Baldo cafeteria in Valencia – the waiter learns about the today’s special from the chef
Recently I visited Valencia for the first time, and this post is like a mosaic of impressions from my stay there. I will not be extra polite, saying things I don’t mean, just for the sake of being nice. And for all Valencianos, you probably don’t need a foreigner telling you what the strengths of your city are – I’m quite sure you know your own city better than I do. So I wish to state right from the beginning that the post below probably won’t be a particularly interesting reading for Spanish people or for those who know Spain and Valencia well.
Anyway, naturally, one of the first questions I was asked was “Did you like Valencia?” The short answer is yes. I’ve travelled around Europe a lot but none of those many trips were to Spain. The one and only time I was in Spain was about 10 years ago and that was to Mallorca – quite a touristy place.
My first impressions of Valencia? Actually, very mixed – really warm weather for late November; the architecture is interesting – a mixture of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance; there are handmade colourful ceramic tiles just about everywhere (including street signs and shop advertisements); people eat and go to bed very late and … most Spaniards don’t speak English.
But hey, everybody knows it: you come to a foreign city and from the first moment on you either like it or not. I did. Valencia is very diverse – every corner I turned, there was something to see, from the inspiring and beautifully restored Mercado Central (Central Market), to narrow, twisting streets and plazas every few dozen metres in the old town.
Streets of Valencia
Much of the traffic is directed to go around the city centre and alongside a very impressive Turia river bed. The river was diverted in the 1960s, after massive flooding. It is now few kilometres long area of grassland, children’s playground, football pitches and other sports facilities, and the City of Arts and Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias).
If you haven’t been to Spain before, you’ll quickly note that the Spanish eating habits are absolutely different from most of the rest of Europe. Eating and opening hours are loosely defined (at least to my understanding) and surprise, surprise – restaurants only start opening at 8:30 p.m. and some even at 9p.m. So don’t expect to eat dinner at 7:00 p.m. To a guy like me (who doesn’t read guides and reviews before heading somewhere) that was a bit of a shock, really.
“So, what’s the food like?” logically comes the second question. Because this was my first visit to Valencia, I wanted to taste the typical food locals eat and stayed away from the fashionable Michelin rated restaurants that offer avant-garde cooking and molecular gastronomy. Most places I visited, prepared their dishes using selected regional ingredients in accordance with age-old recipes, as locals proudly say. Also, Spanish really like their Jamón Iberico and Serrano (a dry-cured ham), chorizo (a heavily seasoned pork sausage), and of course the world’s popular paella.
The latest is extremely popular in Valencia, because, as I was told, rice, the main ingredient of paella, is grown in Valencia’s tidal flatlands and the region is number one rice producer in Spain.
Like many non-Spaniards I thought of paella as Spain’s national dish, but as I found out it is a regional and traditional Valencian dish. Anyway in a matter of four days I managed to taste all kinds of paellas I could find on offer – paella valenciana (Valencian paella), paella de marisco (seafood paella) and paella mixta (mixed paella), and even paella negra (black paella, coloured with squid ink).
In terms of a quick snack very popular are bocadillos and tapas, found in every corner of the streets, in what is called “cafeterias”. Bocadillos are small sandwiches typically made with a cured ham (jamón serrano). Tapas are pieces of food served on small plates. These are usually eaten standing up, with some drinks on hand. It is more of a social custom; you get to fill your stomach while you chat with friends or neighbours.
The different types of food served in tapas bar, restaurants and other eateries I visited
I tried to stay away from contemporary chic restaurants and sought eateries with inviting atmosphere, traditional decor and popular with locals. Many eateries are divided into parts (often situated on different floors) allowing for a casual meal at the counter or a more formal meal in the dining area. The only two drawbacks for me were that most of them (if not all) allow smoking which I didn’t always enjoy, to put it soft. And after being there for nearly a week, it was still difficult to get used to eating lunch at 3pm and dinner at 10pm.
Valencia restaurants and bars