Our day started early on Thursday, March 26, with a meetup time of 8:45am in Príncipe Pío for our second to last weekend trip, this time to Cuenca and Valencia towards the east.
The central city of Cuenca in Castilla-La Mancha was our first stop around two hours outside of the city of Madrid. Other than a pit stop on the way to Valencia, our main reason for visiting Cuenca was to see the famous Casas Colgadas, or “hanging houses.” These houses were built along the river hundreds of years ago, but due to erosion now sit very high up above the river and appear to be “hanging” over it. We were able to see them from the St. Paul Bridge and it was definitely a little scary of a sight! One of them houses an abstract art museum that we visited, so in addition to discovering our own interpretations of the pieces of art we were able to see what it’s like to actually be in one of the hanging houses as well. We tried not to go too near the windows though. 🙂
Like most of our trips here in Spain, we visited the Cathedral of Cuenca before we had free time for lunch and headed back on the road towards Valencia. This cathedral was actually one of the first examples of Gothic architecture in Spain. Though we’ve obviously seen many cathedrals by now, this one was very interesting because of its mix of styles. Beyond the Gothic exterior and a few other styles, there was actually abstract art in the stained glass windows. You definitely don’t see that everyday in a Catholic church!
We arrived in Valencia at around 5:00pm, but had to rush quickly after checking in to the hotel to our first stop, the Museu Faller, because it closes at 6:00pm. The city of Valencia is the capital of the autonomous community of the same name and is actually the third largest city in Spain. Located along the eastern border of the country along the Mediterranean, Valencia is known for its beautiful beaches and its busy ports. Like its northern neighbor Catalonia, the community speaks Catalan, though their dialect is officially known as Valencian within the comunitat.
Though it was overcast for most of our visit, Valencia’s beaches are a common tourist destination during the summer. We also heard from a few of our teachers that when they were kids the area attracted a lot of young kids from Madrid and other areas for the Ruta del Bakalao. The teenagers would go away for the weekend in their cars to Valencia and go from club to club, staying away through drugs and uppers from Friday night until Monday morning when they went straight to work or school from the trip. Because they just took drugs instead of drinking alcohol, the clubs needed to recoup money buy selling water at high prices and actually turned off the faucets and didn’t put water in the toilet bowls because people started drinking that water too! Though the Ruta del Bakalao doesn’t happen anymore, we’re starting to learn that Spanish people really have earned their reputation as very intense partiers.
The Museu Faller that we visited is dedicated to Valencia’s most well-known tradition, Falles, a celebration known for the fires that gives the event its name. During the festival dedicated to Saint Joseph, people would showcase throughout the streets the ninots that they made over the past few months, which are basically huge colorful arts made out of cardboard and papier-mâché and filled with firecrackers. Par of the best ninot from the festival is selected for saving in the Museu Faller and all of the others get burned in huge bonfires. There is also a pageant where Valencian girls dress up in traditional outfits and hairstyles and they pick the best one. A few of my friends went to the city for the celebration, but I’ve heard many Spaniards stay away because of how intense the celebration is — one big, loud party full of of drunk people and lots of firecrackers. In the museum it was cool to see the best ninots saved and the portraits of the winning falleras.
After a pretty low-key night going to a local bar, we woke up the next day to go to L’Oceanogràfic, an open-air marine animal park and aquarium right across from our hotel in the City of Arts and Sciences district of Valencia. This complex is the one of the most important tourist destinations in the city and also includes a planetarium with an IMAX cinema, a science museum, opera house, nightclub, and more with very cool buildings. The whole area was actually built on the old site of the local Turia River, which was rerouted after a big flood and converted into the City of Arts and Sciences complex and a cool park throughout the length of the former river until the sea. Although I’ve been to SeaWorld many times and have seen my fair share of sea life, we had a lot of fun walking around and enjoying what the park had to offer and Sarah actually got picked to participate in the dolphin show that we saw, which was pretty exciting. 🙂
We went from the oceanarium to the beach for some more downtime and lunch. Our lunch of some fried shrimp and patatas bravas was pretty good, though we did get a little ripped off by a €22 pitcher of the famous local drink, Agua de Valencia. We had fun hanging out along the beach and climbing on a very cool children’s playground — one of the guys in our group, Colin, actually made friends with a 9-year-old who was very surprised when we told him we were 21… we have no regrets at all though, it was fun.
Our next stop was, of course, the cathedral. But this cathedral was very cool, not just because it had a great mixture of styles like the one in Cuenca, but also because it holds what is likely to be the real Holy Grail that Jesus drank from in the Last Supper! The chalice is in one of the cathedral’s chapels, and it was definitely cool to see this. Whether it’s the real one or not, or if the true holy grail is actually Jesus’s descendants, it’s still incredible to have seen that in a church in Valencia. After seeing the chalice, we went up to the top of the Michelet tower and after hundreds of steps through a narrow staircase, we were greeted with some very cool views of the city. Another interesting aspect of the cathedral is that it is home to the oldest continuing council in Europe, the Water Tribunal which meets right outside the door to the cathedral in the main plaza.
The rest of that day was spent walk around Valencia until we headed back to the hotel. That night we checked out the traditional nightlife area of El Carmen, visiting a bar with live music and a local nightclub. The next day we would be heading back to Madrid, but not before visiting the last place and attraction on our itinerary: la Albufera in El Palmar, which was only a short drive away from the main city of Valencia.
One of the other most well-known aspects of the Comunitat Valenciana is the famous Spanish dish paella, which actually originated in this community very near to where we had been staying in the Albufera. The Albufera is a lagoon and estuary with lots of biodiversity that is mostly used for growing rice, specifically the rice used in paella. The area is actually home to one of the oldest functioning unions and there’s a drawing every year to see who gets to fish where. We had a tour of the area, complete with a boat ride throughout the lagoon and a walking tour through the local forest where we saw many different types of landscapes. It was nice to end our trip outside enjoying the natural areas that reminded us a lot of the forests we have back home. We saw some rice fields, the building they use to collect eels before they ship them out, and the traditional barraca houses that used to be used. Although we did not eat the eels, we did get to taste some awesome authentic paella that made a great end to our trip to Valencia.