Valencia, Spain: April 6 – June 16, 2017
When I was in college dreaming about what I’d like to do when I “grew up”, one fantasy that I had was being able to have a residence in Chicago (my hometown), Tempe, Arizona (my college town), and San Francisco (my dream town). Now, 17 years later, as we entered our second year of life abroad, I reflected on how that dream shifted from three cities in the US to spending 3 months in Europe, 2 months in Canada, and 7 months in South East Asia (5 months in Thailand and a month each in Malaysia and Vietnam).
It was clear for us back in late winter that we weren’t ready to head back to the States permanently, just yet. So, instead we decided to venture back to the country where our life abroad began – Spain. For two nomads traveling with solely a backpack and a carry-on, it’s imperative to pick home bases with average temps above 70 degrees. Even in April, there aren’t too many options in Europe. We had spent a couple of months in Spain the previous year (residing in Sevilla for two months) and had always felt that Spain felt very much like home. But rather than staying in Sevilla again, we decided to stay in Valencia – a city about the same size as Sevilla, but on the coast and with much better infrastructure.
We spent a 4-day weekend in Valencia the previous year and immediately fell in love with the city during that initial visit. For me, it’s a nice blend of my favorite Spanish cities – Madrid, Barcelona, and Sevilla. Yet, while it was great for our 4-day adventure the previous year, we soon found out that we weren’t as comfortable staying there long-term. Fortunately, we ventured out to other Spanish cities – Alicante and Bilbao – for daytrips, as well as a 10-day jaunt around Central/Eastern Europe in between our two 1-month stays in the birthplace of paella.
Things Aren’t Always What They Seem
On the surface, Valencia is an awesome yet often forgotten major destination in Spain. Many travel through Valencia on their way to Ibiza or Mallorca, only venturing into the old town for a day or two, and maybe spending an afternoon or another day at the beach. Given its location and regional prominence, the city has surprisingly good public transportation – making it easy to get to and from the airport via the metro and getting to the beach from the center city by bus in about 20 minutes.
Its main recreational park (Jardín del Turia) – a former riverbed rerouted due to historic flooding issues – is a unique green space that invites locals in the morning and evening to walk, run, or simply lay out in the sun away from the frenetic buzz of the town. Only a 10-minute walk from our apartment in the La Petxina neighborhood, I often popped in my headphones in the evening and headed to the park for my 5K runs.
At the end of the park is one of the newest attractions in the city – the magnificently designed City of Arts and Sciences – complete with an Opera House and Aquarium (the largest in Europe). While we never ventured inside the structures, it was definitely a great place to simply stroll on a lazy day and appreciate the architecture and landscape. During our initial visit in May 2016, this was about the only major attraction we didn’t see and so after exploring it during our first weekend back in town, we settled in to get a feel for the different neighborhoods and life in Spain’s third largest city.
Though Valencia is a major city (and it can feel like such when only visiting for a few days), I was surprised at how small the city felt after such a short period of time. We lived about a 15-minute walk from the dead center of town and it soon became easy to walk about 30-45 minutes in any direction to nearly reach the edge of town. On most days, I’d walk about 2-3 miles simply exploring the city’s vibrant street art scene while searching out the seemingly few comfortable “digital nomad”-type cafes to work for a couple of hours.
One of my favorite spots – Mayan Coffees – was a great spot to work from when it was open. Located across the street from one of the city’s most beautiful landmarks – Torres de Quart – it was perhaps the most scenic and relaxing spot to enjoy a coffee and catch up with my daily client needs. Though for most of the time in Valencia, my default option for a working café was unfortunately – Starbucks – I soon found a couple of other spots in the trendy Ruzafa neighborhood that initially served me well until a couple of unfortunate customer service incidents.
For whatever reason, I never quite felt comfortable during our time in Valencia. Unlike my time in Sevilla the previous year or separate trips to Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, and many other parts of Spain, in Valencia I always felt more like an outsider. I’ve been told that this is a normal feeling for transplants to the city, as while it may seem like a big city, it has a small town feel. This is great in some ways and not so great in others.
At times, locals (outside of the tourist areas) seem to be resistant to connecting with newcomers. I noticed that many times when I spoke Spanish, I was responded to in English, so much so that it felt as though some were making it a point to create a barrier between me and them. At a handful establishments that I’d visited on numerous occasions, I never seemed to get the same “local” treatment as others – even though I visited these places multiple times each week and always spoke in Spanish. After awhile the experiences began to wear on me to the point where I retreated internally and simply refrained from interacting much while out in public.
Fortunately, during our time in Valencia we befriended another California couple living life abroad, ironically via a mutual friend that I met while living in Thailand. When life is challenging away from the comforts of home, it always nice to reconnect with elements of home to gain a sense of normalcy. Coincidentally, Julie and Yoway were both in Vietnam during our same time there in March but we didn’t actually get a chance to connect until early May when we were all staying in Valencia.
