The site of the original city coincides exactly with the area enclosed by the former fourteenth-century walls. Here, clinging to the banks of the river Túria, is the ancient heart of Valencia; this is where this city of merchants and sailors developed from its beginnings as a Roman colony founded in 138 BC. There are very few fragments of the medieval wall still to be seen; in fact, only its two gates, the Torres dels Serrans (to the north) and the Torres de Quart (to the west) now remain standing. But the medieval network of squares and narrow, winding streets steeped in the history of this old quarter of the city remains intact, and a stroll through it is a thrilling experience.
Entering the Ciutat Vella from the Modernist Estació del Nord—situated in the north of the large city that is present-day Valencia but, curiously, to the south of the historic quarter—we immediately come upon the Plaça de l’Ajuntament, the old quarter’s largest and most modern square, with its twentieth-century Neo-Classical Town Hall and Palau de correus i telègrafs. It is here that the traditional annual mascletàs [fireworks display] of the Les Falles festival takes place. En route to the heart of the Ciutat Vella, visitors can take a slight detour to admire jewels such as the Palau del Marqués de Dosaigües, a majestic, Baroque building which now houses the Museu Nacional de Ceràmica i de les Arts Sumptuàries. And, of course, the exquisite former Silk Exchange (the Llotja de la Seda), a Gothic edifice and the clearest demonstration of fifteenth-century Valencia’s commercial wealth. Opposite, and close to the historic Església dels Sants Joans, stands the present-day ‘temple’ of trade: the Mercat Central de València, a beautiful building in the Valencia Modernist style, selling the highest-quality fresh fish and local agricultural produce.
Eventually, we arrive at the Plaça de la Reina, another lovely spot and the perfect place from which to admire the Cathedral’s main façade (dominated by El Micalet), while you sit on a terrace, sipping an horchata or a Valor hot chocolate. Valencia’s La Seu [cathedral] is an architectural gem, thanks to its successful blending of styles (Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque). It has a most impressive interior, with Renaissance frescoes in the dome above the High Altar—discovered in 2004 having been hidden for 300 years—and the legend of Sant Calze, considered by many historians to be the true Holy Grail.
Skirting to the left of the cathedral brings us to the city’s oldest square, the Plaça de la Mare de Déu, which leads into the Plaça de l’Almoina. Between the two squares stands the Basílica de la Mare de Déu dels Desemparats, the site of the ancient forum of the Roman city, dating from 138 BC. The main door of the Basilica opens onto the Plaça de la Mare de Déu, the centre of which is dominated by the iconic Fuente del Turia fountain, and which is surrounded by the Gothic Palau de la Generalitat. This square is also overlooked by the Cathedral’s Porta dels Apòstols, in front of which the Tribunal de les Aigües has assembled every week for centuries (on Thursdays, at midday) in order to resolve disputes among farmers over irrigation rights. The Basilica’s rear façade overlooks the Plaça de l’Almoina. This square’s museum provides access to a subterranean archaeological site containing remains from Roman Valencia. This area would become the site of the first Visigothic cathedral, later converted into a mosque following the Moorish conquest, and then finally reconverted into a permanent Christian place of worship after the victory of Jaume I in 1238.
Within the Old Quarter, lovers of museums can also visit the prestigious Museum of Modern Art IVAM (Institut Valencià d’Art Modern) and the Museum of Illustration and Modernity MUVIM (Museu Valencià de la Il·lustració i de la Modernitat), among others. And those who are interested in San Vicente Ferrer (the fourteenth-century Valencian Dominican friar and traveller) can visit the house where he was born even though little actually remains of the original dwelling. We can round off our tour with a stroll through the peaceful Jardí del Turia, which stretches for six kilometres along what was once the bed of the river Túria—the course of the river was diverted following heavy flooding in 1957—which skirts Valencia’s historic quarter.
Visit one of the most splendid jewels of European Gothic civic architecture, a temple to trade that shone during Valencia’s Golden Age when this was one of the continent’s most prosperous cities.
This Gothic church, erected on the site of a mosque during the thirteenth century, holds legendary treasures such as the Holy Chalice, which some historians believe was used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper.
This monument, designed as a gateway in the ancient city wall, survived a bombardment and has been used as a gunpowder store and as a women’s prison.