Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Valencia: Catastrophe In Paradise

The coating of hucksterism that comes with tourism is annoying, albeit in my case, in a selfish way. I'd have preferred to stroll the streets of Toledo making discoveries on my own and with Naomi as a guide to the unseeable, but that's simply not possible. It is possible, of course, that less-concentrated doses of what I was seeing could be found in the countryside, in villages and smaller cities. But the purpose of this trip was just to dip my toe into Spain and see what I might want to see again. In Toledo, I'd missed many of the churches, the Alcazár, and more. In Madrid, I obviously need to visit the Prado again, filtering out the stuff I'm not interested in, and return to the Reina Sofia when I'm more in the mood for the artistic revolution of the early 20th century.

So I was good and ready to re-enter Toledo's magnificent train station and head into the wild unknown. Not, of course, totally unknown: I'd been in the province of Valencia before, in January, 2011, to do an interview at a rock festival in Castellón, and, since it was my first trip to Spain, I stayed an extra day to wander around, which I certainly did. In some ways, Castellón was kind of rinky-dink, a small provincial city, and in other ways it was fascinating. I bet myself that the provincial capital, Valencia, would be better, so I added it to this trip because, I saw, it also had a bunch of the history I was trying to figure out.

It took a while to get there, changing in Madrid and being welcomed by the turtles, then getting on another train which started out in that dull, flat, brown terrain but, as we approached the Mediterranean, sprouted some lovely mountains, rivers, and lakes. Then came the industrial outskirts of a city and bang, we were in Valencia. I liked what I saw from the cab as we sped to the hotel, and I definitely liked the hotel.

What's not to like?
The Hotel Caro was to be my splurge on this trip, and boy did I make the right choice. You want archeology? We got archeology: the building was the former residence of one Marquis de Caro, and in gutting it to put the hotel in, they found all kinds of stuff. Eating breakfast in the restaurant, there were weathered stones on either side of the passage into another room. Most of the relics are captioned, and this just happened to be the gate in the wall of the Arab city. In my hotel. (Breakfast was excellent, and not even the party of 10 screaming Dutch tourists could ruin it. It had all the usual breads and cold cuts and cheeses one gets in Spain with some unusual stuff, of which my favorite was a two-inch pickle sliced in half and filled with that excellent Spanish tuna, a dish that became problematic when it was time to eat it: the pickle was hard, and the tuna squished out when any pressure was applied to the pickle. Tasted good, though. But sloppy.)

And by "the Arab city," I'm invoking Valencia's history. It was settled when the Romans found it, I guess by Iberio-Celts. The Romans made quick work of them and established a trading outpost, Balancia, with Jews helping manage the trade. The city was destroyed in 75 BC by Pompey during the Roman Civil War, and the city, remote as it was from the eastern Mediterranean, where the action was, remained empty (or mostly so) until somewhere between 5 BC and 5 AD, when Visigoths stumbled upon it: a mostly-built port right on the Mediterranean! Cool! They had a huge party, and at the end of it threw all the leftovers and crockery down a dry well, for which archaeologists thank them. Next came the Moors, who stayed for centuries, although El Cid's army recaptured it between 1094 and 1101, only to be driven out again. In 1238, Christian Spaniards conquered it, and have held on to it ever since.

It was mid-afternoon when I arrived, so I went for a walk to see where I was. The hotel was tucked away on a quiet back street, but it was easy enough to find (one great thing about Roman-built cities: the roads are built to a grid, and it's pretty easy to find your way around, at least if you have New York in your head), so I felt free to ramble. And I did, camera in hand.

No idea. A block from the hotel. 

The Cathedral has an octagonal spire. Thanks, Arabs!

Serrano gate and towers

The Basilica at the end of a street
Like Barcelona, Valencia is home to some of the coolest street art in the world. This guy is omnipresent.

"In the kingdom of the blind," which I didn't know was a quote from Erasmus (and maybe isn't: don't believe everything you read in the street!).

The bullet holes in the Quart towers made me nostalgic for my old neighborhood in Berlin when I first got there, before they erased the evidence of the battle. These were inflicted in, I believe, 1833, when the French wanted in. 
Here he is again, a particularly nice one. I shot many more.

And am I right that this is a Banksy?
As I reached the end of my walk, I suddenly realized that I'd circumnavigated the old town, and was just a block or two from my hotel. I was also bushed: it was still summer here (as it was in the rest of Spain, actually), so I retreated to the hotel room after getting dinner suggestions from the always-helpful front desk. I was told there was a tapas joint just down the street, and I got a couple of other suggestions, which I researched as I relaxed.

Still tired as dinnertime approached, I walked to the tapas place, although I actually wanted a full meal. But I forgot that there are tapas places and tapas places. I ordered the "three queens" (marinated white anchovies, regular anchovies, and sardines: incredible), a plate of grilled vegetables with romesco sauce (the waitress warned me it was very big, and it was) and one of their tostas, a big slice of grilled bread with a topping; in this case three local sausages. To go with it, I noticed some local beers, one of which, XIII Hombres, called itself an "American IPA." Not only was it, but it was absolutely amazing. I had another.

The next day I arose lazily, took my time showering, and turned on my iPad to see what the e-mail had brought. And what it had brought was very bad news, indeed: I had asked a nearby friend to check the house every now and then because although I'd held my mail, UPS and FedEx don't do holds, so there was a possibility of a package on the front step. The friend had been called away by a death in his family and was in Buffalo, and he'd delegated the porch watch to another guy. This guy had shown up and seen water pouring out from under the front door, photographed it, and sent it to Buffalo, where it got forwarded to me in Valencia. I immediately sent it to my landlord, who went over to see what was happening, and what was happening was horrible: the toilet near my office had blown a gasket, and was shooting water out at a quick pace. It had flooded the entire house to a depth of 1 ½ inches, and caused ceilings to fall in and floorboards to warp. Anything that was on the floor, which included CD boxes and the entire inventory I'd had for sale at my Amazon store, was soaked. The closet opposite the toilet contained all my t-shirts, meaning what I had with me was all that I knew were wearable.

