Sunday, July 3, 2016
Istanbul – Valencia, Spain
It’s been a long travel day. We got up early to close the apartment and drag our cases along the esplanade to the seabus terminal. It being early on a Sunday morning, the only time of the week when traffic in the city is light, we got to the airport more quickly than usual.
We had arrived early because of warnings that the airport, one of the world’s busiest, would be more crowded than usual due to the bayram holiday just beginning. We passed security, passport control, and 2nd security smoothly before spending a long time in the Primeclass Lounge, having some breakfast and reading.
Our Turkish Air flight to Valencia went smoothly and as comfortably as possible. That said, flying is never too comfortable for me these days. I don’t know if it is the air on planes, but I always feel abnormal by the time we land. Besides this flight was too warm.
The Valencia airport was a pleasure. Passing through Passport Control was quick and so was luggage retrieval. We took the Metro twenty minutes directly from the airport to the Xativa Station near our hotel (Hostal Venecia) on Plaza Ayuntamiento, one of the largest squares in the Ciutat Vella or historic center.
The first thing I saw as I came up from the Metro to street level was Estació del Nord, the Modernismo train station whose appearance is striking. Plaza Ayuntamiento has some beautiful buildings, as well. One is an Art deco movie theater.
Our two-star hotel, Hostal Venecia, is fine. The room is small but well appointed with a desk for me to type on and air-conditioning, which is a must at this time of year. Thinking of that, I remember my summer in Spain in 1964 when nothing was air-conditioned. I especially remember one night in a Seville hotel with girlfriend Madeleine when the heat was so intense that we took baths and then lay down on the bed without drying off. The evaporation cooled us enough to let us fall asleep.
It was 7 p.m. when we walked out of the hotel and through the quarter to find the Café de las Horas behind the interesting baroque cathedral. The spot is a recommendation from the 36-Hours-in-Valencia feature from the New York Times that appeared only a week ago. The interior of the Café, whose decoration is described in the article as a “Victorian boudoir” is filled with artificial flower arrangements and lit by chandeliers and period lighting fixtures. Its walls are red with textile patterns and hung with oil paintings and tromp l’oeil portraits of ersatz classical figures. The music – operatic singing followed by quieter orchestral pieces – seemed appropriate. The Café’ specializes in gin-and-tonic concoctions. Kay ordered saffron gin mixed with Nordic Mist while I chose the Mombasa, flavored with ginger and mixed with Schweppes. Our drinks came in large stemmed glasses with plenty of ice. They were wonderful. We also ordered a plate of manchego cheese slices that came garnished with oil and some plump raisins along with a sweetish citrus zest. We ate the cheese with small slices of different breads.
Leaving the Café de las Horas, we walked around the neighborhood back towards the hotel, looking for a dinner spot. It was after 9 p.m., and the summer sun still shown brightly. Valencia is the home of paella, and it is everywhere on offer in various forms. Settling on a terrace restaurant we ordered the Paella del ‘Senyort’ that comes with cuttlefish, squid and shrimp. It is prepared for two persons and requires a thirty-minute wait. While waiting, we sipped Monte Blanco, a white Verdejo (2015) by Ramon Bilbao. It was fun chatting and observing the passers by.
It was nearly 11 p.m. by the time we were in bed, and we were tired after the long day. This charming city seems to have a lot to offer. We are looking forward with pleasure to exploring it.
Monday, July 4, 2016
This date makes us fondly remember other celebratory 4ths from our years back in the States.
Sightseeing began with a visit to the striking Estació del Nord. Among vintage railway stations this is one of the most interesting and well preserved we’d ever seen, both inside and out. Built between 1906 and 1917 in modernismo style by Valencian architect Demetrio Ribes, the station is an outstanding example of its kind. On each side of its entrance is a mosaic panel by José Mongrell. We loved walking around the exuberant interior of its vestibule.
From the station we walked back through the Plaza Ayuntamiento where I took photos of its architecture. We continued to the Plaza de la Reina and the entrance to the cathedral that I wanted to visit. There was a charge of almost 7 Euros that included an audio guide. Kay chose not to enter and went to sit somewhere in the shade and wait for me. The cathedral is a mix of styles. It began life as a Gothic church in the mid-thirteenth century after the Moors were expelled from the city by Aragon’s King James I. It is situated on the sight of a former mosque built in turn on what had once been a Roman temple. In the cathedral museum a stairway leads down to a catwalk through the foundations of these earlier edifices.
