Valencia: Spain’s Third City Offers Culture And Cuisine

There’s a well-worn tourist trail in Spain: Madrid for the art, Barcelona for the nightlife and the Costa del Sol for the beaches. All of these are great, but there are plenty of other spots that often slip under the radar. Valencia, for example, gets plenty of tourists from Europe yet seems to not get so many Americans. I hardly saw any in the past three days.The Yanks need to reconsider because there’s a huge amount of history and culture to experience. Valencia on Spain’s Mediterranean coast has been a center of industry and the arts for more than 2,000 years. Founded by the Romans in the second century B.C., it soon became one of the leading cities on the Iberian Peninsula. In the Middle Ages it had a diverse population of Christians, Muslims and Jews who managed to get along most of the time despite the near-constant warfare between Muslims and Christians that ravaged the peninsula and made the city change hands several times.

Sad to say, this harmony was not to last. Everyone in the Jewish community was kicked out or forced to convert during a Christian riot in 1391. The success of the Reconquista in 1492 spelled the beginning of the end for the Muslim community. Their legacy lives on in the city’s art and architecture.

Valencia’s historic center is an architectural jewel with its winding medieval streets, old palaces and churches, and countless little shops and cafes. Here you’ll find the 13th century Valencia Cathedral, which claims to have the Holy Grail on display. This little agate cup is said to date to the first century B.C., although the ornamentation around it is clearly medieval. The story goes that St. Peter took it to Rome after the Crucifixion and it was in the possession of the first 23 popes before it was sent to Spain to keep it safe from persecuting Romans.


To see the cup itself, check out the Holy Grail Chapel just to the right of the entrance. It’s displayed in surprisingly modest surroundings although that will change if the current Mayor of Valencia, Rita Barberá, has her way. She wants to get UNESCO World Heritage status for the cup, make a large showroom for it, and dub Valencia “the city of the Holy Grail.” Hey, it worked for Turin. Relic hunters will also not want to miss the preserved arm of San Vicente.

You can make a grand entrance to the historic center via one of the two medieval gates, each flanked by a pair of towers. The Torres de Quart are pockmarked by the bombardment they received during the War of Independence against Napoleonic occupation in 1808. The more ornate and less abused Torres de Serranos overlook the Turia riverbed. The river was diverted in the 1950s and now the riverbed is a long, green park that makes for a shaded avenue through the heart of the city.

Summer in Valencia is scorching, so it’s a good idea to take shelter in one of the city’s many museums. Museum junkies will feel at home here. There are dozens of museums on seemingly every subject. The most outstanding one is the City of Arts and Sciences. This ultramodern complex includes the largest marine park in Europe, a huge science museum, concert hall, IMAX cinema and greenhouse.

The Valencian Museum of Enlightenment and Modernity offers a constantly changing set of temporary (and free!) exhibitions. Right now they’re having exhibitions on witchcraft, Siberian shamanism, and photographs from turn-of-the-century Russia. Budget travelers will also want to check out the many other free museums: the Museum of Fine Arts, with its collections of Goya, Sorolla and many other Spanish artists linked with Valencia; the Military Historical Museum; the Prehistoric Museum; and the Ethnographic Museum, among others.

For a rundown of all of them, check out this list of top museums in Valencia, art museums, and more obscure museums – and I do mean obscure. There’s a Rice Museum, and a Tin Soldier Museum that boasts the largest collection of little tough guys in the world.

Valencia has a distinct regional culture. Many locals here speak Valencian, which depending on who you ask is either a dialect of Catalan or its own language. It’s sufficiently close to Castilian, in that this Castilian speaker can mostly understand it, although there are occasional words that are completely different. In any case, signs are generally both in Valencian and Castilian, and often in English too.

When not hiding in a beautiful church or interesting museum, you can keep in the shade by wandering the little streets of the historic quarter. There are plenty of little restaurants and cafes to keep you fueled. Eating and drinking in Valencia offers a regional variation on the Spanish theme too, but that deserves an article of its own, so stay tuned for that tomorrow!

