Sunday, May 15, 2016

Valencia in two days

The best trips always end up with the most unconventional beginnings. On Monday, while sitting at Google Campus Madrid studying for an employment law test, I someone ended up booking a bla bla car to Valencia with a friend. Fast forward to Friday (with hours of study, saying goodbye to a friend, a stressful run to a train station for a mis-scheduled Skype, concerns about cancelling the journey because my travel bud was really sick on Thursday) and I was nearly at the meeting point in Atocha Railway Station when I got a text from travel bud to say that the bla bla car driver had cancelled the journey because something had gone wrong with his car.

Plan B put into action - me taking the metro to Sol (then sneakily getting a much needed flat white from my favourite café) then frantically whatsapping my friend to try and arrange another bla bla car. Within one hour we were on the road to Valencia with Miguel (the driver), a very tanned Spanish woman with frightening white teeth and bleached hair, and in a very comfortable Mercedes car. The joys of car-sharing.

Right from getting off the bus into town and stepping on the smooth tiled pedestrian footpath in the old quarter of the town, Valencia had won my heart. Don't hate me Madrid, but this city is incredible. How common is it to walk past old streets with balconied apartments, flowers, plants, oh - and just the odd castle thrown in there. Super chill, Valencia. 

We wandered around the city, lunched at a fairly generic Spanish restaurant, had cake at an amazing café, and ambled down to the main architectural attraction there, La Ciudad de Las Artes y Las Ciencias. This is the futuristic looking complex that probably springs to mind when you think of Valencia (unless you're a kiwi and reminiscing that time we won the America's Cup there #maynotbefactuallycorrect).

That was one of those moments when you pinch yourself and wonder if you're dreaming. Obviously I wasn't, but it was such an incredible place. Architecture is lord. I can't get over how some people can design something that has such an impact on human behaviour. Cheers to the architects Santiago Calatreva and Felix Candela, you did good. The complex was enormous, with two man-made lakes where people were rowing and playing in inflatable zorbs. Some thousand-odd schoolchildren were rehearsing for a performance so initially we heard drums and choir singing when we got there, resonating over the complex. After they finished up, a stage in the middle of one of the lakes started hosting bands - a dixie band and an electronic group. We also went to one of the high school exhibits and got to try out an oculus rift that a class of 14 year old high school students had programmed. Amazing stuff. Living up to the name of the City of the Arts and Sciences.

Genuinely living up to the reputation of being perpetually lost
The oculus rift experience

Someone several hours zoomed past and we decided to go back to the hostel, swap bags/change clothes and get a glass of Spanish red. That's how we ended up sitting in a quiet courtyard at 10pm on Friday night, sipping on Rioja and eating a fantastic goat's cheese salad. Then helping (well, not me, I don't speak Dutch) some Dutch tourists order Irish coffee instead of the glass of ice they were given.

Unfortunately, not everything was dream-worthy. We were actually quite tired and went to sleep early-ish, given we'd had quite a big day. I was woken up at 2.30am after dreaming that the poles in my bunk bed were stuffed with sliced capsicums (yes, really) by about 50 high school students who had arrived home and decided to shout in the hallways, walked around incessantly, knock on each other's doors and generally make as much noise as possible when coming back from who-knows-what. Eventually I got out of bed and tried to tell them in Spanish to be quiet, but didn't get anywhere because at that point only four of them were actually in the hallway. Another half hour later of more noise and I finally got to sleep. 

So, day two and the last day in Valencia. We'd walked a lot on day one and decided that it appeared to be a very bike-friendly city. This time we set out on two wheels and managed to get everywhere we wanted to go significantly faster. There was a fantastic indoor market - absolutely enormous - and while it was quite touristy, old Spanish men and women wandered round with their shopping trolleys buying their jamón, bread and cheese. We also managed a visit to the botanic gardens, which were the essence of tranquility right in the middle of the city. They also had dozens of cats, which was also something I appreciated. Cats and plants are two wonderful things.

Goal two was to get to the port and have paella at Pepico, apparently one of the best places there is to eat Paella. We made it down the long straight road to the port and cycled along the marina. There we could see super yachts, party yachts, smaller yachts, the Emirates Team NZ shed, many other tourists cycling, yellow sand, and dozens of restaurants lined up along the beachfront.

The Emirates Team NZ shed in the background
After a twenty minute wait to be seated (what are reservations?) we finally were content with pan con tomate, white wine and the knowledge that our paella was simmering somewhere in the depths of the vast restaurant. When it came out 1/2 an hour later, it was perfect. A crust of saffron-y rice on top, juicy prawns and seafood, and still very hot in the huge flat pan. Somehow there was a line of tourists forming in front of the restaurant, which made it taste even better - knowing we had arrived at the right time and were seated right at the front of the place, with the best views.

Our second bla bla car had cancelled on us by then, so we'd also booked another one, who wanted to leave an hour earlier than he published on the website. We raced back home on our bikes, but even that wasn't necessarily a drama. There's a huge park that spans the city, home to joggers, picnic-ers, a great bike lane, wisteria and fuschia trees, and cool dogs. So we cycled through that back to our hostel, got our bags, got on the bus, and arrived at the meeting point with time to spare.

The driving-places part of travelling is never boring when you're in another country because of the beauty of the scenery. Spain is a seriously beautiful country. My travel bud probably got quite sick of me getting excited every time I saw wind turbines, but the juxtaposition of those with the intensely clouded yet still blue sky, the sunlight hitting the fields and the occasional grape vines growing was incredible. Our driver this time had great taste in Spanish rock, so it was a dream-worthy trip home.

Then we were back in Madrid, arriving in the heat of the festivities of San Isidro. The crazy thing was the location of my friends' apartment - two of them lived right on Plaza Mayor, where a stage had been constructed to host some of the performances during the festival. After stopping by the supermarket to buy olives, jamón, bread, cheese, tomatoes and red wine, we got through the police checkpoint by showing housekeys (they weren't letting any more spectators into the square), climbed the stairs and arrived at the apartment, which was already echoing with the sounds from the stage below us.

Thousands of people were gathered there, anticipating Nick Jonas's performance plus some other famous artists. Arronchupa was one (do you know the Albatross song? That got performed live). We sat on the balcony and watched the spectacle, comfortable on chairs and cushions and slightly amazed that this. was. happening. right. there. In the morning there were also more performances, this time it was traditional flamenco (which I still actually hadn't seen yet). I couldn't get over how Spanish Sunday morning was. Eating jamón while watching flamenco - then going out for churros con chocolate - then getting in a crowded metro full of Spaniards in traditional dress, buying bread from the grandpa-cute man at the bakery below my apartment, who even let me walk away without paying (an IOU instead) because I didn't have the right change.

And that brings me to the end of the weekend. 

Also - a call for advice. Has anyone travelled around Europe after studying abroad on a NZ passport? I'm overly confused and lacking the right information (despite looking into it for hours) about travel in and out of the Schengen Zone, what happens when my student visa expires and I'm still in Europe (to name a few of my qualms). Please get in contact if you have!

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