The cathedral lost some of its Gothic appearance in the 17th and 18th centuries when its many chapels situated around the ambulatory were redesigned in a Baroque Neo-Classical style. In modern times a few of these were brought back to their original Gothic appearance, a style I prefer. I felt I spent a long time in the cathedral. The audio guide contained too much information, so after a while I began to cut short the explanations and move forward.
In a tiny alcove I saw an alabaster relief as a background for a reliquary containing the withered arm of St Vincent Martyr. In another chapel there are two paintings by Goya. One depicts the death of an unrepentant man with two devils waiting in the wings to take possession of his soul. I missed seeing another of the cathedral’s treasures, the legendary chalice that Christ was to have drunk from at the Last Supper.
The cathedral has a museum filled with various priceless objects, and I was reminded once again how much wealth and power the Catholic Church amassed over the centuries.
Outside I found Kay on a stone bench where she had been reading the guidebook. I left her again in order to climb the Micalet, an impressive bell tower next to the entrance to the cathedral that had once been the minaret of the mosque. It is 51 meters tall and to get to the observation platform I climbed more that 200 steps, stopping to rest a couple of times in order to catch my breath. The platform under a huge bell called the Micalet gives 360-degree views of the city built on a flat plain.
Down from the tower I joined Kay at a nearby café for a cool drink over ice. We rested a while before heading off to the Mercado Central, another example of the extraordinary Modernismo style. It’s an enormous polygon with a dome and designed to let in daylight. Inside are avenues of stalls selling produce, grocery items, and fresh meat and fish. It’s very impressive.
After exploring for a while we found the Central Bar, a fancy lunch counter where patrons sit on high stools along two sides and order dishes invented by distinguished chef Ricard Camarena. My first choice was the ensaladilla ‘Ricard Camarena’, that turned out be a tuna salad with potato, carrot, beans, pepper and mayo. Kay and I ate it spread on crackers and bread.
My second dish consisted of fresh cod lightly fried in tempura batter and served with a thick tomato sauce. It was very good. Kay ordered a seafood salad that came with two kinds of shrimp, mussels and pieces of what we thought were cuttlefish. I finished my meal with a dessert called an apple tart where the apples, custard and candied walnuts were served on an oblong plate surrounded by pieces of crumbled crust, a unique idea.
We learned that in Spain, it’s a law for restaurants to disclose the allergens in the dishes it offers. The menu at the Central Bar had numbers after certain dishes that referred to a long list of allergens at the bottom of the page, as follows: gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, peanuts, soy beans, milk, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame, sulphur, lubin, and molluscs. Amazing! What did people do in the past about these things?
So we ate very well at lunch. Leaving the market as it was beginning to close for the day, we walked through the small streets in the Carmen, the area around the Plaza Tossal. We were looking at the wall art that is a distinguishing feature of the neighborhood. I saw and photographed some beauties.
We also walked to the edge of the Old Town to look at the historic Quant Towers built in the mid-15th century to house one of gates to what was then a walled city. The towers are massive, and the side facing outwards is pockmarked with holes made by artillery during the War of the Spanish Succession.
We were back at the hotel by 4 p.m. for showers and naps. At 7 p.m. we set out once again for gin and tonics at the Café de las Horas. We chose a quiet table near a wall where at an adjacent table there was a single man drinking. As we sat with out saffron gin and tonics, more and more men and women joined the adjacent table. They were obviously a group participating in some kind of tour or conference. We had chosen our table poorly.
We didn’t have a good idea for dinner and so wandered around the small streets of the Carmen looking for inspiration. Finally, we came to a quietly elegant spot named the Plaza de Manises where there was a single restaurant with tables outside. At the Maria Mandiles we ordered a caprese salad that came with large chunks of tomato over purslane spread around a mound of mozzarella streaked with balsamic vinegar. We’d never seen a caprese done this way. Following the salad came sizable pieces of Iberian port tenderloin glazed with balsamic garlic and served over a large plate of baked potato slices. We drank another bottle of Verdejo, this one by Castillo de Berisa.
