Sunday, August 24, 2008

Valencia; Capital of Cool

This article is taken from the Times last week and you can see it here. Great article by Sue Mallia and not one mention of the Land Grab Law...

Valencia is gearing up to stage its first Formula One grand prix this weekend and to capitalise on the tourism spin-off. As the competitors race through the streets of its port and around the America's Cup marina, the spotlight will also fall on the city's abundant attractions and its emergence as one of Spain's most avant-garde destinations.

This reputation is best embodied in the bold complex of futuristic cultural and leisure venues that make up the City of Arts and Sciences. The wow factor generated by Santiago Calatrava's dazzling architecture helped to draw a record number of visitors to Valencia last year.

Tourists are also flocking to the new Bioparc, where people can enter the world of wild animals with barely any visible barriers. The innovative zoo, which opened in February, re-creates the habitats of creatures ranging from leopards to lemurs and gorillas to giraffes, with the animals living side by side as in nature.

On the other side of the city, curious fish can watch human beings at feeding time in the Submarino underwater restaurant attached to the Oceanográfico. More than 45,000 examples of 500 marine species inhabit the ecosystems of the world's seas created at the marine park, the only structure within the City of Arts and Sciences not designed by Calatrava.

The other buildings within the futuristic complex are the science museum, with its ribbed skeleton and roof line of shark fins; the Hemisfèric, which is shaped like an eyeball and, appropriately, houses an IMAX cinema and laser show; and the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía, a world-class concert hall that is a work of pure theatre.

A pleasant way to reach the complex is to head for the Turia gardens, a ribbon of parks and gardens stretching for 8km around the eastern edge of the old city. The gardens were created in the dried-up bed of the Turia river when it was diverted after serious flooding. They are now the domain of cyclists, joggers and walkers and the only sound of water is the gentle splashing of fountains.

Set off in the morning from the 16th-century Puente del Real, passing under several of the other bridges that span the gardens, including one resembling a Spanish comb, designed by Calatrava, who was born in the city. Look out for the playground where little people clamber over a giant outstretched Gulliver. After a gentle stroll of 30 to 40 minutes the complex, linked by shimmering lakes, lies ahead of you, the spectacular white buildings sparkling in the sunshine.

Valencia's climate is one of its biggest natural assets - it enjoys 300 sunny days a year. It is also a family-friendly city and easy to get around. As well as a modern metro and good tourist bus services, there are 75km of cycle routes, making it possible to explore any part of the city at your own pace. You can also pedal out to the long sandy beach at the port.

A good reason to head to the beach is to eat paella at one of the traditional restaurants, such as La Pepica, that line the Mediterranean shore. The dish was created in Valencia after the Arabs brought rice to the city during their rule from 714 to 1238. They also brought oranges and tiger nuts, from which the drink horchata is made.

Despite the emphasis on new attractions, the old city has much charm and is the most popular area for nightlife. The Plaza de la Virgen behind the cathedral is still the heart of the city as it was in the days of the Romans, who founded Valentia in 138BC. Remains from Roman times as well as the Islamic period and the years after the Christian Reconquest in 1238 can be seen in the nearby L'Almoina archaeological centre. The city's rich heritage also lives on in the wealth of medieval buildings, notably La Lonja de la Seda, the 15th-century silk exchange - the Arabs also introduced mulberry trees and silkworms to Valencia. The elegant Gothic exchange is a World Heritage site in itself. Its combination of architectural detail from Islamic, Christian and Jewish cultures is a lesson in physical and spiritual harmony.

Across the street is the Central market, one of the city's Art Nouveau gems, along with the glorious Colón market, which looks like a gingerbread house topped with speckled icing, and the north railway station.

Valencia also boasts more than 30 museums, many housed in restored historic buildings and palaces, such as the ceramics museum with its flamboyant 18th-century alabaster entrance.

Particular to the city is the Fallas museum, which features papier-mâché figures saved by popular vote from the flames during the city's big festival, Las Fallas. During the celebrations on March 15-19, cars are banned from the Old City and revellers pack the streets to enjoy the parades and firework displays, and to welcome spring. Within days the scent of orange blossom pervades the city, confirming that spring has indeed arrived., which is currently promoting Spain, offers discounts of up to 70 per cent on hotel rates. Accommodation ranges from five-star luxury hotels to budget B&Bs.

Deals on offer at four-star hotels in the city until August 30 include £80 a night for a double room at the Vincci Lys from this Sunday, saving up to £224; £76 for a double at the Melia Plaza from Monday, saving up to £85; and £107 including dinner, B&B at the Hotel Zenit on selected dates next week, saving up to £209 on the room.

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