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Sunday, August 7, 2011, in Valencia, Spain

Hi all. We’ve been in Valencia for about a week, and we’ll hang out here another few days before we move on. Last week, we had just arrived.

Valencia was the site of the 2007 America’s Cup, and following the announcement that it was selected, a huge construction effort divided the port into two halves and constructed a massive infrastructure to support the racing yachts and festivities. Now, the marina and the whole area surrounding the marina in Valencia are new, and huge. The landlocked Swiss, who’d selected Valencia as the battlefield, won in 2007 again, and Valencia got to host the race all over again. Switzerland defended the trophy in 2010, this time unsuccessfully to a US team. The new winners decided that Valencia, with its America’s-Cup-tested harbor, is out of the running as a course candidate. Enormous buildings, one an architectural stunner, which now could house offices, harborside restaurants and shops, or warehouses, are empty, and Spain���s recession and real-estate glut don’t help. So as we walk around the marina area, we’re amazed at the amount of infrastructure and disappointed that it isn’t filled with summer fun.

We also took a dinghy ride up the harbor. At one end is the 65 meter yacht (that’s 65 meters, not feet) Yaakun, originally built for the leader of Qatar and now owned by a European. It sits in a marina built for superyachts, one of several marinas that barely take up the edges of the giant Valencia harbor. During our stay in town, a group of Italian marines were visiting in a variety of past-their-prime sailing vessels, escorted by an Italian navy ship, and sharing a long quay with a tall ship that has apparently lost its summer flotilla. Even with so many really large vessels docked, and the marinas, the harbor looks underutilized.

Once a year, the Formula One Grand Prix racers scamper around a course in Valencia, a course specifically built for this sport. Just once in Valencia, although Formula One racing goes on about twenty times a season in a variety of cities. Formula One is revered beyond your expectations and beyond my belief. On race days, televisions, in every bar and restaurant, are tuned to the race, and patrons turn their chairs to watch, ignoring their families, who are ignoring them as well.

I admit that I tend to practice what I call just-in-time tourist knowledge. That is, I never know much about a place until I arrive there. But I arrive armed with guidebooks, Internet access, and a general trust in the local tourist information office. That said, the only thing I thought of about Valencia was oranges. Purely in the spirit of research, I’ve been eschewing coffee at our treasured “second breakfast” outings and ordering zumo de naranja natural, or orange juice, freshly squeezed, everywhere we stop. I’m getting healthy, or at least chubby. I wanted to be knowledgeable about oranges when I arrived in Valencia.

It took us about fifteen minutes of walking before we even got to the entrance to the marina, and another five minutes, beyond the now-deserted America’s Cup warehouses, until we found a place we could have a tostada, our current second breakfast of choice. Then we kept walking. After Cartagena and Alicante, where beautiful cities were only steps away from the marina, I was a tiny bit disappointed, or at least impatient, with what I was seeing of Valencia. Unrealistically, I’m sure, I had kind of expected that the streets would be redolent of freshly-squeezed orange juice. So far, on this hot Sunday mid-day, they were redolent, but if it was orange juice, well, it had already been used.

We walked towards the main part of town on unprepossessing streets, where nothing was alive on this day of rest. Finally, we arrived in town, after quite a long journey by foot. And all of it was worth the walk.

The buildings are lovely, and bridge entrances are guarded by gargoyles and ornate lampposts and statues of popes. What was once the river through town was diverted after too many floods, and the riverbed is now a fiesta of gardens and other municipal pleasures. One of those is the well-stocked Museum of Fine Arts, somehow open on a Sunday afternoon.

We also took a peek inside the grand Cathedral, originally consecrated in 1238 and now a mélange of Romanesque, Gothic and baroque architecture. The place gets a bit of buzz for the Holy Grail chalice stored inside; it’s the only one that the Vatican itself endorses as the real thing.

Another walk around the city took us to the Lonja, the 15th century silk market, and the huge Central Market. The market building is a sight on its own, and inside, the tables are brimming with vegetables or fish or dried fruits and nuts. There are booths devoted solely to olives, and others festooned with gigantic legs of cured ham, hoofs and all.

The pig legs are a sight to see, not only on display, but imagining one of these €100 investments sitting in your house. You buy this thing, a quarter of an animal or so, and hang it in your kitchen. Then you shave off bits of it every time you’re peckish, it develops a concave shape and eventually it’s finished. Apparently, it’s quite important to buy a leg that’s delicious, as it’s a big commitment to gnaw off all of the meat. There’s a hilarious commercial on television that even I can understand, sponsored by one brand of ham. It shows the large new leg showcased at a family dinner, and then the disappointed family tries desperately to get rid of it. They take it to the zoo and toss it in the tiger’s cage. The tiger throws it back out. They put it in the trunk of the car, and roll the car into a lake. It floats tauntingly to the surface. The tag line at the end (in my pidgin Spanish and my middle-aged memory) is something like “a bad ham can follow you around for a lifetime.”

