The Autonomous Community of Valencia is home to the city of the same name, which is the third largest in Spain with around 800,000 inhabitants. Along the coast to the south are a host of tourist hotspots including Alicante and Bendiorm, while to the North is Castellón province, known for the production of ceramics. Inland the land rises in craggy peaks to the Iberian Mountain Range and the central meseta. A Mediterranean climate provides more than 300 days of sun a year, and the landscape is dry and scrubby for large parts around the orange trees.
The city of Valencia was established in the early days of Roman domination on the banks of the lagoons and flood plains of which the Albufera lake to the south of the city is a modern-day vestige. It is the Moors, though, who were largely responsible for the developments that define the city and surroundings today. It was they who constructed the large scale irrigation canals that capture water from the surrounding rivers, and diverted it to feed the iconic Valencian orchards, the huerta. It was they, too, who brought with them many of the crops that are grown there, including rice, which is now intensively farmed in the rice paddies of the Albufera National Park, of which the lake is a part.
The city and the region remained, with the odd brief exception, part of Muslim Spain until the thirteenth century, when it was conquered by the expanding Kingdom of Aragon to the north. It was made a separate kingdom under the confederacy of the Crown of Aragon, and had its heyday in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century when it rose to be a center of Mediterranean trade. Gradually the city lost importance, with the increased power of other trading hubs in the north of Europe, and the shift of focus to the Southwest for trade with the American colonies. Finally, in 1609, the monarch decreed the expulsion from the peninsula of the remaining Moriscos, the converted formerly Muslim population, and Valencia city is said to have lost a third of its population in one fell swoop.
Valencia is the birthplace of the quintessentially Spanish paella. The Spanish word for rice, arroz, is actually derived from the arabic arráwz, for “the rice.” Paella was originally a laborer’s dish and in addition to rice would contain whatever else was available, typically onions, tomatoes, snails and rabbit. Through time this developed into the multitude of paella varieties that are served throughout the country today.
These roots lend credence to one of the more common theories the for etymology of the name, namely that it is a distortion of the arabic word baqiyah, meaning “leftovers.” Others posit that it comes from the Latin word patella meaning “pan”. Some romantics like to think the word has its origins in the Spanish por ella, meaning “for her,” a supposed legacy of besotted young men preparing the dish for their lovers. Whichever it is, the traditional paella from Valencia is prepared with the local bomba rice (a short grain variety), chicken, onion, rabbit, tomato, and green and butter beans, and flavored with sweet paprika and saffron.
Unfortunately the region of Valencia also has a reputation as one of the main culprits of the wasteful spending that has landed so many regions in financial trouble. Down by the port hundreds of millions were spent on developing the area to host the Formula One Grand Prix and the America’s Cup sailing regatta, both of which have since moved on.
Another site that is often named in the same breadth is the City of the Arts and Sciences, a spectacular series of mostly glass and gleaming white buildings at the end of the river bed, surrounded by styled water bodies reflecting the brilliant blue sky. Housing an IMAX cinema, planetarium, museum of science, opera house, and open air oceanographic park, and designed by local son Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela, it cost over one billion euros to build, almost three times the original budget.
It is not just the city though, Castellon has the dubious honor of being the leading region in number of unsold properties, with statistics showing one in four homes empty in the early 2010s. It also has its own white elephant infrastructure project, a €150 million airport, which by the start of 2014 had never received a commercial flight since its completion in 2012. Unsurprisingly, Valencia has been found to be a center of support for protests against the status quo of governance, and a local group has even launched a tourist tour named the “route of waste” which takes a walk through the worst of the excesses.