The remedy for dark autumn nights and the chill of the first frost is a weekend trip to sunny Valencia. At this time of year, Spain’s third largest city is warm, bright, relaxed and buzzing with the hopes of students returning to campus. The heart of the old city offers history, remarkable architecture, lively bars and mouth-watering food. The beach is empty and perfect for a stroll or cycle ride, while the magnificent Park of Arts and Sciences has lost the crowds.
A day meandering around the old city is a perfect way to get your bearings.
1. Valencia Catherdral
Begin at the Cathedral, in the pretty Plaza de la Reina, where you can see what is claimed to be the Holy Grail (someone should have told Indiana Jones!) The grail is a small glass cup, nestled in a gold and gem setting, that sits behind a Perspex screen in the Chapel of the Holy Chalice. When we popped in on a Friday afternoon, we were alone and free to wonder at the goblet in peace.
The chapel next door has two beautiful frescoes by Goya. There is also a modest museum of religious art and artefacts, and a short walkway through the archaeological foundations, complete with skeletons. Finally, don’t miss the withered arm of Saint Vincent, now worshiped as a relic. The main chapel is decorated with hugely ornate wood carvings and paintings. It is not attractive to our modern tastes, but it is staggering. The clerestory windows let in shafts of light which give the space an ethereal glow.
2. Basilica of Our Lady of The Forsaken
Right next door to the cathedral is the Basílica De Virgen De Los Desamparados (Basilica of Our Lady of The Forsaken), the only purpose built church in the city and its most sacred. In the small oval chapel you will find worshipers praying before a Virgin Mary adorned with diamonds. It is always busy.
3. Plaza de la Virgen
After all that religion, it is time to relax with a coffee and pastry in the Plaza de la Virgen. Watch toddlers chase pigeons, teenagers amass outside the cathedral for school visits, mime artists entertain and harass locals in equal measure, and families take selfies in front of the majestic fountain of Neptune. On Thursdays, at midday, you can see the oldest court in Europe hold sessions in the square, outside the cathedral. The Water Tribunal is thought to date back to Roman times.
4. Torres de Serrano
Once you are refreshed, head to the edge of the old city and Torres de Serrano, the largest city gateway in Europe. Two commanding pentagon shaped towers, linked by a gallery and a parapet, stand proudly, between the old city and the new. Climb to the top for views across the city and Turia gardens.
5. Church of San Nicolás and Torres de Quart
The next stop is the Church of San Nicolás, considered Valencia’s Sistine Chapel. The route takes you along the buzzing Carrer dels Cavallers, with its bars, restaurants and shops. Head back here after dark for drinks and music.
San Nicolas, like most in the city, was built on Roman foundations and converted from a mosque in the 12th century. The reason for your visit is the ceiling which is covered in frescoes. It is astonishing, especially since its recent renovation.
Once you’ve finished gasping, take a short stroll to the second city gate, Torres de Quart. Another butch, imposing structure pocked marked with bullet and mortar holes.
6. The Silk Exchange and Mercat Central
From the gate head south to La Lonja de la Seda (the Silk Exchange), a purpose built trading house completed in 1492 and now a UNESCO world heritage site. The hall of barley twist pillars is beautiful (see the feature image above). Right opposite is the Mercat Central, one of Europe’s largest markets, housed in a light filled modernist building.
Survey the impressive range of fresh produce on sale, especially in the fish section, and admire the stained glass windows. Stop for lunch at Bar Central, an informal tapas bar owned by Ricardo Camarena, one of Spain’s most acclaimed chefs. You simply grab a stool and perch at the bar, where the waiters serve you some flavourful food. There is an English menu, but the specials are in Spanish which the staff will help you decipher. If there are no stools available, just hover, preferably near people who look like they are leaving. Most people are courteous and will get a shift on when it is busy.
7. Post Office
After lunch, continue your tour by visiting the Edificio de Correos, (Post Office) at Plaza Ayuntamiento. Opened in 1923, the building is a mix of styles but the highlight is the pretty glass dome over the main hall. Take a seat and watch the locals juggling their parcels to the desks, in these remarkable surroundings.
Across the square is the Town Hall and tourist information, while the square itself is home to a flower market.
8. Museo del Patriarca
Next on the list is Museo del Patriarca. Now, this can be a bit of a challenge. If you are organised, it is better to book a tour in advance. If you want to roll the dice, just turn up and see if it is open. Although the website says visits are by tour only, we were able to visit the museum by ourselves on a Saturday morning, when it was open from 11am and the chapel from 1pm. However, they do not openly publish the opening hours. Just turn up and speak to the men at the desk. There is a small charge.
The museum is housed in a daunting, brick building with two sets of massive, solid, black doors close to each other. It is actually a seminary, built in the seventeenth century and designed to keep the temptations of the world outside. One entrance takes you to the Chapel of Corpus Christi, a pretty chapel, with an ornately painted ceiling and light-filled dome.
The other door takes you into the museum, through the stunning, tiled, seminary cloister. There are two Caravaggio paintings (copies made by the painter’s studio, but still magnificent) and works by El Greco, Ribera and Flemish masters. The most interesting object is the last notebook kept by Thomas Moore when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London by Henry VIII. It was smuggled out of England shortly after his death. It is an amazing piece of history.
9. Iglesia de San Juan del Hospital
Last stop on the tour is Iglesia de San Juan del Hospital, the oldest church in Valencia and the most simple. After all the painted ceilings and extreme rococo, San Juan is a relief. The entrance is a simple door that leads into a courtyard, where you can see thirteenth century crusader crosses. When we visited there was a wedding in progress. It looked so pretty.
End your tour at Bisbe, a bar in Plaça de l´Arquebisbe, a pretty tree lined square near the city art museum. Relax with a refreshing gin and tonic, or join the locals with an agua de valencia, a local twist on Sangria. It is a peaceful spot from which to watch the world go by.
Here’s a map of the route. Click on ‘more options’ to see a larger version. The route is approximately 3.5km and will take around 45 minutes, if you don’t stop.