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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Great Expectations

Enjoying the moment is one thing I'm not very good at (among many things, including like right there, grammar).  I'm always thinking ahead to whatever event is coming up, and my expectations of that event impact my enjoyment of it.  Too many times I get really amped up about something and it doesn't live up to what I hoped it would be and I come away disappointed.  On the other hand, if I go into something with low expectations and have a great time, the enjoyment of that event is greatly heightened.  I had really been looking forward to getting to Spain almost throughout the entire seven months leading to our arrival there, and I was hoping it would live up to my great expectations. 

In the winter of 2011, when we first started planning the trip, Marley wrote all our names on a white board and made columns under our names, listing the five places we each wanted to go.  Over the next few months, after doing some research on the internet or seeing something on TV about a particular spot, the list of desired destinations would change some.  One of the constants on my list was Spain.  I felt a very strong draw towards the Iberian Peninsula and wanted to make sure we spent some time there.

In researching where to go next from Bologna, we found that one of the cheapest places to fly to was Valencia, Spain.  Valencia is on the southeastern coast of Spain, and is about a three-hour train ride to Barcelona, which is not that far from the French border.  We had a house-sitting obligation in the French Pyrenees which separate France from Spain, so it seemed like a logical progression to hit Valencia for a few days, then head toward Barcelona leading up to our much-anticipated stay with seven labradoodle puppies.

The trip from Italy to Spain would be our first experience with Ryan Air.  That's a somewhat infamous low-cost airline based in Ireland that offers what look like at first unbelievably low fares, like 20 dollars to fly to Paris.  That's before you add on fees for luggage (15 Euros per person for one bag each).  There's a 40 Euro fee for online booking, there are fees for choosing your seat ahead of time. I think they even have a fee for all the fees you ring up.  By the time you get through all that, the fare winds up being about double what the initial advertised price was.  Still, it's more affordable than any other airline.
We had also heard complaints about rude service and constant selling of products once the plane was airborne.  The flight attendants did try to pitch a few items, including smokeless cigarettes, but it wasn't annoying at all.  The plane was clean, the flight crew friendly enough, and we got there at a decent price.  Our expectations were low and we ended up being pleasantly surprised.

The only thing I really knew about Valencia before we got there was that it was the site of a Franz Ferdinand concert from 2009 that MTV would show from time to time.  Not that I watch MTV much if at all, but I like live shows and Franz Ferdinand has some good tunes, plus the setting for the concert was at the City of Arts and Sciences complex.  It's a very modernistic series of buildings and gave the show a very unique backdrop. 
Our love affair with Valencia started pretty much from the moment we arrived at our apartment.  It helped that the place we booked had some great spaces inside, and was overlooking the Plaza de Napole y Sicilia.
The apartment was located inside the old city, giving us another experience of being taken back in time.  One of our discoveries on our first walk around the city on foot was the Mercat Central.  It's a gorgeous building that dates back to 1914, but is in fantastic condition, and roomy and airy inside.
The market stalls offer up a wide variety of meats, fish, cheeses, vegetables, bread--pretty much anything you want to eat.
The atmosphere is buzzing with chatter between customers and merchants, and gives you a great feel of what local life is like.  We've tried to check out the local markets in our various stops along the way, and this was by far our favorite.

Our apartment was in a great location, just a short walk away from a broad plaza called the Plaza de la Reina, or Plaza of the Queen.  That just happens to be Annie's nickname, so she was feeling appropriately regal as we checked out some of the shops and restaurants and cafes that ring the perimeter of the square.

One thing we didn't notice anywhere there was a place to watch the upcoming Germany/Italy game outside.  Watching the football on TVs placed outside at restaurants was something we really enjoyed in Perugia and we wanted to re-create that there in Valencia.  Another thing we needed to do was go to the train station to buy tickets for our next travel segment, going to Barcelona in a few days.

As we headed south from the Plaza de la Reina toward the train station, we started to see a little more evidence of excitement for the football game.  More cafes and restaurants had chalkboard signs out front advertising the game, and we found one spot that already had a TV outside, and offered a menu that would suit everyone's appetite, including Marley's.

There were more bars along this stretch of the street leading to the train station, and a few were flying the German and Italian colors.
After a walk of about 30 minutes, we made it to Estacio Nord, the main train station in Valencia. Besides having the most beautiful market we've seen so far on the trip, Valencia also has the prettiest train station of the handful we've seen.
Just like with the market, it's beautiful on the outside, and clean, light and airy on the inside.  The architectural details are fabulous, and evoke elements of Art Nouveau, as well as the Arts and Crafts movement, especially the design work of Charles Mackintosh.
It doesn't quite have the hustle and bustle of some of the other train stations we've been in, but that's kind of the way Valencia is as a whole.  The streets between Plaza Del Reina and the train station are lined by buildings that are about five or six stories tall and the majority have wonderful ironwork on the sides.
One other thing we liked about Valencia is that it's not stuck in the past.  It became the first European city to host the America's Cup in 2007, and apparently did a good enough job that the Cup races returned in 2010. 

Partially as the result of hosting the Cup twice, the harbor area was revitalized and is home to an impressive stretch of sand, and a long line of restaurants.  The harbor area is also home to the course where a Formula 1 race is held each year and we missed it by just a couple of days.
Crews were still in the process of tearing down stands and concessions from the race, but you could still see where the cars came through, making a very sharp turn right by the port.

We spent an entire afternoon at the aforementioned Ciudad de La Artes y Ciancias. The complex was built in the mid 90s by a pair of architects who certainly weren't shy about making bold design statements. 
The Science Museum was our first stop and was very engaging for both adults and children.  It featured a wide variety of hands-on displays, some of which tested your balance and equilibrium, while others tested how far and how high you could jump.  There were also displays on weather, including a machine that made a mini-tornado.

There truly was something for everyone, including those who wanted to see baby chicks hatch live, and really who doesn't want to see that? 


The complex also includes the Oceanografic, which is described as the largest aquarium in Europe.  The design reminded us of the science museum we had seen in Singapore, as well as a temple in India and the Sydney Opera House.



The Lotus Flower design seems to be something of a worldwide trend, so we're hoping that by the time we get back to Cincinnati, there will be a restaurant or hotel at The Banks with this type of architecture.

After a few hours of getting our Arts and Sciences fix, we were ready for some football!  When we got to the restaurant we had scouted out earlier, there was only one table left outside with a view of the TV.  Just after sitting down right before the start of the Germany-Italy game, we looked around to see if there were any other German fans.  That's when we noticed some people wearing Italy's team colors.  And that's when we realized we were watching the Germany-Italy game at an ITALIAN restaurant.  Ach Du Lieber!

The situation deteriorated quickly when Italy scored a goal and people at all the other tables jumped up and cheered, with a view chairs knocked over and forks and knives scattered about.  A few minutes later, that distasteful scene was repeated when Italy scored a second goal.  Fortunately, we finished our meal right about halftime, so we paid our bill and quietly slipped away toward our apartment, hoping to avoid any jeers from the Italians.

Germany was unable to rally in the second half, scoring a fairly meaningless goal very late in the game, which ended in a 2-1 win for Italy.  The German players seemed to lose their focus and patience when they got behind and played their worst game of the Euro 2012 tournament.  But after seeing what Spain did to Italy in the title game a few nights later, (a 4-0 win for Spain) maybe going out in a one-goal loss in the semi-finals wasn't such a bad thing. 

Our expectations of Valencia were exceeded by our fabulous experience there.  The next stop was Barcelona and we had high expectations there, especially after finding a reasonably priced apartment a half a block away from the most iconic structure in the entire city.  Let's go!

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