I land in Valencia around 2pm on Wednesday. Using the airport wifi I check in with my couch-surfing host. He gives me his phone number and address. Unfortunately he won’t be back home until 10pm so I’ll have to roam around the city for a while.
First order of business is finding a prepaid SIM card for my phone. I didn’t get one for the UK or France, but I’ll be spending at least ten days in Spain, probably more, so having a data plan will be worth it. It’s not as easy to find one as it is up north. In Copenhagen or Amsterdam you can walk into any corner shop, buy a card for ten euros and activate it in minutes. Here, I finally find a place called Media Markt (kind of like a Best Buy) where I can get a SIM. It’s not easy though. Per Spanish regulations, foreigners have to provide a passport and sign a bunch of forms… It takes a good half hour to get the new SIM card up and running.
Now, thoroughly connected, I hit the streets of Valencia. I amble down the main drag and look for a place to get some lunch. It’s now 4pm and apparently all food establishments here shut down between 3 and 7pm. I can’t find anything and I’m starving. I finally resort to hitting a convenience store and buying some trail mix. I plop down on a bench and eat my pitiful lunch.
I wander a bit and find Jardines del Turia, a park that I had read about recently. It used to be a river but in the 1970’s it flooded the city and officials decided to dam it up and divert it. The old river bed dried up and they turned it into a park. Now there is a great green-space that snakes through the city. It’s amazing.
I kill some time at a coffee shop, then at a bar. Around 10pm I head over to my host’s apartment. He is very close to the city centre which is very convenient. Chris answers the door and welcomes me into his spacious apartment that he shares with a few other flatmates. I meet one of them, a guy named Sitten. We kick back in the lounge and I explain to Chris and Sitten my world trip.
The next day I head into the city centre and scope out all the great old architecture. It’s intermingled with newer buildings but everything seems to flow together beautifully. I reach the Valencia Cathedral and pay 2 euros to climb the tower. Up top is a gorgeous 360 degree vista of the city: Colorful buildings scattered all about, the sea to the east, the mountains to the north. I spend a half hour up there just soaking it in. The weather was perfect. I have really lucked out on this trip so far.
After the Cathedral I wander around aimlessly for a while before heading toward the fountain at Plaza de la Virgen (a popular rendezvous in Valencia), where I’m supposed to meet Chris for lunch. We eat at a place called Soana. Delicious stuff. Chris suggests I get a bike to better explore the city so he takes me to a place nearby so I can rent one for the day. We ride around and he plays tour guide for a bit. Soon Chris has return to work so I head back to Turia to explore. Good thing he suggested the bike. The place is huge… I spend a couple hours riding around the park. It goes on and on. It would take forever to see on foot.
Around 8pm I meet Chris back at the apartment. He teaches me a card game called black-jack (not the american version). I kick his ass for three straight games. He’s totally thrown because this is his game. Nobody beats him. Beginner’s luck, I guess (It must be because the next night he kicks my ass). Later, we head to a place called Radio City to see an open mic. To my surprise all the performers play American songs, not a lick of Spanish. Interesting. Chris introduces me to his friend Antonio who is there waiting to get on stage. Another friend of Chris’s shows up, a girl named Sara, who is here from Italy on Erasmus - a European student exchange program. Soon Antonio’s turn comes up. He gets on stage and sings “Dock of the Bay” and “Let’s Stay Together”. He’s got an incredible voice and is a pretty damn good guitar player. Actually the vast majority of the performers are pretty damn good, very few horrible acts - Not something I’m used to coming from American open mic nights. After the open mic ends and the bar turns into a dance club we decide to head out to another place.
After another drink that bar starts to close down so we leave. We part ways with Sara and Antonio but make plans to get together tomorrow to get some Paella. I’ve always heard of the classic Spanish dish but I’ve never had it. Antonio and Chris vow to take me somewhere to get some real authentic Paella.
The next morning we get a late start. Already noon, Chris and I eat a small breakfast of toast and tea knowing we’ll have Paella soon. The plan now is for me to go back to the bike shop and extend my rental as we’ll be heading out to the outskirts of Valencia to a nature reserve called Albufera. There is a little town on the way called El Saler, where Antonio says we can get some good Paella.
After I renew the bike rental, we meet up with Antonio and Sara at the fountain. The four of us hit the road. We weave through the city centre and through part of Turia before coming to the City of Arts and Sciences, a collection of crazy-looking buildings that serve as entertainment and cultural centers. We stop so I can snap some pictures. After that we ride for a good half hour. At one point we hit a pedestrian and bike bridge, one steeper than I have ever seen in my life. Halfway up I can’t hack it anymore and have to jump off and walk it to the top. The other three leave me in the dust and I’m sure they’re laughing. Damn. Once at the top though, I jump back on and haul ass down the slope. We travel on. The landscape gets less and less urban, more rural. Buildings and train tracks give way to grass and small trees.
We reach the little town of El Saler and find a sidewalk restaurant called Ca Pepe. We order some cervezas, some tapas, and some paella. Man, what an amazing meal. This is the life for sure: Beautiful day, good friends - granted very new friends, but still good people nonetheless - and exploring a brand new place. This is what I’m here to do. This is what this trip is about. Yes. I’m doing something right. It’s all starting to click…
I have to admit the first week or so, I had some encroaching doubts. True, I had a lot of fun in London and Paris, but there were moments… moments where I wondered what I was doing, wondered if I could really last a year doing this - Hell, if I could even last a month. Travel days are the toughest. In transit between cities you have no idea what to expect. You don’t know what the accommodations are going to be like, what kind of person your host is going to be like. Uncertainty abounds and as creatures of habit we humans are unsettled by that. I’m no exception. Sitting on a bus rocketing into the unknown I would start to have my doubts.
But now I’ve found the groove. I’ve found my center. I’m at peace with the flux of this new life. And it’s good. Very good.
After lunch we bike even further out, into the Albufera nature reserve. After biking our asses off for probably another thirty minutes, we reach the main lagoon of the park. We hang out there for a while and watch the sun sink low in the sky. I get some of the best pictures of Valencia here. As the sun starts to set we decide we had better start heading back, we have a long ride ahead of us.
Somewhere along the way we stop to take a quick break. The sun is nearly set and we walk out onto a little overlook atop a hill. It looks down onto the beach and the Gulf of Valencia. At one point I stroll down the hill to some bushes to take a leak. As I walk back up the hill I see Chris, Antonio, and Sara on the lookout in silhouette against a deep indigo sky. I grab my camera and snap a picture. One of my favorite shots I’ve collected on this trip.
We finally get back to the city centre and return my bike. Back at the apartment, Chris and I chill out for a bit before his friend Sami comes over and we head out to a bar to grab a couple drinks for my last night in town. It’s a pretty laid back night.
The next morning I’m on a bus. Another travel day… but this one isn’t so bad. I’m nervous but hopeful. I’m going to miss Valencia but in four hours I’ll be in Madrid starting a whole new adventure.