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TRAVEL

The urge for going: Choosing to return to Europe after a two-year hiatus

One of the most serene spots in Valencia is the garden of the Benlliure house museum. Patricia Harris

VALENCIA, Spain — When we flew back from Europe in February 2020, we had no idea that we’d soon be home-bound. After two years and three Pfizer vaccine shots each, we developed a powerful case of what Joni Mitchell called the “urge for going.”

As we weighed risks and rewards, we decided we wouldn’t be comfortable in a completely foreign place. So we settled on Spain because we know the country and speak the language, if haltingly at times. We also know that when the weather is warm, Spaniards live outdoors. As we narrowed our choices, we remembered that Valencia had charmed us on previous short visits. The city dances gracefully on the eastern point of Spain. It wears its last thousand years with pride, from the Gothic cathedral to the Modernista market buildings to the avant-garde sensibility of the City of Arts and Sciences.

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We also knew Valencia has world-class beaches. We’re suckers for real cities with great beaches.

An apartment rental seemed like the best choice so that we would have more privacy and could prepare meals if it was too cool or rainy to eat outside. When we found an Airbnb listing for a one-bedroom literally across the street from Valencia’s famous central food market, we were all in. The discount for a month made it the same price as 11 days. April, when orange trees bloom and their scent fills the air, was available. Decision made.

Entering Spain was a breeze. After we filled out simple forms online, the Spanish government checked the American vaccination database and sent us a QR code to come on in. (Vaccinated Americans are welcome in Spain.) Our flights on Iberia were drama-free, apart from David causing a commotion by spilling a cup of coffee. We heard no complaints about mask-wearing nor did we observe any scofflaws, even on the long transatlantic leg.

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Until we arrived, we had no idea that Valencia had been selected as the 2022 European Capital of Smart Tourism. Honestly, we don’t know what that means. But Spaniards do seem smart about making the accommodations to stay safe and get on with their lives. The COVID vaccination rate exceeds 91 percent. Spaniards are so used to wearing masks that El País, a leading national newspaper, ran a feature on how to cope with the trauma of going maskless to prepare readers for the expiration of the indoor mask mandate on April 20. At least at first, many Spaniards continued to wear masks indoors and even outdoors, especially in crowded places.

We eased into sightseeing by concentrating on smaller, uncrowded museums devoted to individual artists. They were the kind of attractions we used to skip, but we soon learned how short-sighted we’d been. We discovered singer Concha Piquer, who sang on Broadway as a teenager, made an early talkie with Al Jolson, and eventually married a bullfighter. Best-selling author and political agitator Vicente Blasco Ibáñez occupied a gracious beach villa where he wrote on the balcony looking out to sea. The hidden garden between the home and tiled studio of painters José Benlliure Gil and his son José Benlliure Ortiz became one of our favorite outdoor spots in a city dotted with gardens.

Our Airbnb apartment in Valencia included a spacious living area.David Lyon

Valencia’s signature green space is the Turia Garden, a 5.6-mile linear park in the riverbed revealed when the Turia river was diverted after a 1957 flood. We think of it as Valencia’s Greenway, though it took even longer to develop. (The Gardens were dedicated in 1986.) The entire length has walking paths, a cinder track for runners, and dedicated bike paths. In fact, Valencia has dedicated bike paths everywhere and cheap bike rentals on practically every corner. The old riverbed is filled with lush plantings, small ponds and fountains, and playing fields. There are a few picnic tables, but most folks spread a blanket on the grass.

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The Turia Garden leads “downriver” past the city’s two major art museums to the spectacle of the City of Arts and Sciences. Designed largely by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, the complex includes Europe’s largest aquarium, a massive 3-D cinema, a science museum that looks like the skeleton of some unbelievably massive creature, a soaring opera house, and a semi-covered garden. The scale of every building is immense. People do visit the museums and attend concerts, but the main attraction seems to be taking photos or posing for photos in front of buildings that could have been lifted from a futuristic sci-fi movie.

Visitors to the City of Arts and Sciences enjoy lunch at outdoor tables. David Lyon

Since the advent of COVID, we’ve set a goal of walking at least 10,000 steps a day. In this city made for strolling, it’s a snap. Getting lost in fascinating old neighborhoods really builds the step count. For longer distances, Valencia’s system of subways and trams was easy to navigate. Mostly we rode to the urban beaches, where white sand stretches for more than two continuous miles. When the winds are up, Malvarrosa beach has big breakers that attract surfers. Closer to the cruise port, the flat expanse of Las Arenas beach is often covered with sunbathers even when it’s too cool for swimming. All the urban beaches fly blue flags — the highest grade of cleanliness in Europe.

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Some of the city’s oldest and most famous paella restaurants line the beach. The Moors introduced rice cultivation to the area in the 8th century and Valencia is proud of its distinction as the birthplace of paella. It’s true that you can get paella anywhere in Spain, but you really can’t beat eating it at the source.

One day we took a hybrid city bus to El Palmar, a rice-farming village six miles south on the lagoon known as the Albufera, also a natural park. When the people of the village aren’t farming rice or fishing, they give nature tours or operate restaurants. We joined about 20 other passengers for a cruise through the marshy ecosystem aboard a flat-bottomed wooden boat. Then we sat canal-side to enjoy a lunch of local specialties: eels and red pepper followed by a flat pan of paella presented to us with great ceremony by our waiter.

Night view of the Modernista-style Central Market from the window of our apartment.David Lyon

It’s hard to say which we enjoyed more — the food or eating outdoors in the sunshine in a special natural place. It was just one of many simple but memorable meals we ate at outdoor tables. We might think of cities as asphalt, concrete, and stone, but our memories of Valencia will always be water and gardens and trees.

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We wondered if we would get restless staying so long in one place, but we grew to enjoy feeling more like residents than tourists. We had our favorite stalls in the Central Market — the bakery with great half loaves of multi-grain boules and the fruit vendor with the sweetest strawberries who always offered a sample. We began to nod at the dogwalkers in the park near our apartment and knew the best bar for afternoon glasses of wine on the plaza near the cathedral.

We even knew where wild parrots were building a nest in the university’s Botanical Garden, which we visited every so often to watch the progression of blooms. An exhibition of whimsical art work scattered through the garden is up through early October. Created by a pair of Spanish women graphic designers, it’s a brave riposte in the time of COVID: Life Wins!

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.

Whenever the weather permits, Spaniards eat and drink outdoors.Patricia Harris

IF YOU GO . . .

All prices based on an exchange rate of 1 euro equals $1.08.

The Valencia city tourism site, visitvalencia.com/en, has exhaustive English-language information about museums and other attractions. Most museums are closed on Mondays and admissions are modest. Many are free and others range from $1.10-$8.65. Adult admission to the Oceanogràfic (the aquarium) is $34.50.

GETTING AROUND

The Metro is inexpensive, clean, modern, and efficient. At the airport, we bought a paper TuiN card from the same vending machine that disburses one-way tickets and loaded it with 10 euros ($10.80) for the sake of convenience. It reduced the cost of each Metro trip to $2.15—including the normally $6.25 trip to or from the airport. People traveling together can share the same card. City buses cost $1.65. Bicycle rentals are found in every neighborhood and generally cost $8.65-$13 per day. The Valenbisi bike-share system is primarily designed for long-term residents. Many operators in El Palmar offer 45-minute Albufera boat tours, which start at $5.40.


Patricia Harris can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com. David Lyon can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.