A three hour train trip from Barcelona saw us arrive in Valencia in the midday sun, and she kissed us with all the force of a shot of tequila on an empty stomach.
Yes it's pretty hot down in the south of Spain and I am very glad I decided to leave my cold weather gear at Hotel de Jaunay in the UK.
The train trip into this smaller Spanish city isn't the most scenic, and we really weren't sure what to expect as we passed farms growing cabbages, olives and oranges - the only signs of life a few straggly looking chickens pecking their way along the fence lines. Valencia is said to be where the first paella was cooked over a wood fired so there were also fairly high expectations on a culinary front by all three De Freitas's.
However on arriving at Central station, not only were we hit by the heat but as soon as we left the entrance we were struck by an enormous bull flighting ring next to the grandly decorated station, and baroque inspired architecture up and down the chaotic looking main street - Carreo Xativa.
Some fun would be had in Valencia.
Our hotel is a little out of the centre of town, about 10 minutes on the bus, and is located close to the bizarrely designed Opera House and Ferry Terminal, which was all developed in order to spruce up the city to host the America's Cup in 2007. I say bizarrely as you don't expect a city like Valencia to have such stark, white, modern structures mixed among a city so blessed by times of old. One building looks remarkably like our own Sydney Opera House and another like a giant fan. Jury is out on that one.
First thing on the agenda was to get poor Oscar a new stroller. Someone usually blessed with sensibility (me), thought a $20 target stroller would do the trick for the two month trip. Not so. The main issue was that the target number was about 10 inches too short for either of us to push (we took it in turns looking like hunchbacks - for further info; see photos UK), plus poor Oscar could only sleep sitting up looking very uncomfortable - impeding not only his day time naps but in turn our own sanity. Lesson learnt indeed.
So with a striking new red stroller, complete with European style shade umbrella, and a much happier looking toddler - we were all ready to join the Valencian's in style. In a different life, on a different diet, we may have preferred to head to the beaches of the Costa Blanca (the White Coast) which apparently is what most visitors come to this region for. However we had far more important things on our minds, and with only two days in Valencia time was not on our side, so after that impromptu shopping trip day one was dedicated to sourcing out the best tapas this fine city had to offer.
Not one to usually consult our Lonely Planet for a restaurant review, we decided to take our chances and weaved our way through the streets towards a restaurant called La Utielana which promised us 'Ultra Valencian' fare and good value for money. Relying on Marco's supreme navigational and language skills we found the restaurant tucked away off Calle Procida, and thought twice about heading inside. There was no outside seating (which seemed to be the norm in this seaside city) and the exterior would not have lead us behind its walls has we not read the recommendation in the guidebook. I had been expecting to arrive at a restaurant packed with American and English tourists who like us were looking for the easy route in travel e cuizina.
I poked my head cautiously inside, revealing a basic, yet very traditional looking restaurant packed with older Valencian's, huddled over blue and white chequered tablecloths layden with deep fried calamari, paella and jugs of beer - plumes of cigarette smoke swirling above their heads. A quick nod by Marco and a tummy growl from Oscar and we were welcome inside into the non-smoking section (in case anyone was wondering) by a very animated pixie like waitress who enamoured by Oscar, started chattering away to him in Spanish as he chuckled and battered his blue eyes in response.
This restaurant was at the heart of every image I had conjured up of the Spanish. On the table next to us sat the most beautiful young couple. She in a flowing white dress, one shoulder hanging loose to reveal a perfectly tanned shoulder, her hair molasses black and flowing down to her waist. Big brown doe eyes consuming her shaggy yet equally handsome boyfriend (in a brooding artist kind of way), as he muttered sweet nothings across the table at her, stroking her tiny wrist with one hand and sipping a Spanish red with the other.
The table behind us was what Marco described as a 'table of old Avos' - beautiful old Spanish ladies whose wrinkled brows held the secrets of Valencia in times of old. They laughed and ate, hugged and ate - as we ate. And in case I wanted it to get any better, one pulled out a beautiful lace Spanish fan from her hand bag and sat cooling herself as if it were as natural as breathing.
This was no tourist restaurant as you may gather, the menu was completely in Spanish, and the smell of garlic wafting from the open kitchen left little option for us other than to start with Gambas Ajillo (garlic prawns), followed by Tortilla Champignons (Tortilla with mushrooms), Pollo Ajillo (Garlic chicken) and Albodingas (Spicy meat balls). And two beers.
I heard the rumble of the thunder before the lightening, and before you could say Don Quijote there was the most delectable looking plate of sizzling Gambas Ajillo laid before us. Our waitress enquired if we would like some bread with this dish and we declined politely (we are watching our calorie intake), instead taking our forks like fine instruments and delicately taking our first bite.
Trumpets, symbols, drums and xylophones please. Concertos need to be written about what Marco, and I experienced that first bite. The prawns were literally dancing in the most creamy, salty, hot butter you can imagine, and the garlic was ground so finely it resembled toasted biscuit crumbs that exploded in harmony as the flesh of the prawns dissolved on our tongues and I literally looked at Marco through salty (and garlicy) tears across the table. It was without any doubt one of the best dishes I have ever tasted.
In about 15 seconds flat there were gambas no more, and after asking for some bread (the waitress remarked in her broken English...'see...I know, que?', we wiped the pot clean of every skerrick of garlic butter with the subtlety of a freight train. I contemplated picking up the pot and licking it clean for a split second, and then remembered that I was foolishly trying to teach Oscar some table manners.
