Friday, 22 April 2016

SPAIN: FORTY WINKS ARE FOR WIMPS IN VIVACIOUS VALENCIA

Visitors to Valencia who don’t speak the lingo could be forgiven for thinking that the Venta! Liberacion! Reparacion! signs all over the place trumpet the motto of Spain’s third-biggest city. They don’t. The words mean Sales! Unlocking! Repairs! and are aimed at mobile phone users. The actual motto is Vivir Sin Dormir (Live Without Sleep), and if you rise to the challenge you’ll end up exhausted but exhilarated. Look out, New York, because Valencia is vying for your title as the city where snoozers are losers.

The futuristic City of Arts and Sciences. The building that looks like a white version of Darth Vader's
helmet is the Opera House. The 'eyeball' is an IMAX
Song Sung Baloo
There’s only one thing in Valencia that’s more outrageously ornate than nightspot Cafe de las Horas (www.cafedelashoras.com) and that’s its delightfully outrageous, ornate and charming owner Marc Insanally.
Marc always encourages visitors to get up and do their party piece, but it’s a policy that sometimes backfires. A young guy from Galway named Colin, who’s in town to run the annual half marathon and, admirably, raise funds for Unicef, asks if he might sing “a beautiful old Irish ballad I learned at my great-great-grandmother’s knee, God rest her sainted soul”.
Big softy Marc is thrilled and close to tears, but as no 23-year-old Irishman who stands six-feet-tall and plays Gaelic football would ever speak like that, there’s a suspicion of mischief in the air.
And so it proves when Colin launches into I Wanna Be Like You-oo-oo, as sung by Baloo the bear in Disney’s 1967 animated classic, The Jungle Book. The posh people in the corner look aghast and clearly think they’re hallucinating – they’ve spent the evening in the Opera House enjoying Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

The fabulously ornate interior of Cafe de las Horas and, below, genial host Marc Insanally, who
has become one of Valencia's favourite adopted sons

All is not as it themes
Long-time Valencia resident Marc, who’s from English-speaking Guyana on the north central coast of South America, says his business partner takes care of the books while he’s responsible for Cafe de las Horas’ looks.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he says. “We have red velvet drapes, antique furniture, chandeliers, chintz, works of art and antique mirrors, fresh flowers and dark wood, mosaics and marble. It’s all so very fin-de-siecle. And it’s perfect for our theme nights.”
He leans in close and whispers: “Have you ever been to a boot-licking party?”
King of the Swingers Colin says he’s licked a few Wall’s Cornettos in his time, but never a boot. Nor has he taken a champagne shower or attended a lingerie party, and he wouldn’t be seen dead browsing in a sex toys pop-up shop; but then, he’s never until now been in Cafe de las Horas, where such diversions are normal occurrences, though mercifully not tonight.
 “We have Scrabble tournaments too,” says Marc, which has everyone waiting for a punchline that doesn’t come, “and English conversation evenings, which are hugely popular, as are the tarot card readings. Oh – and we have bake-offs as well.”
Something for all tastes, then.

Coffee on a cafe terrace before visiting the cathedral, with its Colosseum wing
Holy convincing
It’s the gorgeous morning after the weird and wonderful night before. Outside the 13th-century Cathedral of Santa Maria (www.catedraldevalencia.es), the Plaza de la Reina’s polished marble paving is so shiny it looks like it’s sopping wet, only there hasn’t been a shower in months. A gaggle of German tourists on hire bikes pull up and lean on their handlebars as their guide gives them the lowdown. Germany isn’t short of splendid churches, but they’re clearly impressed by this one.
The cathedral sits on the site of an earlier mosque and before that a Roman temple dedicated to Diana. It houses what is reputed to be the true Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper, though other contenders are said to be secreted away at several sites worldwide, including in Fort Knox.
The highly-polished brown agate chalice set in a gold stem in Valencia Cathedral is regarded as having the most convincing claim to being the genuine article. Made in the Middle East and standing just over six inches tall, it has been carbon dated to between 300BC and 100AD, which boosts its bona fides. Indiana Jones must be kicking himself.
Stained glass abounds, and the sun casts multi-coloured slanting rays – like straightened-out rainbows – on to the floor, but little light penetrates the uppermost windows. It looks like they could do with a good wipe with a chamois leather, but they’re actually made of milky alabaster, thin enough to be translucent yet not so flimsy as to be damaged by a downpour. That’s why the rain in Spain falls vainly on the pane.

