Valencia is not particularly well known. No image of it came to my mind, but a quick Google search informed me it was Spain’s third city, birthplace of paella, and cheap, so it seemed ideal for a getaway. It would turn out to be far more interesting.
After arrival we head to the chief attraction. The architecture of the ‘Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias’ complex is awe inspiring. From a distance, the alien shapes and curves, impossibly suspended concrete, sun dazzling from the white porcelain tiles coating, are redolent of an undiscovered civilisation. You can imagine some of the sense of awe the Conquistadors who left this city, might have had when first viewing Cusco or Tenochtitlan. There is nothing like it elsewhere.
And then as you approach, something isn’t quite right. You notice the fountains are not working. Algae creep over the ornamental lakes. The whiff of uncollected garbage permeates. And there are no people. Silence. This is El Dorado in sight of a motorway and container port, built right before the European financial collapse. An impression of sudden abandonment lingers, akin to a Mayan tomb. Highways without cars, weed-blown metro stations which have never seen a tram, garrisons of apartments which have no residents, empty offices and hotels, built on economic foundations that were never really there, for tourists who never much arrived.
Abruptly beyond are remains of what must have been before the credit explosion. Lost, we wander a western movie set of sliding pan-tiles, seedy bars, woebegone churches, dancing prostitutes, and big grinned children playing in the dust. You begin to appreciate why they might have blown the massive EU transfers afforded in the past. These streets give way in turn to old orange trees and olive groves heaving with ignored fruit, rice fields patrolled by knowingly beautiful egrets, pines, cactuses, and verdant scrub.
Next on the wide, as far as the eye can see, soft white sand bordering the bath warm Mediterranean, we are amongst people again. The beach is alive with play, touts, kids with Frisbees, couples flirting, picnicking families, narcissists posing. We catch the bus back with tired teenagers and salt flecked surfers. The central Turia Park, following the curves of an old riverbed, is filled with all ages jogging, skating, cycling, and doing yoga. In the old town’s squares and narrow streets, shops, bars and bistros spill onto the pavement. Crowds head towards the bullring. The flood of colour and atmosphere comes as a relief after the silence of before. But then the sun setting over the pinnacles of the Ciudad calls you back to its eerie grandeur and we wander alone amidst trailing bougainvillea as red as the heavy sky.
The city has a unique, almost dreamlike quality. Valencia is a fascinating place, where contrasts abut each other sharp and sudden. It is a place where recession is being played out in stark terms, where hope, failure, folly and creativity, overlap each other. This makes it an especially relevant place to visit in our time.
About the Author: Brendan Canavan: I am a UK PhD student studying tourism development and sustainability in small islands. I enjoy opportunities to travel and witness impacts of the industry first hand. I believe that tourism brings people together and creates economic opportunities that help to make the world a more cohesive place.