Walking through the narrow streets of Valencia’s medieval centre, we discovered a charming city steeped in culture and history.
Growing up in Surrey does not prepare you for intense heat, it transpires. Like lizards we sought the shade, ultimately finding refuge in the cathedral. A prominent feature of the Valencian skyline, it stands imposingly in the idyllic central square. The basilica looks beautiful today, but it tells of centuries of conflict and religious strife. Originally the site of a Visogothic cathedral, this was transformed into a mosque under Moorish rule. The present cathedral was consecrated in 1238, a powerful testament to the eventual dominance of Christianity in the region, and the success of the Reconquista.
We drank in the opulence of the high altar. The ceiling was painted a rich blue and decorated with gold stars. We saw this Baroque design emulated all over the city. In the face of such splendour it would have been easy to overlook the scars left by the civil war. The cathedral suffered fire damage during the war, and some of its features were lost permanently.
The civil war left a deep wound in the Spanish consciousness, and it is still an uncomfortable topic. Only fleeting references are made to this dark period of the city’s history. We realised this when we visited La Lonja de la Seda, the historic Silk Exchange. No other landmark could claim to have been so vital to Valencia’s economic and political life. This exquisitely decorated building served as a forum for trading in the 15th century, a time of great commercial prosperity. We were even more intrigued to learn that it housed the Spanish government after the evacuation of Madrid in 1936.
These more sinister political undertones were all but forgotten as we stepped out into the sunshine of the courtyard. Surrounded by the improbably perfect orange and lemon trees we soaked up the late afternoon tranquillity.
The summer air grew headier as the sun went down and the city’s inhabitants emerged. We passed an elegant wedding party outside the cathedral. Dressed in white lace, the young bride radiated elation. It was infectious. Parents brought their children out to play on the floodlit plazas, evincing a strong community spirit. As three young women, we valued the corresponding sense of safety.
The darkness belied the penetrating heat of the evening. The square was filled with music, although it was not always harmonious. A fracas broke out between a group of protesters and two musicians, the latter of whom attracted vocal popular support. This was proof, if we needed it, that live music will always triumph over its recorded rivals.
We sipped the luscious Agua de Valencia, a source of the same regional pride displayed in the Valencian-language street signs. The vivid orange nectar was a common centrepiece in squares which rang with laughter late into the night.