By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Besides Valencia, the beauties of all cities vanish from my eyes,
The more I reflect, the more her matchless charms make me sigh.
For her dress, God has given it green meadows and flowers swaying high,
And for a skirt, the enticing sea and a clear river under a bright sky.”
So wrote early 12th century Ibn al-Zaqqaq, the Moorish son of Valencia in the era when Valencia was the most important metropolis in Muslim Spain.
Today, the centuries have not erased this charm and affluence. Valencia and its countryside remain one of the loveliest and wealthiest regions in the Iberian Peninsula. The Valencian pleasure of living, love for music, fountains and gardens are all still there. As in the days of Ibn Zaqqaq, the city and its suburbs are still known as the ‘The Garden Town of Spain’.
A city with its metropolitan area of some 1.5 million, it is the third largest city in Spain and capital of a fertile agricultural province – famous for its paella, Lladró porcelain, and the spectacular festival of the Fallas. One of the sunniest towns in sunny Spain, it enjoys nine months of comfortable-pleasant weather – a tourist Shangri-la. Also, the economic and cultural centre of the country’s eastern coastal region, it is a major port and the seat of an archbishopric.
Buoyant bright and sun-dappled, it is a cheerful and lively urban centre. Surrounded by lemon and orange groves and lush-green rice fields, first introduced by the Arabs, it rises out of the rich agricultural plain known as the huerta. Enchanting in spring with their perfume-defusing blossoms and breathtaking in autumn with colourful fruits and their blue, rose and sparkling white buildings, the groves give the whole region an aura of seductiveness.
Founded by the Greeks under the name Thuris, Valencia was later settled by the Carthaginians and then the Romans, who renamed it Valentia, becoming one of the most important cities in their empire. However, the Arabs, who captured it in 712 A.D. from the Visigoths, made the greatest contribution to its advancement and fame. During that epoch, Valencia reached its peak of magnificence and became a centre of great cultural and political importance.
The legendary El Cid conquered Valencia from the Moors in 1094 and established for himself from the city and its surrounding countryside a flourishing kingdom. His just rule made him respected by both his Christian and Moorish subjects, who gave him the Arabic name Sidi (Lord), which in Spanish became El Cid.
A few years later the Muslims retook the town, and it was not until 1238 that the Spaniards recaptured the city. In the ensuing years, bell towers replaced the minarets, but the city continued to thrive. However, after the last of the Moors were expelled in 1609, Valencia fell into economic decline and it was not until the 20th century that it again became a vibrant industrial metropolis.
For those enamoured with sightseeing and history, the intriguing old town with its historic buildings, on the banks of the dried-up River Turia, encircled by the modern city of skyscrapers and wide avenues, is a visitors’ mecca. The old riverbed has been converted into the The Turia Gardens, the green heart of the city. Where the river’s waters once flowed, playground and sport areas have been installed. On its former banks visitors will find gardens, museums, monuments, and at the southern tip of the riverbed, the stunning complex of cultural attractions known as the City of Arts and Sciences.
Ibn Zaqqaq’s river has been converted into a great city park that has become known as ‘the river of culture’. This green complex along with numerous other parks and gardens such as the Jardines del Real Viveros, Alameditas de Serranos, los Jardines de Monforte, el Jardín Botánico, and El Parterre y La Glorieta have turned the city into an estate of flowers and trees.
For visitors, the old historic city centre with its traces of the remains from Moorish and medieval times brings back memories from the past ages. All its well-known monuments, the vast majority belonging to the centuries following the Christian conquest, are found within this old central nucleus, which was once a walled city.
The sites are within walking distance of each other and one can stroll to explore the major attractions with little effort. One of the most seductive pleasures of Valencia’s old quarter is to wander around with no destination in mind. This is especially pleasant in the spring when the scent of orange perfume floats in from the nearby huerta. As long as visitors stay within the area of the ramparts, which with the exception of four gates were torn down in 1865, there is much to see.
One of the good starting points is one of Europe’s greatest markets the Mercado Central (Central Market) – a spectacular ceramic and glass Modernist building housing 1,300 food stalls, displaying the rich produce of the huerta. Across the street is one of the city’s most magnificent buildings, La Lonja de la Seda, a former silk exchange, completed in 1498. It is the most splendid example of secular Gothic architecture in Spain with stained-glass windows and, inside, fine twisted spiral columns supporting a magnificently vaulted ceiling.
Beyond, the marble-paved Plaza de la Virgen, the heart of old Valencia and once the location of the Roman Forum, has always been an important site. Today, the square is a popular resting place and is constantly full of life. Edging it is the Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados built in the Baroque style. Its eye-catching interior includes an oval dome with a fresco by Antonio Palomino, as well as a richly decorated Gothic carving of the patron saint of Valencia.
Next door is Valencia’s historic Cathedral built over the remains of the once largest mosque in the city. Reflecting a flamboyant Gothic style, its most remarkable part is the Miguelete, a belltower located next to the main facade. Built in the Gothic style at the end of the 14th century, the Miguelete has been a symbol of Valencia ever since.
Every Thursday at noon at the plaza’s cathedral door, the Tribunal de las Aguas (Water Tribunal) sits judging disputes among farmers concerning the distribution of water in the surrounding countryside. Established by the Moorish Caliph al-Hakam II, it is the oldest surviving court in Europe. The code he laid down is still the basis of all judgements concerning water disputes in the city.
To enjoy exploring these and other city monuments in an atmosphere of merriment, the best time to travel to Valencia is in mid-March when, for a week, Las Fallas Festival is in full swing. The city at this time is a beehive of activity. Towering elaborate life-size fantastic paper mâche effigies with satirical implications, that artisans spend a whole year making, block traffic. All day and night, crowds of locals and tourists fill the streets, shouting and singing while the sounds of exploding firecrackers and fireworks fill the air. At the end of the week, to usher in the spring, the huge effigies are awarded prizes and then all are set on fire. It is a fine way to end one’s visit to Valencia – a city of history, fun and pleasure.