When I think of winter sun destinations, there’s a few that routinely spring to mind. Obviously there’s the option to go southern hemisphere for Cape Town or Aukland et al (although I think this is sort of cheating since technically it’s summer sun, not winter..), or year-round-sun places like Florida and Palm Springs. In the last few years, Dubai has nailed the winter sun market – their summer is excruciatingly too-hot unless you plan to spend your trip in icy air con, but winter is blissful, generally around 24-31 degrees. But unless you’re en route somewhere else, a couple of nights in Dubai seems a little extravagant.
So I’ve found a European alternative: Valencia.
Valencia is on the southeastern coast of Spain, just north of Alicante. The city itself is small and flat, finishing at the marina and beach. And when I say small, I mean small – the metro ride from the airport to our central apartment took less than 20 minutes. And from the apartment to the port (on the other side. I feel like that might be an obvious point, but going with it anyway) was about a half hour jog. So probably about a 15 minute bus ride? Not sure.
The first thing I noticed about Valencia was the buildings. There’s something slightly ornate and Parisian about them, and they all seemed to be totally different to each other. Most people live in apartment blocks but they’re not the faceless skyscrapers you get in most cities – presumably because of the city’s vast history. Many of the buildings date back over a century – the covered market (Mercado Central) was built in 1914. And the Silk Exchange dates back to the 16th century. By contrast, much of the port and marina is modern, as a result of heavy bombing during the Spanish civil war.
My favourite thing to do during my few days in the city was go for walks along the river bed, which is a vast pedestrianised route through the city where the river Turia used to run. The river still runs from the mountains to the sea (obviously), but it now skirts around Valencia after a devastating flood in 1957 triggered the government’s ‘Plan Sur’. Now in the river’s place, 120 hectares of dry riverbed is split into twelve parts (zen garden, ponds, play parks) and is blissful to explore.
One of Valencie’s most famous structures, the museum of art and science, is accessible from the river bed. We tootled along until we reached an al fresco cafe overlooking the most amazing water feature, where we stopped for a wine and some jamon. Because Spain.
Speaking of which, Valencian food is exactly how you might expect: lots of cured meats, lots of cheese, and lots of bread. Gluten-free is starting to be a thing out there, but definitely not in the smaller, family-run cafes and restaurants (which tend to be the best places to go for atmosphere. Although be warned – very few speak English). My favourite meal was at Lambrusqueria. I wasn’t even shown a menu, but what arrived was a series of treats that I was exceptionally happy about: burrata, beef carpaccio, caprese salad, steak entrecôte, gelato… Moving was pretty tricky after that.
As with many European cities, everything gets going pretty late in Valencia. Many shops, restaurants, cafes etc close for a couple of hours in the late afternoon. At Lambrusqueria, the earliest available dinner reservation was at 8.30pm. This means both days and nights seem to amble on forever, and there is a very calm atmosphere. Most restaurants and bars spill out onto the street, but aside from the parades during Las Fallas, it is never rowdy. Even at Doce Gin Club in Canovas, which stocks over 500 different types of gin (I had Hendrick’s).
Hotels in the area tend to have a pretty luxe feel to them. We did a couple of nights at Vincci Palace and also the Westin, which has the most beautiful grounds with water-features and little nooks to snuggle away in on warm evenings.