeeeeeeeeeeee’ all the way down). Besides finding sweaty MAMILs at the top, there is also a very odd car crash of the historic and modern. Right on top of the hill is an old huge and elaborate church (Temple Expiatori Del Sagratcor), surrounded by cobbled streets, old mansions, a couple of hotels and lovely, hilly woodland. Intertwined with this is………….. an amusement park. Roller coasters, a big wheel, a monorail, and a few more rides. Think of the love child of Mont St Michel and a down at heel 70s Disney land. All rather odd.
We were staying a few hundred metres down the hill at the very peaceful Antigua Biblioteca Almirail AirBnB. The actual house is a lovely building that used to house the library of the grand mansion next door. It was bought and renovated by the current owners and now has the original library room as a huge space full of original features to relax in, more modern rooms down stairs where the family live, and a small room plus bathroom next to the pool for AirBnB guests.
The hosts were not there, so we were looked after by their very organised and attentive daughters. The family have an interesting back story. Mum is Colombian, dad is Norwegian and the kids are Spanish. A few years ago they decided to sack it and travel the world (2 adults and 4 kids over 16) in a Toyota Landcruiser equipped for camping. Whilst it must have been cramped and at times tense, Alex described it as the ‘best present a parent could ever give them’. I can well imagine it was an incredible experience and I thought of all the people who told us that they would love to do what J and I are doing but couldn’t, because of the kids. Perhaps youshould, because of the kids.
Our mission here was to relax, sleep lots, catch up on all the stuff we should have done before we left, and plan forward. Mostly we achieved it. It took us until night three to be awake after dark, and I slept for about 10 hours each night. We also managed to get a bit more of a plan together for the next few weeks (Montpellier and surrounds for 4 nights, a hire car for a three day slow amble to Troyes, Troyes and the Champagne area for Champagne en Fete with Bridget and friends, a flight to Lisbon from Orly, three nights in Lisbon then a rough plan to work away through Portugal and Northern Spain, getting to Bordeaux for a wine tasting at Chateau Talbot on 20th August, followed by a flight to Corsica on the 21st. Then…………..)
A bit of bad news that turned out ok was that on day 2, the family were hosting a team building event for 70 twenty something international students. A slight impediment to proper relaxing. The good bit was that part of the event was cooking classes so we returned from a walk to some samples: a lovely local pasta meets risotto thing, some lovely salads and local beer. A fantastic treat and we would have then beenhappy to have events on everyday.
The event meant that I also got to meet the uncle who was doing the cooking. He is a fascinating professor of change and had recently returned from a lecturing tour in Cuba. He is also restoring a yacht that was once owned by the old Spanish king, who from my understanding used it as a place to take women to (“He had a very big heart, so had to love many, many, women, and the boat was as good a place as any”). Once renovated, he and his wife are off to circumnavigate the globe. Very inspiring.
We made a new friend whilst there: a big black Alsatian called Black who demanded attention whenever we were outside, slept outside our room, swam in the pool and ignored commands in 3 different languages (Spanish, English and Norwegian). His most notable feature was his desire to play fetch with stones, rocks, bits of plastic and my towel. We were asked not to encourage him, so at no point did I throw anything or engage with him. That didn’t stop him and he would drop stuff on you at all times of day and night in the hope we would give in. I got genuinely angry when he dropped a small log on my face when I was doing some sit ups. The host said Black was hyper intelligent. I think they meant very special……. It’s a bit like people who have three kids and one is clearly stupid: they always tell you he’s very bright even as he sticks his hand in the fire for the 22nd time.
We managed a couple of day trips from here: one to Barcelona and one to Sant Saduri D’anoia, home to Freixenet and the majority of Spain’s Cava production. The latter was great fun. We had a tour of Freixenet that was genuinely interesting then drank a healthy amount of cava in various different Caves until it became a little unhealthy. We were helped to misbehave by a lovely young couple from England who shared our lack of common sense and our desire to try lots of different varieties of cava. I am not sure if any of us were achieving sensible conversation by the time we got off the train back in Barcelona.
We said goodbye to the pool and the cool air of the hills and headed to our city Airbnb on day 5, which was an ensuite room in a old apartment block near the port. Perfectly located, with welcome aircon and a pleasant host. It was the first time we have stayed in a shared place, where shared means more than sharing with the hosts and other rooms are rented to other travellers. A bit like a very small hotel. I think this may be reasonably common in Europe so we will have to get used to it, or pay more for an entire place.
