As a warm Spanish sun begins to set over the Mediterranean, evening activities get started in Valencia, a sun-splashed metropolis that feels more like a small town than Spain’s third largest city.
Everyone in the crowd — which has gathered in front of the reflecting pool next to the Palau de la Musica for an outdoor performance from the Municipal Band of Valencia — seems to know each other. I’m in the middle of a city of almost one million people, yet the ambience is similar to the summer band concerts in Callicoon Center, a rural town of about 500 residents near my home in upstate New York.
“Everyone in Valencia loves music, in any form,” says Ana Cogollos, 25, one of the band’s clarinet players, pronouncing the city name as “Balenthia” in her lovely accent. “We have a large audience here every week at the Palau de la Musica, and they have been supporting the town band for many, many years.”
Indeed, when the band, organized in 1903, begins to play Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capricho Espanol, the kids stop running between the lawn chairs, adults put down their programs, and the sea birds, which had been squarking in the palm trees, become quiet.
On this same evening, just a fifteen-minute walk from the band concert, “Carmen” is being staged, part of the Festival del Mediterrani, helmed by Maestro Zubin Mehta. Opera has been performed in Valencia for decades, but only in the past few years has the scene in this city become known world-wide, due to the completion of Valencian-born Santiago Calatrava’s futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, which includes the spectacular white concrete and glass opera house, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia.
After the band and opera performances, Valencians go out for dinner, and then perhaps stroll through the old city, or along the Mediterranean beach front, where more music, in the form of jazz, blues, or classical guitar, flow into the streets from nearby clubs, dance halls, and local street musicians.
Since Valencia was founded by the Romans in 138 BC, it’s been over-shadowed by the political and economic power of Madrid, and the cultural and educational influence of Barcelona, the country’s second biggest city, which lies about three hours up the coast from Valencia.
But with Valencia hosting the 2007 and 2010 America’s Cup sailing races, and winning the right to hold an annual European Grand Prix auto race along city streets near the Port district, it began to catch the eyes of the international sports and travel media. As the City of Arts and Sciences project took shape, and the enormous futuristic buildings actually became a reality, there was no doubt that Valencia had entered a new phase in its urban development.
The city is now not only attracting sailing and racing fans, but upscale international visitors who want to see if Valencia really has everything —cultural attractions, great cuisine, weather, excellent hotels, and miles of pristine city beaches.
In addition to its thriving performing arts, Valencia has more than 40 museums, and 30 city parks and gardens, including Turia Gardens, the serpentine-shaped, five-mile park created out of a former river bed, that cuts through the middle of the city in a beautiful swath of green lawns and palm trees.
First time visitors are discovering numerous neighborhoods to explore, such as el Cabanyal, formerly a fishermen’s district, now dotted with two and three-story houses covered in ceramic tiles of bright blues and greens.
Of course, this eclectic neighborhood, only a few blocks from the sea, has been discovered by both European tourists who love its ambience, and local developers, who are eyeing the narrow streets as potential commercial projects.
“Improving the district’s economics would be okay, as long as the character of the neighborhood is preserved,” says Alejandro Garcia llinares, who helps run his family’s popular restaurant, located in the middle of el Cabanyal.
As a flamenco guitarist played in a corner of the historic bar and restaurant, Casa Montana, Alejandro Garcia Ilinares looked around at the crowd of Valencians drinking wine and eating tapas, and spoke quietly, “Valencia is all about having fun, eating well, and enjoying life,” he said.
“We have seen some modern development in the city, which is good, but these historic neighborhoods need to be preserved, the traditions need to be respected, the music and melody of the city must continue.”