Spending quality time with them in Valencia was exactly what I needed during the difficult social period. It was nice to be able to show them our favorite spots in town, like SpaccaNapoli around the corner from our apartment or La Mas Bonita café on the beach. Yet, once they departed Valencia after their month-long stay, I simply tried to make the most of remaining few weeks in the city that grew sour for me by the day.
A Day Away in Alicante
One of the best ways to make of the most of our time in the area was to venture out and explore other towns in the area. Like our trip to Cadíz last year on the American Memorial Day holiday, we decided to venture 2 hours south of Valencia by train to explore Alicante. We love urban hikes and exploration, and Alicante had the right amount of city, nature, and beach for us to fulfill an entire getaway day.
After a light breakfast, we set off to explore the tiny, yet picturesque Santa Cruz neighborhood on our way towards the majestic Castillo de Santa Barbara – one of the city’s most famous landmarks. From a distance the ascent to the top of hill seems quite daunting and if not for a nice thin layer of overcast clouds, it would have been absolutely brutal to hike during the midday. Yet, if one can endure the hike and the heat, the views atop of the former castle are breathtaking.
To treat ourselves after the hike, we lucked upon a restaurant in the center of town that is also located in our old neighborhood back in Sevilla. Surprisingly, Alicante (though still in the Valencia province of Spain) is considered southern Spain and as a result, one can find restaurants offering typical southern Spanish dishes. So when we happened to walk by a restaurant serving our favorite dish – Carrillada – we just couldn’t pass it up. Though the service and the meal was seriously lacking (perhaps not surprising in a touristy part of a town seemingly entirely supported by English and American expats), it was a nice surprise to venture south for the day and get our much beloved meal.
Like true Spaniards living in a beach town, we promptly headed to the beach for a little afternoon siesta. There’s nothing like taking a nap on the beach under a palm tree on a warm day after a morning urban hike and tapas for lunch – especially on a day when I didn’t have to worry about any client emails or last minute requests. It was perhaps the most relaxing weekday afternoon that I had in my entire two months in Spain.
With a couple of hours left before having to head back to the train, we decided to do another quick urban hike to get another unique view of the city. It was a fitting way to end our getaway day in Alicante atop Castillo de San Fernando overlooking the city and gazing out towards Castillo de Santa Barbara – where our day began. While Alicante was a perfect getaway day for us, it’s not a place where I’d venture to stay long-term. It’s mostly an expat town and simply too small and isolated for us at this stage in our lives. Much like Cadíz, it was simply a perfect way to enjoy our annual Memorial Day holiday as expats.
After our unsatisfying carrillada lunch in Alicante, we desperately wanted to hop a flight back to Sevilla for a day or weekend. We were also growing more and more uncomfortable in Valencia and were more than ready to simply head out to our next destinations. So we checked flights seemingly multiple times a day to see if we could catch a deal to head south on a 1-hour flight to Sevilla, yet nothing emerged.
Instead, we found a perfect deal for a daytrip up to Bilbao (in the Basque Country) – 1-hour flight for just $67 per person round-trip. The flights allowed us the opportunity to leave Valencia at 7am, spend the entire day in Bilbao, and then return on a 10pm flight home. We simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore a new part of Spain – even if it meant not getting our plate of carrillada.
Bilbao was simply breathtaking. It’s a city in the midst of an economic and ecological renaissance. Previously the industrial capital of the Basque region for generations, it slowly receded in importance during the latter half of the 20th century causing economic and intellectual drains on the city. Yet, in recent years, the city has become a beacon for green energy and green spaces, so much so that if one wasn’t aware of the recent past, they wouldn’t be able to see much of the scars of the city’s past on its current landscape.
Our day in Bilbao was all about exploring the scenery, eating lots of tapas, and exploring the various cozy neighborhoods. Saturday, the day we visited, was perhaps the best day to explore the tapas scene, as well. The city comes alive midday as locals crowd into the numerous tapas bars around town grabbing a few bites here and a few drinks there, along their afternoon strolls.
Though we’d been living in Valencia for nearly a couple of months by this time, we hadn’t really eaten many tapas. Valencia is more of a paella town, whereas Bilbao (like Sevilla) is all about tapas. And the range of culinary options is simply mind-boggling. The pictures simply don’t do much justice to the quality of the food we sampled that day.
Fortunately, we didn’t have any expectations for our day in Bilbao and perhaps this is why it turned out so well. We simply enjoyed what the city offered us that day and didn’t ask or desire for anything more. Whether we were having drinks in the park or sitting on a bench along the banks of the river across from the world famous Guggenheim museum, we simply enjoyed the moments. Feeling the breeze under the early summer sun in a beautiful city on a lazy Saturday – it was all we needed and so we cherished it in the moment.
Our time in Valencia felt more anxious and less satisfying, again, perhaps due to the expectations raised after our first visit the previous year. At the very least, we were able to explore new parts of Spain in the springtime and learn that while Valencia was a great spot to visit, it is not a place we would like to settle long-term. It’s a lesson that one can only learn with enough time on the ground, seeing it with a different set of eyes and feeling it with a fresh pair of hands.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.