The cathedral's 'genuine' Holy Grail
Visitors on rented bicycles stop for a break in front of the historic Serrano Gate 
Saddle do nicely
The Germans have the right idea in getting around on two wheels. The highest hills in Valencia are the speed bumps on the roads, so cycling is the smart way to go sightseeing. It’s a sprawling city full of historical, relatively-recent and ultra-modern attractions, but few are next door to each other. Pedalling between them ensures visitors can tick off as many must-sees – and there are indeed many – as a long weekend allows without feeling rushed.
There’s a pick-up and drop-off city bikes scheme which costs next to nothing, but private hire cycle shops are a smart choice for groups who prefer to be shown around by a knowledgeable guide for an additional modest fee.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be led by someone who likes to entertain as well as inform, with a head full of those quirky facts that raise a chuckle. If you’re unlucky, you’ll get a guide who knows that a colourful umbrella held aloft is ineffective in preventing tour group members from straying. The Germans have such a guide – she has a referee’s whistle and isn’t backward about blowing it full-blast, which doesn’t half startle the pigeons and unsuspecting passers-by.

Legs of Serrano ham hang in the Mercado Central. Below, a barrel of sardines
Visitors to the Mercado Central sip horchata while
nibbling on fartons, or sweet pastry fingers
Buzz stop
Bikes galore, most of them unpadlocked, are parked outside the Mercado Central (www.mercadocentralvalencia.es), which is surrounded by hotdog and kebab stands doing a brisk trade. You don’t need directions to find it, just follow your nose, like a meat-seeking missile.
It’s one of Europe’s oldest indoor food markets and offers a snapshot of city life – everyone from housewives to Michelin-starred chefs comes here to fill their baskets with the freshest of produce, from oranges and avocados picked from the tree the day before to fish pulled from the sea that same morning.
The colours, smells and din from 400-odd stalls set the pulse racing. Whatever your drug of choice, it would be hard-pressed to match the buzz that half-an-hour of walking and gawking in the Mercado Central provides.
For the perfect antidote to this sensory overload, drop by any of the refreshment stands for a glass of chilled horchata, a non-dairy milky drink that was introduced by the Moors who occupied most of what is now Spain from the eighth to the 13th-century. Made from ground chufas (tigernuts), water and sugar, it’s delicious – not only Moorish, but more-ish.
The Mercado Central is also the place to buy saffron, the spice made from crocus stigmas that gives paella rice its orange colour and costs from €1,350 a pound because harvesting, by hand, is so laborious. The only foodstuffs more expensive are edible gold leaf, truffles and caviar, in that order. Antonio Catalan, at stalls 457 to 459, sells five grammes of Spanish saffron for a reasonable €18.50.

Clearly not a non-stick pan. This tiled billboard
in Mercado Central advertises paella. Hanging
sachets contain saffron, to colour the paella rice 
Wooden spoons at the ready, hungry visitors to Restaurante Casa Carmela get ready to tuck
in to a big pan of paella, Valencia's world-famous signature dish
No fish in this dish
The paella ladled out to tourists on the Costas invariably contains bits of nearly every creature that boarded, flew above or swam beneath Noah’s Ark, which appals purists – it’s akin to emptying a can of Kitty Kat into an Irish stew.
Paella originates in Valencia, and the real deal contains rice, chicken, rabbit, green beans and optional snails – no prawns, crayfish, mussels, clams, calamares or, heaven forbid, peas. You don’t see many water voles on special offer in Tesco, but they were the principal ingredient in the days when paella was the only nutritious food poor people had. When there were no water voles and times were particularly tough, snails were the meat that went into the pan.
For paella par excellence, cooked in the traditional way over an open range fuelled by orange tree wood and served in a pan as big as a wagon wheel, hotfoot it to Restaurante Casa Carmela (www.casa-carmela.com) at Carrer d’Isabel de Villena 155, facing Malvarrosa Beach. It’s so popular that reservations are a must, especially on Sundays when families descend on the place.
Owner Toni Novo’s great-grandparents established the business, which opens only in the afternoon, in 1922. The premises have grown considerably since then, and so has Casa Carmela’s reputation. Today, Toni’s paella is the one by which others are judged.

Chef Quique Dacosta in Vuelve Carolina Restaurant
Taking one for the team
Another place that’s always packed is Restaurante Vuelve Carolina, at Carrer de Correus 8 in the city centre. It’s owned by superstar chef and football fanatic Quique Dacosta, who reportedly was offered €250,000 by a Saudi prince to cater for his 40th birthday bash in the desert. He turned it down because it clashed with a Valencia versus Barcelona match in the Mestalla Stadium.
Vuelve Carolina (www.vuelvecarolina.com) is one of those rare restaurants where, within 10 minutes of being seated, you can picture yourself still being there at closing time with the yawning staff sweeping up around you. It’s unbelievably – and unleavably – good, and the six-course tapas menu plus dessert is a meal-deal steal at €26 per person (minimum two people).
Recently installed – and even more recently sacked – Valencia Football Club manager Gary Neville had taken a shine to Vuelve Carolina and often ate there with his brother and assistant manager Phil, much to fellow diners’ and Dacosta’s delight. Alas, Manchester United great Gary got his Mestalla marching orders just the other week after a woeful start to his coaching career.
Gary’s gone, but fans still flock every fortnight to the 55,000-capacity stadium that was blasted to bits during the Spanish Civil War and has the dubious distinction of having been used as a concentration camp in that same conflict. When hostilities ceased, and before it was rebuilt, it served as a scrapyard. Guided tours cost €10.20 and can be booked via www.valenciacf.com

