Paella and Valencia – Hot!

A few of our favorite pictures of Valencia

Our first stop in Spain took us to Valencia, Spain’s third largest city. Few of the people we surveyed in preparation for our trip had much to say about Valencia. Friends who have traveled to Spain focus their adoration on either of Spain’s two urban hubs – Madrid and Barcelona. Too bad! We loved our time in Valencia and would recommend it to anyone planning to spend time along Spain’s Mediterranean coast.

The biggest food market in Spain. So much food, so little time.

The cab ride from the train station to the hotel was quick. We checked in, unloaded our things and headed out to grab a bite to eat in the Placa de la Reina. First stop, the pintxos bar La Taberna de la Reina on the square where we found all kinds of delicious bites of meat, fish and cheese atop slices of baguette. These ubiquitous morsels can be found all over Spain, and while the main event was yet to come in San Sebastian, we thought it worth a visit to get a sense of how it works before we find ourselves in the serious pintxos bars later in our journey (more on pintxos to come).

An array of tapas.

Feeling sated, we wandered the ancient narrow streets in Valencia’s old city center around the cathedral where we found innumerable cafes, tourist trinkets, and massive colorful graffiti-covered stone walls. All that walking worked up an appetite so we scouted about to find our next bite and happened upon Boatella Tapas, a tapas bar and cerveceria across the street from the Mercado Central, Valencia’s fresh food hub and one of the largest food markets in Europe. The tiny corner bar has a small counter and seating area indoors and a few tables set out on the sidewalk. Atop the bar inside is an array of platters with piles of various fish, some fried, some roasted, all incredibly fresh and delicious. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs and Steve’s Spanish language skills were just good enough to get the servers attention but not quite good enough to explain that we simply wanted a mixed plate of various items from the bar. The “medium” plate of food he thought he was ordering ended up being several medium sized plates of each of the things he pointed at on the bar. We had a big plate of fried whole small fish, a plate of grilled squid salad, a plate of fried shrimp in their shells, a full plate of padron peppers and a nice big plate of chicharones. There was no way we were going to eat it all!

Valencia has the best paella in Spain.

Paella is a Valencian specialty. The rice most commonly used for paella, Bomba rice, grows in rice paddies near Valencia and the sea provides all the delicious squid, muscles and langoustines needed for a traditional pan of saffron scented rice. We had the best paella of our visit at Restaurant El Rall, a great little place tucked away in one of Valencia’s many medieval squares. While we waited for our paella for two, we noshed on a favorite Spanish blood sausage that had been topped with a dollop of pureed ham and cheese then toasted under the broiler. They were delicious. The paella was exquisite and we were careful to delicately scrape our servings from the top, avoiding disturbing the bottom of the pan so that the rice could continue to cook and ultimately crisp up. That crunchy, brown rice at the end is the best part of the paella. Ours was perfect!

The best tapas in Valencia. It was worth the bike ride to find this place.

Perhaps our most memorable meal in Valencia, lunch at Bodega Montana, was satisfying in every way. The bodega has a great atmosphere with its marble bar and several barrels lining the walls from which wine and sherry is dispensed. We stuffed ourselves with an assortment of perfectly executed tapas. Standouts included the marinated tuna, the anchovy stuffed green olives, the bacalao (salted cod) potato puree and the fried stuffed red peppers. But that wasn’t enough. We also snacked on slices of Manchego cheese and thin slices of Iberico ham – perhaps the best we’ve ever tasted. As with many of our meals in Spain, we washed it all down with glasses of rosé and beer.

Hot chocolate and churros. A must try when in Spain.

We took a break from traditional Spanish food on our last night in Valencia, settling instead for Italian at La Papardella, just a couple of blocks off the placa near the cathedral. But this was not our last meal in Valencia. Before cabbing to the train station on departure day, we got up at 6 a.m. and headed over to the L’Orxateria next to the main entrance of the Mercat for churros and chocolate. The outdoor temperature at that hour was just cool enough to make this decadent breakfast of fried pastry and thick hot chocolate the perfect sendoff.

Next stop: Barcelona!

¡El Splato!

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!

