Road Trip to Valencia

The third week of Session II classes began with my hospital internship and now ends with a three-day CIEE program trip to Spain’s third largest city. We started our Valencian adventure Friday morning bright and early with a five hour bus ride. We arrived at our hotel (conveniently located in the market district) at 1:30 pm and went shopping until it was time for our guided tour with Fausto at 5 pm. We visited La Catedral de Valencia (The Cathedral of Valencia, consecrated in 1238) where we saw La Puerta de los Apóstoles (The Door of the Apostles).

One side of the Catedral de Valencia (reminiscent of the Coliseum).
One side of the Catedral de Valencia (reminiscent of the Coliseum).
The main entrance to the Catedral.
The main entrance to the Catedral.

We also visited La Lonja de la Seda (The Silk Exchange, built between 1482 and 1548), which is a castle-like building; it had gargoyles on top which represent the sins and also act as water spouts. To end the tour, we saw the Torre de los Serranos, which was the old entrance to the city of Valencia. It looked like a drawbridge-gateway to a castle from the Middle Ages!

The Torre de los Serranos – can you picture the knights in shining armor?
The Torre de los Serranos – can you picture the knights in shining armor?

After Fausto’s tour, we were set free on Valencia. I went with a group of girls to the recommended horchatería which sells a typical Valencian summer drink called horchata, made from ground chufas (tigernuts) and served traditionally with a spongy, long, narrow pastry called fartón for dipping. I was a little apprehensive to try the drink as our director Cristina explained that it was similar to soy milk and I don’t care much for soy milk. But, YOISO (You’re Only In Spain Once!) – so I tried it and it was delicious! I also learned that horchata comes from the period of Muslim influence in Valencia (8th through 13th centuries).

Horchata, interesting flavor but yummy!
Horchata, interesting flavor but yummy!

As we were still hungry, we found a nice restaurant to that had the Valencian dish paella (rice, chicken or fish, vegetables, and saffron cooked in a large pan) and a drink called agua de Valencia which is mostly fresh orange juice with a little champagne, gin, and vodka. For dessert, I went against Spanish tradition by ignoring the fresh fruit options and ordered the double chocolate cake – I was in heaven!

The Paella Valenciana with chicken and vegetables. Delicioso!
The Paella Valenciana with chicken and vegetables. Delicioso!

Our second day, we spent the morning at the Museo Fallero which displays fallas from past years dating back to the 1940s. The fallas are monuments/giant parade floats that are created every year to celebrate Saint Joseph in the month of March. All parade floats but one are burned at the festival to signify that life is ephemeral (the word fallas is derived from the Latin word for ‘torch’). The fallas that are saved are housed in the Museo Fallero; many of the fallas represent a satirical or ironic theme.

One of the fallas showing a man holding the City of Madrid in one hand and an orange in the other. The orange represents Valencia (known for its oranges) giving life to Madrid and is a satire of the centralism of Madrid.
One of the fallas showing a man holding the City of Madrid in one hand and an orange in the other. The orange represents Valencia (known for its oranges) giving life to Madrid and is a satire of the centralism of Madrid.
Indiana Jones fallas (others displayed include Mary Poppins, Sebastian from The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King).
Indiana Jones fallas (others displayed include Mary Poppins, Sebastian from The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King).

Later on Saturday we went on another Fausto- tour, this time of the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias (City of the Arts and Sciences) which had the coolest-looking buildings! For example, the opera house was built to resemble a conquistador’s helmet; Fausto explained to us that the design of the building is amazing, but it is not very practical as there are only two elevators for 1,500 people to get to the top part of the theatre. In the open area, there were shallow pools full of clear water. One of the pools had three plastic inflatable hollow bubbles in which people could pay to go inside and float around in the pool without getting wet.

Badgers in Valencia! All my fellow UW-Madison friends from CIEE (Allison, Amanda, and Shelby) in front of the conquistador helmet/opera house.
Badgers in Valencia! All my fellow UW-Madison friends from CIEE (Allison, Amanda, and Shelby) in front of the conquistador helmet/opera house.
 At the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias.
At the Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias.

