If you thought Barcelona (or my cooking class instructor Alfredo) might have paella’d me out you would be very, very wrong. Turns out it had merely whet the old appetite. Because the next destination on my list was in fact the place in which paella was born (, raised, and catapulted into a national, neigh – international – superstar. (I’m sure Simon Cowell has shares in that partnership somehow.)) And when one is in the home of such a renowned (and often butchered) dish, one simply has to taste the original creation (or one of the three hundred claiming to be at least). Now let’s get the technicalities over and done with right away. Paella is not a dish. Well. It is. It is a dish. Literally. It is the pan within which the cooking happens. The contents therefore are referred to by ingredient: seafood paella, chicken (? 😱) paella, vegetable paella, etc., etc.. One must never go to a Spanish (particularly Valencian) restaurant and order just ‘paella’; the best outcome would be a hearty side portion of ridicule and pity, the worst being presented with an empty pan with which to cook your own meal. So that’s your first piece of insider know-how. (You’re welcome.) Second up is timing. Paella is always eaten at lunch time, never in the evening. The (very sensible in my opinion) reason for this is that YOU SHOULDN’T EAT A BLOODY GREAT (in both senses of the word) PORTION OF RICE JUST BEFORE GOING TO BED! Seems sensible, hey? The Spanish prefer to have their bigger meal at lunchtime to allow themselves the time necessary to properly digest the heavy food (and then snack on a little tapas in the evening if the tummy rumbles start to holla (or should I say ola)). So never order paella (seafood / snail / something else) in the evening as a) you will again be served an appetiser of mockery and shame, and b) you will be served the lunchtime service’s scraps. So (to recap for the over 60s readers 😉) go at lunchtime, order a ‘seafood paella’, and celebrate with a jug (or five) of sangria (you always deserve it).
I became a member of a very bizarre threesome during my stay in Valencia. (NOT sexual in ANY way, THANK THE LORD.) The first member of the group was the Danish post-grad student Johannes. Never out of his royal blue football shirt (literally never (we were in the same dorm which makes me a reliable eye witness (even post-shower (of which I was definitely not a witness) the shirt went straight back on))) and barely ever out of bed (I arrived at 5 pm and he was still napping), Johannes had (in the least offensive way possible) wild, unbrushed, overgrown hair; a questionable wardrobe; and a less than impressive conscious to unconscious state ratio. However. Appearances can be deceiving, and luckily, despite the very tangible, questionable hairdo, dress sense and sleep pattern, Johannes was fun and chatty and, most crucially, up for some tapas for dinner. Completing the trio was the American bartender Chad. At just 21 years old he was a calm, contented and cheery traveller (after the first 30 minutes of our co-existence, during which he made no noise whatsoever, made not a second of eye contact with anyone in the room (which was probably just me and sleeping Johannes, though, to be fair to him) and kept his headphones firmly in his ears). But with my friend-making neurones furiously firing I soon got beneath the near silent exterior and had myself a dinner date for three at a local tapas bar. (Chad was even up for sharing some sangria which gave him multiple bonus points.)
Following our calamari-fuelled bonding session, naturally we attended the city’s daily free walking tour the next morning as a well-established posse (we definitely gave the current Sugababes line up a run for their money). If you have never before partaken in a free walking tour you will be unaware of the fate you put in the hands of your guide when you sign that sheet / scream your nationality / walk with the group to the first talking point. You will either have signed up for two to three hours of entertainment, insight and great recommendations, or two to three hours of annoying, unfunny, cringeable jokes, boring history about the city (featuring the country’s past three thousand Royal Heads of State) and unjust, clearly paid-for, plugs for the most touristy spots in town. This tour was unfortunately one of the latter. Let’s start with the guide herself. A perfectly chirpy young Spanish woman (my word do you need to be chirpy to get through multiple hours worth of Civil War stories without wanting to shoot yourself in the head) led our group, but who’s ill-fitting attire was so offensive to me that I do believe it negatively impacted my overall enjoyment of the outing quite substantially (or at the very least added to the shitness). Her bright orange company t-shirt (I know I can’t blame her directly for that) was not only blinding the old retinas, but also showed off her three-cup-sizes-too-small bra which housed (just about) her buoyant bosom, which got more and more animated as the climax of each story neared. I honestly didn’t know where to look. And it wasn’t just the bazookas that had me bewildered. For the first HOUR (no exaggeration) we did not move from the main square in which we initially gathered. We did move within the square (by distances no greater than 25 metres each time) which just made things even more disconcerting. Eventually we (and the bouncy boobs) moved from the main square to other areas of the city, and for a further two hours were fed (un)interesting facts and dried fruits (I kid you not – pulled out of dear María’s rucksack (actually one of the highlights of the tour)), before the three-piece dream team made a run for it without paying the voluntary (100% expected by every tour guide there ever was and ever will be) tip, and escaped to find some lunch in the home of the sacred paella.
And oh was it pie YAY ya. Seafood paella for three, served in one large paella (the pan, remember), after enough of a wait to suggest they definitely made this thing from scratch and to order. It was sticky. It was chewy. It was dark and tempting. Spread thinly across the vast pan it had just the right amount of char and crunch around the edges while being comforting, rich and melt-in-the-mouth. We scraped the dish clean in ten minutes flat. And thus the tour, the square and the jubilant jubblies were all forgiven in a matter of mouthfuls.
As for the city itself? Beautiful cream, brown and rose gold hues adorned the decorative buildings, and every spare wall was crammed full with the most bizarre and wonderfully grotesque street art, creating an enticing, almost hypnotic juxtaposition which I, for one, ruddy loved. Right up my street, honey. (Literally.) Adding yet another dimension of magically misplaced construction was the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (I’ll let your translation skills flex with that one), just a short walk away from the central (bloody) square. Comprising of futuristic, spaceship-type structures (one of which I’ve now (almost three months later) discovered is a huge digital 3D cinema (!)); large hatted-head sculptures (my personal favourite being a rather serene and eloquent lady donning an oversized, slanted cowboy / floppy sun hat hybrid, named Pamela); and a great expanse of water filled with multiple human-sized hamster wheel / bubble type sphere situations, each of which inhabited by an energetic youngster trying to stand up and roll around on the water (a great invention by frustrated parents wanting a break from the little rascals if you ask me). A relaxed sunset stroll through the seemingly never ending stretch of adjoining parks and gardens took me along the outside of the city and back to the hostel in the intriguing and beautifully mis-matched centre. Surely it was time for some more paella by now?