Valencia, Spain: Green lights & fireworks

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December 17-21, 2021

If you’ve been following along, you know this trip came about super spontaneously. We were originally supposed to see Charleston friends in Hamburg, but the German restrictions on unvaccinated travelers staying multiple days from the Netherlands (i.e. our children) made that impossible. While I was in the throes of a severe pity party, Josh reached out to some good friends of ours, Boo and Mikella Walker. 

Backstory: Boo Walker is an author but before this life he’s been so many things. He played in a popular bluegrass band, the Biscuit Boys. He spent some time working in fin-tech with Josh, my brother and many of our other friends,. He left the East Coast to learn West Coast winemaking, later working in international wine sales. And now, lucky for his fans, he writes books, all of which I’ve read. I like to refer to him as a modern Renaissance man…or at least my take on what such a person would be like these days. He and Mikella met in Washington State during his wine career days, where she was also running a therapy practice. On top of being interesting, Boo and Mikella are just super fun to be around. They’ve lived in various parts of the US, including back in Charleston, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. When the Walkers visit Boo’s parents in Mt. Pleasant, we can sometimes steal them for a visit.

Fast friends and travel besties

The Walkers moved to Valencia from the US back in the fall of 2020. When they made their decision, they gave us a call and, knowing we were fluent in Spanish and had a bucket list idea to live abroad for some time, they tried to get us to join them and be their Valencian neighbors. They made a good case! At that time, we’d already been mulling over the idea of taking off with the kids for a year, and while we didn’t move to Spain, the Walkers were instrumental in getting us over the decision hump and talking me down from the ledge when the list of to-do’s seemed insurmountable. We had a few zooms together before and after their move and since arriving in the Netherlands, stayed in touch to share our experiences. 

Due to Covid restrictions and an ailing/aging senior dog, Boo, Mikella, and their son Riggs were not traveling as planned to Austria over the holiday and they welcomed us to come for a visit. Within minutes, they’d sent Airbnb links to places near their home, ideas for family activities we could do together, and started making dinner reservations, all with the promise of good wine and fun times catching up. I dried my eyes and we bought tickets. 

I tell you all this because when we met up for breakfast that Saturday morning, it felt super familial. Their son, Riggs, is Mason’s age, and it took the boys about 5 minutes before they were teaching each other Rubik’s cube strategies and telling fart jokes at the table. Nothing makes vacay go better than kids having a friend to play and be silly with.

Boys in Christmas PJ’s on the way to school (stopped for a train)

On Friday, the boys, clad in Christmas pajamas for their last day of school before the break, headed off to school and Josh and I got the house, cats, and suitcases in order to leave town. I picked the boys up a little early from school and by 2:30 we were in a taxi headed to Brussels airport. Because our flight was to arrive after 8, we agreed we would just get settled in & call it a night with plans to meet up for breakfast the next morning.

Below are some highlights from this trip. Bottom line, you should definitely visit Valencia. The weather is gorgeous (we had a couple of chilly/rainy days but the rest were sunny and warm! In December!). The food is varied and incredible. The architecture super interesting. AND – you can rent bikes!

I hope you enjoy. Please let me know if you’ve been here and what you loved about the city!

Things to See & Do

Turia River Greenway. This is my name for it. I can’t find one defined name for it, but the Turia River used to run through this part of the city and it kept flooding. The city decided to divert the water/fill it in, and originally wanted to put in a multi-laned highway. Thankfully, enough people were opposed to this, and they put in a long greenway (like several miles long) where the river once was. There are several small parks, bike paths, running-specific paths, trails to walk, skate parks – so many things.  Several of our outings ended up on this path at some point, whether walking or on bike. 

On this path we also took the boys one afternoon to a ropes course at Tela De Araña. It is free and unmanaged – the kids just go on their own climbing. Ours had a blast and it was handy to get out some energy. 

Ciudad de Ciencias y Artes

This place is stunningly modern and overwhelming. It is essentially a huge park/plaza with a science museum, aquarium, botanical forest walk (Umbracle), opera house, small lake for rowboats – and there’s probably a ton more. You should go to this area even if you don’t plan to go in any museums. The architecture is wild and mesmerizing. You can reach this area by catching that park walk/greenway I mentioned and just walking all the way there if you have the time, or rent a bike, or, of course a taxi.

