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Summer 2006 | Valencia

Summer 2006 | Valencia

This sun-kissed Spanish city is the perfect spot to embrace the most recent European country to allow same-sex marriage.

A paradise of sun, sea, and yes, those delicious oranges, Valencia has for many years been relegated to the lower tier of tourist destinations in Spain. But now, after an economic boom and a wave of new construction, Valencia is poised to become Europe's "it" city.

Valencia seems to have subscribed to the "If you build it, they will come" theory of tourism, which worked out so well for Bilbao after the construction of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum. Valencia's answer to Gehry is its hometown boy made good, Santiago Calatrava, an architectural superstar who's now working on the new transportation hub at Ground Zero in New York.

In Valencia, Calatrava has designed the City of Arts and Sciences, a dazzling complex of buildings, parks, and pools that look as if they could take flight at a moment's notice. With their sweeping arcs, jazzy angles, and shiny surfaces, Calatrava's creations seem more like sculptures than architecture, charismatic works of art that will inspire even the most jaded viewers to whip out their digital cameras and begin clicking away. Calatrava has said that his designs were inspired by natural forms. For example, the peaks of his Science Museum suggest birds with open beaks while the Hemispheric planetarium resembles the human eye and can even blink. The shimmering quality of the facades is enhanced by Calatrava's use of trencadis, shards of the region"s famous ceramic tile that are fitted together to form a gleaming white whole that refracts the brilliant Mediterranean sunlight.

The City of Arts and Sciences is located at the end of what was once the River Turia, which used to run through the heart of the city, dividing it in two. After a devastating flood in 1957 the river's course was diverted several miles south, its bed drained and replaced by a lovely park where Valencians jog, sunbathe, and make out. Follow the park away from the sea and you'll soon reach the city's historic center, a maze of winding alleys, historic plazas, and vibrant markets. Here dapper Spanish men in dark suits and wraparound sunglasses dart between perfumed old ladies in houndstooth jackets strolling arm in arm down the city's main avenues. Wander in the narrow streets and discover tiny surprises like the moody Plaza Redonda, where souvenir hawkers compete for space with stands selling lace, baby clothes, and chef uniforms. You'll find a younger, gayer crowd in El Carme, a hip area that turns into a big gay street party at night. Though you"ll see fellow gay travelers and locals throughout Valencia, Carme is the one part of town where heterosexuality may seem downright uncool.

Valencian architecture is an exuberant mishmash of styles and materials. The city cathedral, for example, began as a Romanesque structure, but over the years acquired a baroque facade and a Gothic bell tower called the Micalet. If you're feeling in shape, climb the tower's 207 steps for an impressive view of the historic city center and beyond, especially at sunset. Another architectural hybrid is La Lonja, a former silk exchange, with its Gothic braided columns and a secluded Moorish-style garden courtyard. Perhaps most delightful of all are the city's whimsically designed covered markets. There's the bustling Mercado Central with its endless stalls selling fresh produce, meat, cheese, and seafood, all under a wavy roof studded with stained glass and fanciful weather vanes that suggest a giant cuckoo clock. Even more beautiful is the newly restored Mercado Colón, where you can grab a coffee or buy flowers under a stunning art nouveau canopy of glass, brick, iron, and ceramic tile mosaics.

You may want to spruce up your wardrobe after a day or two among the fashion-conscious Valencians. Try the area between Mercado Colón and the city hall, where you'll find Spain's famous El Corte Inglés department store and the usual international fashionistas like Armani and Louis Vuitton. You can also browse the original creations of Valencia's own Francis Montesinos, who designed costumes for Pedro Almodóvar's first four major films and now dresses many of Spain's celebrities.



Valencia's best-kept secret, however, is the area just north of the port, Cabanyal; during hot weather the beach there is packed with Valencians taking in the sun. A couple of blocks inland is a charming neighborhood of shady streets that teems with local life. The colorfully painted fishing cottages with their wrought iron balconies and hypnotically patterned tiles have earned the quarter the nickname "Little Havana." Stop in a local bakery for a magdalena, a lightly sweet muffin that Valencians dip in their café con leche, then get lost admiring the swirling patterns of the tiles. Come back at night to visit legendary tapas bar Bodega Montaña, which dates to the mid 1800s.

