A Sense of Spain – 3
Perhaps it's a bit unfair to post a piece on Valencia the day after it has just upped its “bail-out” request to Spain's central government to 4.5 billion Euros, but somehow this saga is symptomatic of Spain's third largest city.
Probably the one that travellers are least likely to visit, Valencia might seem to suffer by comparison with Madrid and Barcelona, yet it too enjoys a rich urban, cultural heritage: witness the old city gates, the Torres de Quart and Serranos; the Cathedral Basilica dating from the 13th century; the original University buildings around Plaza della Patriarca; the magnificent covered Mercado de Colon; the Museo des Belles Artes celebrating a rich artistic tradition stretching from Ribera to Sorolla; the modernist façade of the Estacion del Norte; the narrow winding streets of Barrio Del Carme, now full of “hip” bars, restaurants, art galleries and antiques shops; and the delightfully re-sculptured course of the old River Turia.
But, as Thomas Gray once wrote,”nor all that glisters gold”. Valencia also conveys a sense of the darker side of 21st century Spain. Not long ago, the popular images most closely associated with the city were those of the legendary El Cid (aka Charlton Heston) defeating the Moorish invaders; and big, flat, steaming pans of the local dish – paella. Nowadays the mood is very different. Unemployment rates – particularly amongst the 16-25 year olds – hover between 40 and 50%. The banking and, more especially, the property sectors are mired in colossal debt; great “vanity” projects – like Castellon Airport, completed in 2011 but never licenced to operate because its runway was too short, and Valencia's Cuidad de las Artes y de las Ciencias, languishing under the weight of a 400% budgetary overspend. - stand as monuments to political graft, financial corruption and economic profligacy.
History, the locals claim, has not been kind to the city. Twice it has “chosen the wrong side" in Spain's political battles: in the War of the Spanish Succession, it threw in its lot with the Hapsburg, Charles, Duke of Austria, only to surrender its political and legal independence when the the rival Bourbon family triumphed in 1715. Then, during the Civil War, it briefly became the seat of the ill-fated Republican Government, only to succumb to Franco's armies in 1938. The Generalissimo, it is said, never forgot or forgave Valencia; the postwar years until 1975 were a time of great hardship for the city. Even the elements conspired against it; in 1957 at least 81 citizens died when the River Turia flooded. Franco eventually agreed to allow the river to be re-routed to the south of the city – though its new course is now a dried-up bed of stones, all the water having been taken up upstream to irrigate Las Huertas, the city's horticultural hinterland.
These experiences seem somehow to have etched into the collective Valencian mindset a belief that it is owed “a break” - principally from those cities, Madrid and Barcelona, that, so the argument runs, have been the principally beneficiaries of its misfortune. These rivalries, tinctured with the occasional dash of self-pity, have been expressed most evidently in insatiable demands for very conspicuous, high-prestige, “success-stories”: e.g. the staging of The Americas Cup (twice) and the European F1 Grand Prix. Nowhere has this pursuit of recognition been more evident that on the soccer field, where one of the local teams – Valencia FC – has virtually bankrupted itself in a vain attempt to match the glories of its more illustrious neighbours, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
What will happen to the city in the next decade is unclear, but would-be travellers should not put off. The city now is linked to Madrid by the latest extension of the high-speed AVE train network – 96 minutes and 70 Euros if you are lucky! The charm and vivacity remains. Because the centre is quite small, it is a delightful place to walk, shop and if you've the energy and inclination – party. And it was the scene of one of my more embarrassing moments. Confusing my “derechas and “izquierdas” , in search of a gym I went into a building on the opposite side of the nearby square and, on asking (in execrable Spanish) at reception for the male changing room, somewhat to my surprise was given a gown and a small bottle, and directed downstairs. It was only then that I discovered that, far from being a gym, this was the site of Valencia's CREA – Medical Centre for Assisted Reproduction!!