Drinking in Spanish sights

A master paella chef demonstrates his art in Valencia. The popular product, first produced in Valencia, is typically consumed in picnics on Sunday afternoons.

Two chalices of culture, the Holy Grail and the America’s Cup, and a landscaped river bed draws many visitors to Valencia

 

VALENCIA, Spain -- For hundreds of years this city on the Mediterranean has been known for oranges, ceramics, rice, a refreshing drink called horchata, and as the birthplace of a delicious meat-and-rice dish called paella.

Despite recent attempts to redefine the Holy Grail, the Valencia cathedral has long been famous among the faithful as

 the repository of the world's most famous cup. This was the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper, long sought by various knights and emperors, and perhaps even Indiana Jones.

In one of the preliminary America's Cup races this summer, the New Zealand boat, foreground, rounds a buoy and sails back while Oracle, the U.S. entrant, and the French contender are neck and neck in the distance.

Today, Valencianos are excited about quite a different cup, the next running of the America's Cup yacht races, the first time the event will be held in Europe. That cup, too, is currently on public display in Valencia, in a special booth at the America's Cup headquarters down at the waterfront.

Several preliminary races have been going on this year both here and at a few other places in Europe. These will continue until the windy waters off Valencia host the final contest in June 2007.

Perhaps both of Valencia's cups bear some background explanation.

The simple agate relic known here as the Holy Grail or Holy Chalice has been resident off and on in Valencia ever since St. Laurence rescued it in the third century during Emperor Valerian's Christian persecution in Rome. With the blessing of Pope Sixtus II, St. Laurence sent it from Rome to his family in Spain for safekeeping. Prior to the persecution, the cup was used by the first popes to celebrate Mass in the Holy City.

The carved alabaster marble facade is a prominent feature of the National Ceramic Museum in Valencia.

The authenticity of the chalice recently gained greater academic respect after an

 American scholar, Janice Bennett of Littleton, Colo., researched its complicated history and then wrote a book entitled "St. Laurence and the Holy Grail: The Story of the Holy Chalice of Valencia" (Ignatius Press, 2004). Not surprisingly, Bennett says that the contention in "The Da Vinci Code," the best-selling thriller (and forthcoming film), that the term Holy Grail refers to a person, Mary Magdalene, is "absurd."

YACHTIES ARE familiar with the relatively recent history of the America's Cup, an international sailing boat race which began in 1851. It was then regularly won by members of the New York Yacht Club in races perennially conducted in Long Island Sound.

A 132-year-long American domination was finally broken in 1983 when an Australian team took the cup. Since then the races have been conducted in

 waters adjacent to the lands of its winners.

In recent years the contest has sometimes facetiously been called the "Holy Grail of yachting."

In 2003, the latest America's Cup race was hosted by New Zealand. There, the cup was won by a crew which had no ocean of its own -- the team from Switzerland. So the race's venue has been moved to Europe for the first time in the history of the contest, with the final events to be held in Valencia.

The America's Cup trophy is displayed at America's Cup Park on Valencia's waterfront.

Valencia was chosen as the host city partly because of its excellent weather and the reliable winds, which whip just offshore over the Mediterranean. Cup organizers have now taken up a large portion of the waterfront for its headquarters, naming it the America's Cup Park, and many have come to view the shiny, if rather ugly, trophy.

To 800,000 Valencianos, residents of Spain's third-largest city (after Madrid and Barcelona), it seems a logical extension of the cultural renaissance, which has been continuing in the city for the past several years.

Reliably sunny Valencia, and the surrounding villages and beaches, have always been popular with foreign travelers, especially in the winter. A favorite of the British and sun-seekers from Northern Europe, the city has recently been receiving more American and Canadian vacationers, apparently drawn there to some extent by cup fever.

Within Spain, Valencia has a "can-do" reputation. When city leaders finally got tired of the annual flooding along the winding Turia River, which bisected the metropolis, they managed to divert the waters to a new course out of town. Then they rejected more obvious ideas like turning the former river bed into a nifty highway, choosing instead to develop it into a variety of interesting parks, gardens and architectural civic projects.

Diners slide by while on a floating picnic in the lake and wetlands known as the Albufera, just outside Valencia, Spain.