The most difficult part of traveling to Valencia is at the end of your vacation, when you have to tear yourself away. But as the driver of my cab to the airport explained, visitors to Valencia have a funny way of coming back, sometimes for good.

ESSENTIALS: VALENCIA

ACCOMMODATIONS
(Dial 011-34 before all numbers) Prices vary wildly depending on the season. For an all-out splurge, book a room facing the ocean at the gorgeous five-star beach resort Hotel Las Arenas] (Eugenia Viñes 22-24, 963-120-600; doubles from $239 if you book online). It's a bit far from the city center, so you'll have to take taxis back and forth. In town, the Ad Hoc Hotel (Calle Boix 4, 963-919-140; from $159), a tiny pension on a quiet Valencian side street, is a decent low-frills option. Much more lively is the Hotel Jardín Botánico (Calle Dr. Peset Cervera 6, 963-154-012; from $120), a boutique hotel decorated with purple tiles and art exhibitions in the lobby. The location, right by El Carme, the gay area, is perfect for the gay traveler. Palau de la Mar (Navarro Reverter 14, 963-162-884; from $198) is an ultraswank hotel in the heart of Valencia's high-end shopping neighborhood. For short-term apartment rentals, try www.ibericity.com (from $120).

RESTAURANTS
Valencia is the home of paella, and for some of the best in town try La Pepica (Paseo Neptuno 6), whose customers have included Hemingway and Spain's royal family. The garlic bread with freshly chopped tomatoes is heavenly. For great tapas, go to Bodega Montaña (Calle José Benlliure 69, 963 672 314), which also has an excellent wine selection. No setting could be more romantic than the elegant, elevated El Alto de Colón (Mercado Colón, 963-530-900) with its upscale menu and picturesque mosaic ceiling. Burdeos in Love (Calle Mar 4, 963-914-350) is fun for lunch or dinner with friendly service and a sleek New York-style decor. For more informal digs, follow the locals to the tapas bar Bodeguilla del Gato (Calle Catalans, 963-918-235).

NIGHTLIFE
Valencia's gay scene is small and pretty tame compared with its big sisters in Madrid and Barcelona. According to the gay Valencians I spoke with, most people are very tolerant (remember, gay marriage is legal here), and in the exceedingly unlikely event of trouble, the police will be on your side. Spanish nightlife gets off to an extremely late start: 1 a.m. at the earliest. Weeknights are fairly dead; the best nights to go out are Thursday and Saturday, when the whole Carme becomes a gay village, specifically around the Plaza del Tossal, Plaza Vicente Iborra, and Calle Quart. Café Deseo (Plaza Vicente Iborra 2) is a friendly local bar where gays and lesbians shimmy to silly pop songs. La Goulue (Calle Quart 32) is a slightly trendier bar with a DJ and more dancing. Venial (Calle Quart 26, 963-917-356) is the only disco in the city center, with go-go boys and thumping house music. For electronic music try Hotel Club (Calle Pepita 15) on Thursday nights.

GETTING AROUND
Valencia is the perfect size for tourists--compact but not stifling. You can cover all of Old Town on foot, and if you get tired, just hail one of the plentiful and affordably priced cabs. Valencian taxi drivers are among the world's friendliest and will cheerfully communicate with you in pidgin Spanish as well as ply you with advice and free city maps. Alternatively, you can buy a three-day city transit pass for $18 that entitles you to unlimited transport on buses, trams, and Valencia"s tiny but efficient subway system, as well as discounts at selected attractions and businesses.

ATTRACTIONS
All of Old Town is an attraction in itself. One highlight is the Ceramic Museum (Calle Rinconada García Sanchis, 963-516-392), not just for its ceramic collection but also for the building itself, a rococo palace. The Botanical Garden (Calle Quart 80, 963-156-800) provides a refuge from the bustling streets of the town center and is perfect for a romantic stroll. The blue-domed Fine Arts Museum (Calle San Pio V, 963-605-793) has one of Spain's best art collections, with paintings by Velázquez and El Greco. For more modern work try IVAM (Calle Guillém de Castro 118, 963-863-000), Valencia's contemporary art museum.

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