‘Valencians won’t eat paella outside the city,’ Valencian writer Alberto Torres Blandina tells me.
Because the rice isn’t the same elsewhere, I wonder? The inferior saffron? The overcooked seafood?
‘Because of the water.’
Specifically, the high levels of calcium, which is said to keep rice al dente and flavourful: that’s what matters to the people of Valencia. I come to understand the difference during my first truly stunning paella at Casa Carmela in El Cabanyal, a quiet and colourful fisherman’s district that lies behind the city’s main beach.
The dish looks almost disappointing: a plain, thin, uniformly yellow layer of rice in a large metal pan, studded infrequently with a morsel or two of seafood. It tastes, however, phenomenal. A layered, textured dish that punches you with rich flavour. It’s been cooked over a wood fire, and the best bit remains right at the edges: the socarrat, the crispy, smoky bits of rice you scrape from the pan and into your mouth.
The water of Valencia has certainly done its job today, and it’s little surprise that it has. Spain’s third city – located on the eastern coast, less than two hours by train from Madrid – has always been a city of water. Founded as a Roman city more than 2,000 years ago, its port has risen to become the largest in the Mediterranean. North of the port, the city’s beaches stretch along the coast, beautiful expanses of powdery sand.
And it’s not just the sea. Valencia is – or rather, was – also home to the Túria river, which threads its way from the northwest down to the city. The river is no babbling brook; rather it’s notorious for floods. Floods so bad that in 1957 the Túria spilled its banks and submerged a large part of the city: 81 people were killed; 3,500 families were left homeless. The people of Valencia took action: reshaping the river’s path to prevent it from causing harm. The one-time riverbed was transformed into a garden, with new landmarks sprouting up around it.
At the eastern end is the City of Arts and Sciences, a complex of museums, cinemas, performing arts centres and theatres that seem ripped from a sci-fi set. When the first building opened in 1998, it was seen as a white elephant. ‘It was very, very expensive. We’re not the richest part of Spain, and that was money that could have gone on roads or education,’ says David Moll, who works at the museum’s education department. ‘Twenty years ago, no one was sure. But now we’re proud of it. We’re earning more than we spent on it.’
Most of the complex was designed by hometown architect Santiago Calatrava. One of the most striking works is the science museum, which resembles an otherworldly skeleton of an enormous beached whale hovering in a pool of water – a reminder of the river that mankind forced out of the way, and the sea just metres beyond.
Another reminder lies in the complex’s L’Oceanogràfic, which at 110,000 sqm is Europe’s largest aquarium. Touring the vast park, spokesperson Maria Carmen Fuentes can’t hide her enthusiasm as she explains the aquarium has shifted from a tourist attraction to a centre for conservation and marine research in the last few years. She’s particularly proud of the park’s beluga whales, which are part of an international breeding and research programme.
There’s another man-made water that the city can call its own: Agua de Valencia, or Water of Valencia. The ingredients are vodka, gin, cava and orange juice, served in potent pitchers and drunk from champagne coupes. It is delicious. It is deadly.
The drink was invented in 1959, in a boho watering den named Café Madrid in the middle of town – the bar is still open today and fresh off a renovation. Head bartender Sergio Valls tells me the tale: ‘A group of Basque regulars always ordered “Agua de Bilbao” – cava. One day they asked: “Why isn’t there an Aqua de Valencia?” So, the owner invented it.
‘The recipe is well known, but I always tell people that the greatest secret lies in the orange,’ says Valls, emphasising its ‘kilometre zero’ origins, all grown locally – and watered, of course, with Valencian water. ‘The quality of the produce is the most important part of this magnificent combination,’ he says.
For my next glass I head to the kitschy glam of Café de las Horas, where the décor is over-the-top and the drink will put you under the table. Next to us, a group of middle-aged señoras down a couple of large pitchers, getting increasingly boisterous and vitamin C’d.
But if there’s one thing that sums up the relationship that this city has with water in its myriad forms, then it’s the sleepy beachside district where I’m staying: El Cabanyal. ‘It’s an area with a lot of history. It was a fishing village and many people worked here in jobs related to the sea: at the port, fishing or with customs’, explains Marga Alcalá, who heads up tour company Paseando por los Poblados de la Mar and has been running neighbourhood tours for the past six years.
The area feels totally different from the rest of the city: low-rise terraced buildings that are distinctively tiled, offering variegated bursts of colour in the gridded streets. ‘All the houses here are a result of the old barracas – huts in the traditional style of Valencia,’ she explains. ‘They wanted to avoid the humidity, and it was less expensive to tile the house than to paint it every year. Most of the houses are tiled in blue, white or green. It’s related to the jobs of those who live there: the colour of the sea or the colour of the boats – boats in Valencia were painted green and white.’
At one time, El Cabanyal had a reputation for being run-down, dangerous even – but now it’s on the rise. The community successfully fought off a government redevelopment project that would have seen some 1,500 homes knocked down, and is now seeing more money coming into the area, with more public services and more draws for tourists. Younger people are also moving in, drawn by the charm and the calm.
‘I always imagine that the sky here is bigger than in the rest of Valencia,’ Marga tells me. ‘It’s the calm. The geometry of the houses, the geometry of the streets, give me a sense of tranquillity.’
In the evening I walk along the gridded streets of El Cabanyal as it lives its social life on the street, its people sitting outside their tiled homes, drinking and chatting with neighbours in the slowly cooling air. It feels to me like the optimism of a neighbourhood reborn. A tide turning.
‘Everything’s related,’ as Marga tells me earlier in the day. ‘It’s the sea; it’s always the sea.’
Go Further: Valencia
Burn, Baby, Burn
Valencia’s most famous festival, Las Fallas (15-19 March 2020), sees the city turn into a five-day party in which huge fallas figures are burned in giant bonfires. ‘We have a saying in Valencia: aixó ho pague jo – “I’ll just pay it.” We’re happy to spend money and worry about it tomorrow,’ says David Moll of the City of Arts and Sciences. ‘Think of Las Fallas – we spend all that money and then set fire to it.’
The Weirdest Little Bar in Valencia
Make time for the extraordinarily odd Mamaliga, a small bar in the heart of town that hasn’t been decorated so much as festooned with the leavings of a hundred closets. Fairy lights illuminate a doll collection of nightmares. Grab a drink and head up the rickety steps to the equally rickety mezzanine, and wonder if you’ll ever come down again…
Cathay Pacific flies to Madrid, which has rail connections to Valencia