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Monday, February 14th, 2011

Valencia: tradition and transformation

Art Deco houses of El Cabanyal ValenciaKenneth Tynan, once Britain’s foremost theatre critic, quoted Lord Harlech after visiting Valencia 40 years ago: “To be alone in Valencia is to be permanently twenty minutes this side of suicide.” Tynan went even further, naming Valencia ‘the world capital of anti-tourism’, citing its dirtiness and unfriendliness to visitors as two excellent reasons to give it a wide berth.

Oh, how things have changed since Tynan poured his elegantly phrased vitriol on the city! Now Valencia regularly attracts tourists from around the world, as writer Jason Webster acknowledges. In a recent article in The Telegraph (“Valencia: an edgy and vibrant expat city”) he traces his adopted home’s astonishing trajectory from being the Republican capital during the Civil War – and consequently severely punished by General Franco – to the most recent recipient of the high-speed AVE train route.

Traditional Valencian PaellaWebster sees plenty to celebrate in present day Valencia, such as the fallas that herald the coming of spring and reveal the citizens’ love of ear-wrecking pyrotechnics and “bonfires that would pull at the heart-strings of any self-respecting arsonist”.

The city also has a proud culinary boast in the shape of paella, a dish that most evokes Spain in the minds of foreign visitors. Actually, this is very much a valenciano creation, in its purest form a combination of the characteristic saffron rice, chicken, rabbit and snails, although the seafood version seems to have travelled further throughout Spain and across the world.

Jason Webster's Or The Bull Kills YouWebster’s article does contain elements of criticism: the writer is doubtful that the Town Hall has the city’s best interests at heart when there is talk of bulldozing the magnificent Art Nouveau houses in the fisherman’s district of El Cabanyal to make way for a by-pass. He also acknowledges that some parts of the city have problems with drug abuse and the sex trade, yet without these areas of darkness Webster would find it difficult to create his series of Valencia crime novels, the first of which was published by Chatto & Windus in early February.

Or the Bull Kills You introduces Chief Inspector Max Cámara, a man who is likely to do for Valencia what Ian Rankin’s D.I. John Rebus has done for Edinburgh. It will also undoubtedly provide a further boost for Valencia’s already booming tourist trade.

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