Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Viva Valencia

City breaks are a good idea in theory. European cities are well-connected by plane and train and many offer more sights than you could hope to see in a weekend; but for those who already live in a city, they have a definite drawback: they aren't exactly a 'break'. Swapping London for Paris or Rome for a couple of nights will definitely give the weekend visitor a change of scenery, but it won't exactly offer much respite from honking horns and the frenetic pace of city life. For those requiring a little more relaxation, a few days at the beach seems like a good option, but finding an easily-accessible stretch of sand can be challenging; plus it's not always easy to combine tourism and tanning. So what's the solution to this mini-breaking conundrum? A city with a beach of course. Step forward Valencia.

It's not often that a city makes such a strong impression on me that I plan a return visit immediately after my first, but Valencia succeeded and I made the trip south-east to the home of horchata twice in as many months. There's something instantly likeable about Valencia, with its pretty pedestrianised streets clustering around the central Plaza de la Virgen, where a figure representing the River Turia reclines regally in a bath-like fountain. This gives some indication of Valencia's atmosphere: laid-back. Although the historic centre is one of the main areas to explore, Valencia has much more to offer hardly a surprise, given that it's Spain's third-biggest city. There's the photogenic modern City of Arts and Sciences, boasting a huge opera house, a state-of-the-art science museum and Europe's largest aquarium; 9 kilometres of park in the form of the Jardines del Turia, made from the former bed of the diverted river; an array of museums and art galleries, and of course, the beach.

My second weekend in Valencia began with a leisurely ice cream and a spot of people watching while perched on the edge of Turia's giant bathtub in the sun-soaked square. I soon felt the feeling of inner-city stress fade away; unusual given that I was actually still in the heart of a big city. Not wanting to entirely give in to these feelings of inertia, it was time for a climb up the cathedral tower to work off the ice cream and take in the views of the city's rooftops, stretching out to the strip of sea on the horizon. After the strenuous ascent, we took a rather more relaxed stroll in the park before dinner at Basilico, a tiny gem of a restaurant in the Russafa area, run by an Anglo-French team. The short but regularly changing menu of European, Asian and Indian dishes was well-explained by the host, and the starter of spiced chickpeas and vegetables served inside a lettuce leaf was a delicious (if not entirely appropriate) precursor to homemade ravioli in a light tomato and cream sauce.

On Saturday morning, we left our 'home' for the weekend, the centrally located, quirkily decorated and appropriately named Home Youth Hostel bright and early for breakfast in the shadow of the modernista-style mercado central. We wandered around the market's fresh produce stalls and paid a quick visit to La Lonja, the impressive gothic former commodity exchange, before heading through the Jardines del Turia towards a rather more modern Valencian attraction, the City of Arts and Sciences. A swathe of green dividing the city, the jardines are an inspired use of the former riverbed, featuring fountains and flowers, a jogging track and a curious children's playground in the shape of Gulliver (of Travels fame), whose prone form is clambered over by Valencian niños on a daily basis.

After our trek to the 'City', it was time for a break by the edge of one of the expanses of water lending a serene feel to the ultra-modern complex. Undertaken in the mid-1990s and completed in 2005, it was mostly designed by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava. Its dramatic structures and the greenery-filled walkway of the Umbracle terrace (which apparently features a bar in summer) make the City an interesting place to wander around, even if you can't afford to enter any of its pretty pricey attractions. As I had visited the Oceanografic aquarium on my last trip, we made our way to the beach instead, eager to make the most of the sunshine. After exposing Valencia's sunbathers to the white glow of our English skin (only half of them reeled away in horror), we dined on the city's most famous dish, paella, at locals' favourite La Rosa. The beachside restaurant offers a wide variety of rice dishes, but for our first experience we opted for a traditional paella de mariscos, served to our table in a huge pan. It was slightly salty, but the variety of seafood it contained and the generous portion managed to make up for that. While on the metro back to the centre, I noticed with dismay that in true Brit Abroad style I had burned my feet and they were now adorned with a tasteful red and white sandal pattern. It seems there are some stereotypes you just can't escape.

Back in town, we decided that now we had tried Valencia's most famous food, it was only fair to sample its typical drink, so in a variation on the English teatime tradition, we stopped at the Horchatería de Santa Catalina for a taste of horchata. Made from the dangerous-sounding tiger nuts, horchata is an opaque white liquid with an unusual, slightly powdery taste (really selling it here, aren't I). Eaten with long, finger-shaped buns amusingly known as fartons, it's a refreshing if acquired taste.