Interactive Website Shows Cleanest, Dirtiest European Beaches

It’s getting to be that time of year again. People are heading to the beaches, especially around the Mediterranean.

Now choosing one has been made easier by a new interactive website by the European Environment Agency. The agency has released its 2012 figures for water quality of 23,511 “bathing waters.” The website has them broken down by country and region. While most are beaches, popular inland swimming areas such as lakes are also included.

Some countries do better than others. Cyprus may be in economic doldrums, but 100% of their beaches have clean water. Slovenia, the subject of an upcoming series here on Gadling, gets equally high praise for its narrow strip of shoreline.

Scientists examined samples of water over several months in 2012, looking for evidence of pollution. It turns out 93 percent of sites had at least the minimum standard set by the European Union. The worst countries were Belgium, with 12 percent substandard swimming areas, and The Netherlands, with 7 percent.

The Great Italian Island Caper

The island of Pantelleria sits 58 miles southwest of Sicily, which doesn’t seem very significant until you realize it also sits 45 miles from Tunisia, making this Italian island closer to North Africa than to Italy.

The island has been shaped by many occupiers and visitors; the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, Bourbons, and Genovese have all stopped here and somehow left their mark. But it’s the Arabs who really engraved, “We were here” the deepest into the island’s ubiquitous dark-hued volcanic rock. They brought with them dishes like couscous and shakshouka. They also planted olive and citrus trees, as well as something that has given the island its main reputation: capers.

Whenever I told someone I was headed to Pantelleria, they’d either give me a blank stare, which told me they had no idea what I was talking about, or they’d say, “Oh, capers!” Yes, capers from Pantelleria are the capers to consume, apparently.

Capers are everywhere on the island, particularly, of course, in restaurant dishes. There were capers in pasta, in pesto, on spreads over crostini, topped on fish, in caponata. It was starting to seem like a caper version of Monty Python’s famous skit about Spam.
I wanted to get to the center of caper production on Pantelleria. And so one day I wandered into the middle of a caper field and began chatting with a farmer named Lorenzo “Until the ’70s,” he told me, “the island’s economy was based solely on capers and grapes.” In fact, every farmer had a field that was a mix of both. But in the ’80s, he told me, the caper-eating world became aware of the high-quality capers Pantelleria was producing and soon enough, many farmers just switched to capers. “Thanks to the volcanic soil,” the farmer said, “as well as things like culture and wind and moisture from the morning dew, the capers here have a distinct taste.” It’s true: they’re bolder and slightly sweet and the smaller capers have a crunchy-ness you just can’t find elsewhere.

The fertility of the soil is, in some cases, buttressed by the wind. This has led to some interesting innovations by the island’s farmers. They built walls out of volcanic rock around lemon and orange trees; they cultivated olive trees so that they would grow more like shrubs, spreading, tentacle like, their branches along the ground, too low for the wind to dry out its leaves. And the same goes for capers.

He knelt down on one knee and showed me how capers are picked. “Like praying,” he said. “It’s very difficult work.” So difficult, in fact, that the next generation or two might see the end of caper production on the island. “The next generation won’t want to do this work,” he said. “And then what will we do?” he asked, and then shrugged.

Until then, we should enjoy the capers of Pantellieria. As the farmer would say, they go well with everything, proven by pretty much anything you eat while on the island.

The Mediterranean Island Of Pantelleria: Where Italy Meets North Africa

Despite a small handful of attempts, I’ve never had any luck hitchhiking. But when I recently found myself on a desolate stretch of road on an Italian island in the middle of the Mediterranean, I decided to give it a go again. On the second attempt, a clunky greenish-blue Fiat Panda slowed to a crawl. I never did get the driver’s name – a bald, gold-chain-clad guy in his 30s, wearing, of course, wrap-around sunglasses – but the first question he asked, in English, was: where are you from?

“New York,” I said.

“New York?” he asked, the tone of his voice incredulous and amazed at the same time, as if I’d said I went on a stroll from my West Village apartment, and somehow randomly ended up here on a one-lane road where sharp, black volcanic rock met the rough post-storm Mediterranean.

