Amid the cool stone alleys and sunny, palm-fringed plazas of Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city, it was easy to imagine Jewish scribes and accountants bustling about in Roman times. I found plenty of Jewish history when I Googled in advance of a trip: descriptions of Valencia’s barrios, synagogues, plazas and mikvahs. All of it stopped in the late 1400s.
This, unfortunately, is a common phenomenon throughout Iberia, where violent expulsions of Sephardim vanquished centuries of Jewish life by the late-15th century. It is especially poignant in Valencia, a historically multiethnic port city where the past feels tangible on every crumbling stone wall.
Virtually none of that Jewish past is still tangible, however. Instead, one of Europe’s most ancient cities has one of its most modern Jewish communities — the Kehillat Aviv Valencia, a 125-strong, Masorti-affiliated congregation founded a dozen years ago by an assortment of Jewish newcomers from across the diaspora. For the first time in modern history, Valencia has a vital and pluralistic Jewish presence that sponsors education, holidays, events and worship; visitors are welcome with advance arrangements.
Sojourners of all persuasions have long overlooked Valencia in favor of Barcelona, the larger of Spain’s two Catalan-speaking cities (Valencian is the Catalan dialect spoken throughout the ethnically Catalan Valencia region, just south of Catalonia). But just as North African, European and South American Jews have discovered this affordable, friendly haven, so too have tourists begun to discover what makes Valencia special.
For those who know Barcelona, the similarities between the cities are striking. Both Mediterranean ports boast a massive harbor full of cruise ships, a pretty beachfront promenade, an atmospheric Gothic core, a picturesque central market, and attractively futuristic glass architecture along the waterfront. Barcelona has long had the tourism edge with Gaudì’s distinctive architecture, cheap flights and a better soccer team.
Lately, though, Valencia has come into its own as a destination for things you can’t see farther north — most notably the City of Arts and Sciences, a space-age cultural complex of glittering glass structures that soars above the waterfront. And as high-season crowds in Barcelona grow ever more suffocating, Valencia presents a tranquil alternative.
The trick is getting here. Valencia lies on the country’s far east — a flight or a very long ride from either Madrid or Barcelona. The reward is a relaxed seaside city where the installations of Santiago Calatrava — himself a native son with converso Jewish roots — are a short stroll from Roman walls.
About those installations: In the flush of an early-2000s real-estate boom, Valencia decided it wanted to raise its profile through the kind of hyper-ambitious, grandiose starchitectural project that would garner Bilbao Guggenheim-style tourism. The result is the City of Arts and Sciences, designed by the Valencia-born Calatrava and his Spanish compatriot Felix Candela … a billion-euro gamble that few have ever heard of.
In some respects, Valencia’s very obscurity makes a visit here all the more delightful. We can all picture Frank Gehry’s Bilbao masterpiece, but the first sight of Candela’s swooping Oceanogràfic, an oceanarium that sparkles in the Spanish sunshine over the turquoise sea, is breathtaking in its unexpectedness. Inside are aquariums reflecting the global diversity of marine environments, from shark tanks to coral reefs.
To me, Calatrava’s neighboring opera house looks like a Storm Trooper helmet. But the culture inside is worth a visit: Plácido Domingo has an opera program, world-famous conductors stop by, and a dance series features everything from zarzuela to flamenco. During the summer hiatus, Boston’s Berklee College of Music, which has a campus here, fills in with an open-air concert series on the City of Arts waterfront.
But the heart of Valencia is its Barrio Carmen, a tangle of medieval lanes full of dusty Art Nouveau pharmacies, crumbling castle walls, Gothic archways, airy plazas full of café tables, and bubbling fountains. Carmen looks and feels like Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter — except that in Valencia, you’re more likely to come across authentic paella, the saffron-scented rice dish that put this city on the gastronomic map (and if you associate paella with crustaceans, take heart: There are myriad vegetarian versions).
Just as Spanish is the under-heralded but enjoyable collection at Valencia’s Museum of Fine Arts, which specializes in works from Spain’s Golden Age — roughly the middle third of the last millennium — with terrific pieces by Goya, Velázquez, Sorolla and the Flemish masters.
And just outside that edifice is Valencia’s answer to the Ramblas of Barcelona — except that where that thoroughfare is paved with concrete, the Alameda is a green river of lawns and gardens that snakes through the ancient city. Wherever you stroll, a breath of fresh air is nearby, along with shady paths and benches ripe for picnicking. The Alameda is one more way Valencia seduces its modern visitors, inviting them to relax and stay awhile.