Umbracle – botanical forrest over a garage. Sounds weird. But it is super cool and part of the wonder of the Ciudad de Ciencias y Artes. There are sculpltures and tons of different sorts of trees/vegetation. It is really beautiful and totally free to walk through. The kids loved looking for the stray cats that nest in the vegetation.

Science Museum/Aquarium

Two of the main features of the Ciudad de Ciencias y Artes area are the aquarium and science museum. Caleb was dying to go to the Science Museum, and Mason really wanted to see the massive aquarium so we made it happen on our last day. I loved that the science museum had a large exhibit on the connection between science and music. It made the tour really interesting. There was also a whole floor dedicated to many famous Spanish scientists. The museum is well done and doable in a couple of hours. There’s also a section where smaller kids can play/climb/interact which I thought looked really well done. There are several hands on exhibits and explanations in a few languages (with the exception of the floor dedicated to Spanish scientists).

The aquarium was unreal and it was massive. I think it is one of the biggest in Europe and I’m actually amazed we got through all of it in a little over 2 hours. The boys were most excited about the sharks, beluga whales, the seals, sea lions, and gigantic tortoises. There are several tunnels you can walk through where the fish are swimming all around and over you. It is laid out well, has many refreshment areas (even during Covid) and kept us all interested.

The Beach

On Sunday, we rented bikes with the Walkers and rode out to the beach. We mostly hung around Playa de las Arenas beach. It is much bigger than I was expecting but sill charming and not overly commercial. There are several “connected beaches” that go for a long way. There are still many shops  and restaurants lining the coast but not in a tacky way (or at least not to me). There was a small park/playground area on the beach and the boys played there for at least an hour while we watched sailboats and soaked up the sun/warmth, knowing those warm memories would need to sustain us over our upcoming cold weeks in the locked down Netherlands. 

Sundays are typical paella days and our only regret of the whole trip is not making that happen. We did have plans to, the Walkers are super planners, but there was a hiccup with the reservation and we ended up having to change plans. If you go to Valencia, I’d recommend grabbing Paella on the beach here. The setting is just perfect.

Renting Bikes

So many people told me about renting bikes in Valencia, especially coming from the cycling haven of the Netherlands. Valencia is newly bike friendly. There are many connecting paths taking you pretty much anywhere you want to go. There’s some room for improvement on the traffic signals and size of the paths (or the fact they are only on one side of the road in most cases), but we enjoyed getting back out on two wheels. We rented from Ruzafa Bike Rentals because they were the closest to us that answered the phone when I called to secure them. The staff was friendly, they had kid sizes (and helmets for them), and the price was decent. Not all the bikes were in amazing shape, but they got the job done for our trek to the beach and back. 

Aguas de Valencia

In our time in the Old Town area, before heading to the Mercato Central, Boo and Mikella took us to this really cute cafe for what they called a Valencian “tradition” for all their guests. This tradition is a delicious secret blend of fresh oranges, cava, rum, vodka and we think orange liqueur. It was deceptively smooth, super refreshing, and put us in the right frame of mind for exploring while the boys kicked a soccer ball around a nearby plaza. There are several places where you can order this so if you can’t get to our special location (Cafe de las Horas), be sure to try it somewhere!

Mercado Central (Old Central Market)

This hundreds of years old market is in the “Old Town” area of Valencia and entering this part of town is like taking a little step back in time. The architecture is much older and the fact they’ve been able to maintain its antique charm is amazing. The streets and plazas, large cathedrals and old cafes with terraces…it is just too cool. The market spans what I guess would be a few blocks and when you walk in it is filled with essentially any local food or product you’d dream of buying. Veggies, fruits, seafood, meat, spices, herbs, flowers, desserts, everything! Boo and Mikella shop here weekly for their main groceries, which I think is super cool.  The kids enjoyed wandering through the fresh seafood section. And when I say fresh, I mean live eels squirming in a bucket and lobsters crawling on ice fresh.

You can also find paella here, ready to eat! We should’ve gotten some that day, but just didn’t think about it then.

