In 2007, The America’s Cup changed the face of contemporary Valencia as we knew it. The competition for the oldest trophy in international sport dating back to 1851 was to come back to European shores for its 32nd edition, and for the first time since the yacht America sailed across the Atlantic to take on the best of the British fleet race. It was clear that racing conditions would be different in these waters and therefore the team overseeing the cup was looking for a port city with the right sailing conditions, facilities and the ability to dazzle. Beating strong contenders from 60 other cities, Valencia was deemed to be the perfect spot for some serious sailing.
In order to win the bid, certain commitments had to be set in stone including the development of the harbour for the event and the delivery of a lot of infrastructure such as team bases, media centre, a redesigned harbour and an astoundingly attractive event headquarters designed by English architect David Chipperfield. This building, named ‘Veles e Vents’, overlooked the channel and gave beautiful views of the city and the match racing courses.
One of the key instigators in winning the bid said previously that: “the port was a bit sad. We didn’t use it. Valencia had its back turned to the sea. The America’s Cup was definitely the best thing that happened to the Port of Valencia.” And the event has clearly had a positive and long reaching impact on the life of Valencia and its inhabitants, with multi-millions of euros being invested into what was to become the first of the new age of the America’s Cup where sponsorships and commercialism became big business.
Whereas before the port was ‘like a lost space’ and people bypassed it to go to Valencia’s beach and promenade, suddenly people were hanging around in the marina’s restaurants and bars, soaking up the electric atmosphere that comes with high-performance sailing. And the soccer-mad Valencianos had a new sport to obsess about. Strangely, with such an incredible seaside resource, Valencia had never before developed a sailing culture, but all that changed overnight.
It’s a testament to the city's commitment to the Cup, that its legacy can still be felt as strongly today as when it first came to fruition 12 years ago. No visit to the city would be complete without a visit to The City of Arts and Sciences, the cultural and architectural complex completed for the Cup and now deemed to be one of the 12 Treasures of Spain. The main building is meant to resemble a giant eye, with the Hemesfèric, also known as the planetarium or the "eye of knowledge", the centerpiece of the City of Arts and Sciences. Its design resembles an eyelid that opens to access the surrounding water pool while the bottom of the pool is glass, creating the illusion of the eye as a whole with the giant IMAX cinema acting as the pupil. It’s breathtaking to witness at night when it is fully illuminated.
Perhaps the most spectacular of all the offerings in the City of Arts and Sciences is the Oceanographic Aquarium - the largest complex of its type in Europe with a surface of 110,000 square metres and a water capacity of a staggering 42,000,000 litres. It includes a dolphinarium and an ocean tank with sharks, rays and other fish. There are 45,000 animals of 500 different species including fish, mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates, amongst which are penguins, sea lions, walruses, beluga whales, and more, all inhabiting nine underwater towers. Even the most land-lubbing of visitors cannot help but be blown away.
The regeneration of Valencia wasn’t all about spectacular modern art buildings, even if one of those was built to resemble the skeletal structure of a humpback whale. Valencia also wanted a connection with nature and so the beautiful old Turia riverbed, dried out after the Turia river was redirected after a tragic flooding incident in 1957, was given a makeover. The central axis of the city, the old riverbed is now a verdant sunken 9km park that allows cyclists and pedestrians to traverse much of the city without the use of roads. The park, called the 'Garden of the Turia', boasts numerous ponds, paths, fountains, flowers, football pitches, cafés, artwork, climbing walls, an athletics track, a zen garden and more. It is a perfect place to get away from the bustle of the city.
Of course the city itself is something to behold, and if you dare to turn your back on the sea then the easily walkable historic centre of Valencia is without a doubt the most charming part of the city and holds most of its main tourist attractions. Made up of five neighbourhoods in the Ciutat Vella (Old Town), formerly a walled city from Roman times, it’s perfect for wandering the cobbled streets and soaking up Valencia’s lively atmosphere. The old town is full of tiny winding souk-like streets, a reminder of the city’s old Moorish past. The medieval churches and palaces give the distinct feeling of being transported back in time. Valencia is full of history, and an abundance of restaurants, cafes, bars and nightlife which are at the heart of this beautiful city.
For foodies, a stop at Valencia's Central Market is an absolute must. So many delicious goodies can be found in one of Europe’s grandest markets that has hundreds of stalls selling regional produce, fish, meat, sausages, hams, fruit and vegetables. It’s a great place for architectural lovers and gourmets who can try some of the freshest and most delicious products from the Valencian regions, including its most famous dish, the much-revered Paella.
Football and sailing aren’t the only sporting passions in Valencia - perhaps one of the most exciting events in the calendar and a sport close to the hearts of many in the yachting industry is the final of the MotoGP, held every year in Valencia in November since the track was completed in 1999. The 150,000-capacity stadium has its roof raised as motorbike fans from around the world come together to witness the climax of this high-octane sport, in typical Spanish fiesta style.
On the subject of fiestas, no discussion of Valencia would be complete without mentioning the fiesta to rule all fiestas: the insanity and spectacle of the Falles festival. The five days and nights of Falles in March might be described as a continuous street party - there are a multitude of processions, historical, religious, and comedic. Crowds in the restaurants spill out into the streets. Explosions can be heard all day long and sporadically throughout the night. Everyone from small children to elderly people can be seen throwing fireworks and noisemakers in the streets, which are littered with pyrotechnical debris.
On the final evening of Falles, a parade known in Valencia as the Cavalcada del Foc (the Fire Parade), takes place along Colon street and Porta de la Mar square. This spectacular celebration of fire, the symbol of the fiesta's spirit, is the grand finale of Falles and a colourful, noisy event featuring exhibitions of the varied rites and displays from around the world which use fire; it incorporates floats, giant mechanisms, people in costumes, rockets, gunpowder, street performances and music. At around midnight, the falles are burnt as huge bonfires. This is known as La Cremà (the burning) - the climax of the whole event and the reason why the constructions are called falles ("torches").
Valencia is a city of old and new, land and sea, art and science, and one with a proud sporting history. It holds a promising nautical future and always the warmest, sometimes quite literally, of welcomes.