I nodded, affirming again where I live. His follow up: “Then what the hell are you doing here?”
We both laughed and then I explained. I was in Pantelleria, an island about the size of the island where I live (Manhattan) but literally and theoretically half a world away. I was there to take part in a food conference for the organization Oldways, a group that attempts to create awareness to culinary cultural preservation. I was done with my conference responsibilities and had walked into the eye-sore eponymous town (it was almost completely razed by British bombs in World War II) and was now on my way back to my hotel.

I have to confess: I’d never heard of Pantelleria. But when I looked at it on a map I was intrigued. Closer to North Africa than it is to Sicily (and further south than Tunis), Pantelleria appears to be the love-child of Italy and North Africa, an interesting hybrid of two cultures. Town names reflect the 500-year, early-medieval Arab occupation of the island (Khamma, Gadir, Khaddiuggia, and Bugeber). And much to my delight, so did the food. Sure, there were plenty of pasta dishes, many of which were sprinkled with pistachios, as is the Sicilian proclivity, and it seemed every restaurant in town served pizza. Nearly every time I sat down to eat, though, I was offered seafood-spiked couscous. Not unlike one would find in, say, Morocco.

It was one dish, in particular, that intrigued me the most: sciaki sciuka. If you’ve ever traveled in North Africa, this dish might sound familiar: shakshouka. I was in Israel the first time I had this wacky-sounding dish. In fact, I discovered it at a place in Jaffa called Doctor Shakshouka. The good doctor was there that day, cooking the tomato and onion-laced, poached egg-topped dish on four burners from a pedestal above the dining room, like some kind of culinary deejay, entertaining the hungry crowd. Once I dipped a piece of bread into the cast iron pan in which it was cooked, scooping up chunks of tomato, garlic and peppers – as is the custom in eating this dish – I was having something of an eating epiphany. The citric and onion flavors melded together in a harmonic and deeply satisfying way. I loved eating hummus and pita and baba ganoush while I was traveling in the area, but this was a real taste of the Middle East to me.

Or so I thought. Here I was in “Italy,” eating a near-ubiquitous dish that had traveled here possibly a millennium ago and is now as Pantescan – the adjective for something from Pantelleria – as it is Middle Eastern and North African. No one is exactly sure where the dish comes from: some have said Morocco, the Ottoman Empire, or Yemen. Libyan Jews (like Dr. Shakshouka) say it originates in Libya.

On Pantelleria, the dish has adapted to local ingredients and at times almost seemed more like a ratatouille. It was filled with capers, one of the most popular products on the island, and eggplant, which seems to be in just about everything there, potatoes and peppers. Sometimes I saw boiled, not poached eggs, sprinkled on top.

I have to admit I like the shakshouka better in North Africa but the presence of the dish on this relatively little-known island in the middle of the Mediterranean filled a hunger inside me in a completely different way.

The gold-chain-clad guy who picked me up wished me well when I got back to my hotel. When he drove away, he was still laughing about the fact that I’d come so far to be in Pantelleria. But I don’t think he realized how well I ate here.

A Few Mediterranean Sidewalk Cafés Can Make Travel Personal

In popular cities of the Mediterranean, mobs of tourists come by bus, train, air and cruise ship. Looking to see famous destinations with their own eyes, perhaps fulfilling lifelong dreams, they clamber for the best view. During the summer, many visitors point and shoot only the top of iconic destinations to avoid photos that include the herd. But on a recent trip to the Mediterranean, we found some of the best shots at ground level while sitting in a sidewalk café.

The sidewalk cafés of Mediterranean cities are a great way to create lasting memories that may never be repeated again. Breaking away from the throngs of tourists visiting Dubrovnik in Croatia and Rome in Italy along with other must-see locations, time spent at local cafés was precious.

If we really want a good look at any of these places, we can Google just about any destination for uncluttered images of whatever we want to see without even going there. Get off a lucky shot during peak tourist season and that’s all the better.

Taking the time to sit and drink it all in at a sidewalk café has made for a more personal experience when traveling, an experience that photos can also capture.

Check this photo gallery that has many of the sidewalk cafés we enjoyed.


[Photos- Chris Owen]