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Rajen Bali

I am a dreamer. I must have been born a reamer. I have been dreaming all my life – often in glorious technicolour and Dolby surround sound!  While growing up, I would pore over images and fascinating accounts of exotic, far-away places in the plethora of books in our home, and endlessly dream – often during the day - of my adventures when I would be there. Later on in life, I was very fortunate to be able to turn the dreams in to reality.

One day, when I was around 15, I heard a song on our G.E.C. radio. The singer, Tony Martin, was belting out a rousing version of ‘Valencia’.  Among the words/verses I could catch clearly were:

“Valencia, in my dreams it always seems, I hear you softly call to me, Valencia, where the orange trees forever, Send the breeze beside the sea….Beneath the   blossoms high above….We found our paradise of love….”

There and then, I wanted to go to Valencia. But wishes are neither horses, nor free tickets on ships and planes for a 15-yrar old student. It took me around 20 years to turn the ‘Valencia Dream’ in to reality. But one fine afternoon, with clear blue skies above, I was aboard the ferry from Majorca - destination Valencia.

It was quite warm in the early afternoon and barring a few hardy souls who were clinging to the rails watching the waves, most people had sought shelter in the shade. As the shadows lengthened and the heat started abating, more and more people started crowding the deck. There was much loud chatter and laughter. Then, someone brought out a guitar and started strumming. The singing started and everyone joined in. By then, the sun had decided to gradually put on its orange sunset-robe. As the air cooled, the singing turned into dancing. Soon, everyone was dancing. Laughing loudly, total strangers became instant-friends/dancing- partners. What kind of dancing? It is impossible to really define the style/genre. Shall we say that it was something like flamenco-meets- foxtrot/rock/-twist/Macarena?  As the rosy hues of the sun kept on changing in to pale/deep/deeper/deepest orange, the dancing bordered on the frantic, and the Rubicon was crossed. It was sheer happy-hop mayhem!

The center of attention was a young Spanish soldier, Jose, in an immaculate uniform 9to start with). To the twang of the guitar and the beat of the accompanying clapping, Jose -dripping with sweat - danced and danced and danced away, gradually taking off his bothersome clothing. One by one, off came, the tunic, the tie, the shirt and the trousers. Jose – wearing only his Jockey shorts - was gyrating away to glory in a possessed manner, picking and changing partners. He must have danced with at least two dozen enthusiastic, giggling/laughing senoritas. The crowd was totally involved and enthralled. The tempo was climbing higher and higher. As the by -now -blood-red of a glorious sunset started getting enveloped in creeping darkness, Jose seemed to be tiring a bit. Suddenly he collapsed on the floor. People rushed to pick him up and tried to revive him with beer and wine. Soon, he was pulled up to his feet again. To the continuous clapping of the crowd, Jose again put on the items of his uniform. He appeared ready and willing for another round of dancing.  But the magic moment had passed and the crowd slowly dispersed.

In the cool of the starlit night, small groups were scattered about, rather sedate now, quietly enjoying their food and drink. A half-moon had arisen.  As I stood at the rail, gazing at the reflected moonlight playing with the rippling waves, my mind was still filled with the memory of the recent fun-and-frenzy. What a way for me to reach Valencia, a city I had once dreamt about.

We docked early the next morning.

I was on mainland Spain for the first time. What was the first thing I did after checking in a hotel in the historic centre of Valencia, in the Ciutat Vella (Old Town)? I went out to a small restaurant with old-style décor and ordered – what else, but – a Spanish Omelette. The thick 12-inch sphere, the size of the full plate, was juicy and filled with potatoes, onions, mushrooms, chorizo sausage, diced ham and red peppers. Was I in heaven, or was I? I definitely was in Valencia, Spain.

SPAIN! I had always associated Spain with Bullfights, Flamenco - with twanging guitars and the clacking rhythm of clicking castanets as the proud senoritas swirled their skirts while stamping their feet, Sangria and Tapas. Sure there were gallons and gallons of excellent Sangria, but I was told that Valencia had no great traditions of bullfights or tapas. Yet, I did spend an exciting afternoon at the Plaza de Toros, the bullring near the train station which is built like a Roman amphitheatre. There was the Tapas – some of the very best in Spain, I was told – at many quaint places in the Calle de Caballeros, Barrio del Carmen and La Tassa districts. The good thing about this ‘historic-heart’ of Valencia, Ciutat Vella – its roots are said to date back to the Roman times of around 138 A.D. - is that all is within walking distance. Sure, there is the great possibility of getting lost – which I did repeatedly – but a map and sign language generally came to the rescue.

These days, there are interesting Walking Tours on offer. Should you not wish to walk, the city has ‘Valenbisi Service’ which offers bicycles on hire 24X7, on all 365 (366?)  days of the year from around 376 stations strung all over Valencia. The first half-hour of use is free. Another choice to tour the city is by scooter, self-drive or riding pillion. Do not forget to check out the 24/48/72 hour Tourist Card which offers free travel on public transport and concessional entry to famous sites.

I dutifully enjoyed the great attractions that Valencia had to offer, like the Valencia Cathedral – built on the site of a Moorish mosque which was built where a Visigothic church stood, and its construction carried on from 1262 to the 18th century.! also visited many other famous churches and museums, the old gates and towers, Silk Exchange, the beaches, the gardens and much more. A very interesting site was the Mercado Central (Central Market) which is one of the oldest still-running markets in Europe. There were all manner of meats, seafood, vegetables and fruits including Oranges.

Did the Orange go to Spain and Valencia from India? Maybe. Or were the first oranges brought Valencia/Spain by Arabs or Italians in the mid- 1400s? Perhaps. Or, was it the Portuguese who brought the first oranges to Spain in the 1500s? Quite possible. Wherever they came from or whosoever brought them, Valencia oranges are world-famous. The Spanish took them to Chile and Peru in the 1600s, and the orange reached the U.S.A. in the 1860s (?). As of 1987, orange trees were the most grown fruit trees in the world. The Valencia oranges were superb and fresh orange juice was heavenly. Don’t forget to savour ‘Agua de Valencia’, a cocktail made with orange juice, gin, vodka and cava (Spain’s version of Champagne).  Talking of Cava, a day tour to Requina, 65 km from Valencia, to visit the cava wineries and taste the sparkling wine should be a must.

The little bird in the head whispers loudly, “You have talked about Valencia and not about its famous Paella1” I said, “Little Bird, Paella deserves a story to itself. Another time.”

Cultures, sights, beaches, happenings, food, oranges, Cava…..Valencia is really a City of Dreams.