Think golden beaches, turquoise seas, majestic palm trees, glorious sunshine and dusky evenings lingering over tapas and local wine.
Then, while we’re gathering holiday clichés as fast as Spanish vineyards pluck Tempranillo grapes, let’s throw in a few soggy ‘Real English Fry-ups with Real English Bacon’ billboards, a smattering of soggy pizzas (with ‘Real Chips’), a clutter of Kidz Clubz, and endless amusement arcades to eat up any Euros you have remaining after forking out for overpriced, under flavoured imitation English food.
Meanwhile we dream wistfully of stumbling upon that perfect Spanish restaurant where prices are good but quality is even better; somewhere that makes your tastebuds not only tingle but dance the Flamenco equivalent to a joyous Irish jig.
Valencia is that dream. It’s the perfect affordable family friendly destination with no obvious whiff of the bacon’n’egg culture that discerning tourists abhor.
The third largest city in Spain, Valencia nipped firmly in the bud the commercialised coastline concrete hotel sprawl of the 1960s and 70s, instead conserving the area as a 21,000 hectare nature park where rice plants flourish, freshwater lakes ripple and rare birds chirrup, wade and splash to their hearts’ content - and the delight of birdwatchers from all over Europe. Herons are two a penny and even the flamingoes come en masse every autumn, says the very helpful guide.
Everybody in Valencia seems helpful. It’s not a subservient sort of helpful; it’s more of a bursting-with-pride, delighted-to-tell-you-about-my-city kind of helpful. Valencia has pride oozing from every pore. Even the teenager in the Tabac shop tells you animatedly about what sights to see. It also has dignity.
While Barcelona and Madrid grabbed the headlines over the years, Valencia quietly got on with... being Valencia. It had so much history-steeped past to be preserved and cherished: the alabaster windows of the cathedral, the spiky Gothic architecture, the baroque balconies and, of course, the Santo Cáliz, the agate chalice religiously revered as the vessel used by Jesus to serve wine at the Last Supper.
Then, history taken care of, the Valecians set about adding brand spanking new to the old and historic. Enter the City of Arts and Sciences, a sparkling, state-of-the-art complex created by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava. The scientific and cultural leisure mecca spans two kilometres of the former River Turia, now transformed into a perfect cycleway. The iconic, futuristic glass buildings offer fun, culture and entertainment for all the family - and you can even pick up Valencia’s answer to a ‘Boris Bike’ to reach them. It’s worth setting a day aside for the Oceanogràfic, Europe’s biggest aquarium where the 45,000 specimens include everything from dolphins to dragonfish to sea lions and sharks.
Back in the heart of the city, there seems to be almost as many species of fish at the bustling Central Market, the massive modernistic, column-bedecked building devoted to 1,000 stalls of the finest food Valencia has to offer. Stalls of just-picked vegetable jostle alongside displays of fish so fresh you almost expect them to swim, while the smell of Valencian jamón (cured ham) mingles so tantalisingly with just-ground spices that you forget you only had a huge tapas lunch only an hour ago. Here at Mercado Central the city’s finest chefs stroll alongside the shoppers, squeezing, plucking, sniffing in the quest for ingredient perfection. Artichokes are a couple of Euros a kilo, while massive punnets of crimson strawberries are three Euros at the most.
Down by the beach (yes, golden sands and turquoise seas) we sample products of the Mercado Central with a traditional Valencian Paella at the Cuina Oberta restaurant. Bright green with artichokes and three different species of runner beans, it features chicken, rabbit and snails still in their shells. It’s like no paella you’ve ever tasted before, but it’s good. Very good.
But then it’s hard to find food that is not good in this city. Valencia seems to be amassing top chefs and Michelin starred restaurants as fast as it produces its famous oranges from tree-lined streets. There’s the three-starred El Poblet, where chef Luis Valls does such extraordinary things with ordinary ingredients such as tuna, sea bream, pork and rabbit that it makes you wonder whether you are dreaming. Truly a paradise for gourmands, El Poblet offers seven taster courses, culminating in chocolate slates and candied orange cubes, for 45 Euros. Split into individual dining rooms, the setting is stunning: seafood is not only served in the shell, but on a polished pebble for a plate. Nearby, the Macellum restaurante offers a Spanish and Mediterranean ‘degustación’ (tasting) of delights - all nine perfect dishes of them.
“We seek to serve the essence of our chef Alejandro in each dish, an essence that stimulates the senses and lets us breathe Valencian airs adopted into contemporary cuisine,” it informs us. And it succeeds.
It’s not all about food though. It would be a crime to go to Valencia without tasting Horchata, the town’s traditional drink made with tiger nuts (chufas in Spanish) water and sugar. The Món Orxata Factory, tucked away on an industrial estate in Alboraya grows the nuts and has perfected the art of grinding them and producing Horchata, which it sells from ice-cooled barrows all around town. The taste is sweet, milky, nutty and probably more refreshing than any drink that’s ever passed your lips.+
Then there are tapas. Of course, it wouldn’t be Spain without tapas. There’s posh ‘let’s-have-athree-hour-gourmet-lunch’ tapas and there’s ‘lets-tuck-in-for-a-few-quid’ type of tapas venues in equal proportions to suit every mood and budget.
For the posh variety at a very reasonable price, we have to recommend La Mozaira hotel and restaurant - a place so homely yet exquisitely furnished that you simply long to up sticks, live there, and sample their cooking for ever.
For the fun tapas, the tiny El Colomado de La Lola, nestled alongside the Cathedral of Valencia, is actually in a pretty serious spot - particularly when it’s the night of the sacred pre-Easter procession with hundreds of worshippers marching to the beat of drums past its door following an almost life-size effigy of Christ. Inside La Lola though it’s all fun, laughter, fine food and amazing Craft beer, brewed on the spot by the young and enthusiastic owners.
Looking out at the ancient cathedral, eating garlic-infused sea urchins out of the shell, chunks of sugar-sweet tomatoes drenched in oil, slice after slice of succulent jamón, we listen to the fading beat of the drum, smell the incense-scented air and wonder if Valencia, just a two and a half hour flight away from Luton, might just be the perfect slice of paradise we’ve been searching for.
For more information visit the the Valencia Tourism website:www.visitvalencia.com
* Valencia has its own airport and regular flights are available with Monarch, Ryanair, Easyjet and British Airways from most UK airports, including Luton and East Midlands.