Valencia Cathedral (http://wa.catedraldevalencia.es/en/pre_index.php)

Home of the Holy Grail! I’ll go ahead and disappoint you in that we did not do the full tour to see the actual chalice. We walked in to the large main entrance/nave area and marveled at the decor and photos of the Holy Grail. Having the boys with us, though, and knowing how much more we would be touring/doing that day, we decided to avoid the line to go on the tour and keep moving. If cathedrals/relics are your thing, though, you should definitely check it out.

Mercado de Colon

This mostly open air but walled in market is located right around the corner from the Walkers. It is lit up so pretty and a bit overwhelming with what all it has going on. We had a pre dinner snack/gin and tonics in one of the bars there and Mikella told us there is an entire downstairs section with restaurants etc that we didn’t even see. The vibe here is so festive and happy. If you time it right you can avoid the crowds and get a good table to people watch.

Cafes and Restaurants:

Blackbird cafe Located a quick 5 minutes from our Airbnb, this is where we met the Walkers our first morning. Y’all the cinnamon rolls here are well worth the splurge. And the coffees. And the breakfast sandwiches. Bottom line, just go here. Inside and outside eating. You’ll want to order one of everything.

Tacos at Mexico Dorados: This was another favorite spot of the Walkers. We sat outside on this cute neighborhood street. It was the most Mexican tasting food I’ve had in a long time (not Tex-Mex…real Mex). I was so undecided about what to order that the server just said “trust me” and put in a taco order for me. It was incredible. So were the margaritas. :p 

Alquimista Super small/intimate legit Italian. We loved everything we tried here (though I’m pretty sure most of us got the cacio e pepe or carbonara, because…well, those things are good!). We sat outside because the inside is super small/cozy. We were a party of 7, and even though it was a bit chilly, it was a great atmosphere and the staff/chef were awesome.  If you go, be sure to order the Parmesan Flan. You can thank me later ;).

Gavo’s Burgers This was our backup plan when we couldn’t make our beachside paella lunch happen, and I have to say, it was lucky we ended up here. The Walkers are vegetarian so I was initially surprised to hear them suggest this spot, however Gavo’s has not only amazing sounding burgers, but also the option to order Beyond Meat vegetarian versions. There’s indoor/outdoor seating here. We were outside, thankfully, because the boys were starting to lose their minds (to be fair it was 3pm by the time we started eating lunch…and that’s a lot later than they are used to). The burgers were great, the fries were perfect, and they had delicious wine to go with it!

La Lambrusqueria This pizza spot is where we ate on our final night in Valencia. It is about a 5 minute walk from where the Walkers live and they knew on a Monday night it would be a good spot to take our crowd of kiddos. We had the earliest reservations possible, 8:00pm, and had the place to ourselves. We were also lucky that it was BOGO pizza night, of which we took full advantage. The vibe here is good. Just loud enough to drown out the kid chaos but not so loud that you feel like you’re in a club. The restaurant is super accommodating and the food was very good. I could see eating there often if we lived there too. 

Dulce de Leche Cafe Our final breakfast before heading out was here. It was about 10 minutes from our Airbnb and just a couple of doors down from where we’d rented bikes Saturday. This place is a kids’ dream. Just piles and piles of sweets/donuts/pies/desserts and also some more breakfasty things. Here you don’t really get to edit the item – you get it how its usually made and then pick off whatever you don’t want (like the avocado on the boys’ breakfast sandwich). It was very good, though, and anywhere I can get a couple of good coffees before playing tourist makes me pretty happy.

In conclusion…look for the fireworks

So many amazing things lined up for us on this trip. Including a small fireworks show I could see out of my window as we landed in Valencia…so we referred to all of the good luck during the trip as “fireworks” or “green lights” (a book idea Boo was already working on). 

Even with the disaster of realizing I’d lost my passport about 30 minutes before we were supposed to leave for the airport to return to NL…I was eventually able to still board the planes with my Dutch residency card, and I felt like the fireworks streak was still alive. Now let’s just hope I can get it replaced before we get on another flight.

I wrote this post partially on the flight back home, and partially in the days after Christmas while the Netherlands continued to be in lockdown. The warm, happy memories of this trip are still making me smile (and perhaps wish that we’d extended the trip!). Thank you Boo, Mikella, and Riggs for a trip none of us will forget. We hope to repay the favor in Maastricht, Charleston, or some other city where we all end up. I have a feeling more travel together is in our future.

Mikella and me

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