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.

“Are These Fresh?”


Every morning, my wife and I walk with one of our neighbors for an hour.  Usually we swing by her house on the way out of our sub-division onto the main road in the community.

This morning Lindie was waiting on our driveway as we opened up our garage door.  In her hand she had a bunch of greens. 

“It’s arugula that I just picked from my garden,” she explained.

“Can’t get any fresher than that,” I replied.

This reminded me of a story when my daughters were very young and we took them on a trip from Florida back up North to visit relatives on Long Island. 

In their community, there are well-known strawberry and raspberry fields where you can pick your own berries.  This is a fun activity for children and adults since, although discouraged, most people eat half of what they are picking before placing them in the containers to be weighed at the check-out station. 

I can still remember one of my daughters putting a raspberry on each of her fingers and then proceeding to eat each one individually.  As she did this, she asked me, “Daddy, are these fresh?”

“Are these fresh?”

Many years later while we were spending the summer of 2015 in Valencia, Spain, we used to go to the Central Market in the Old City (la Ciutat Vella) at least once a week to buy our groceries.  The place is famous for the best and freshest fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry and fish from the immediately surrounding areas. Valencia is right in the Green Belt of Spain, the major agricultural production area for so much of what is grown in Spain.

Our favorite vendor for Spanish hams and Spanish cheeses

We got to know the vendors in the Central Market and we enjoyed sampling their products.  Our favorite ham and cheese vendor let us try their extensive variety of different grades of local hams along with the famous Spanish sheep-milk and cow-milk cheeses.  They always gave us a little cup of the local red wine which we then eagerly bought for only 2 Euros a bottle.  Having a little taste of wine was always a fun indulgence at 10 in the morning.

Another favorite vendor was where many different varieties of lettuce and related greens were featured.  Our favorite product was the Spanish variety of arugula (“rúcula”). In Europe, it is known in English as rocket lettuce and has a much more pungent, peppery taste. One day they were completely out of the arugula. 

The vendor told us not to worry.  “Be patient.  The truck will be delivering it soon,” she said reassuringly.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“They’re still picking it right now in the field,” she explained.

I guess you can’t get fresher than that! 

The Chinese Fan

This kind of story often seems to happen to me.

On one of our last days in Valencia, Spain where my wife, Meryl, and I had spent the summer, we were returning from last-minute shopping at the famous Central Market, one of our favorite spots in the city. 

Valencia, Spain

At 11 am, since it was already 88 degrees (31° C), we decided to take the bus back to our apartment.  We were lucky to get seats because the #32 bus is the one which travels from the downtown historic area through our neighborhood and then on toward the Mediterranean beaches.   

Sitting immediately in front of us was an older Asian man who was fanning himself with a strangely interesting fan, but not like the usual abanicos that are used by Spanish women on hot days.  It had unusual rose paintings on the front and Chinese lettering on the back.   

As the bus filled up, an older lady boarded the bus and the Asian man moved his packages to allow her to sit next to him.

“It’s so beautiful!”

She admired his fan, first determining that he understood Spanish.  After acknowledging that he spoke Spanish, he immediately offered her the fan.  At first, she refused politely, but he insisted.  You could tell by her reaction that she was going to treasure this gift from a perfect stranger.

Admiring her gift
Getting off the #32 bus

A few minutes later, the Asian man signaled to the driver that he was getting off at the next stop which happened to be our stop.  Since he was carrying some very heavy bags of groceries from a Chinese market, I offered to help him. 

As we were getting off the bus, he proceeded to tell me his whole life story!

Telling me his life story

He was 72 years old, originally from Saigon, Viet Nam but had escaped by boat during the Viet Nam war to Hong Kong.  He had emigrated to Spain 24 years ago because of some Chinese friends.     While there are many Chinese people in Spain, he explained to us that there were very few Vietnamese people in Spain because most of them wound up choosing France as they left Asia.  This is partly because of the historical connection of France and Vietnam.

Our friend told us that he has several daughters, one of whom works with his wife in their nail salon which was directly across the street from our apartment.

After we helped him bring his packages to his apartment which was about five blocks in the opposite direction from us, he invited us upstairs.  I was surprised that Meryl went along with me so willingly since she is usually much more cautious than I am with strangers.  He offered us water, tea and cookies and then he walked over to a cabinet on the other side of the room and took out some things to show us. 

“One fan for each of you.”   He continued by giving us each a beautiful silk Chinese shirt and pants.

Packing up our gifts

“My gift to you,” he explained in very heavily accented Spanish, “for helping me so nicely.”  We sat and talked and he gave us details about how he had fled Saigon in the late 70s during the boat crisis and how he had lived in Hong Kong for several years before coming to Spain.

As we left his apartment, he walked with us back to our neighborhood because he wanted us to meet his wife and daughter at their nail shop.  While there, he again thanked us effusively for helping him.  We in turn told him how much we enjoyed the experience of meeting him and how much we appreciated our unexpected gifts.   

I wish that this experience wouldn’t have happened on one of our last days in Valencia.  I would have liked to have gotten to know our new friend better.  

My new best friend