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Valencia - Foodies Paradise

Louise Elgin visits Valencia during Restaurant Week - very lucky girl!

As I cycled contentedly through the city of Valencia on a bright, sunny morning recently, I encountered a small group participating in happiness therapy. This sight had to be the one great irony of my trip, as I don’t think there can be many cities in Europe that exude such a natural feeling of well-being as I experienced here. Travelling by bike is such a fun way to see the city as it is mostly flat. This is partly due to the fact that after the River Turia burst its banks in 1957, (flooding the old town in the process), the flow was diverted elsewhere and the town restored. The riverbed was then turned into an enormous green space, namely the Parque Jardines del Turia, which is a great place for all sorts of outdoor activities including cycling.

Valencia makes for such a great destination from London. For a start you can get there cheaply, with both Easyjet and Ryanair having regular flights. I was also struck by how un-crowded it was. After the chaos and hectic pace of London’s metropolis it really did seem a peaceful and serene environment. The weather is also fantastic - the sort of place where you can go out in the evening without a jacket. It’s the home of paella - and if you’ve never tasted it where have you been?! A wonderful rice dish cooked up with chicken or seafood and is a work of art when made properly. Or you can just hang out and spend your evening with several jugs of sangria and plate after plate of wonderful tapas for very little money. It’s also a very young city, with plenty of students and a fun, upbeat kind of vibe. In the evenings everyone hits the town and I was so impressed by the refreshing, café society atmosphere, with groups gathered round tables chatting and enjoying themselves without overdoing it (I saw very little drunken or aggressive behaviour) well into the small hours.

The reason for my visit was to attend the first Valencia Restaurant Week. This year it took place between 15th- 21st June but it now plans to become a regular event due to its tremendous popularity. During the week over 50 restaurants (including several with Michelin stars) throughout the city offer tremendous discounts - with fixed priced set lunches at just 18 Euros and set dinners at 30 Euros. I was lucky enough to sample several of these throughout my stay but more of that later.

So apart from eating and drinking very well Valencia offers a whole host of other activities and interests. For a start there is the City of Arts and Sciences, with its captivating futuristic architecture that includes a very modern theatre/opera house, the Palau de les Arts, an Imax cinema and beautiful aquarium (the largest in Europe to be precise) with 45,000 living creatures. There is also the historic old city, with its wonderful Central Market, an absolute must for all foodie lovers like me with around 1,500 stalls selling every kind of fare and Mediterranean gastronomy. Built in 1927 it is housed in an attractive cool and airy building with a vaulted ceiling and attractive friezes of oranges decorating it throughout.

When in the mood for a bit of culture don’t miss the city’s magnificent cathedral, with its shrine believed to contain The Holy Grail, as well captivating Renaissance frescos and Goya paintings. The beautifully restored UNESCO Silk Market is worth a look as is the National Ceramics Museum with its outrageously opulent carved exterior. Do also visit The Virgin Square, this being one of the most impressive landmarks in the whole of the city and a must for a photo stop whilst having a lunch or coffee break.

If this all sounds a little too like hard work and what you really feel like is some R&R may I suggest some less strenuous alternatives? I spent an entirely relaxing afternoon at La Alameda, a former monastery which has now been lavishly transformed into an urban thermal spa. The 1909 Art Nouveau building is a labyrinth of low lit passages and treatment rooms where it is possible to enjoy a whole host of holistic treatments. We tried the restoring and therapeutic mineral baths which made for a very relaxing couple of hours, rejuvenating both body and soul whilst enabling us to treat any aches and pains against the varying water pressures in the 42 degrees warm water.

Another water based activity I enjoyed, without having to get wet this time, was a gentle boat ride down the biggest lake in Spain. Situated just outside the city and amid the atmospheric overgrown rice fields, it is possible to take a boat ride down Lake Albufera. I suggest the best time to do this is after a long lunch with plenty of wine so you can relax and doze, admiring the bird life and the passing peaceful scenery at your will.

Of course the other marvellous thing about Valencia is that it is on the coast, with plenty of restaurants right by the beach to enjoy. Spain is a country where you see whole families out together - from grannies through to newborns. They are such a close knit bunch and I found the sight of large groups of all ages eating together a refreshing change from our culture where the only time you see that sort of behaviour is once a year on the likes of Mother’s Day. We took a catamaran tour out to sea which was very relaxing, especially with a drink in one hand whist watching the sun set. Valencia hosted The America’s Cup in 2007 and it was interesting to see all the buildings that had been erected for the event still standing like monuments to the occasion.

During my stay, (which was over several days), I checked out two very different four star hotels. The Barcelo Valencia, with its bachelor pad style spacious rooms, (that would have suited James Bond very nicely), and slick ultra modern interior with plenty of glass and chrome, and the Holiday Inn Valencia which was more conventional, highly comfortable and hard to fault.

But I digress, what I was really there for was the food. I recommend that when you plan your trip to Valencia do coincide it with The Valencia Restaurant Week as it is a golden opportunity to get to try all types of cuisine at bargain prices. There is a great little booklet you can get from the tourist office or online which gives you all the menus in advance that are on offer so you can really plan your eating. Do book ahead mind as it is hugely popular with the locals.

My top tip is get yourself to Seu Xerea where I had the most sensational lunch. Owned by Steve Anderson, a Brit with a Burmese mother and Welsh father, Steve, (who once was surprisingly a science teacher back in the UK), has now re-trained as a chef and a very good one at that. The restaurant, which is quite small, but spacious and airy once inside, serves, like Steve’s heritage, a mix of Asian and European cooking. I began with a totally knockout Thai style fish soup, ingeniously served on a bed of smoking dry ice. It was ambrosial, wonderfully scented with lemon grass, fish stock and lime leaves and an accompanying skewer of prawns. To follow I had a paella a la marinara which again was superb, cooked with a wonderful stock which gave it a slightly soupy base, the rice having plenty of bite and taste. The rest of my party opted for a plate of suckling pig which looked and tasted divine and something I would also recommend you try if you go there. For pudding I tried a totally indulgent chocoholics delight - four textures of chocolate served with a liquorish ice cream. Throughout the meal we drank wonderfully crisp white Valencian wine, a blend of Muscadet and Sauvignon Blanc which was just the thing on such an extremely hot afternoon.

I really loved Valencia and I think you will too. Just make sure that if you do want to go to the restaurant week next year you book well ahead to avoid disappointment.

Louise Elgin. July 2009.

For more information on restaurants and where to eat in Valencia, visit - Valencia Restaurant Week website

Further information - Palau de les Arts opera/theatre - La Alameda Thermal Baths - Bicycle hire Valencia - Lake Albufera boat trips - Catamaran tour on the sea - Barcelo Valencia Hotel - Holiday Inn Valencia - Easy jet - Seu-Xerea Restaurant - Tel: +34 963 924 000

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