It’s easy to forget that Valencia is by the sea. With its centre some distance inland, you can barely make out the horizon of the Mediterranean, even from the city’s highest point atop the Miguelete bell tower. You can’t smell the sea, nor see boats, and I suppose it doesn’t help that the old river Turia is now dried out, diverted, and turned to gardens. And yet a ten minute journey away on Valencia’s tram will take you swiftly coastwards, where the Mediterranean sea stretches out like a swathe of azure blue above a foreground of softly undulating white sand.
And it was to the coast that we headed on this, second day of our Valencia Odyssey, taking the tube from Xativa out to the old Marina. But before we could even leave the historic centre, our walk took us into the Southern stretch of the city, below the Plaza de la Reina, and into the far bigger, much grander Plaza del Ayuntamiento. If the Catedral and the Plaza de la Virgen behind it is the beating heart of the city, then the Plaza del Ayuntamiento is its administrative brain and spinal cord. The Plaza, and the Ayuntamiento (town hall) sitting at its centre, resembles something closer to New York than old town Valencia. It’s highrises are not glass skyscrapers, but they are tall and magnificent, straight out of the art deco and Modernista era of architecture. At one corner of the square, a whole series of domed and turreted multi-storey business blocks come together like a meeting of the giants, and the effect is magnificent and altogether imposing. In the square’s centre, a vast plaza is broken up with a suitably impressive fountain surrounded by flowerbeds and flower sellers, while numerous benches enable visitors to sit and gaze up at the many elaborate buildings, and the stucco, wrought iron, and sculptures which decorate their facades, sending out a message of the grandeur and supremacy of the administrative heart of this city.
Features of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento
Walking through this impressive plaza, and onto the main shopping street lined, amongst others, with the beautiful Modernista Estacion del Norte, and the vast colonnaded bullring (this has to be one of Spain’s most impressive) we made our way down into the fairly modern and efficient (if a little slow) tube and journeyed outwards towards the coast. There, we alighted a few stops before the sea, just as the metro makes its seamless transition into an overland tram, so that we could make a visit to one of Valencia’s more unusual museums – the Museum of the Semana Santa Marinera de Valencia.
For those unaccustomed to Semana Santa, Spain’s Holy Week celebrations, they are generally mistaken into believing that the sinister hooded figures with eye-holes cut into pointed hoods, marching en masse by candlelight and accompanying religious paraphernalia, are none other than the infamous KKK. This is an unfortunate confusion which comes more of the KKK’s widespread infamy than any ignorance of spiritual and sacred tradition closer to home. For in Spain, long before the 3 K’s surfaced with their abominable practices, the churches of Spain’s towns and cities parade their holy statues out of the churches and around the streets on each of the nights of Holy Week. The men with the hoods are nazareños, Christian faithful who cover their faces as an act of penitence before unveiling their faces again when Christ is risen from the dead. These parades make for powerful spectacles – I know, having seen many in Andalucia, and having been inspired to paint many representations of the same.
Anyway, here in Valencia, it seems they do things a little different. For one thing their statues are built more as freezes, depictions of the Passion story, tailor made for being paraded rather than living in the side-chapels of churches. Secondly, these larger sculptures are paraded around on wheels, rather than carried by hundreds of men in unison, as is the practice in the South of Spain. Thirdly, and perhaps the reason for the second of these differences, the Semana Santa in Valencia is called the Semana Santa Marinera because the parades actually take place, at least in part, along the beach, hence the location of this museum. This must make for quite a sight. Sadly, owing to the time of year, we had to make do with the museum itself, which is more of a holding place for the floats and costumes during the year. I must say, it made for something of a creepy and solemn spectacle to see all of the statues lined up, the crucifixes with their realistic depictions of bleeding Christ, and the hooded figures set out as mannequins. As interesting as I found it, I’m glad I was not there alone.
After that slightly macabre visit, it felt good to be out in the sun again and walking towards the sea, not that it was terribly straightforward. It’s obvious that Valencia was not built as a seaside resort. For one thing, the city centre is far from the coast, with the result that the approaching areas are very suburban, and, to be honest, a little scary. Amongst all the tightly packed tower blocks, I felt very conspicuous – the two lone tourists with large cameras in hand walking along slightly lost in this very untouristy area. Eventually, via several main roads and diversions, we made it to the sea, but again the approach was far from obvious (luckily I speak enough Spanish to ask bemused locals where we were going). Valencia is known for having one of the biggest commercial ports on the Med – it is not known for its beaches, and while a rather pleasant paseo maritimo has now been forged along the coast, it is one strip of civility in amongst a whole hotbed of industrialised landscape. The golden sands, presumably imported, look a little out of place in this vast industrial centre, and even the pleasure port, itself a creation of recent decades, still has a very urbanised, working feel to it.
