Best know as the home of Paella, Spain’s third largest city has so much more to offer than this rustic rice dish.
I was heading out to Valencia for Restaurant Week, now in its 6th year with 64 restaurants involved, including 5 with Michelin stars. Participating restaurants serve a slap up lunch for €20 and dinner for €30 – it’s a bargain and a great excuse to visit this exciting city.
Originally a purpose built town for Roman soldiers, Valencia is over 2000 years old. The old town is stunning with breath-taking baroque buildings, narrow streets and shady squares. Just outside the old town is a laid back bohemian quarter called Russafa and on the edge of the city a spaceship-like area called the City of Arts and Science. And of course there is the beautiful beach.
I arrived late on a Friday morning and feeling peckish I strolled through the centre of town to El Poblet. Here chef Quique Dacosta has a Michelin Star for his contemporary Valencian food. He had concocted a special menu for Restaurant Week that included a wondrous cuba libre of foie gras. It was served like a jelly cube, with silky soft foie gras cream on the bottom and a rum and coke reduction over the top. It was a sublime introduction to the Valencian dining scene.
After lunch I was met by a local guide and we walked from the marbled Virgin Mary’s Square in the heart of the old town to the serenely beautiful St John of the Basilica, Valencia’s oldest church. We continued on to the original Chamber of Commerce, an impressive looking hall with huge twisted columns reaching high into a vaulted ceiling.
The old town gave way to the new and we walked past the Plaza del Toros, Valencia’s bull fighting ring and into Russafa. This arty neighbourhood is packed with cool cafés, independent shops and little tapas bars. We stopped for cold beers at El Desvàn del Café, a hipster hangout with a tiny garden at the back, before ordering bravas at Bar Morrut. Bravas are slithers of potatoes cooked in oil (confit) and served with rich tomato sauce and a joyous slick of garlicy aioli. They are triumphant at the best of times, but these were the best that I have ever had. At night this part of Valencia springs into life. Restaurants spill out onto the streets and little bars serve cocktails late into the night. It’s a party place and you are spoilt for choice.
The next morning I went for breakfast in the Central Market. A vibrant indoor food market bursting with over 400 fresh fruit and vegetables stalls, succulent seafood and Iberico hams. I took a seat at The Central Bar and ordered their special, a perfect pork sandwich with green peppers, rocket and egg sauce. Unlike my fellow diners who were enjoying cold beer, I opted for a more sober coffee and tucked into my glorious meal.
After a wander around the market, I jumped into a cab and went to the City of Arts and Science. It was like going to another planet – carved out beneath the main highway this futuristic space has huge white buildings, sleek curves, sharp corners and white brutalist architecture. Shallow pools of water surround the buildings and huge pod-like structures sit within them. Here you can visit the Palau de les Arts (an Opera house that looks like a space helmet), the Museum of Sciences and the Oceanographic, Europe’s biggest aquarium.
Ready for lunch, I hit the beach in search of sun, sea and Valencia’s famous rice dish, Paella. A slightly dilapidated 1950’s boardwalk lines the huge beach, with rows of pastel coloured houses, quiet cafes and cool little restaurants. I stopped for lunch in the white washed garden of Casa Carmela, a local restaurant famous for Valenciana Paella. This rustic dish is made with rabbit, chicken, snails and lima beans. The taste is incredible, really meaty and earthy from the snails.
Feeling like a walk, I took the metro to the edge of the city and ambled along the Jardi del Túria. Once a riverbed, locals use the park for running, walking or picnicking. A jazz concert was beginning and I was treated to a live sound track as I wandered along. My final stop was Plaza Negrito, a bustling little square filled with people imbibing around a fountain. It was the best place for an early evening beer and as I sat sipping an Estrella I began planning my next visit to this magical city.
Valencia Restaurant Week valenciacuinaoberta.com usually June and November
John Gregory-Smith was a guest of Visit Valencia. He stayed at the Vincci Palace Hotel where double rooms start from £74 per night and flew Easyjet from Gatwick to Valencia. One way flights start from £59.