The garlic chicken was nothing short of magic, and for someone who loves her chicken wings for the intense flavour of the meat, I was not disappointed by the meaty portions provided to me on the bone. The tortilla was as fluffy as a cloud, and the tender albodingas swam in a rich and creamy sauce - proving to be Oscar's favourite (we didn't let him have any of our prawns).
My tummy by this stage was as tight as a drum, yet I gripped Marco's hand across the table and with the sternest look I could muster pledged that I would never ever - EVER, in any lifetime, be leaving this restaurant and travelling with him through Spain any further if he did not order me another plate of Gambas Ajillo immediately.
Our waitress cocked her eyebrow with a 'Que'?; as we ordered another plate for dessert (bread please), and I was nothing short of elated when they arrived while Marco was taking a restless Oscar for a walk. And they were even better second time around.
We stumbled out of gambas heaven and in an attempt to walk off at least 4000 calories spent the afternoon shopping and admiring the elegant looking Valencians', who by comparison made their Barcelona neighbours seem almost grungy.
Now after such a coup with our Lonely Planet culinary guide, we excitedly planned day two's lunch at a restaurant they also recommended made famous for its Eel and Pepper stew and Jamones (cured ham) that hangs from the ceiling - Palaciao de la Bellota.
Planning a similar feast we decided to spend the morning taking in some of Valencia's non-food related attractions, such as the 'Romanesque-Gothic-Baroque-Renaissance' cateral. As the guide suggests by its description, this cathedral is so ornate it looks as though 10 designers had a wrestling match to decide how it would look and in the end the bloke who had shares in gold leafing won.
We arrived on a Saturday morning and there was a full Catholic Mass in progress which I think half of Valencia was attending. Down each side of the interior of the cathedral while mass was in progress were tiny confessionals where parishioners simply walked up in full view of everyone and pressed their ears up to the black mesh that separated them and the priests (there were about 8 lined up) who were also clearly visible. I suggested Marco test out his Spanish on the confessional priests, but once again I remind you we only had two days in Valencia...
The cathedral is also home to Capilla del Santo Caliz, a small chapel that 'is said' to contain the Holy Grail. As we entered both Marco and about 15 parishioners didn't seem to appreciate my spontaneous rendition of the 'Hunters and Collectors' classic, which clearly was the appropriate tune considering the highlight of this section of the chapel was said to contain this famous artefact. No Grail to be seen...
Please don't assume me to be a sceptic, but surely it would be fair to say that if this was indeed the home of THE Holy Grail that passed the lips of JC and his 12 hombres at THE Last Supper, not only would I have heard of this location before, but the Hunters and Collectors anthem need never have been written, by virtue that its location had been...found?
Obviously the band had been to Valencia too and been disappointed, because I am also still searching. While he will never admit it, possibly Marco was also searching, as he spontaneously decided that after all that butter and carbs he was going to brave the 207 steps of the Micalet (or Miguelete) bell tower. In search of THE Grail, or a PT session, we will never know but I can tell you my camera holds no picture of a cup of any description.
No Grail in sight it was definitely time to set ourselves towards our own trophy in the form of a Spanish beer accompanied by a serious side of Paella. Palacio de la Bellota here we come.
As I said this restaurant was famous for its ceiling of Jamone, and I soon learnt that unlike the restaurant of the previous day it did not shy away from tourists or cameras. I only set one foot in the door and the chef was posing for action shots, cutting up a big block of cheese and straddling a side of Jamone in a masculine pose.
The Jamone was literally hanging from the ceilings; so pungent the smell that we couldn't even consider ordering a plate despite this being one of my favourite Spanish delicacies. There were without a lie over 100 legs of Jamone, trotters intact. I couldn't quite work out what the small white cone like discs where hanging underneath each ham until Marco pointed out that were to catch all the fat!
Not to be deterred we took our seats outside in the shade of the awning and reviewed the menu.
Gambas Ajillo went without saying and the dish was three times the price of yesterday's dish so expectations were high. We were also advised by the signage that this restaurant offered the best Paella in Valencia, so we confidently ordered Paella Valencia in order to try the local speciality. The waitress advised the Paella was flavoured with meat and chicken so really we could not go wrong despite the high price tag, could we?
You can imagine anticipation as the gambas were brought to the table, but Oscar had the right idea as he nibbled on his plain white bread. The gambas were floating in a butter consume, a few large pieces of garlic thrown, in and the prawns were barely cooked. Disappointed on a culinary level but also on a monetary one, it goes to show that money does not buy taste - and I would have happily gone back to yesterday's establishment had I not known it closed on a Saturday.
Round two. Our expectations were reignited as our waitress set a separate table next to ours for our Paella. Now if the dish gets a table the dish must be worthy! You must have been able to hear Marco's laughter from the top of the bell toweras the Paella was brought to the table triumphantly, garnished with at least ten snails staring up at me. I swear they were winking and sniggering underneath their muddy brown shells as punishment for my vocal renditions of hours ago at Capilla del Santo Caliz.
Never one to shy away from a challenge I cracked a shell much to the puzzlement of Oscar, and after carefully removing what I believed to be the head had a chew on the black rubbery poor excuse for a piece of meat.
We paid almost double the price of our meal from the previous day and it was lacking to say the least. Full of gluggy rice and snail smelling breath, we headed back to the hotel, marvelling at Valencia yet also promising ourselves never to order a local speciality without some serious research.
As I write this we are drinking a bottle of Spanish red wine for dinner in the hotel room and looking forward to Madrid where we will meet up with Marco's mate "Hojo", his sister, and what we are hoping is some reliable local knowledge of Castilian cuizina.