First there was a fishermen's village, then there was a spa, and now I say, 'enough is enough, let's declare this place a national heritage site!' Valencia has developed into one of Spain's coolest cities but some of the old areas are under constant threat.
The old quarter has been removed to create space for Santiago Calatrava’s space-age fantasy, ‘Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias’ and the city also hosts a Formula One Grand Prix. The America’s Cup even sailed into town in 2007, so you get the picture, Valencia has ambitions to become an important European city and developments in that direction threaten its charming and more traditional areas.
My love affair with this town started back in 2005 when I took part in the Lomography Green Fest sponsored by Heineken. I came back in 2007, only to spend my Christmas holidays locked in my hotel room, sick with a high temperature. Then a couple of years later, my brother was city hunting for the biggest move of his life, so I took him to Valencia. He too fell in love with the place and moved there. So now I visit him a few times a year, lucky me.
He lives in El Cabanyal, a working-class jewel of the Art Nouveau style. It is officially a “protected historical zone” but for how long?
In existence since the 13th century, El Cabanyal has become a common term for what are in fact, three distinct neighborhoods stretching north from the port, El Canyamelar, El Cabanyal, and Cap de França. It owes its name to the rows of thatched fishermen’s cabins, also known as “barracas”, that used to line the beachfront.
A major fire in the late 1700s and the growing affluence of the inhabitants as the port was expanded, meant that most barracas were replaced around the turn of the century by elegant, two- and three-storey townhouses. The Moors first introduced ceramics to Valencia more than 1,000 years ago and drawing on that ancient tradition, residents covered their facades with brightly colored tiles.
Art Nouveau may be the dominant flavor but you’ll find anything from Baroque to Eclecticism.
Residents will tell you that their grandparents weren’t overly concerned with the purity of the design when they were building these houses, they simply used whatever materials appealed to them.
El Cabanyal is an open-air museum.
If you come here during the day, the area looks dead, everything is closed during siesta. The first few times I came here, I thought nothing was going on at all, but I quickly learned to stick to the local schedule. Come here before 11.30am or after 5.30pm and you will find a lot of shops selling anything from kitchen furniture to fancy fashion garments. Obviously, local cafes and shops selling Chinese goods are open all-day long. A huge street market takes place every Thursday. Vast seas of cheap Chinese produce seem to be exactly what the locals want. I just go there to snap pictures to be honest.
Good places to eat in El Cabanyal, particularly for fish, are not hard to find. The Casa Montaña (Carrer Josep Benlliure 69) is a former bodega that has become one of the best-known restaurants/tapas bars in the city, as well as for its vast wine cellar (20,000 bottles).
Another one is Bodega La Pascuala (on Carrer Eugènia Viñes 177), just a street away from the beach. Noisy, busy, and a bit grimy, it’s an authentic neighborhood bar, with rows of dusty brandy bottles lining the walls and it offers cheap, working-man size sandwiches with names like “The Republican”, the “Bribe-Giver”, and delicious paella on Friday lunchtime.
I honestly hope that El Cabanyal will stay as it is!