Visit Valencia: Let Me Convince Ya

Not long ago, Valencia was one of Spain's least interesting major cities.

Madrid and Barcelona were destinations, while Valencia was a pit stop surrounded by orange trees on the way to the beach.

Today, Spain's third-largest city on the eastern Mediterranean coast buzzes with excitement.

Valencia still starts with its original attractions, sun and sand. The city enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year, and temperatures in midwinter are comfortably in the 60s and 70s. It leveraged this Florida-like weather into hosting the 2007 America's Cup yacht race, an event which reinvigorated the industrial port.

Even though the boats have left, much remains to see and enjoy. Valencia has morphed into a major cultural center, with signature architecture by famed native son Santiago Calatrava and some of the continent's most exciting new museums and galleries.

The destination is easy to reach. Although no direct flights exist from the U.S., numerous connections are available from Madrid and Barcelona. Many of Europe's low-cost airlines, led by Ryanair and easyJet, have set up major bases at the airport just out of the city. There's also a local Spanish low-cost alternative called Vueling that flies to other major cities in Spain and Europe.

Despite its ultra-modern introduction, Valencia has a long history -- in particular, a golden age of commerce and arts during the 13th through 15th centuries. In the historic center, don't miss the cathedral, which blends Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque features, and the outstandingly beautiful silk exchange, the Lonja de la Seda, one of the most outstanding examples of secular gothic architecture.

The city offers top-flight shopping. In the central food market, nearly 1,000 vendors sell all types of authentic Spanish foodstuffs. Designer boutiques crowd the nearby crammed pedestrian streets. Spanish fast-fashion chains led by Zara and Mango offer couture clothes at everyday prices that even in these days of the weak dollar are affordable. Zara, in particular, sets its prices lower in its home market than elsewhere in Europe or the U.S.

Valencia's modern face is exemplified by Calatrava's soaring, sculptural bird-like City of Arts and Sciences, which contains a science museum, theater, gardens and an aquarium.

The Prince Felipe science museum is full of hands-on and fun exhibits -- in one, you become a secret service agent and attempt to solve crimes using high-tech devices. L'Oceanogràfic, Europe's largest aquarium, offers a series of different watery habitats connected by stunning underground tunnels.

More upscale culture is found at the center's Palace of the Art, which has stages for opera, dance and theater. Music is focused at the nearby Palau de la Música.

A less highbrow passion is the local soccer team, FC Valencia. In the past few years, it has battled it out with rivals Real Madrid and FC Barcelona for the top of the tables. The stadium holds upwards of 70,000, and tickets to most matches are available on the same day.

Kickoff often is at 9 p.m., allowing for tapas-bar hopping beforehand. Fans crowd in the bars around the stadium, munching on such specialties as marinated squid, fried calamari, anchovies and other types of seafood snacks, all washed down with glasses of cold lager on the tap or squirts of fresh, lemony white wines.

The historic center city is also home to the most historic tapas bars. Bar Pilar, which opened in 1917, is particularly picturesque, with pink-and-black-tiled walls. It calls itself the "home of mussels" and a bowl of spiced shellfish is a meal in itself. Even in this day of the fading dollar, a stomach-full of tapas and beer for two came to less than $30.

More refined seafood is found all over the city. Casa Civera, (Mosen Fernandes 10; 34 96 352 97 64), just in back of the Town Hall, offers a shiny, sparkling silver bar for munching and taking a quick meal, and a spotless dining room. There's an excellent wine list with selections from the area and from all over Spain. (Once known for plonk, Valencia now produces some fine wines.)

A meal here does not come cheap -- expect to pay over $50 a head.

Valencia's best-known dish is paella, and the best place to find it is not in the touristy hangouts along the Valencia beachfront, but a short drive south of the city, near the renowned rice-growing region called the Albufera.

At L'Alter (L'Alter Ca Juliet 3, Picassent 34-961 230-537), just outside the village of Picassent, paella is cooked in giant pans over orangewood before being set in the middle of the table.

There's paella with chicken and rabbit, paella with all sorts of seafood, paella with the classic saffron-flavored rice and paella with black rice covered by the ink from squid. All come with the slightly burnt, crisp bottom that injects extra flavor, all are delicious and all are reasonably priced. A meal for two, without wine but including dessert costs a mere $40.

After a long lunch, how about enjoying a relaxing game of golf? Six championship golf courses are within a 20-minute drive of the city center.

The one with the best reputation is the splendid links layout Campo de Golf El Saler set in the Albufera Nature Park alongside the Mediterranean. The holes run amid sand dunes and pine trees and contain some of the deepest fairway bunkers outside of Scotland.

The golf course is set on the grounds of a gorgeous, recently renovated parador, part of the chain of luxury lodgings.

While most paradors are historic, this hotel is resolutely modernist, and sits on the beachfront like a spaceship ready to blast off. Inside, the décor is minimalist black and white, with large, open spaces and vistas. Rooms go for upwards of $300 a night.

But it is not necessary to spend so much to enjoy Valencia. Most of the hotels, like most of the city, recently have been upgraded and it's possible to enjoy a stay in numerous nicely redone budget hotels. The Hostal Venecia, right on the Town Hall Square, costs a mere $90 a night for a more-than-adequate double room. For an additional $7.50, there's a nearly unbeatable buffet breakfast.

Whether your budget is luxury or economy, newly energized Valencia is a treat.

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