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!

Is Priceline Lowering Its Standards For 3-Star Hotels?

I’ve been a devoted user of Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” bidding tool for years. In the past year, I’ve written columns here on how to game their bidding system, how to overcome their new bidding hurdles, and another piece about trying to decode their star system. I still love the bidding concept but after several negative experiences of late, I have a few words of cautionary advice on how to bid for hotel rooms.

Two years ago, Hotel Deals Revealed did an analysis comparing Hotwire to Priceline on how generous they are in assigning star levels to hotels and concluded that Priceline was more cautious in assigning stars (i.e., they weren’t overrating hotels). But based on several recent experiences bidding on three-star hotels in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and London, I think Priceline has lowered its standards for how they classify three-star quality hotels.While bidding on three-star hotels in the U.S. in the last three months, I’ve gotten Holiday Inn hotels on four consecutive occasions. Each hotel was adequate, sort of, but none was as clean or nice as what I’ve been accustomed to getting – Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Sheraton, etc. – for three-star bids on Priceline over the years.

Charlottesville, Virginia, is a good example of how Priceline’s ratings have changed over the years. I’ve gone to Charlottesville several times over the years and have used Priceline on multiple occasions. There are a number of good three-star hotels in town – Hampton Inn, Doubletree, two Courtyards, a Residence Inn and others. But Priceline now considers two Holiday Inn locations in town as three-star properties as well.

I’ve stayed in both and they simply aren’t as clean or nice as the hotels mentioned above. The furniture at the University location, for example, is dated and ill fitting – the office chairs in the room don’t level up with the desk, for example, and on a recent stay there were a host of dead bugs in the sliding glass door, which also had a broken handle.

But as mediocre as the Holiday Inn Charlottesville University is, it’s the Taj Mahal compared to the Avni Kensington, a supposedly three-star property I got from a recent bid on Priceline in London. (Priceline refers to this hotel by its old name, the Kensington Edwardian.) My first impression was of their bathroom in the common area. There were no hand towels next to the sinks – just rolls of toilet paper to dry your hands.

My room had three droopy old single beds plus a broken television and non-functioning Wi-Fi. (The Wi-Fi was later fixed; the TV was not.) Trip Advisor categorizes the hotel as a two-star property, which is about right. I made a complaint about the property to Priceline but they stated that the hotel was “unwilling” to issue a refund so I was out of luck. A Priceline spokesperson told me several weeks ago that the company uses a number of criteria in categorizing hotels, including some factors that travelers might not care much about – like if the place has a full-service restaurant, a pool and others.

But what I found most interesting about the experience is the fact that I was unable to review my hotel experience in London on the Priceline site. I asked the customer service rep how I could leave a review of this hotel on the site because they use the customer reviews as a basis for how they categorize the hotels, but she said I had to wait to see if I received an email inviting me to take the survey. I looked through my inbox and noted that I had received survey requests for all of my previous hotel stays (none of which had I issued complaints over) but I didn’t get one from this stay in London.

Priceline gives bidders guarantees that they’ll receive a hotel with positive feedback (it varies based upon the star level you are bidding on); so I can’t help but think that they flag customers who complain about a property not to receive the survey email.

What can you take away from my bidding experiences? The most import thing is to do your homework before you bid. Use Priceline’s normal search function and look at what they are offering at each star level. Then check the reviews of those hotels online and assume you’ll get the place that has the lowest reviews. If you can’t live with that, you need to bump up the star level you’re bidding on.

For example, if you are bidding in the north suburban area of Chicago, and you see that Priceline has a hotel they consider a three-star property but that it has horrible reviews, assume that if you bid three stars, you will get that hotel. If you can’t live with that, you need to bid 3.5, or find another way to book your room.

July 8, 2013 Update: A spokesperson for Priceline tells me that the company sent me a survey email on 6/22 inviting me to review the hotel I stayed at in London. I have double checked both of my email addresses and I never received it. Either way, there should be a way for customers to review the hotel they stay in, whether one gets their email inviting them to do so or not. And, after bidding on yet another 3 star hotel in Portsmouth, NH this week, and, once again, getting another Holiday Inn with so-so reviews, I stand by what is written above. 3 stars with Priceline used to mean Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton and so on. These days, it seems to be Holiday Inn and other brands in that tier.