Some proud citizens now refer to the new 5-mile section as the "River of Culture."

In some areas this gives the city a rather strange look, with several massive ancient bridges spanning narrow green valleys, baseball diamonds and tennis courts, along a meandering green belt populated by bicyclists, strollers and citizens enjoying themselves. As time

has gone on, some dramatic public architectural projects have also become a reality where the waters of the Turia once flowed -- and overflowed.

The old riverbed in the modern part of town is dominated by a gleaming civic complex called the City of Arts and Sciences. It includes the dramatic new science museum, whose principal exhibit

The "horchata," a popular drink invented in Valencia, is made primarily from beans known as "chufa," or tiger nuts

 is certainly the building itself, which looks rather like a fish skeleton. Lined up beside it is the Imax theater and planetarium, called L'Hemisferic, which reminds some of an overturned boat.

Next door to that, the new opera house, which has been compared to a gigantic eyeball, is scheduled to open its lids for the first time this month. Other landmarks installed in the complex include a large Oceanographic Center, perhaps the easiest aquarium to get lost in in the world.

The City of Arts and Sciences was designed by Santiago Calatrava, a native Valencian, and the same architect responsible for major works in New York, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and other cities in the United States and Europe.

ALTHOUGH VALENCIA was heavily damaged in the Spanish Civil War, the old quarter also attracts many visitors to its baroque buildings and narrow, winding streets. Besides the cathedral -- built on the ruins of a Moorish mosque, which was itself built on the ruins of a Roman temple -- several buildings, towers, museums and monuments of previous centuries have been restored and proudly shown to visitors.

In one square a slim structure has been identified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the narrowest house in the world.

The City of Arts and Sciences complex includes a new planetarium and Imax theater. Behind it is the new opera house, which will open this month.

Just out of town, old and new visitors often find themselves sailing much calmer waters in the lake and bird sanctuary called the Albufera, now a national park. Further afield in the Province of Valencia are the old cities of Denia and Gandia, both of which boast ancient castles to explore. Gandia is known as the hometown of the prodigious Borgia family, which produced both popes and poisoners in the 15th century.

Valencianos, who look back on at least two millennia of saints and sinners, can create public buildings that look like sculptures and can even move a river of they want to. So they will probably take both the Holy Grail and the "Holy Grail of Yachting" in stride.

 

If you go...

Hotels

Valencia has more than 100 hotels and other places for visitor accommodations. Here are a few leaders. (Country code and area codes for Spain-Valencia are 34-963.)

»Melia Valencia Palace: Paseo de la Alameda 32; from $108, call 375-037, www.solmelia.com.

 
The Holy Grail, a stone cup that appears as a dark object in the center, is displayed in the Valencia cathedral. The metal filigree supporting it was added in later centuries.

» Astoria Palace Hotel: Pl. Rodrigo Botet 5; from $123, call 981-0000, www.hotel-astoria-palace.com.

» AC Hotel Valencia: Avda. De Francia 67; from $110, call 317-0000, www.ac-hotels.com.

» Valencia Center: Avda. De Francia 33; from $65, call 350-7000, www.hotelescenter.es.

Restaurants

Scores of restaurants in Valencia can hold their heads up among the best in Europe. The Valencia tourist office offers a 100-plus page "Guide to Restaurants in and Around Valencia."

» Bamboo Restaurant: Meals about $30 to $36 at Colon Market, Jorge Juan 191. Call 530-337, www.elaltocatering.com.

» Les Graelles: Several types of paella available; meals about $43 to $60. At Arquitecto Mora 2; call 604-700.

» La Sucursal: In the Museum of Modern Art, Guillem de Castro 118; meals about $60 to $90. Call 746-665.

» Seu Xerea: Meals $43 to $60 at Cande de Almodovar 4. Call 924-000.

» Tapelia: Specializes in tapas; meals about $30 to $36. At Avda. Francia 27; call 300-671. www.tapelia.com

This slim pink building squeezed between two others has been identified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the narrowest house in the world

» Submarino: In the aquarium complex, Junta de Murs I Valls; meals about $30 to $60. Call 975-565.

» Orchata Daniel: Snacks and horchata drinks, Avda. De la Horchata, 41; www.horchateria-daniel.es.