In 1482, the first stone of what would become one of the 851 world heritage sites was laid. La Lonja, located in Plaza Mercado is a gothic-style building that, at first glance, may be mistaken for a religious building due to its many spiritual and biblical symbols. Declared a National Historic and Artistic monument in 1931 and a World Heritage Site in 1996, La Lonja was originally a silk exchange. Nowadays, this magnificent building is open to all who are interested in taking a stroll back through time into an interesting period in Valencian history where merchants were banished to cellars for poor conduct and given a lot more than a light tap on the hand for a failure to pay their dues. Described on the USESCO site as a place “which dramatically illustrates the power and wealth of one of the great Mediterranean mercantile cities”, La Lonja provides a unique space where this tourist-attraction also doubles as an escape from the noise of the city.
As I make my way towards this infamous landmark, I am taken aback by the sheer opulence of it and indeed many tourists and locals alike share my astonishment, milling around outside stopping in their tracks to take photos or simply appreciating the view. La Lonja stands tall as a rich symbol of Valencian history, a representation of the golden age of trading in the city. I overhear a tour guide standing outside explaining just how much skill and patience would have been needed to craft the front door alone with the amount of detail that is included. The intricacies don’t immediately announce themselves but the more you look the more you see. For example, a brief glance upwards saw me in an accidental staring contest with some angry-looking gargoyles.
Entry is free for the moment for those travelling solo and 1€ or 2€ for those travelling in groups or large families. So, after happily making my way past the front desk without having to purchase a ticket I entered the courtyard. The space is populated with orange trees that hang overhead and provide much needed shade from the warm Valencian sun. The air has a tranquillity to it as people relax on benches and stand around the eight-pointed star-shaped fountain. I find myself amid a walking tour and learn that people often throw coins into this fountain for good luck.
The Sala de Contratación (or trading floor) is the largest section of La Lonja, containing 24 columns that stand over 17 metres high. These columns twist up toward the ceiling in a screw-like manner and bloom into palm trees underneath a ceiling that once was painted blue with stars to mimic the Valencian night sky. Although the room is full to the brim with students, tourists and people lazing on windowsills taking in their surroundings, looking up can almost make one forget the existence of all the people below, standing on the marble floors. Along the walls of this room is an inscription, a reminder to the merchants to always trade fairly and honour the building in which they occupy.
The tower’s ground level contains a chapel that can be accessed through the corner of the Sala de Contratación. Light shines into the room through a stunning stain glassed window by which I had to stand for a significant amount of time, eagerly awaiting my turn to get a good picture. It was definitely worth it. Within the chapel rows of chairs are set up in front of an informative video projected onto the wall in front, I linger for a moment as the video describes the various angels, demons and hybrid creatures that roam the walls of La Lonja, before making my way out to the courtyard again.
The cellars where merchants would be taken if they failed to comply with the inscription that tells them to trade fairly, are empty…when I make my way down the stone stairs. In a semi-out-of-body-experience I am suddenly a merchant about to endure six months in punishment for conducting my work without integrity. In stark contrast to the grandiose nature of the Sala de Contratación from which I arrived, the cellars are a cold, lifeless space, only containing a small window into the outside world. Peeking through this tiny, barred window out into central market feels like the past meeting the present. I imagine how it must have felt for the merchants sentenced to 6 months in here, their only glimpse into the outside world being this. I am eager to get back to the hustle and bustle upstairs.
A brief sigh of relief bubbles in my chest as I make my way out of the cellars and upstairs towards the Consulat del Mar (The Maritime Consulate), a luxury space where important trade delegations were maintained by all the major Mediterranean trading cities. The ceiling is adorned with deep blue beams onto which, golden-painted figures are situated. A long rectangular table surrounded by chairs sits behind a barrier at the back of the room and you can’t help but almost feel the gravity of the important decisions that would have been made in this room. Another informative video is projected onto the walls describing how pastilla was used on the figures as it provided a better surface to paint on and meant that the figures were able to reflect light. This room was instructed to be made as costly and beautiful as could be afforded and it certainly lives up to this.
Leaving La Lonja and emerging into a Friday afternoon in the Valencian market square is slightly disorienting. It is odd to think that in the 21st century La Lonja is still standing and, although the golden age of trading in Valencia is long gone, the importance of this building is not lost. It is a staple in the Valencian community and to visit Valencia and not see it at least once would be a crime. Perhaps not one that would get you beheaded in the tower in front of your fellows but one that might leave you with some regret for missing out on such a monumental part of Valencian history.
Report by Shemaiah Rose
Article copyright 24/7 Valencia
‘La Lonja’ photo copyright Shemaiah Rose / 24/7 Valencia
LA LONJA DE LA SEDA
Address: Carrer de la Llotja, 2, 46001 València, Valencia
Contact Number: 962 08 41 53
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday: 10:00h to 19:00h
Sundays and bank holidays, 10 am to 2 pm.