As I thought about it, I realized that there was nothing I could do. I didn't have renters insurance because I'd been almost dead broke when I'd moved back to the US, and then I'd just never thought of it. The damage was most likely done in the first couple of hours, as the paper fibers soaked up the flood. Even if I'd been in Austin, I might have been elsewhere when it happened. It was done. I didn't know just how badly, but it was done. I had another night paid for in my hotel, a couple more in Tarragona, and a last one in Barcelona, so I might as well finish the trip. Dealing with it would have to wait until I got back. I made a note to find a hotel in Austin, and then did what any rational human being would do when such a spiritual crisis hit: after breakfast, I went back to the room and prepared to go to church.

The dome of the Mercado Central
Valencia's Mercado Central, the central market, is one of the largest in Spain. Unlike the ones in France it doesn't open in the early morning and shut at 2; it opens at 9 and stays open until the early evening.  There are over 1000 vendors, most of whom seemed to be out in full force on the day I went. And there was an amazing variety of stuff.

Pimentón is what we call paprika, and the Spanish take it very seriously as an important ingredient in their cooking. The heat levels aren't particularly scary, but the deftness with which a good cook adds it to a dish is. 

Does anyone know how you're supposed to eat these little crablets I saw all over Spain (but not on menus)?

Live eels, swimming vigorously. 

I hear those red shrimp are incredible. I'll find out how incredible next time. 

Tiny eggplants of some sort. No idea what to do with them. 

Beans and more beans
Believe it or not, this is a pretty mediocre selection of olives and pickles for Spain, and the only reason I shot this is they were so compactly displayed. 
Fresh cheeses. You have to know what basket-imprint means what variety of cheese: they mature in wicker baskets that leave the impression of their weave on each piece. 

I bought some ham and lomo (cured pork loin) and a bunch of spicy chorizo (a cold-cut, not like the Mexican kind we get in Texas) from a nice lady at the Francés stand, and some equally sealed-in-plastic olives from a stand called Oiled & Salt (it's legal to bring the meats in if they're sealed), and headed back to the hotel to drop them off.

Believe it or not, after that long trek through the Mercado, I wasn't hungry: I'd indulged myself at breakfast on purpose. And, just a block from the hotel was a promising-looking archeological museum, so I headed over there. It turned out to be a continuation of the stuff found under my hotel: mostly Roman remains, a whole lot of the feast pottery from the Visigoths, and the remains of a small Visigothic chapel, which is thought to be where the city's first saint (whose name I didn't write down) was martyred. L'Almoina, as this center's called, is a modern building built over a 20-year dig, illuminated by a glass ceiling looking down on it all from the plaza outside. It's got ruins of the crossorads of the two main streets of the Roman city, the Arab fort, and various tombs. It's also got technical problems, making many of the explanatory videos either distorted or just plain not working, and when I was there there was a crew of filmmakers blocking access to a lot of stuff and shooing the few visitors away.

One thing I'd loved in Castellón, unexpectedly, was the art museum's entire floor of Valencian ceramics. This art came to this part of the world with the Arabs, and I fell in love with the primitive designs. I wanted to see if I could score a piece -- reproductions are still being made in the traditional designs -- so I also wanted to see what the Museum of Ceramics had to offer. This is in one of the most over-the-top houses I've ever seen, evidence that in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Spanish nobility had waaaay too much money.

It was kind of hard to shoot, but you get the idea

The interior is ghastly, too, and the museum personnel distinctly unfriendly, a novelty for Spain. But, over in one room, they had some of the plates I'd admired:

 The other major piece of folk art there is a Spanish tiled kitchen.

But there was nothing for sale, either there or in the surrounding neighborhood, that I could see. I was somewhat less enthusiastic about buying a piece, too, when I reflected that I didn't know where I'd be living and I didn't really want to lug it around with me back in Austin.

So I decided to check out the municipal art museum, and realized when I crossed the river that I was actually slightly hungry, so after a nice dish of fried calamari and a beer in the adjoining restaurant, I went into the museum itself and saw some wild medieval altarpieces and even wilder baroque ones and some more ecclesiastical art (Spanish depictions of Christ tend to center on the Easter story, with him getting whipped, crucified, pierced by the lance, wearing the crown of thorns, and being taken off the cross, and he bleeds like an overripe tomato: the blood gushes in torrents), a couple of nice Goyas, and a lot of people in uniforms staring at me. I was touristed out: hotel time again.

Dinner, later, was at the same tapas bar with the same huge portions and a couple of beers from the XIII Hombres brewery that were a bit gentler. I remember a tremendous gazpacho, a seafood salad, and...something else. (The tapas bar, incidentally, is called Bar Almudin after the street it's on, and the huge Arab building across the narrow street, al-Mudin, and Bar Almudin has been there since 1932). I realized that there was some anxiety humming in the background, and tried to sort it out. Some of it was the usual "the vacation is ending" stuff, and there was also the certainty that I had no idea what was going to happen next, once I got back. I'd taxied to the railroad station in the afternoon and had my ticket for tomorrow's trip. I'd go to Tarragona, but I really wanted to stay in Valencia. I had a feeling I hadn't even scratched the surface and that there was much yet to discover and enjoy. But the vacation was, in fact, ending, and I was being propelled into the future, like it or not.

15th century tiles in my room in the Caro

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