The Real Valencia

When I retired a six years ago, I wanted to satisfy a long-time dream of living abroad for an extended period of time.  Although I had spent 3-4 months at a time in several different places in Europe, I had not spent more than a week at a time in Spain where I am fluent in the language.  Our goal was to find a place where we could experience daily life in only one city, rather than just passing through many cities as a tourist.

As citizens of the US, we are limited to three months in Spain because of the Schengen agreement.   This treaty allows Europeans free access across most borders, but it prohibits most non-Europeans from spending more than 90 days at a time within most countries.

Map of the Schengen agreement

It is very loosely and inconsistently enforced, but we didn’t want take any chances. We could have applied for longer-term retiree visas to any one of the member countries but this would have required a more lengthy and expensive process than we were willing to go through.

Both of us had visited Spain before, and while we had spent short periods of time in both Madrid and Barcelona, we crossed them off our list because they were larger and more expensive than we wanted. 

We narrowed down our choices to Málaga, Seville and Valencia. My wife, Meryl, had been to Malaga in the southern part of Spain.  Both Málaga and Seville boast beautiful weather in the summer and have large ex-pat English-speaking (mostly British or student) populations.  However, several travel blogs warned that the transportation infrastructure in these two cities was not as well-developed as in the larger cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.  We specifically wanted to avoid having to rent a car for the three months.  We find that using public transportation is the best way to “know” a city. 

The more we read about Valencia, the more it became our ideal choice.  It surprised us to learn that Valencia was Spain’s third-largest city because relatively few Americans include it in their trips.  After being there, we concluded this was because there are no direct flights from North America as opposed to Madrid, Barcelona and Málaga.  However, since there are many intra-European flights to Valencia, including on various budget airlines, there were streams of tourists from the UK, Italy, Germany, Holland and the Scandinavian countries.  This explained why we saw relatively few Americans during our stay in Valencia.  

Location of Valencia, Spain


Valencia turned out to be an excellent place to immerse ourselves in Spanish life.  It is ideally located on the Mediterranean coast only a few hundred miles south of Barcelona. It offers both tourists and residents a fascinating old city experience along with all the conveniences of a modern European city, including walking and bike trails and an excellent bus and subway system. 

We loved the fact that within 15 minutes of our Airbnb apartment, we could walk downtown to the Old City, full of historic forts, churches, monuments, museums and other tourist sites.

Fort in Old City
City Hall clock tower


In the opposite direction, we could go walking along the Mediterranean or swim in the warm water within a 30-minute walk or 10-minute bus ride. 

People were very friendly and we were never scared of pickpockets or other urban issues that plague Barcelona.  We would often walk home late at night on deserted, but well-lighted streets and we were never afraid. 

Valencia is located south of the region of Catalonia and consequently is an officially bi-lingual section of the country.  What is called Catalán in Barcelona is known as Valenciano in Valencia.   Especially in the old city, the street signs are in Valenciano and Spanish. Some language experts in Valencia argue that they are two distinct languages, but the differences are very slight and sometimes only in pronunciation.

Bi-lingual street signs, here Spanish first, Valenciano second


If you’ve never seen Valenciano (or Catalán) , it looks like a strange combination of French, Spanish and Italian.

A sign in Valenciano: “Enter.  And make it a reality.  Credit up to 40,000 Euros without a commission.”

We attended many public events where the narrations were presented in Valenciano rather than in Spanish.  I was only able to understand about 50% of the spoken language, but the written language was easier to decipher especially since I am familiar with French and Italian.

We loved going frequently to the famous Central Market (Mercat Central in Valenciano) in the Old City.

Central Market


It is the highest-rated tourist attraction in Valencia.  Since the city is within the Spanish agricultural belt, it allowed us to buy the freshest fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, local wines and seafood.

An abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables

Live eels


     Fresh Snails


Local Cuttlefish (sepia)


In the course of our stay, we became friendly with some of the vendors who offered us tastes of many items.

This vendor is a specialist in Iberian hams


 Imagine wine tasting at 9 am!  We were able to experience some of the favorite Valenciano dishes such as sepia (cuttlefish), eel, rabbit and baby lamb. Garlic is used in abundance in the regional cooking.  The ice creams and gelato of Valencia are delicious and not expensive. A favorite specialty in Valencia is horchata (or orxata in Valenciano) which is a cold smoothie-type drink from the chufa, a regional potato-like tuber.  It’s an acquired taste.

Horchateria (or orxateria in Valenciano)


The breads were hard to resist! There’s a bakery on almost every corner.  The sign in the store written in Valenciano (“un pa, fet amb amor, es una creacio unica”) is translated as “bread made with love is a unique creation.” 

The inscription above the bread (in Valenciano):
Bread made with love is a unique creation


Since my wife wanted to learn Spanish, we hired a tutor which gave me the opportunity three times a week to explore the city on my own.  I would randomly pick an area to visit where I would walk, endlessly taking pictures. I love to talk to people on the street and in stores.  I was particularly fascinated by the ease in which people conversed in Spanish or Valenciano, and how willing they were to talk to a total stranger.