We visited the Museum of Ceramics, an enjoyable collection of tiles and pottery in the breathtaking Palacio Del Marques De Dos Aguas, a rococo confection that upstages the museum contents. The façade of the building simply doesn’t end, and room after room is gilded and carved and tiled and ornamented. The place was originally constructed in the fifteenth century and was improved and reconstructed for hundreds of years after that. You close your eyes to the inequities of fortune in western civilization, and revel in the glorious excesses that remain for our delight.

And then there’s the spectacular City of Arts and Sciences, built a few decades ago in the reclaimed land that had once been riverbed. Each building looks like a giant sculpture. The Hemisfèric contains an IMAX theater, a planetarium and a laser show, and is built to resemble an eye. The museum of sciences puts you inside of the skeleton of a whale. The city contains the largest oceanographic aquarium in Europe and an enormous performance hall.

The area around the “city” is park and bicycle trail and green space. Indeed, Valencia is a very pedestrian- and bike-friendly town. There are pedestrian traffic lights which are actually obeyed by most vehicles. Bike paths are often separated from the roads, and some sort of bike-rental system appears to let you take a bike at many stations in town, ride it around, and return it wherever you feel like doing so.

It took us the better part of two days to visit the three museums that interested us. Our first visit was the Museum of Science. Because we don’t visit the science museums in our own home towns, it’s hard to compare it, but it seemed to have a lot of kid-friendly displays that cover most of the basic science of earth, physics, and biology.

We saw a movie about the Hubble telescope at the IMAX cinema that makes up most of the activity of the Hemisfèric museum (there’s a planetarium, too.) I was embarrassed to realize that the same movie was probably playing at the IMAX around the corner from where I live. The movie was fun, though.

The highlight of our visit to the City of Arts and Sciences was the Oceanographic Museum, which is a universal opinion, based on the difference in prices for the various venues. The museum houses 45,000 animals of 500 species in nine living environments. One after another display was visually stunning and heartwarming. We especially enjoyed the aviary, with scarlet ibises and roseate spoonbills. Aquarium tanks led around buildings and through tunnels, and the tanks overhead in the tunnels created a sort of optical trick where your brain thought that the glass was higher than it was and the sharks, rays, and fish were swimming suspended just above your eyes.

The dolphin show was packed. In the warm-up to the performance, the dolphins swam around the large exhibit pool while the emcee told us a bit about dolphins (in Spanish and only vaguely understandable to us.) Occasionally a dolphin would finish a practice trick and get a fish from a trainer. While we were watching the dolphin pre-show warm-up, the emcee had the audience do a wave, first one direction and then the other. We complied, but I mentioned to Art that we were being trained, just as the dolphins were. His reaction, “Yeah, but I didn’t even get a fish.”

Later, we watched as divers physically fed rather large rays through the mouth (it’s on the flat bottom part of their bodies) and other staff feeding ice-chests-full of small fish to gigantic walruses. One of the walruses bore an uncanny resemblance about the chin to Homer Simpson, in my opinion. And I think that it was a female.

In all, the City of Arts and Sciences was a bit like going to a World’s Fair (with all due respect, a late 20th-century World’s Fair, as the buildings are all that slightly dated ultra-modern style in sweeping white curves.) Or it was a bit like Epcot, without the corporate endorsements. Most of the commerce in the “city” was in the form of overpriced eateries, a sprinkling of souvenir shops, and horchata stands (a Valencian beverage of pureed tiger nuts I’d sampled a week earlier). One thing I did learn about Valencia; they aren’t nearly as centered around oranges as I’d imagined. After one too many juices at restaurants with chairs decorated with the Minute Maid logo, I’m back to coffee in the mornings.

Though it wasn’t possible for us to witness the spectacle of Las Fallas, which takes place in March, we did find a place to enjoy it second-hand, at a local museum. Las Fallas is a festival that stretches over several days and celebrates Saint Joseph, although most of the rituals began as a pagan celebration of the spring equinox. It might have begun when workshops cleared out the oil lamps made unnecessary by the length of summer’s daylight. The artisans made a ritual out of the burning of supplies, and dressed up the lamps as dolls with the other remnants of their supplies. By the end of the 18th century, it had become an elaborate celebration grown out of this neighborhood party.

In a single night, local artists construct these large dolls, ninots fallas, even though the planning has taken months. Made of papier mâché and wood, they can be 15 meters (about 50 feet) high and cost €120,000 (a lot.) The look of them hasn’t changed much over time; they depict people mostly doing ordinary things, or celebrities, or just about anything that shows the human spirit. Many of these figures have captivating facial expressions that make them nearly look real. Fallas are judged and a single example is saved from the bonfire of the last day of the festival. And that’s how we were able to see some of them; the winning entries are displayed in the local Fallero Museum. But the rest of them, all that work, up in flames. And then there are fireworks. There are always fireworks in Spain.

We’ll stay here until mid-week, and then we’ll continue on towards Barcelona.

Hope you’re all doing well. We miss you all.

Love, Karen (and Art)