After the tour we headed to one of the city’s beaches called La Playa de la Malvarrosa. It was really nice to relax and have some fun! I made sure to apply and reapply my SPF 50 sunscreen to avoid looking like someone who participated in the famed tomato fight festival (La Tomatina). We swam in the Mediterranean and lounged on the golden sand beach. Several of us joined a group of Spaniards tossing a ball around; one of them had a cute daughter named Elissa who liked to pretend she was a great big tiburón (shark) in the sea (what surprised me about the beach was how hot the sand was – I almost burned the bottom of my feet running back to my towel!). We decided to take a taxi back to the hotel instead of baking in the sun until 7 pm (CIEE Assistant Director Eero explained that a taxi would be cheaper than the Metro). We relaxed and I ordered pizza for the group over the phone in Spanish – there were no strange ingredients on our pizza so I must have spoken clearly.

Our CIEE trip was strategically planned to coincide with the Gran Nit de Juliol (The Great Night of July) which is during the Feria de Julio (Festival of July), a fair that has been celebrated in Valencia since 1871. After dinner, we first went to see a traditional dance with castanets (I had seen a similar one in Alcalá in the Plaza de Cervantes last month). My favorite part was when people from the crowd were invited to dance with the performers and they all knew the dance moves!

Video Clip Part 1: Traditional dance with castanets.

Video Clip Part 2: Traditional dance with castanets

We went back to the hotel to pick up another friend and then headed out to see the pre-selections of the Falleras – the Valencian version of a beauty pageant (but much classier than Toddlers and Tiaras on TLC). These are the girls and women who will wear the traditional falla dress of Valencia and walk during the Falla parade next March. Each time a girl’s name was announced, she began her walk down the runway and all of her supporters stood up, cheered, and yelled  “Guapa!”, which means pretty or beautiful (guapa is also used as a term of endearment between friends). The costumes are the most elaborate and expensive of the traditional dresses of each community in Spain. They are custom-made of silk and have matching shoes and require a specific hair style to complete the ‘look’ (picture Princess Leia’s side buns from Star Wars). Thanks to the yearly Fallas and the Falleras, the Valencian economy gets a boost and the tradition of handmade silk dresses continues.

The falleras in all their glory! (Photo credit to Cristina Blanco).
The falleras in all their glory! (Photo credit to Cristina Blanco).

On Sunday we had one final tour of Valencia with Fausto where we saw the modernist Mercado de Colón which was constructed from 1914-1916 (no longer a market, but a chic place to eat brunch).

The Mercado de Colón at night.
The Mercado de Colón at night.

We also viewed the train station which had a small expo of Fallera dresses. They are very intricate and amazingly detailed.

The Princess Leia-style hair pieces of the falleras.
The Princess Leia-style hair pieces of the falleras.
One of the dresses of the falleras with the hair ornaments and the matching shoes.
One of the dresses of the falleras with the hair ornaments and the matching shoes.

We visited El Convento de Santo Domingo (The Convent of Saint Dominic) which had the inside architecture that reminded me of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona because there were many tall supporting columns that branched out on the ceiling. It was interesting to learn that the Convento housed the jail for untruthful merchants who didn’t pay their debts. We ended the tour in a flea market where I bought a 2 euro abanico (fan), which are extremely popular in Spain, and good old Subway for lunch and for the bus ride home to Alcalá.

A couple of concluding notes about Valencia:

  • The language spoken is Valenciano which is similar to Catalán but with a slightly different pronunciation.
  • Cristina told us how the water in Valencia tasted different than in Alcalá, but was still safe to drink; it tasted a little funky because part of the water supply comes from the Mediterranean Sea after it is purified for drinking.
  • Valencia has its own national song (sung in Valenciano), just like Asturias does (“Asturias, patria querida!”, or “Asturias, loved homeland!”).

After my trip to Valencia, I have now experienced a well-rounded tour of Spain – the northern (Asturias), southern (Granada), eastern (Barcelona and Valencia), western (Extremadura), and central (Madrid, Segovia, Toledo, and Alcalá) regions. Each area and autonomous community in Spain is distinct in terms of language, culture, climate and even food. Experiencing Spain is so much more than living near Madrid!

After seven weeks in Spain, I am nearing the end of my amazing study abroad experience. This week will be full of heartfelt goodbyes, tears and my 20th birthday celebration with mi familia española before I continue on over the following two weeks to visit Ireland, England, France, Switzerland and Italy with my Badger friend Shelby.