With its glistening white and shiny glass, it looks like the legendary city of Atlantis floating on a sea of blue. Or it might be a gigantic eyeball in a basin of water. Or a flying saucer that has landed in the midst of a city pool.
It could even be a helmet that some mammoth warrior dropped.
The City of Arts and Sciences is a work of art itself and can make the imagination soar just by looking at it. I had heard about it, seen many photos and knew the design was supposed to be fantastic. I had admired other work by the same architect but it almost stopped me in my tracks when I saw it in person.
In his hometown of Valencia, the great Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has created a masterpiece. It is a fitting symbol for a city that has been reborn like a giant phoenix rising from what it used to be.
“Valencia is shining again. From great ruin, the city has come back even stronger than ever,” says tour guide Marcos.
Located on the Mediterranean coast, Valencia is the third largest city in Spain with a population of about 800,000. Its rich history dates back to AD 138, when a group of Roman legionnaires were granted land.
“The word ‘Valencia’ means brave or valiant,” Marcos says. “Originally the city by the river was a place for retired Roman soldiers.”
At various times, Valencia has been ruled by Romans, Visigoths and Arab Muslims, among others. Stopping to point out the depiction of a bat on a historic building, Marcos explains that the night critter is the symbol for Valencia and appears around the city as well as being the logo for the Spanish soccer team.
“When King James I was fighting against the Muslims to take back the city of Valencia in 1238, a bat was said to have sat on top of the tent where the king was sleeping,” Marcos says. “That meant that King James was going to be victorious and he was. King James put the bat on his coat of arms in tribute.”
City being revitalized
Valencia’s golden age was in the 15th century when it was one of the Mediterranean’s great trading powers, exchanging olive oil, rice, saffron, wool and wine with much of Europe. Today, a huge number of construction cranes tower over the city.
“They are everywhere because the city is growing and changing so it will be better than ever,” Marcos says.
You can’t help feeling the energy of the city as it is being revitalized. Historic buildings are being cleaned and restored, live theaters are sprouting up all over the city, new housing is being constructed, luxurious hotels (like Hotel Barcelo Valencia near the City of Arts and Sciences) have been built, Michelin stars restaurants and shops are being added, transportation has been improved and the city’s waterfront was transformed for the prestigious America’s Cup yacht race that Valencia hosted in 2007.
Valencia was already blessed with much natural beauty. Surrounded by orange groves and rice fields, it sits at the mouth of the Turia River on the Mediterranean Sea and rises out of a rich agricultural plain known as the huerta. With more than 300 sunny days a year, the city is fanned by natural breezes and has an average temperature of 64 degrees.
It is famed for its beautiful light and has often been called the City of Light. But Valencia had been slowly declining. It took the catastrophic flood of 1957 to spark the city’s modern renaissance.
“Something unique came from that. Something that really changed Valencia,” Marcos says. “People said no, that they didn’t want the riverbed to become an ugly highway. They wanted it to be a beautiful garden where there used to be a river.”
As a result, the Turia River was diverted south of the city. A three-mile stretch of parks and lovely landscapes was planted in its place.
At the southern end of the riverbed garden lies the crowning glory of the new Valencia – the stunning 87-acre complex of cultural attractions known as the City of Arts and Sciences. “It is the star of the city,” Marcos says.
City of Arts and Sciences
One of the 12 Treasures of Spain, the City of Arts and Sciences is composed of six buildings, each with its own unique experience. Started in 1996, the first part of the City of Arts and Sciences was the Hemisferic. Designed to look like a human eye, it represents the eye of wisdom.
Then came Prince Felipe’s Museum of Science which opened in 2000. The science museum has an unusual concept – it is forbidden not to touch.
“Prohibido no tocar, no sentir y no pensar,” Marcos says. In English, “Not touching, not feeling and not thinking are prohibited. We want people to touch things and to learn.”
The Umbracle, a covered garden view promenade with thousands of trees and plants, joined in 2000. Constructed to look like a water lily, Oceanografic is the largest aquarium in Europe, housing species in pavilions named after their home oceans and seas, including sharks and beluga whales. Part of the aquarium was designed by architect Felix Candela.
The Palacion de las Artes Performing Arts Centre opened in 2005. Resembling a Roman helmet, the center has four auditoriums for all kinds of opera, musical and theatre performances.
Opened in 2009, the Agora is a multi-purpose covered plaza that looks like a breaching whale. It’s meant to resemble two hands with intertwined fingers symbolizing a meeting place where people can come together.
Between the science museum and the Agora is the highest point in Valencia, an impressive 410-foot-high bridge that was completed in 2008. Depending on a person’s point of view and imagination, the bridge is said to resemble a harp or a ham.
Formerly a blighted eyesore of warehouses and port storage, the area around the City of Arts and Sciences is now alive with residential housing and hotels. One of the most dramatic developments may be the creation of the Port America’s Cup area, which transformed a little used part of the commercial port into a thriving facility for the world’s greatest yacht race.
Treasures from the past
Although the city’s new eye catchers are exciting, it is Valencia’s treasures from the past that make the city such an exceptional destination. On my brief visit, I also toured Valencia’s historic Old Quarter, Central Market, La Lonja Silk Exchange, Valencian Institute of Modern Art, Bombas Gens Center of Art and Cathedral with the Holy Chalice.
Seeing the Holy Chalice – believed to be the one used by Jesus at the Last Supper – in the Cathedral gave me shivers. The Silk Exchange is a wonder of Gothic architecture.
“You can find things here you can’t find anyplace else,” Marcos says.
That’s my overall feeling about Valencia. It is a unique city that has reclaimed its place in the sun and has become a popular destination for travelers.
City of Arts and Sciences, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch
For information about cruises that visit Europe, see CruiseCompete specials here https://www.cruisecompete.com/specials/regions/europe/1
For information about cruises that visit Valencia, see CruiseCompete’s search page and put in Valencia as a “visits keyword” here https://www.cruisecompete.com/search.php
For information about shore excursions in Valencia, see https://www.cruisecompete.com/shore_excursions/