Our desire to travel to Spain was born out of a desire to be a part of La Tomatina in Buñol, a small town about an hour outside Valencia; a bucket list item that we just had to be a part of, even though we were twenty years older than most of the participants. We’ve seen images of this event for years and each time we do, we swear we’re going to make the trip. Now we can gratefully cross the item off our list.

La tomatina

Tomatoes--good for eating and for throwing.

If you’ve ever been in a mosh pit (mosh pit:  for the AARP crowd, it’s a large crowd of hooligans at a punk concert that slam, push and bounce around) imagine being in the craziest one ever with 45,000 people who’ve come from all over the world to be packed into the narrow streets of Buñol for four hours or more–that’s La Tomatina. For hours we stood (if you can call it that) in the middle of a narrow street leading to the village square while being pushed from side to side as waves of bodies moved with a pulsing motion forward, back and from side to side. As more and more people pushed their way to the front of the throng, the crowd grew more and more dense until it was impossible to find a spot where you were not crushed against bodies. One wrong step and a fall and it could be the end. Luckily, neither one of us suffered any injuries. And, this was all happening before the beginning of the tomato fight.

45,000 people packed like sardines, waiting for the fiesta to begin!

We ended up next to a gang of thugs ripping off t-shirts from unsuspecting men trying to push by. And once the t-shirts were ripped from the men the shirts were tied in knots and thrown around the crowd.By the way, none of the men harassed any of the women and most of the young men were even protective of the women in the crowd. We eventually decided to just take our shirts off instead of having them torn off our bodies.

Hot messes!

As more and more people jammed closer to the square, the temperatures soared. All of those bodies produce a lot of heat and when you combine that with a hot, cloudless day in Spain in August, well  you can imagine the crowd’s growing discomfort.  We did get the occasional relief from the stench and sweat whenever the locals threw buckets of water and sprayed hoses from their balconies or rooftops down onto the crowd. This only made the knotted shirts that much harder as they grew saturated from the water accumulating at our feet. By the way, it’s no fun to get hit in the head with one of those. And someone had the nerve to bring a hollowed watermelon as a warmup. Another thing that hurts like a mother f#$%er when it hits you in the head.

Here come the tomatoes!

The actual tomato fight doesn’t officially start until some crazy young man climbs to the top of a greased poll and captures the jamon. And once he does, he’s then hand passed overhead through the crowd along with the jamon, as a type of hero, until he reaches the end of the crowd. Once he reaches the end, a huge cannon blast signifies the start of the tomato fight and all hell breaks loose! If the sardine packed crowds weren’t enough, the crowd gets pushed out of the square as huge trucks drive through the small street with huge rugby player-types (the forwards, not the backs) walking in front as they push everyone who is not on the narrow sidewalk out of harms way of the truck. Of course as they do this everyone is being smashed up against one another and the wall. Riding on the trucks are more rugby players throwing tomatoes (think of the hard Roma variety) into and at the crowd and that’s when the fun begins.

Watch those tomato seeds (and the wet knotted shirts).

We were pushed down a side street by the first truck and as each truck passed by we were pushed further and further down the street until the second blast signaled the end of the tomato fight. By that time we were standing in a river of red as water and tomato filled the streets. Once the trucks pass and the streets run red everyone who has not had enough will body surf down the streets and throw handfuls of red mucky whatever at who ever is around. (This is the part that most people see in images). After all those hours of being in the mosh pit from hell with smells of sweat, tomatoes, sewer (Buñol at the end of summer smells just as bad as any major city in the summer) and god only knows what else, we had had all we could take as we gagged our way out of the crowd. Our forty year old bodies had given up. We threw a few tomatoes and had a great time but we weren’t covered in red like many of the participants.

Will they ever be clean again?

At the beginning, just as we exited El Arbol’s bus and as we walked down to the city center, we thought that this might be an annual pilgrimage, but as we ascended back to our bus after the tomato fight neither one of us wanted to return to the event again. At dinner that night, it took all the muster we had left to gag down a few cherry tomatoes. Maybe our next bucket list item needs to be something more age appropriate and serene, like yoga in Bali.