Looking At The Stars In Austin

It’s a long trip from Alaska to Austin, Texas, but my childhood friend had finally arrived. She had taken a ferry to Seattle and from there, she had purchased a car for a few hundred dollars and embarked on a swift summer swoop to the south. She and two friends she picked up along the way, one of which was a mutual hometown friend, pulled up beside my house one steamy August afternoon wearing only swimsuits, soaked in sweat and desperate for a shower. The car she purchased in Seattle didn’t have air conditioning. Austin saw over 70 consecutive days of 100+ degree weather and she happened to arrive during that scorching window.My house in Austin had been built in 1910 and without any insulation beneath the old floors we could see the sunbeams showering the crawlspace through the cracks in the wood flooring. The walls let the ants in, the closed windows let the breeze in, and nothing could keep the heat out. We kept the air conditioner on full-blast at all times as a desperate combative measure, but the house never cooled below 82 degrees. I welcomed them and we walked through the gravel driveway leading to my home, as I offered apologetic warnings all the way. It was reprieve they were seeking and I knew they would find it in my home, but only moderately so. I chided them for visiting Austin in August. Once the guests had showered and returned to a relatively more natural body temperature, we embarked on a night of showing them around Austin.

After dining at the food trucks on east 6th street and weaving in and out of a few bars, we shared a collective desire to shift gears for the night. My friend expressed interest in seeing the stars in Austin; she wanted to go to where we could see them the best, somewhere out in the country. You can see the stars from Austin’s city limits of course – the city isn’t yet too illuminated for that. But when you drive beyond Austin and into the barren Texan rural landscape, the night sky opens wide; it becomes the mouth of the universe, baring its starry teeth and mysterious surrounding dark matter. It’s the kind of mesmerizing scenery you can get lost in. It’s the kind of escape from which you don’t always feel a need to return. It’s dangerous like that.

We drove east down Martin Luther King boulevard without a specific destination in mind. All semblance of civilization grew distant behind us and the road was nearly invisible ahead, swallowed by the tar-thick blackness. We drove for over an hour, listening to Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major. It was already well after midnight when we spontaneously turned left and followed a dirt road around its curve, which led us to an unknown paved road. We parked the car on the side of the road and got out.

When we turned off the music, the silence had a robust presence, thoroughly pronounced in each rest I’d normally expect to be occupied by sound. My friend lay down in the middle of the street, writhing on the hot pavement in gratitude beneath the vision above. I sprawled out on the roof of my van. We stared up toward a heavy sky that seemed ready to collapse. The dark further illuminated the light specs and we were dizzy under the hypnosis of it all until the silence broke. Coyote howls cracked and screeched in what seemed like a furious brawl, an early morning rampage. They sounded close. I envisioned them finding us all out there, lying on the street and the car like carcasses awaiting consumption. We conceded to the anxiety and retreated to the car, eventually finding our way back to the dirt road and then the main drag back into Austin, where we were so far from those stars; so far from Alaska.

Americans Abducted, Robbed And Beaten In Peru

The horrifying story of three Americans abducted, robbed and beaten in Peru recently has seen the light of day, but not to the extent I would expect it to.

I first came across the story of brother and sister, Jennifer Wolfrom and Joseph Wolfrom, and Joseph’s wife, Meghan Doherty, on Reddit the other day. The story had hardly been viewed, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from it. What should have been an innocent trip to Cuzco, Peru, on the way to Machu Picchu became a nightmare when the three Americans were forced to park their car under a nearby bridge because of intimidating darkness. It was Jennifer’s 30th birthday, so the three shared two beers. As reported on their blog, two villagers came by and told them it was alright for them to park their car in the spot overnight. Curiously though, the villagers began blowing whistles and alerting other villagers to their presence through cellphones. More villagers gathered near the group and demanded to see the documents of the travelers. The American travelers refused to show documents to people who weren’t police or government officials. They felt nervous and decided to leave, but the villagers began throwing rocks at their car.They decided to drive back in the direction from which they had come. The road came to a dead end after about 10 minutes of driving, however, and a man at the end of the road told the Americans that they could not stay there. The travelers had no choice but to drive back in the direction toward the villagers where rocks were again continuously thrown at their vehicle and a barricade was built hastily by villagers. While trying to avoid the rocks being thrown at the car, Joseph drove the car into a ditch. They tried to repel the attackers with bear spray and ran away on foot. Villagers continued to chase the three, pelting them with rocks all along the way.

“There were at least 30 people chasing us and throwing rocks at us at one point. We were running for our lives for between 30 minutes to an hour through the village hills and rivers,” Jennifer said in an entry online.

