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Three Gay Days: Valencia

Three Gay Days: Valencia


Oft-overshadowed by her more famous Spanish sister cities Madrid and Barcelona, Valencia's Old World charm, modern cultural offerings and unpretentious gay culture thrive in sexy sea-side style.


As powerhouses Barcelona and Madrid duke it out for the title of Spain's most gay-friendly hotspot, a new contender has been quietly bulking up in the wings. Valencia, the country's number three city with about 810,000 people, may for now be a little-tasted tourist tapa, but it's a destination on the rise, poised and ready for the international attention it deserves. With its sensual blend of ancient neighborhoods, modern architecture, urban savvy, and a laid-back beach vibe, Valencia is warm and inviting, its citizens proud and charming.

Best known to the world for its lively annual Fallas Festival (a week in mid-March wherein hundreds of elaborate wood and papier mache sculptures are showcased throughout the city, then burned in one ultrabright town-wide midnight session) and its stunning City of Arts and Sciences (designed by homegrown architecture hotshot Santiago Calatrava), in recent years Valencia also became the home of the European Grand Prix auto race, as well as the first Euro city ever to hold the America's Cup sailing regatta.

Throughout its millennia-long history, sweet Valencia has endured crushing waves of both invaders (Romans, Moors, Goths, etc.) and water (via the too-often-bank-jumping Turia River), but it's always proven remarkably resilient. As a testament to locals' hardiness and ingenuity, following a particularly devastating 1957 flood they altered the very path of the Turia, and set about creating what's now the truly remarkable Turia Gardens along its former riverbed.

Valencia's gay scene is small and understated, but growing fast. Queers here mingle easily with the mainstream, and it's said that at least one high-ranking city official is part of the LGBT community. Pride events happen in late June.

Midway down Spain's eastern Mediterranean coast, Valencia is just over 200 miles from both Barcelona (to the northeast) and Madrid (to the west). From the U.S., Valencia Airport is served by Iberia (with connections in Madrid) via its several American gateway cities, and in summer by a direct Delta flight from New York's JFK Airport. Valencia's magnificent main train station, Estaci?n del Norte, stands right at the south edge of the old city center. RENFE trains from both Madrid and Barcelona are comfortable, efficient and scenic.

Since opening in 2006, Hotel Balneario Las Arenas (Eugenia Vines 22-24; +34 96 312 0600) has brought grand five star luxury back to Valencia's beachfront, on the former site of the elegant late 19th century Las Arenas thermal spa. Its 243 rooms and ten suites all have private balconies or terraces. For a similar situation at more affordable rates, Hotel Neptuno (Paseo de Neptuno 2; +34 96 356 7777) is just down the boardwalk. At the city center, the perfect blend of location and style is yours at Hospes Palau de la Mar [link to:] (Av de Navarro Reverter; +34 96 316 2884), which overlays two 19th century palace buildings with its own sleek but warm contemporary imprint. For a more old-world feel, Ad Hoc Monumental (C/ Boix 4; +34 96 391 9140) retains a more austere vibe, with exposed brick and simple furnishings in its 28 rooms. Its setting between to the Cathedral and Turia Gardens couldn't be more central.



Start your tour at Valencia's historic heart with a dive into the huge, bustling and mouthwatering Mercado Central (Central Market). While the market itself dates back centuries, its current massive modernist home is a relative newcomer on the cityscape, designed in 1914 and opened in 1928. Shop alongside Valencia's flock of up-and-coming foodie wizards as they procure both inspiration and ingredients.

Across Plaza del Mercado, have a gander at one of Gothic Valencia's grandest structures, the 15th century La Lonja de la Seda (Silk Market), which originally served as the business center for the city's then-booming silk industry, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Next, wander a few streets up to the fascinating Plaza Redonda, the cloistered "Round Square" where cloth and ceramics merchants peddle their wares as if untouched by the eons. A few streets further, the beautiful Plaza de la Virgen (Virgin Square) is the longtime de facto center of city life, a magical sort of place where stroll-ers, shoppers, and even skateboarders mingle against the square's timeless backdrop. The headliner here is the city's other ancient jewel, the 13th century Catedral de Valencia (Plaza de la Reina; +34 96 391 8127), best known for housing the cup that many (including some scientists) believe to be the actual Holy Grail from Jesus's final meal.

Speaking of Jesus and eating, take a well-deserved lunch break at nearby La Lola (Subida del Toledano 8; +34 96 391 8045), local entrepreneur Jes?s Ortega's groundbreaking foray into hip Valencian dining. Beyond the fantastic food, its art shows and (in the evenings) live music and DJs make La Lola one of the city's trendiest eateries. While you're here, be sure to pick up a copy of the free "Targeta LGTB ensenya-me-la" map of the city (published by Collectiu Lambda, the city's main gay organization) -- it'll come in handy in El Carmen after lunch.

