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!