It was 11 p.m. by the time we got back to the hotel. What a long day!
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
We were both very tired from yesterday’s hours of walking in the heat. The evenings are pleasant and a respite from the afternoon sun. I’ve threatened to become a night owl and sleep during the day. Problem is that much that I’d like to see and visit would not be open and available at night.
We left the hotel later this morning. Our plan to visit the amazing City of Arts and Science got off to a shaky start when we were unable to easily find the stop for bus number 35. Even with a map and directions, we spent more than half and hour going backward and forward across the Plaza Ayuntamiento looking for it. We did this after 11 a.m. when the heat of the sun was especially unpleasant. (The temperature reached 96º F today.) It put both of us into a bad mood. Kay wanted to take a taxi, but I wouldn’t give up looking. Finally, we found the stop and caught a Number 35 for the twenty-minute ride to a spot along what had been the bed of the River Turia before it was rerouted outside the city in 1957.
The City of Arts and Science is enormous, and futuristic in its architecture to an extent that we had never seen before. It truly is a product of the 21st century. At one end is the gigantic Palace of the Arts Reina Sofia, a structure some compare to a giant eye, designed by Santiago Calatrava and containing four auditoriums. These are principally meant for musical events. A lot of science went into their acoustic properties. The largest of the halls with a very deep stage seats an audience of over 1800. With at least a dozen others we were given a guided tour of it and the other spaces in the building in both Spanish and English. Our guide pointed out that small screens on the backs of the auditorium seats gave translations of opera libretti in a choice of four languages.
The second performance space located above the first was almost as large but with a smaller stage. Then there are two smaller auditoriums designed for piano recitals, string quartets, and other intimate offerings. These rooms are also used for private special events and confrences.
Part of the Palace houses the Spanish branch of Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
Calatrava carries on an artistic tradition dating back to the ancient Greeks. The handles on the glass doors of the Palace are indigo in color and are shaped like Greek busts. There are also two large Calatrava murals done in glazed terra cotta. One of these shows dancers or acrobats in various positions. In one lower corner is the handprint made by the artist’s daughter when she was five years old. The other mural depicts several bulls in different attitudes.
Leaving the Palace of Arts Reina Sofia, we walked southeast toward the central structure that houses the Principe Filipe Science Museum, stopping at a snack bar on an outdoor terrace. It was after 2 p.m. and we needed something to eat. I bought Kay a sandwich of bacon and melted cheese and myself an Oscar Meyer foot long hot dog in a bun with catsup and mustard. We sat in a shady spot with a breeze, sipping cold drinks and ate potato chips with our sandwiches. We were so comfortable we didn’t want to leave.
When we did finally get up, we entered the science museum by paying 6 Euros apiece. Kay felt ill and tired and chose to sit while I walked around looking at the various exhibits.
I haven’t visited many science museums and found this one less interesting than I had expected. One level is devoted to exhibits about parts of the human body. The explanations are in Spanish, Valencian, and English. Other parts of the museum dealt with the European Space Program and a section showing examples of various kinds of timber with descriptions of their composition and uses.
We left the museum and walked in the same southeast direction toward the end of the City, a long walk indeed. That end is anchored by another Calatrava structure called the Agora, containing a large open space that might house a trade show. There is nothing happening in the Agora at the moment. Our walk back to the bus stop was through part of an elevated garden called L’Umbracle (2000) enclosed by fences and a series of thin arches.
I took quite a lot of photos of the City. The views of and around the architecture are so unusual I couldn’t help myself. The ensemble is a striking urban project unequaled in most cities we know.
Back at the hotel we took showers and rested. I couldn’t sleep and began editing and identifying the many photos I’ve been taking.
At 8:30 in the evening we walked out into the cooler air to a restaurant called Delicat that I had found recommended on the Lonely Planet’s Internet site. It is located directly across from the Café de las Horas. We hadn’t noticed it before because its entrance is so unobtrusive.