Head a few blocks northwest into the heart of El Carmen, Valencia's Bohemian and most gay-popular neighborhood. Here you'll find twisty alleyways full of lively shops and surprises. Art lovers should check out the forward-leaning IVAM (Institut Valencia d'Art Modern; Guillem de Castro 118; +34 96 386 3000), Spain's first museum dedicated solely to modern art when it opened in 1989. The 14th century Torres de Serranos (Serranos Towers) once formed part of Valencia's medieval city walls, most of which were demolished in the 1860s. Today the Serranos offer gorgeous views overlooking the city.

In the evening, explore the Spanish obsession with cured ham at Taberna Jam?n Jam?n (C/ Bolseria 36; +34 96 392 5877). Opened by young gay Valencian ?scar Collado in 2000, Jam?n Jam?n offers tasty tapas and entrees in a very friendly tavern setting. If you feel like dancing after dinner, and if its Thursday to Sunday, check out Venial (C/ Quart 26). On other days there's the raucous and mixed ADN Pub (10 C/ Angel Custodio), or if a bear hunt's more up your alley, head to North Dakota (Plaza Margarita de Valldaura 1).



On your second Valencian day in, you'll straddle the old Turia River course, in and alongside what's been gloriously retooled into Jard?n del T?ria (Turia Gardens). Start at the west end at the fascinating new Bioparc (Avenida P?o Baroja 3; +34 90 225 0340), a "modern zoo" where animals from around the world -- over 250 species and counting -- live in climatized re-creations of their natural habitats. Next, rent some wheels at Valencia Bikes (Paseo de la Pechina 32; +34 96 385 1740; ?10 for 4 hours or ?15 for a day) and take a leisurely cycle through the uniquely cool park that is Turia, with its purpose-built areas for a multitude of outdoor pursuits.

Make your way eastward to the Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences), modern Valencia's most famous and eye-catching showpiece. Designed by native son Santiago Calatrava and set within Turia Gardens itself, the CAS is a futuristic compound made up of five major architectural masterpieces, including the Oceanogr?fico (Europe's largest aquarium), the eyeball-shaped Hemisf?ric (an IMAX theater), and the latest addition, the Palau de les Arts Reina Sof?a (a world-class opera and performance house). The CAS has its own Valencia Bikes outlet, so you can either drop off here or keep pedaling to an authentic local lunch at the nearby Cafeteria El Vall (Plaza Bandas de M?sica de la Comunidad Valenciana 2; +34 96 320 4266), serving non-fussy tapas, sandwiches, pizzas and paellas till 2am daily except Sunday.

Just a few blocks away lies the Museo Fallero (Fallero Museum, Plaza Monteolivete 4; +34 96 352 5478), where you can view the cavalcade of winning ninots (papier mache statues) from the city's age-old annual Fallas Festival. If you've still got energy, head northwest into Ruzafa, Valencia's most multicultural neighborhood, which boasts a growing gay presence. Grab a siesta back at the hotel, then for dinner head to the restaurant picked by many as the city's finest, Seu-Xerea (C/ Conde de Almod?var 4; +34 96 392 4000), where wonderfully amiable British expat Stephen Anderson has been pleasing Valencian palettes since 1996. The menu changes weekly, but the fare is consistently both creative and divine. Afterward, work off your new pounds with a walk through Turia to its north bank, where you'll find the flashy and popular gay bar So and Go (C/ Sagunto 10). Nearby, Deseo 54 (C/ Pepita 15) is the city's currently reigning queer disco, but it's only open from Thursdays to Sundays.



You've earned a lazy day, so lie back and soak up the sun on one (or more) of Valencia's many beautiful beaches. Just a quick ten minute bus or tram ride from the city center, Malvarossa and Las Arenas are the city's main strips. Pinedo, a further five minute bus ride south, is more clothing optional. Further south still by bus and then a bit of a hike, La Devesa is the most popular beach with in-the-know local gays, with suited folks to the left and nudies to the right. For lunch, head back to Las Arenas to the excellent La Marcelina (Paseo de Neptuno 8; +34 96 372 3316), where some of the city's best paella has been served up beachside for more than a century. With the open-plan kitchen, you can even watch it being made.

Now that you're tanned, rested and paella-filled, for a final Valencian treat take the metro or a taxi just beyond the city limits to the Lladr? Ciudad de la Porcelana (City of Porcelain; Carretera ?lboraya s/n, Tavernes Blanques; +34 96 318 7001). Make sure you call first to arrange for a guided tour, on which you'll witness the whole manufacturing process for the company's world-renowned porcelain finery. There's also an onsite museum of Lladr?'s most breathtaking pieces and a marvelous art collection of more than 70 important works from the likes of el Greco, Rubens and Sorolla.

• Locals speak their own brand of Catalan called Valencian (the ?other? language you?ll see on many signs), but of course everyone speaks Spanish as well, and many speak very good English.

• Though a fairly recent invention (about 50 years old), Agua de Valencia is the unofficial local cocktail of choice. Crisp and refreshing, it?s usually a blend of cava, orange juice, vodka, gin and sugar.

• The Valencia region is the homeland of paella, though many visitors are surprised to find that traditional paella is made here not with seafood, but with land-based meats like chicken, duck and rabbit.

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