It being Spain's semana santa (Holy Week or Easter), we made our way back to the port area in the evening to see one of the processions, during which members of Church brotherhoods clad in robes and face-obscuring pointed hoods take to the streets bearing aloft a figure of Jesus or Mary. Unable to shake off the more positive stereotype of la puntualidad inglesa, we arrived on time and joined the mixed bag of onlookers and brotherhood members waiting for the procession to begin. We watched with interest as chatty older ladies and gawky teenage boys donned their hoods and shed their identities; becoming anonymous masked figures. As we sat outside the church, there was a sudden cry of 'cucaracha! cucaracha!'. We looked up to see a local lady pointing at our bench with far more glee than was stricly necessary, and immediately leapt up to avoid the offending cockroach. At this point a second valenciana announced, 'You must step on the cockroach' and promptly did just so, extinguishing the creature with one decisive movement of her elegant boot. Once all this excitement was over the real spectacle began: the church bell tolled and the procession participants finally assembled. We followed the marching band, hooded figures and uniformed men bearing a figure of Christ on the cross for a while as they made steady progress around the block.

Keen to sample more Valencian cuisine, we returned to the centre for a tapas tour of the city's bars. Beginning at El Molinón, we tried a plate of fresh grilled squid and another of roasted pimientos de padrón fortunately we managed to avoid the rogue hot pepper that puts in an occasional appearance alongside its benign brothers. Next up was the rather less rustic Pepita Pulgarcita; all white walls, chandeliers and well-heeled clientele. Despite this, prices were still reasonable, and the pesto-drizzled mussels and mini falafel wraps made an interesting change from more traditional tapas. Unable to stomach any more after the lunchtime paella extravaganza, we waddled back to our hostel beds at the rock and roll hour of 11.30pm.

Appropriately enough, Sunday was another sunny day; perfect for an al fresco breakfast on Plaza de la Reina before heading to Valencia's Museo de Bellas Artes, one of Spain's largest. We got our fill of religious art in the downstairs gallery, then headed upstairs to the more motley collection of mostly Spanish 19th and 20th century paintings. There was nothing interesting enough to detain us from the sunshine for long, though so we made our way outside to the next-door Jardines del Real and Jardines Monforte, two adjacent oases of shady walkways, ornamental hedges and duck ponds.

Having reached the end of our budget and our trip, it was time to leave laid-back Valencia and its sunny streets and return to the hustle and bustle of Madrid. Offering a perfect balance of sunbathing and sightseeing opportunities, along with great food and a relaxed atmosphere, I can't help but think that Valencia might just be the perfect city break. After spending two weekends there, I still haven't had my fill of the city's charm, and Valencia is staying on my cities to (re)visit list.

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Thursday, 25 March 2010

Bilbao: It ain't grim up north

'Industrial' and 'gritty' are two adjectives travel writers commonly associate with Bilbao. And I'm sure some parts of it remain so, even post-Guggenheim regeneration, but my first glimpse of the city, nestling between the verdant hills of the Basque country, was definitely more beguiling than I'd been led to believe. My second glimpse, emerging from Casco Viejo metro station into Plaza Unamuno, whose cherry trees were already bearing blossom despite it being the end of February, made me think that Bilbao's reputation as a grim working city was undeserved.

Bilbao's casco viejo (old quarter) is a charming, well-preserved and atmospheric area – some, myself included, would even go so far as to call it beautiful. In town for the weekend to celebrate a wedding, eating and drinking were high on our list of priorities. After leaving our luggage at Bilbo Rooms, our pensión in the heart of the old town, we hit the nearby Plaza Nueva to discover whether what some say about Basque food – that it's the best in Spain, or even Europe – is actually true. The verdict, based on the two bars we tried, was that such grand claims were not as far-fetched as they initially seemed: Gure Toki in particular dished up a creative line of pintxos, definitely more appealing than the tortilla de patatas/jamón options all too common in my Madrid barrio: mini hamburgers stacked on a slice of baguette and topped qith a quail's egg, Asian-style vegetables and prawns wrapped in filo pastry... Delicious. Our quartet of British and American girls spent the rest of the evening exploring the casco viejo's bars and finding unwanted favour among Bilbao's elderly locals, one of whom expressed a fervent wish to marry a Basque girl, which was a rather lucky escape for us.