We chose to sit indoors at a corner table. While the small restaurant that opens only at 8:45 p.m. was empty when we arrived, by the time we left it was full and noisy. The menu has a number of Moroccan influenced dishes, several containing seafood. We chose to share three: An Asian style octopus and prawn salad called a salpiòn; a wonton apiece stuffed with chicken, steamed with garlic and served with threads of saffron; and a Thai green fish curry served with balsamic rice. These unusual dishes were creatively done and very pleasant to dine on. We drank a bottle of white wine from Avancia called Cuvée de O.
I finished my meal with a custard covered with chips of galangal, which I’ve learned is a rhizome of plants in the ginger family that grows in Indonesia.
We walked back to the hotel slowly across the large, open Plaza de la Virgen.
Wednesday, July 6, 2016
On our last full day here, our plan is to visit two of the city’s museums, the Museum of Fine Arts and the José Benlliure House-Museum. I hadn’t known of the artist José Benlliure or his son and still don’t know much, but Kay suggested we visit the museum because of something she had read.
At mid-morning, on our way to the fine Arts Museum we passed a men’s shop with some nice looking shirts in the window. Kay encouraged me to enter. I ended up buying two casual shirts for half price each. The two older men that ran the shop that exists since 1942 were fun to be with. I spoke broken Spanish with them.
We entered the Central Market so that Kay could take a photo of a stall selling various kinds of coffee makers to send to Ilker, our friend who owns our favorite neighborhood coffee shop.
The Museum of Fine Arts is located on the far side of the park that had once been the bed of the River Turia before the city rerouted it. Its two floors contain mostly religious art, including large altarpieces made of a central large painting surrounded by several smaller ones. The artists, mostly unidentified, were likely Spanish from the locality. Mostly these are the usual: Madonnas and scenes from Christ’s Passion. I photographed a couple of paintings that stuck me as interesting. One is from the 15th century and shows St Christopher. Another is of St Michael with his foot on a devil with a surprisingly human face. An artist from the Low Countries named Vrancke van der Stockt painted four long narrow paintings. One depicts Adam and Eve with the apple. Their figures are distorted lengthwise in interesting ways. Another of his paintings shows the damned falling towards hell. I always like seeing scenes of the damned, perhaps because what is happening is so clear. Heaven never looks so interesting.
Kay discovered a gallery with portraits by the Valencian 19th century painter Joaquin Sorolla Bastida (1863-1923). These were a few of the non-religious subjects in the museum. She really enjoyed his work.
On the second floor we looked at more Christian paintings, some by famous artists: a Blessing of Jacob by Gian Battista Langhetti (1635-1676), St John the Baptist by El Greco, St Sebastian Nursed by St Irene by José de Ribera (1591-1652), and St Augustine Washing the Feet of Christ the Pilgrim by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682).
In another gallery hangs a Portrait of Rafael Esteve Vilella by Francisco de Goya y Luciantes (1746-1828).
At 1 p.m. the museum’s garden restaurant opened for lunch. We sat under an umbrella next to a noisy fountain and ate gazpacho, prawn Paella and flan. We drank sparkling water. I hadn’t eaten gazpacho in many years and wondered if I still disliked it. I found it tasty enough but wouldn’t want to eat it regularly. Kay feels otherwise.
It took something to find the José Benlliure House-Museum. By the time we did, Kay was suffering from the afternoon heat and a sore foot. We went in and were the only visitors. The first floor contains small rooms with period furniture, probably the furniture that belonged to the family. There were also many of the father’s small paintings. Upstairs, the floor was open, gallery fashion, with paintings by the artist’s son. Some of these are portraits; others are scenes from gardens in Rome, etc.
It was relief to get back to the hotel, shower, and stretch out on the beds for a couple of hours.
After 8 p.m. we went out to eat dinner at Delicat for the second time. Once again we were the first customers and were remembered by the principal waiter. We chose the same white Avancia wine and varied the menu from last night: Cod Brandade is a purée of cod and potatoes. The dim sum was a delicate dumpling filled with hake and topped with a seasoned shrimp. The vegetable couscous had mostly root vegetables surrounding the lightest couscous I’d ever eaten. It was another uniquely pleasant meal.
Final note: I know I’m getting old when I look around a restaurant and realize that the diners I’m seeing were not even born when I first visited Spain 52 years ago.