The restaurants along the paseo are clearly tourist-centric however, and as we walked along, I made a point of avoiding every restaurant which had posted a waiter outside, touting for business. As this left no options open to us, we opted instead for the arm of the Marian Real Juan Carlos I. There a rather tatty looking cafe, 39o 27N, appeared nevertheless inviting, offering us a prime position in the sun, next to the sea. Too good to resist in fact, and despite a rather unfortunate incident when I sat on a man’s coat for some 5 minutes believing it to be a complimentary blanket (thus inadvertently stealing his table causing him to walk off in a huff) we relaxed into a good hour’s worth of sun worship next to the blues of the Med and the sparkling white of the shore. From out on the harbour arm, the industrialised landscape beyond almost looked romantic.
Croquetas for lunch…
After a few croquetas and a small cerveza, we headed back in land, preferring the pull of the old town to this recently fabricated coastline. Heading up again to the north of the old centre as we had the previous day, we were aiming towards the second of Valencia’s two main artistic attractions: the Institute of Modern Art (IVAM). IVAM is said to be one of Europe’s finest museums of contemporary art. Set within a vast spacious building (as contemporary art museums often are) and close to the old Turia riverbank, it is a building full of fragmented exhibitions, but somewhat lacking in a consistent display. When we turned up, I was a little confused to be handed around 6 leaflets, each in turn providing information about different temporary exhibitions being held at the site. Very little of the museum’s permanent collection, which I understand to be large, was on display – there was an exhibition of the metal abstract sculptures of Julio Gonzalez, and an exhibition of the paintings of Valencian painter, Ignacio Pinazo, another exponent of the Impressionist mood in Spain. Otherwise all offerings were temporary, not that this made them any less interesting.
Jeff Koons jewellery
Of particular interest was the exhibition From Picasso to Jeff Koons, an exhibition not of the artists’ ordinary works, but of their creations in jewellery. Thus we were treated to a wide range of artistic jewellery, arranged in various artistic genres, from minimalism to surrealism, and included, as the name suggests, creations from the likes of Koons (his inflated rabbit was made into a rather fetching silver necklace) and Dali (though sadly not his Mae West lips which I have seen recreated as a ruby broach in another exhibition). We also enjoyed a show entitled Arte y Espiritualidad, in which the relationship between art and spirituality was examined. I particularly enjoyed the various installations made from multiple skulls in plastic and pastel coloured material (they looked a bit like sherbet), as well as the interplay between old religious works and very modern creations. I also loved the work of Equipo Cronica, a brilliant Spanish artist who takes works of popular Spanish culture (Picasso, Valezquez, Goya) and reinvents them for the modern age. Below is his work, El Patio de las Tentaciones (1972) which to my mind appears to be based on Velazquez’s Mother Jerónima de la Fuente.
Equipo Cronica, El Patio de las Tentaciones (1972)
Leaving IVAM, we had one more treat in store before the day’s end. Passing again by chance, we stumbled upon the Jardin de los Hespérides, a stunning contemporary garden space which, I learn subsequently, has been awarded prizes aplenty for its modern garden design. Simple in its layout, and uniform in its alignment of fragrant cypress trees, citruses and low banks of herbs, the garden is a place of calm sanctuary from the bustling city beyond. In the background, the rear of a beautifully ornate church contrasts wonderfully with the abrasive metals and harsh lines which make up the garden. Meanwhile, in the foreground, wonderfully expressive sculptures are like cubist creations come to life.
From Sea and Semana Santa, to a contemporary sanctuary in the midsts of the Valencian city centre, this day has once again introduced us to yet further facets of this diverse and variable city. And yet tomorrow there will be greater variance still – for we’re heading down river, to the City of Arts and Sciences, the modern architectural creation which has propelled Valencia forward as one of the world’s leading exponents of architectural innovation and, perhaps inevitably, the less comfortable epithet of one of Spain’s most extravagant spenders…
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