Although Friday night's tapas scored highly with my tastebuds, the culinary highlight of the weekend was still to come. After a busy morning's sightseeing taking in the rest of the old quarter and the hill-top Basilica de Begoña, we took a stroll down the regenerated riverside to that most famous of Bilbao's tourist attractions: the Guggenheim museum, an architectural wonder of a modern art gallery designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 1997. It's every bit as spectacular as it appears in photos; a gleaming, silver structure looming over the Ría de Bilbao. The area surrounding the museum is worth exploring: it boasts a vast sculpture of a spider allegedly representing maternal love (more likely to send children running than reaching for a hug, in my opinion), and Jeff Koons' flower-bedecked 'Puppy'. Inside the museum lay our real reason for visiting: the restaurant. Despite it being a Saturday, a 3 course menu in the bistro – with bread, an appetiser, water and a bottle of wine all thrown in – was a positively bargainous 19 euros. How very civilised. Under the creative direction of Josean Martínez Alija, a young Spanish maestro who was named 'best foreign chef' by the Italian Identita Golose guide in 2009, the Restaurante Guggenheim provided us with 3 slices of gastronomic heaven: first on my plate was a light salad of aubergine, mushroom, cheese and lettuce, followed by a bulgur wheat and squid risotto topped with mascarpone, with a mint sponge cake with coconut foam and chocolate ice cream for dessert. Surprisingly for an eaterie featuring 'foam' on the menu, the restaurant was unpretentious, with impeccable service and river views helping to make this the most memorable meal I've had since Alla Zucca in Venice (more of which to follow).

Fortified by 3 perfectly-proportioned courses and two-thirds of a bottle of wine between two of us, M. and I moved on to the Guggenheim's better-known draw – the art. Not being particular fans of modern (or is it contemporary?!) art and under the influence of the aforementioned wine, the 8 euro visit involved a quick audio-guided whip-round (or more accurately, weave-round) the architecturally impressive interior, eyeing up the permanent collection, which includes works by Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, and a temporary exhibition featuring mangled metal 'sculptures'.

A few hours later, it was time to get back on the wine as we headed out to the welcoming bars of Bilbao to celebrate our friend's wedding. But not before one more visit to the tapas bars of Plaza Nueva, of course. Sunday morning was spent taking a bracing walk on the beach before boarding the bus back to Madrid and hoping to return soon to the Basque city. Bilbao, those travel writers were wrong about you: a beautiful historic quarter, world-famous architecture, food to remember for all the right reasons and friendly locals definitely isn't grim in my opinion.

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Sunday, 21 March 2010

So here goes...

After six months of contemplating this whole blogging idea I finally decided to take the plunge. So, here's a bit more about me and my life as a Brit Abroad (not the lobster-red, mini-skirt wearing sangria by the pool kind though I'm afraid).

As a repressed writer trapped in an editing job who spends her holidays on freelance travel writing trips, I would love to one day earn my living from visiting new places. Until that day comes (let's remain optimistic now), I thought I'd put fingertips to keyboard and share my experiences of (mostly European) travel and life as an expat in Madrid to those who I flatter myself (perhaps mistakenly) are interested enough to read.

In August 2009 I bid farewell to the beautiful city of Oxford to move to Madrid, for reasons which, as I recently observed, 'seemed good at the time'. I didn't feel I was quite well enough acquainted with the person making the enquiry to reveal that one of those reasons was my firm (and incomprehensible to many) belief that I'm going to marry Real Madrid's no.4 Sergio Ramos. More serious reasons for the move included my decade-long love of Spain, which has so far involved two memorable extended stays in and around Seville. The first of these was a nine-month stint as a language assistant in a secondary school in the town of Alcalá de Guadaira, which my mother described as being 'like Salford'. In truth it is nothing like the northern city crime prevention forgot, but it isn't exactly... cosmopolitan. Still, I grew to love it and it convinced me that one day I wanted to return to Spain more permanently. Three months living in the city of Seville – on famous party street Calle Betis no less – only confirmed my suspicions (in addition to driving me to earplugs to drown out the nocturnal noise of the sevillano youth). Rather than returning to the southern city, famed for its sunny streets, laid-back lifestyle and incomprehensible accents, I decided to move to the capital, Madrid.

And here I am. When not working, I spend my time exploring both the city and the rest of the country, eating out (all in the name of research, naturally), learning Arabic and planning yet more trips. So far, I've managed to get to Zaragoza, a casa rural in southern Aragón, Valencia, Bilbao, Segovia, Toledo, Alcalá de Henares and El Escorial. Planned trips for the rest of the year include a second visit to Valencia, the Rhone Valley in France, Malaysia and Singapore. And should my bank balance allow it, knowing me I have no doubt that I will manage to fit in a few other destinations too.

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