Valencia, the land of many firsts

Pranjali Bhonde-Pethe | Updated on January 17, 2020

Hey there, little señorita: The architecturally rich old quarter of Valencia offers plenty of photo-ops   -  PRANJALI BHONDE-PETHE

The third largest city in Spain has several surprises up its sleeve

To the world, paella may be the national dish of Spain, but ask Valencians and they will tell you that the rice-based delicacy has its roots in Valencia. The third largest city of Spain is also a land of many firsts.

I am at Portolito, a Mediterranean restaurant in Valencia, for lunch. I see waiters darting from one table to another, black paella pans in hand, caked with yellow bomba rice. “Paella originates in Valencia,” says my guide Amaya Ráez as a waiter places the pan at our table. The paella is cooked with vegetables, chicken, saffron and olive oil — all lending it a creamy flavourful character.

I learn that it originated from the area around Lake Albufera, a freshwater lagoon 11km south of Valencia. The story goes that in the 8th century, when the Berbers of North Africa made their way into Valencia through Andalucía, they discovered the lagoon and called the area ‘Albufera’ or ‘little sea’ in Valencian. The land around it was used to cultivate rice, which was the staple dish of the Moors (a term that came to be used for Berbers and Arabs in Northwest Africa) who ruled Valencia for more than 500 years. They added snails, rabbit, saffron and olive oil to the rice, thus laying the foundation for the national dish of Spain. Every mouthful of paella is like a helping of Spanish history. The splash of olive oil harks back to the Roman conquest of 220 BC.

The next day, I stroll through the architecturally rich old quarter of the city, where I see shops selling pericons (Spanish fans) and other artefacts. Pericons have long been in use in Spain, both as an accessory to escape the summer heat and in flamenco dancing. In search of the perfect pericon, Ráez leads me inside Abanicos Vibenca, a shop specialising in hand-made fans. Here I meet Vincente Caballer, a third-generation pericon maker. He is surrounded by paintbrushes, oil paints, poster colours and wood. He looks up from his desk, where he is working on a pericon with a floral design against a black background. “The bark of the peach tree is used to make the monture (frame) and leaves of the fan,” Caballer says. He goes on to explain that a pericon has its language. “A closed fan placed on the heart means ‘I love you’, while an open fan placed over the lips means ‘Kiss me’.”

As we exit the shop, I catch a glimpse of La Estrecha, the narrowest building in Europe. With a façade of 107 cm from side to side, its door is so small that anyone with a flowing dress cannot pass through it.

We leave the old quarter behind and drive to the newer part of the city across river Turia. It is a pleasant drive on a sunny day. “Valencia receives 300 days of sunshine,” says Ráez, stopping by a cart parked outside the Oceanografic de Valencia, the largest aquarium in Europe. Here we buy horchata, a popular Valencian non-alcoholic drink made with tiger nuts. Ráez hands me a farton, a kind of bread glazed with sugar that originated in Valencia, to go with the drink.

In the Oceanografic, we pass through a 35m-long underwater tunnel that crosses the Atlantic Ocean and connects the waters of the Canary Islands with Bermuda. The Oceanografic was designed by the Spanish-Mexican architect Felix Candela. Ráez leads me to a huge oyster shell made of mother of pearls. Absolutely instagrammable, I stop there for a selfie. The Oceanografic is part of the avant garde architectural complex City of Arts and Sciences, along the Turia. Strolling through the area, I see the majestic opera shaped like an eyelid, the science museum that resembles the skeleton of a whale, and a 3D cinema that looks like a spacecraft. Barring the Oceanografic, the other buildings have been designed by Valencia-born architect Santiago Calatrava.

We head to La Lola, a restaurant in the old city, for dinner. We tuck into plates of paella and polish off bowls of fresh green olives. The cod fish dressed with zucchini and olive oil is fresh and flavourful. We wash it down with glasses of sangria. Before I leave for the hotel, Ráez walks me to Café de Las Horas. Here we try the Agua de Valencia, also called the water of Valencia. The drink was first made in Valencia by Constante Gil, in a bar called Cafe Madrid de Valencia. Prepared with cava, orange juice, vodka and gin, this refreshing drink — we consume several champagne saucers of it — is a fitting finale in a city of many firsts.

Travel log

Getting there

Air India flies Delhi to Madrid, from where Valencia is under two hours by train. You can also take a domestic flight to Valencia (about an hour).


SH Valencia Palace is a good option close to the Old City.


Take a catamaran ride from the Malvarossa beach and catch the beautiful sunset.

Pranjali Bhonde-Pethe is a freelance writer based in Pune

Published on January 17, 2020

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