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Valencia Spain

Valencia remains a relatively quiet corner of the earth that only insiders seem to know much about. . .

Though, truth be told, this sun drenched city on the Mediterranean Sea boasts a metropolitan sophistication that rivals London and Paris.

I am particuarly fond of la Malvarossa, a beach bustling with upscale restaurants, dance clubs, and bars. There's promenade for moonlit walks. Unlike the French Riviera, there are no damn pebbles on the beach. Instead, it's warm sand between your toes.

Downtown Valencia is a short taxi or subway ride, away. Head for the area around the centrally located Plaza Ayuntamiento for the tapas bars. Or, one sunny afternoon visit the Plaza de Toros. Shop for the latest fashions (Zara, Lois Vuitton, Ives St. Lauren). For gourmands, a small hit of saffron costs about four or five Euros at El Corte Ingles department store, Spain's answer to Bloomingdale's. Paella pans are on sale everywhere. Valencia is famous for oranges, so consider a jar of orange blossom honey. Most merchants ship.

In Valencia they speak Valenciana, a dialect. It reads and sounds like a mix between French and Spanish. Rest assured, if you speak high school Spanish, you'll have no trouble getting around. It's pretty much the same when you only speak English. Unlike Parisians, Valencianos are warm and friendly.

If all the hotels around the port are booked solid, once again, go downtown. It's no second city. For there you'll find plenty of appropriate accommodations ranging from inexpensive pensiones to five star hotels. Downtown is clean and safe. The train station, with regular connections to Madrid, Barcelona and the south of France, is also located in this general vicinity.

Valencia offers world class cuisine. Local knowledge: Paella, fragrant paella, was born in the orchards just outside town. In olden times it was cooked over fruit-wood fires. Traditional ingredients include short grained rice, rabbit, chicken, mussels, calamari, olive oil and of course, a bouquet of infused saffron. Cooked in a special pan, the rice soaks up the flavors of the ingredients. That crispy, crunchy layer of rice that crusts on the bottom. Its flavor and texture is highly prized by Valencianos.

Tapas are food art in miniature, with as many varieties as there are stars in the heavens. Basic ingredient include Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, foi gras, sausage, tuna, olives, eggs, squid, cod, salmon, garlic sprouts, peeled shrimp, and potato salad. Try as you might there's simply not enough time to sample one of everything. But you must try. So pub crawl. Order a glass of blood red Rioja wine made from the tempranillo grape. Adorning the bar top you'll see many different platters of tapas spread about. Help yourself. You are on the honor system. Save the toothpicks to keep count. Pay when it's time to move on.

One of Valencia's biggest attractions is Turia park, built on a former river bed. Since ancient times, spring floods overran the Turia riverbanks. Some years it was catastrophic. In recent times the city fathers rather wisely rerouted the waters to flow south around the periphery of the city. The ancient riverbed, now as dry as a bone, is a 6 mile long park that cuts through the middle of the city. It's walking paths, tennis courts, benches, flowers, and shrubs. Lower in elevation than city streets, traffic noise is muted, so it's a peaceful ambiance to gather your thoughts while watching children play and loves hold hands.

Inset into the Turia green zone is the Cuidad de las Artes y las Ciencias (CAC), a grouping of glitzy modern architecture. You've probably seen the location in new car ads. On site it looks like a future world plunked down in the middle of an old world city center. Its avowed purpose is to promote knowledge, the science, art and respect for nature, all this wrapped up in a unique architectural environment. It is very 21st century.

Crown jewel of the CAC is L' Hemisferic, an auditorium designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava. Fashioned in the form of a giant eye, it's known as the eye of wisdom. Its jovian-proportioned silver screen is concave and more than a little reminiscent of a giant retina. Imax Dome Cinema, Planetarium and Omniscam Laser films are shown. The headphones speak English as well as other languages. CAC's Museu de les Ciencies Principe Felipe, also designed by Calatrava, is an interactive science museum. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the exhibits. Painted on the wall the motto proclaims: "Forbidden not to touch, not to think and not to feel."

More CAC art and beauty: The Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia complex includes four auditoriums for opera, theatre, dance and musical performances. It just opened.

CAC's L'Oceanografic is Europe's biggest aquarium populated by walrus, white whales, dolphins, sea lions, seals, penguins, turtles, sharks, and rays. It's many buildings, pools and exhibitions host species gathered from the seven seas. To my way of thinking the real prize is the native-wetland bird exhibit, with local species from the mangrove swamps, tunnels, caves, and pools from around Valencia.

With 300 days of sunshine a year, the environs of Valencia boast the largest orange groves in Europe. Take heed. When you see oranges growing abundantly in the parks, and along the boulevards, resist the temptation to pluck one off the tree. They are literally bitter fruit. They have to be. Otherwise tourists would strip the trees bare.

Fans of the Da Vinci Code novel will visit the Cathedral in order to pay homage to the Holy Grail, the dark, red agate chalice used by Jesus in the last supper. Ask to see it. Some old men whisper the reason Hitler sided with General Franco during the Spanish Civil War was to allow Nazi henchmen into the country in order to seize it. But the Germans could never lay their hands on it for the simple reason the bishop hid the holy relic in a small chapel deep in the Pyrenees. For provenance search Wikipedia under Holy Chalice.

Other sites worth visiting are the ancient silk market known as La Lonja, and the Mercado Central. Mercado Central is a vast iron-and-glass Art Nouveau building,with more than 1,000 stalls selling everything from salted fish and sardines to strings of dried red peppers. Ask to taste a bit of the roast pumpkin. Unlike in American farmers markets, it's not kosher to touch the produce. Though it is polite to point.

A worthy ecotour just a couple of miles outside of town is at the Albufhera Nature Reserve. A sprawling wetlands and lake, this is where Valencia rice is harvested. Fish are abundant. So are birds. Once there, rent a bike or take a boat tour to view the local flora and fauna and ancient fisherman huts. Restaurants around the shore offering local cuisine, including Valencia oranges, traditional paella and fideua, a type of paella prepared with fried noodles instead of rice. Drink horchata, a thirst quencher from hazelnuts. For more kick try agua Valencia, a mixed drink with orange juice and Vodka and either cava or champagne. The colder the better.

Valencia is well-connected by air and rail to all the world. Coming and going is easy. Day tripping is even easier. Just down the road towards France is Barcelona. Beyond the far horizon lies the legendary island of Ibiza, and a little further away Mallorca. Island hop by air or ferry. The final verdict: I don't recommend visiting Valencia. You may not want to go home.

by Timothy Banse