They were eventually so badly hurt that they were abducted by the villagers and taken back to a man called the “Presidente.” He ordered them to walk through cold rain toward a village school. They were beaten along the way and once they arrived to the school, dozens of villagers urged the man to kill the three of them. They were whipped and beaten for hours. Joseph’s teeth were knocked out. All of their possessions and documents were stolen from them. During at least one point in the night, a shot was fired toward the group while they begged for their lives.

After all of the abuse, they were asked to sign a document, which asserted that they had crashed the car because they were drunk and that they sustained their injuries through the car accident. Fearing for their lives, they signed the false document. They were eventually taken back to their gutted vehicle and villagers stayed with them until the police arrived and stood by as they told the police the fabricated story.

The Americans were then transported to a nearby town where they finally were able to use a phone to call the US Consulate in Cuzco. They filled out a police report at that point in time describing what had actually happened and they were treated for injuries. Between the three of them, around 100 stitches were administered. As of the latest update, they are still stranded in Peru and receiving medical attention while planning their trip home to the U.S.

Read more about this travel nightmare on their blog, Adventure Americas.

[Photo Credit: Digital Journal]

The Beaches Near Merida: Progreso And Chicxulub

The nearest beach to Merida, Mexico, is Progreso. The ancient Maya frequented Progreso to collect sea salt from lagoons near the coast. Salt was a valuable product for trade for the ancient Maya – so valuable that many Maya made the trek frequently, despite its semi-arid obstacles. And so, after walking around on the beach via Google Street View for a while, I decided to make the 30-minute or so drive to Progreso while staying in Merida. With bottled water in tow, I hit the straight-shot road that connects the two cities and arrived to the port city of Progreso just in time for lunch.

When I noticed the shirtless, drunk man pacing back and forth on the sidewalk behind my car, which I’d parked where the pavement meets the boardwalk, I hesitated and made sure I’d locked everything up. Reminding myself to hope for the best, I tucked my anxiety away and began my leisurely walk down the boardwalk. The sky was mostly empty of clouds revealing a crisp blue canvas. The ocean water’s color changed like Ombre hair – a deep, midnight blue yielded a bright sea-green at the sand. Progreso‘s famous pier, the Terminal Remota, protruded out toward the horizon, spanning a full four miles. Although it was a Saturday afternoon, the beach town was sleepy, which worked out well because I was sleepy, too.

%Gallery-175115%I weaved my way through stores selling Mexican tchotchkies. A charismatic young man offered me “unbeatable” deals on each item I touched in his store. He spoke to me in English with an unidentifiable accent. He was a student of the world and a speaker of many languages. It wasn’t easy to walk away from his melodic tongue, particularly where the French and Spanish accents merged into an indecipherable, charming blur, but I was hungry. I left only with his suggestion of where to find a vegetarian lunch.

As I strolled leisurely down the boardwalk with the Gulf to my left side, restaurant owners emerged out of their shaded corners, reciting their most popular dishes for me as I passed. But I had my sights set on what had been recommended to me and when I finally found it, a restaurant called Flamingo’s, I initially doubted my devotion to the local’s direction.

In line with the sleepy atmosphere of Progreso that day, I sat at the table awaiting service for 10 or 15 minutes. But when service arrived, it came boldly and warmly. An order of just-squeezed orange juice yielded an overflowing pitcher. Guacamole, refried beans, salsa, vegetable soup, lentil soup, fajitas, tortilla chips and fried bananas proved to be more food than my husband I could consume, but not for lack of fresh flavor.

My car was still parked and in tact when I returned for it, as was the shirtless drunk man, who was sitting curbside and rambling. I decided to make the 10 minute drive over to Chicxulub after lunch. Chicxulub is located at almost the exact geographical center of the Chicxulub crater. The crater, although unobservable, is an impact crater that extends into the Gulf. Created by the impact of a comet or asteroid around 65 million years ago, the Chicxulub crater is believed by many to be evidence of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event – the event that destroyed the dinosaurs.

I wanted to see this place for myself, although there was nothing to see (the remnants of the impact crater are buried far below today’s topsoil.) I walked out to the beach, which was littered with boats and debris from the sea. The sand smelled like cat urine. I stood there for a moment, thinking about the scientific importance of the ground on which I was standing, and ignoring the putrid scent.

Stray cats scurried away from my car as I approached it and I considered for a moment the delight these cats must take in the fish to be found in a port city like Chicxulub. I thought about the impressive degree to which mammals have evolved since this crater was formed. I dodged stray dogs on the way back to Merida and found myself back in my hotel room and preparing for a night out on the town before the sun began to set.

Read more from my series on the Yucatan and the Maya here.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]