Last year I decided I was going to be a big brave boy and go on holiday as a solo traveller.
I’ve done organised trips on my own before but this time I was going to be full-on independent. I’m not the nervous sort, but neither am I Bear Grylls, so I reckoned the rainforests of Costa Rica and the mountain trails of Tibet could wait for another year. I’d be better off taking the smaller step of jetting off to sunny Spain.
Like many people who grew up in the 80s, I’ve already visited quite a bit of Spain and so have resisted it for other – seemingly – more exciting locations. It was high time I packed my flamenco outfit and rediscovered this beautiful country. I wanted a city break but I am a British tourist and we do like to be beside the seaside.
After some research and lots of chatting with friends, I fixed on Valencia. As Spain’s third largest city, it felt big enough to keep me entertained but not so daunting that I clung to my A to Z in abject fear every time I left the hotel. I may not be nervy but I am dramatic.
It was the right decision. I was greeted by a fascinating city comprising a hotchpotch of elements from buildings dating back to Roman times to a Gothic cathedral towering over the old town, right up to the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences (more of which later).
Valencia can be split into three parts. First, there’s the stunning beach. Then there’s the old town, and connecting both is the unbelievable Jardines de Turia, some nine kilometres of lush green parkland running through the centre of the city. Originally the River Turia, after a huge flood in 1957 the local authorities rerouted the river to protect the city, and thus the gardens were born.
In a bid to catch my breath after the flight, my first foray into Valencia was a stroll in these gardens. I was instantly submerged into the culture; memories of rainy Manchester seemed a million miles away. The whole city is here. Nannies can be seen taking kids for strolls while people sit chilling and catching up alongside a plethora of joggers.
As you head down walkways towards the Mediterranean coast, strange structures loom out of the hazy sky. This is the City of Arts and Sciences and it is, quite simply, incredible. Designed by renowned local architect Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela, this 15-year labour of love has redefined the visitor experience to Valencia. The collection of individual yet aesthetically linked buildings houses a variety of attractions.
The first building to greet you is the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia. It was the last to be completed in 2005 and is Valencia’s opera house and arts centre. Next is L’Hemisferic, a huge IMAX cinema and planetarium which looks like a giant eye, it even opens and closes. I’m not being mean to Manchester’s Printworks or to the Museum of Science and Industry but…erm…do you blink?
Stretching behind this is L’Umbracle – which looks like fishbones – and houses a landscaped walk, a true gardener’s paradise. The centrepiece is the Museo de las Ciencias Principe Felipe (Science Museum) and is in the shape of a whale skeleton.
Passing under the bypass, you’re greeted by L’Agora which feels like a whale coming out of the sea and houses a plaza for different concerts and events.
Last, but by no means least, is L’Oceanographic. This is the biggest aquarium in Europe and it’s the business. It has loads of different environments from Artic to Tropical and you can see sharks, rays and dolphins. There’s also an elusive crocodile. I spent ages fruitlessly searching for this creature, suspecting I was being watched the entire time.
This remarkable complex is classed as one of the 12 Treasures of Spain. It’s no exaggeration to say it belongs in the company of the Alhambra Palace in Granada and Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
However, like many tourists, I wanted to get a feel for Valencia’s history. The old town is pure Spain with narrow cool streets bursting with shops and stalls. Most roads lead to the cathedral but, thanks to my mistake with opening times, I missed the chance to take a tour. But hey, it’s good to have a reason to go back. In the Plaza de la Reina there is a fantastic tapas bar, Pico Fino, which sits in the shadow of the Cathedral and serves incredible food.
I’m a fan of food tourism as well as soaking up all that culture. As luck would have it, the local superstar dish in Valencia is paella so off I trotted down to the sea front in search of the authentic stuff.
The beach front in Valencia is the third piece of this puzzle and is, yet again, another world. A retro, palm tree-lined promenade with some seriously glitzy hotels, the Hotel Las Arenas Balneario Resort had reassuringly high walls to keep out the likes of me. The prom itself is a hive of activity with the beautiful people parading up and down in teeny tiny swimwear (people are eating, you know?), sand sculptures and street performers.
There’s no shortage of paella down there and I opted for traditional Valencian Paella with rabbit, chicken and snails. To say it was amazing is doing it an injustice, it was superb. Since then, I’ve never been able to look at a ready meal in the same way.
For my stint in Valencia I stayed in the SH Valencia Palace hotel, opposite the Palau de le Musica concert hall and right on the Turia Gardens. It is perfectly located, halfway between the Old Town and the beach. The room was a decent size with everything you need, but sadly I was subjected to a view of a building site. I suppose you can’t have everything. My only problem was the overzealous housekeeping staff who clean your room regardless of a Do Not Disturb sign. So, if you’re going to indulge in that other great Spanish tradition, the siesta, then I would heartily recommend putting the chain on.
The hotel was functional but, if I’m honest, it didn’t have much of an atmosphere. What it did have was a perfectly proportioned pool area on the roof, a prerequisite for a Northerner who keeps his vest on until May and needs to cool down. The pool isn’t huge, so if you want a lounger, get there early.
I stayed for three nights and it was nowhere near long enough to explore everything Valencia had to offer. Plus, if you want to extend your Spanish odyssey, there is a high-speed rail network which connects to Madrid in just over 90 minutes.
Chris flew with Ryanair from Manchester International Airport. He stayed at the SH Valencia Palace Hotel, Valencia.