Fact or Fantasy?
Aragon, El Cid, the Holy Grail, the Crusades, paella, the America’s Cup. What a tasty mélange of history and culture Valencia offers for our maiden call. From the Roman founders in 137 BC to the victorious Swiss-based Alinghi team in 2007, foreign conquerors have come and gone, leaving behind the rich tapestry that defines Valencia as a consummately Spanish city.
El Cid Campeador
El Cid “The Champion” was a real man whose storied career as a fighter and military leader is greatly infused with legend. Born Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, son of a Castilian noble family, he became chief general for Alfonso VI during reconquista (the crusade to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors) only to be later exiled by this king. El Cid fought as a mercenary for both the Muslims and the Christians before being returned to favor seven years later to help save Alfonso from the jaws of defeat.
In the Battle of Graus, in 1063, he earned the sobriquet “El Campeador” when he killed a Knight of Aragon in single combat as both armies looked on. During his many military campaigns, El Cid read aloud from the writings of famous Greek and Roman generals to inspire his troops. He was also known to seek input from the ranks regarding battle tactics, an early form of “brainstorming” that lead to some inventive strategies.
Following his recall by Alfonso, El Cid led a combined army of Christians and Moors in wresting Valencia from Ramon Berenguer II of Barcelona. The Cid became a virtually independent ruler of the kingdom until he was killed by a stray arrow during the Berber siege of Valencia in 1099. Even then, the legend grew, as his wife was reported to have strapped his lifeless body to his warhorse and sent him back to the battlefield, inspiring his troops to repel the invaders.
Valencia is generally acknowledged as the home of paella, possibly the most widely known Spanish dish. Paella has its own legends regarding the origin if this name. One of the oldest involves the servants of Moorish kings who gathered up leftovers from royal banquets that went straight to a large pot. In fact, the Arabic word for “leftovers” is close enough to support this version.
Another explanation is based on the Spanish para ella, meaning “for her”, which reflects the fact most paellas are made by men in a once-a-week favor to their wives… like hamburgers.
But the generally accepted version is the Catalan word for “frying pan” referring to the essential piece of equipment needed to prepare this dish. In fact, the world record paella was made in Valencia in1992. That paella pan measured 20 meters in diameter and served some 100,000 people!
Valencia is home to one of the world’s most original festivals celebrating St. Joseph’s Day in March. It features political satire, pyrotechnics plus neighborhood-scorching bonfires and, like Rio’s Carnival, it occupies some of the participants for an entire year.
During that year, each neighborhood holds fund-raising paella feeds to raise money for their falla, a giant (often several stories tall) effigy of a well-known local or international celebrity or politician. Crafted in paper mache by local artists, they are often in bizarre, gravity-defying poses. Some 500 fallas are paraded through the neighborhoods during a two-week period leading up to the grand finale when the firecracker-loaded figures are set ablaze and a huge street party brings the festival to a close.
“Why tell me about a festival that’s already happened?” you ask. Valencia’s museum dedicated to Las Fallas is open year-round, if you’re interested.
Other Sites And Sights
Should you like your culture neatly packaged, Valencia is your kind of town. Dozens of museums feature everything from fine arts, archaeology, and Valencian history to ceramics, rice, and bullfighting. Then there’s the fabulous City of Arts and Sciences, which contains a performing arts center, an oceanographic park, a planetarium and IMAX theatre, as well as a science museum. The entire complex should first be enjoyed from the outside as it features some of the best modern architecture in this part of the world. Renowned Valencia-born architect Santiago Calatrava created this marvel.
Valencia will also reward those keen on discovering the sights on their own. Barrio del Carmen’s narrow streets are a walker’s paradise with centuries-old buildings. Valencia’s many squares offer shady benches for people watching and the Turia gardens is a meandering public park in the former Turia River bed, diverted in the 1960s to avoid flooding.
However you decide to spend your day, Valencia is a city that will invite you back for more.
Karyn L. Planett