Fans await the kick-off in Valencia FC's Mestalla stadium. Below, visitors to the City
of Arts and Sciences chill out before seeing more of its attractions

Bike to the future
Valencia’s foremost attraction, the City of Arts and Sciences, looks like it was dreamed up by some CGI genius for a mega-budget sci-fi movie. It’s easy to stand there and imagine you’re on some planet in a galaxy far, far away, until a shrill blast from a referee’s whistle reminds you you’re standing on the cycle path and in danger of being run over by a party of fast-pedalling Germans.
The City of Arts and Sciences (www.cac.es) is mostly the work of Valencia-born visionary architect Santiago Calatrava, who should change his surname to Cantilever seeing as he has designed so many bridges worldwide, including the Samuel Beckett and James Joyce in Dublin.
The complex occupies an 86-acre site at the end of the former course of the River Turia, which was drained and diverted following a catastrophic flood in October 1957. Two days of almost non-stop torrential rain caused the Turia to overflow, left many streets under five metres of water, made nearly 6,000 homes uninhabitable and killed 81 people.
When you’ve feasted your eyes on the outside of this series of futuristic buildings (the Opera House looks like Darth Vader’s helmet, only it’s white), step inside Oceanografic, Europe’s biggest oceanarium, and be further amazed – and scared.

Visitors to Oceanografic take photos of sharks while in the glass tunnel
Whale of a time
You don’t have to be lowered in a cage off Cape Town to get up close and personal with sharks. Walk through the Oceanografic complex’s 35-metre-long underwater glass tunnel and there they are, swimming inches from your face and showing off their flesh-shredding teeth. That’s when you nervously check the information leaflet again for confirmation that the synthetic glass is indeed a whole lot thicker than the alabaster windows in the cathedral.
A lot less alarming, and totally charming, are the all-white beluga whales in another part of the complex. They appear to have been born smiling and look a bit dopey, but these beautiful and playful creatures with a radar dome for a forehead are super-intelligent, as are the delightful inhabitants of the dolphinarium.
Don’t let the €28.50 entrance fee (€21.50 for seniors and children aged four to 12) put you off – the endless thrills make an hours-long visit to Oceanografic, which houses 45,000 marine creatures from 500 species, worth every cent.

Agua de Valencia: cava, gin, vodka and orange juice
Juan for the road
It’s midnight on the eve of departure in Cafe de las Horas, and waiter Juan Manuel brings a jug of Agua de Valencia, a mix of cava, gin, vodka and orange juice that doesn’t leave you hung-over. Many of the faces from a couple of nights before are here again, enjoying a cocktail or two before hitting the town. Even at this late hour, customers are still arriving.
Marc, looking every inch the dandy highwayman in jodhpurs, knee-length shiny boots, flouncy sleeves and puffy cravat, is floating between tables, chatting with his regulars and greeting first-timers like old friends.
He’s fooling no one, though, with that showman-who-likes-to-shock facade – it’s the professional persona of an altogether gentler soul who loves what he does and does it for the enjoyment of visitors to the fabulous and fun city that has embraced him as one of its own.
The late, great Mario Lanza famously sang that in Valencia “the orange trees forever scent the breeze beside the sea”. He was right, but there’s often also a whiff of freshly-crushed mint in the air around Cafe de las Horas. Or maybe it’s Listerine – after an evening spent licking boots, you’d definitely want to sluice with some mouthwash.
It lends a whole new meaning to going out for a gargle.

A couple and their small child take part in the yearly Valencia Half Marathon
GET THERE
Ryanair operates twice-weekly direct flights from Dublin to Valencia from May to October (www.ryanair.com). A taxi from the airport to the city centre (8km) will be around €20, the metro costs €3.90 and the bus is €1.40.

CHECK IN
Very big and ultra-modern, the four-star Primus Valencia Hotel at Carrer de Menorca 22 has superb rooms with breakfast from around €90, which is remarkably cheap for a classy joint, and there’s free wifi throughout. (www.hotelprimusvalencia.com)

SAVE
Buy a city card (www.valenciatouristcard.com) for free unlimited travel on urban public transport and free or cut-price entry to many of the city’s attractions plus discounts on shopping and dining. At €13.50 for 24 hours, €18 for 48 and €22.50 for 72 when bought online, it soon pays for itself.

CHECK OUT
See www.visitvalencia.es for details of city breaks and annual festivals, including the fiery Fallas which take place every March.
The 2016 Valencia Half Marathon (an IAAF Gold Label event, which makes it one of the best in the world) will be run on October 23. For details and to register, see www.valenciaciudaddelrunning.com
See also www.spain.info

These life-sized papier mache figures are sitting pretty, but the flames will soon
consume them during Valencia's Fallas festival, staged every March