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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’ve never seen Valenciano (or Catalán) , it looks like a strange combination of French, Spanish and Italian.
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.
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.
In the course of our stay, we became friendly with some of the vendors who offered us tastes of many items.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.