Valencia, Spain, is the land of paella and goes far beyond Calatrava

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The plain, in Valencia, seems to have no end. It is born in the Mediterranean, spreads lazily through flooded rice paddies and orange groves, and only then does it collide with the sudden slopes that lead to the plateau of the Spanish interior.

This landscape is little explored by tourists, who tend to prefer Madrid’s art museums and Barcelona’s beaches. It is a destination, however, that is worth a detour in the itinerary — or even a whole trip, to discover other Spains.

Let it be, at least, to enjoy a paella. The specialty, typical of Valencia, is served in shallow pans, where ingredients such as artichokes, chicken, rabbit, shrimp, squid, paprika and saffron bubble, devoured under a sun that warms even in winter.

As in the rest of the country, Valencia’s history has been marked by a succession of empires, including Romans and Visigoths. The Arabs arrived in the 8th century and remained there until the military campaigns of Jaime the Conqueror in the 13th century. Between Alzira and Algemesí, a monument still indicates the place where he died.

Much is said about the Arab presence in Andalusia, but it is perhaps even more evident in Valencia. It was the Arabs who planned the canals that still irrigate the oranges that this region exports to the whole world. Valencians call their waterways “sequia”, which comes from the Arabic term “saqiya”.

Toponymy also speaks Arabic, in Valencia. Just look on the map. After all, the names of places like Albufera, Algemesí, Alzira, Benifaió and Cullera are Arabic.

The best base for such a trip is the city of Valencia, which is named after the region. From there, it is possible to drive to the sights and return in time for dinner. Downtown hotels are convenient for their proximity to historic landmarks.

Valencia Cathedral is one of its highlights. It was consecrated in the 13th century on top of Visigothic and Islamic remains, uniting Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque elements. Its tower—the Micalet—is a delight in itself, cutting against a blue sky. Lonja is also worth a visit. Built in the 15th century in the Gothic style, this market was the center of the silk trade that Valencia was once known for.

There are two typical drinks to try between hike breaks. The first is the horchata, about which Gal Costa sang in “Vaca Profana”. It is a milk extracted from a plant called chufa, similar to almond milk. The typical venue is the Horchatería Santa Catalina. The second is valencia water, the name of the daring drink with champagne, orange juice and vodka. To do as the Valencians do, look for the Café de las Horas, decorated with red walls and a starry blue ceiling.

But typical Valencia, immortalized in the novels of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (1867-1928), is that of the rural south. One of the most outstanding settings in this region is the Albufera —ideal for eating paella away from the tourist traps of the capital.

The Albufera was once part of the Mediterranean. It was separated by an arm of land and lost its salinity. Today it is something between a lagoon and a swamp, with whose water small farmers in the region flood their colorful rice paddies.

There are several restaurants on the banks of the Albufera canals — whose name comes from the Arabic “al-buhayra”, which means “the lagoon”. In the fishing village of El Palmar, the best options are Arrocería Maribel and Bon Aire. It is necessary to book in advance, because the preparation takes around an hour; or wait on site, sipping a glass of vermouth and nibbling on Spain’s famous olives.

It is not necessary, of course, to eat paella. The typical dish of this lake is all i pebre (“garlic and peppers”). But the name misleads the diner. The dish is actually made from eel and potatoes, and garlic and chili appear in the sauce.

There is a boat trip across the swamp for 5 euros (almost R$30). Gliding in the Albufera channels, among herons, the plain of Valencia not only seems infinite, but also silent. The boat passes by some of the typical houses of the region, known as “barracas”, title of a book by Ibáñez (“La Barraca”).

Close to the capital, Valencia, there is also the impressive castle of Xàtiva. It is a fortress that dates back to the Iberian past, in antiquity. It is said that it was there that the Carthaginian Hannibal planned the conquest of some Roman cities. It was also an Arab and Christian base, where the battles that shaped the Valencian identity were fought. As the castle is on top of a mountain, you have to walk a bit. There are no viable options for those with reduced mobility.

Valencian identity also owes a lot to the Monastery of Santa María de la Valldigna, founded in 1298 at the behest of James the Conqueror, who chose that valley as a symbol of Christian progress. The king thus tied Valencia to a fervent Catholicism. The ruins are surrounded by orange groves.

When the report passed by the monastery, at the turn of the year, a group of young Valencian women were taking advantage of the ruins for a photo shoot. They wore the typical clothes of the fallas —the main event in the region, in honor of São José.

The fallas are celebrated in March with the construction of cardboard, wood and polystyrene monuments, burned in carnival rituals for public catharsis.

How to get to Valence

There is an airport in Valencia, with connections to European cities. By car, coming from Madrid, the journey takes 4 hours. By train, it’s 2 hours

Where to eat paella in Albufera

Arrocería Maribel
Carrer de Francisco Monleón, 5

Bon Aire Restaurant
Carrer de Cabdet, 41

Tours close to the city

Xativa Castle
Entry for 6 euros (R$ 33)

Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de la Valldigna
Free entrance.

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