The province of Valencia offers countless photographic opportunities.   Within the city proper, there are many historic structures within the Old City dating back to the Middle Ages.  One memorable church featured marks on the stone fronts from the sword blades being sharpened for beheading those Jews who refused conversion to Christianity during the time of the Inquisition.

Notice the sword imprints in the stone


The Turia River used to flow through the city and frequently caused massive flooding.  It was rerouted about 60 years ago and in its place was created an extensive park which forms the cultural spine of the city. The area called the Center of Arts and Sciences features a collection of ultra-modern buildings by the famous Valencian architect, Santiago Calatrava. 

The signature design of Calatrava
The Calatrava-designed museum
Part of the park within the Calatrava-designed City of Arts and Sciences


They have included an opera house, a science museum, an aquarium, an IMAX theater and a large residential area.  The whole length of the Turia greenspace offers a great place to walk, run and bike.  

Outside the actual city, it was easy to travel by bus, subway or train to many cities along the Mediterranean.   The juxtaposition of the mountains and the rugged coastline was particularly beautiful. 

We hope to visit Valencia again to visit our friends and the enticing Central Market. I can still taste my favorite rabbit dish with a 1 Euro glass of local beer. Next time, I plan on renting a car so that we could explore even more of the beautiful nearby surrounding areas.

Giudecca Organ


I had a thrilling experience in Siracusa, Italy last year as part of a month we spent in Sicily and the region of Puglia. 

Siracusa is located in the southeastern part of Sicily.   The whole island is full of the vestiges of the many civilizations which have lived in this area.  Staying a whole week in this city gave us the opportunity to learn about the history of the island and to visit many of the nearby attractions.

We were very pleased to be staying in a small hotel called “La Via Della Giudecca” which is Italian for the “street in the Jewish Quarter.”  From the window of our room we were able to see directly across a very narrow alley to a church that people visited throughout the day.   Early one morning, I heard the sounds of an organ.  After mentioning this to the owner of our hotel, he asked me if I wanted to meet the person who was playing it.  She was the daughter of the owner of the store just across from the hotel and had studied ancient music in college. 

Street sign from our hotel window

The next day, she brought us into the church and we climbed up to the second story by a narrow staircase to an ancient organ which had only one register (keyboard).  This was located directly in front of the pipes of the organ. 

One register organ with an interesting pedal configuration

She told us the story of the organ which was one of the oldest remaining organs in Sicily.  It dated back to the 18th century and originally required a person to pump the air behind it with a system of bellows.  When it was renovated in the early 1900s, it was re-fitted with an electric motor. 

After demonstrating the sounds of the instrument, she asked me if I would like to try playing it.   I jumped at the chance since I play the piano and even took some organ lessons when I was in high school.  My wife thankfully took a video of this experience, recording very well how excited I was.

The next day, we were given a tour of the church.  It stood on the original site of an ancient synagogue dating back to the 1100s when the population of Siracusa was about 20% Jewish. During that time, Sicily was under the control of the Spanish Crown.  When the Inquisition began in 1492, the whole Jewish population of Sicily was ordered to convert to Catholicism or be expelled. Most of the Jews of Siracusa and neighboring towns escaped to nearby ports in Greece or Turkey where they had strong commercial ties. 

The church opposite our hotel which was on the site of a synagogue from the Middle Ages

This Catholic church was built not long after in the early 1500s. Subsequently, fires had destroyed several structures and the present building dates back to the mid-1700s. 

One level below ground is a system of the original catacombs stretching for hundreds of feet to the Mediterranean and dated back to the Middle Ages. During modern times, these tunnels were used by more than 10,000 Siracusa residents during WW II when the island was heavily bombed by the British.   We were able to visit the cisterns which were the reservoirs for the water used by the city.

The mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath

On the second level beneath the church was the ancient mikveh, the Jewish ritual baths. Mikvehs are required to have a source of fresh flowing water, and there was still water running through it.  However, these baths had not been used for more than 500 years.  Although there are presently no Jewish people living in Siracusa, studies have shown that at least 30% of the present Sicilian population has common genetic markers with Sephardic Jews from Greece and Turkey.       

Visiting Sicily was an exciting part of our trip to southern Italy, but playing the organ in the church was one of the highlights.   It was even more meaningful since it was in a church in the location of where a synagogue had previously existed. We tried to imagine what it must have been like for Jews to live in this city for hundreds of years during the Middle Ages. Being forced to leave your ancestral home where you had been living in peace with Christians and Muslims is not only sad, but it demonstrates the strength of the people who were able to maintain a sense of community even when outside powers attempted to threaten their very survival.   

Playing the organ was one of the highlights of our trip to Sicily

Staying a week opposite this church provided me a frame of reference to better understand the history of Siracusa and all of Sicily throughout the millennia.  Being allowed to play the organ in a place of worship which was once a synagogue helped me appreciate the flow of various cultures who had passed through this fascinating place.