We did some great exploring around the city and I cannot understand why it had not been high up on our list of places to go whilst we were in Europe. It is easy to get around, is full of history, has great food and booze (I discovered the joy of Vermouth with ice and orange on our last night, which is a massive lost opportunity. Jodie discovered that some bars serve their Vermouth with an olive stuffed with Anchovy by chewing one, which was a massive and almost messy surprise). It is also safe and has a great mix of old city and beach life.
I say that, but we didn’t go to the beach really, only ran along it, but it was obviously well used. Especially at night when the many nightclubs are obviously full, or at least are surrounded by people who want to leave rubbish everywhere. On my dawn runs I felt rather out of place and old amongst the die hards who had pushed through to dawn and were still drinking beer or smoking dope as the sun rose. I understood why they didn’t do a rubbish clear first thing in the morning, as drunken tourists from all around Europe were still messing the place up until about 8 am. Bah, I’m getting old and grouchy.
That brings me to running in general. I am running the Berlin Marathon in 8 weeks so need to keep the running up. Living of top of a bloody big hill made this a little challenging. 10km felt like 20 and after a few runs, my legs were dead. That, combined with heaps of walking mean that they remain dead. It’s going to be a long campaign.
Barcelona is of course associated with Gaudí and we visited a few of his remarkable buildings. I find my self a bit conflicted when I see his work. Some is full of the most beautiful curves and shapes, mixing nature with buildings and furniture in such a bold way. Others look like bones or something out of a horror movie. On balance, it is rather amazing.
One of our Gaudí experiences, a visit to his old house in the Parc Guell, went a bit wrong for a couple of reasons. Firstly we walked for about 40 mins in the midday sun, mostly up hill. This meant that J was very hot and bothered by the time we got to the park, so I opted not to share the news I saw when I opened my email to retrieve our tickets until later. A message from my brother Nic “Fuck, the house sale has fallen through”……… the house sale that is/was funding this adventure.
I felt physically sick whilst we went through Gaudí’s house and I remember very little of it. When we left we sat on a bench in the shade in his garden and I broke the news to J, who as ever, copes with the big challenges in our lives with ease.
We hope that this will not hit us too hard and our initial calculations suggest that on a strict budget, we will be ok for about 7.5 months. So we have 7.5 months to sell the house. We will also have to change our plans a bit: hiring a yacht in the Med is off for now, and visiting the gorillas in Rwanda may be postponed, and the wine we drink maybe a little bit rougher……… but these really are first world problems and adventures aren’t supposed to go as planned.
I mentioned Barcelona is easy and it really is. Public transport consists of a great urban underground metro that is not hub and spoke, a suburban train network that is fast and efficient and a really easy to use bus network (made even easier by Google maps, which makes everything so easy it may take some of the adventure away) and the city is a bike riders paradise. For all it’s wonderful features, the shortcomings of Sydney’s transport and the politicians that are responsible for it, are hugely apparent when compared to this.
Smart phones make everything much easier than it used to be. You don’t get lost unless you make a decision just to wander. You can translate anything you need to. You can decide where to go next and book it all without speaking to anyone. No more confusion. No more walking through building sites after getting of a bus in the wrong place, no more turning up to a hotel on the wrong day. You can even check the ABV of Vermouth after your fourth, which is probably an interesting story denied. J is however missing her hard copy lonely planet, so we will not be entirely digital.
Smart phones also bring evil. Instagram, insta or IG. We are on IG and I know that my hashtags are probably very annoying. I also spend time looking for good photos, which may be good or bad. But we are amateurs on IG compared to so many, and this is the first time I’ve noticed the bizarre behaviour that leads to many insta photos. The pouting. The strange dresses people wear to go sightseeing, the boyfriends with seemingly unlimited patience. There can be more ‘takes’ than the filming of an Olly Reed movie after he’d had a big night out. I even saw a women out jogging, with immaculate hair, in full slap, some kind of sexy bra/running top, filming herself with a selfie stick as she jogged. Ridiculous. Nice bra though.
Everybody speaks English too, though that doesn’t stop us talking in bad Spanish whilst the replies come in perfect English. We found one exception, and that was in a small café in the small village just below our first Airbnb. We tried our bad Spanish and they had no English or written menu. Solution: take us into the kitchen and show us stuff. It almost worked but they kept bringing me food. Either I nodded at the wrong time or they decided I was a fat bastard/needed to be fed, depending on your perspective. We only later realised they were giving me the menu del dia – a fixed price bargain lunch, so must have thought I was weird when I only ate one of 3 courses!