##Why Valencia? ¿Por qué Valencia? It’s a reasonable question, I suppose. Why do I, and others from around the world, choose to live here?
After all, the third-largest city in Spain doesn’t normally rate on most people’s “must-sees”. The Lonely Planet guide, in its suggested city-based itinerary, talks at length about Madrid and Barcelona and touches on Valencia to a certain extent but not with the eagerness that it extols the beauties of Seville. Some other guides don’t even mention the city, or slip it into a paragraph in the Catalunya chapter or a side note before the Costa Blanca.
Valencia has no ancient buildings like the Colosseum or the Alhambra. Nor does it possess great monuments like Big Ben or the Arc de Triomphe (although the ‘Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias’ is quite impressive). There are no famous museums like the Louvre or the Prado (although the IVAM puts on a good exhibition or two). The town beach isn’t quite Bondi or the Copacabana.
The people are gregarious and the nightlife can be wild, but that is a characteristic of Spain as a whole rather than the mid-Mediterranean coast in particular. It is not the most aesthetically beautiful of cities (although the streets of Carmen can be rather pretty). Arguably, some drivers have little respect for pedestrian crossings…
If I was to move to Spain, would it not be more logical to follow the majority of expats? My brother’s girlfriend suggested I go to Madrid. My cousin told me Barcelona was the place to be. Sometimes it seems half the British Isles are relocating to the Costa del Sol or the Balearic Islands.
And yet, “everybody else goes there” has never seemed like a good enough argument to me.
In my long-ago university days, a friend outlined her philosophy about decision-making. For small decisions, she explained, such as what to eat for dinner or how many lectures you could miss without risk of exam failure, you used a rational part of your brain. For large decisions, such as who to marry or what career to follow, logic was too blunt a tool. For such choices, you needed to disregard logic and go with your instinct.
I suppose my moving to Valencia falls into the category of a “large decision”.
Perhaps I can blame a restless gene…the Irish have always been wanderers. Maybe it was a touch of seasonal affective disorder, a casual suggestion made by a work colleague, a passage from Hemingway, a chance meeting on a bus between Malaga and Granada, the pull of the Mediterranean. Or perhaps it all goes back to the oranges…
I’ve always loved oranges. In the depths of winter, they brightened the fruit shelves of the supermarket. I would dig my nails deep into the peel and pull it away so that the juice stained my fingernails and my hands smelled of fruit. The flesh in my mouth was like tasting sunshine. When I was a child growing up in Ireland, oranges usually came from Spain, with a sticky label to denote their city of origin. Sometimes they were from Seville. Other times they were from Valencia.
I think the first time I heard about Valencia was in a Sunday Times travel supplement. They published an article about the “smaller cities” of Europe, places that didn’t hold the cachet of Paris or Athens or Rome, but it was worth passing a long weekend. Places like Ghent, like Lyon, like Valencia.
However, in the summer I was still a long way from Spain. In fact, I was in Scotland. My employers had announced layoffs in the Irish office, and I had chosen to move to Glasgow rather than the unemployment queue. The Scots are a friendly bunch and there are few places more beautiful than the Highlands in summer. However, the prospect of another murky Scottish winter set me wondering why, if I was going to live abroad, I didn’t choose somewhere in a more favorable latitude.
My friend in Ireland knew someone with an apartment on the Costa del Sol, and suggested we spend a holiday there in September. My friend in Scotland was planning to spend a weekend in Barcelona at about the same time. A plan formed: I booked a flight into Malaga and another out of Barcelona. I met a Spanish work colleague in the canteen and told him about my plan, asking where would be worth stopping along the way.
“Valencia?” he suggested. He pronounced it the Spanish way. Bal-en-thee-ah.
In September I spent a few days in Fuengirola with two Irish friends. I was good to see my pals again, but Fuengirola itself did not impress. The phrase book proved useless since most of the bar staff were British and many of the restaurants did not even have menus in Spanish. And towards the end of the week, the sun disappeared. The only place less dreary than the Costa del Sol is the Costa del Sol in the rain.
I escaped into Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. One of the characters, Pilar, talks of Valencia. Do not malign Valencia, she said, for it was there she ate melon and paella, there she fell in love with a handsome matador (in Hemingway’s Spanish books, there is usually a handsome matador hiding somewhere).
I left my friend at Malaga airport and took the bus to Granada. When I failed to understand the rapid-fire instructions of the bus driver, a student translated for me. Her name was Lola; she shared a flat in Wolverhampton with an Irish girl and her English was full of expressions such as “yer man”. She said “oh, you should go to Valencia. I once had a boyfriend from Valencia. It’s a great city.”
So that was two votes for Spain’s third city, both from Spaniards. Plus the Sunday Times Section. Plus Hemingway. Plus the sticky labels on oranges. Why not?
During my three days in Valencia, something unexpected happened. I have been to more beautiful cities, and more famous ones. I have strolled down the streets of the River Seine and marvelled at the Eiffel Tower, but never felt I wanted to live in Paris. I have stopped to gawp at the buskers on Las Ramblas and looked out from the dizzying towers of Sagrada Familia, but never felt I wanted to live in Barcelona. However, when I sat in the Plaza de la Virgen and watched the children chasing pigeons in the sunlight, I felt, oddly, as if I had arrived somewhere I had been trying to reach all my life. So I decided that, come what may, I would return.
The following month, back in Glasgow, the clocks ticked back one hour and the prospect of dark evenings strengthened my resolve. I returned to Ireland for Christmas, and booked my flight to Spain in January. And so here I am.
It’s a story I’ve heard repeated, in many guises, by foreigners here. They come by accident, stumbling across the city along the way. Barcelona is too expensive, with accommodation impossible to find. Madrid is too cold and too frantic. The Costa Blanca is too touristy. They come on the Erasmus programme and find a reason to extend their course. They follow a lover. They follow a friend. They follow the sea breeze. They come in March, following the smell of burning papier-mâché, and stay longer than they planned.
Of course, not everyone falls under Valencia’s spell. They find the language barrier too much to cope with. They can’t find work, or they find work and are paid in buttons. They get tied in knots trying to deal with the bureaucracy. They have to reorganize their day to deal with weird closing times and eating hours. They find the chaos of the festivals too much…
Those of us who love this city accept these facts, but we love it all the same.
So, why Valencia? If you have to ask, nobody can tell you. There is only one answer. ¿Por qué no?
Fiona Honor Hurley