by Don Harris | January 2010

The varieties of experiences we have enjoyed in the Community of Valencia are amazing. Probably the most well known event occurs every March when the people of Valencia produce an astonishingly loud celebration called Las Fallas, complete with burning images, ear-shattering fireworks, along with toasty buñuelos, or churros and chocolate, always the contrast that is typical of Spanish culture.

But moving beyond the tourist attractions, we enjoy walking around the vineyards high up in the mountains near the village of Jumilla where hundred-year-old vines struggle to survive in the arid region of extreme temperatures each day and night. The result is a remarkable group of rich red wines, which are among our favorites.

Hidden in another group of mountains in the north of Valencia, is the imposing and quietly spectacular walled city of Morella. We remember being there during an afternoon downpour where we were obliged to step into a doorway to make way for the rain water surging down the steep cobblestone streets. With its truffles, roast meats, good people and neighboring villages in the rugged mountains -- Morella is one of our very favorite places to immerse ourselves in the culture of traditional Spain.

Not far from Morella along the Mediterranean coast is the ancient city of Sagunto, home of the gifted contemporary composer Joaquin Rodrígo, who although blind since age three due to diphtheria, wrote beautiful works that capture the spirit of Spain. His Concierto de Aranjuez is considered one of the pinnacles of the Spanish guitar concerto repertoire. On a less esoteric note, our young children enjoyed climbing over the bluffs of the Sagunto bastions, which have been under the control of many civilizations back to Hannibal and the Carthaginians in the 2nd century BC during the Punic Wars, then the Greeks, Romans, Visigoths and then El Cid, who captured this key location from the Moors.

Moving down the coast a bit, on our first extended stay in Spain, my wife and I happened to come upon the feria of Alicante. It is a more temperate celebration than La Fallas, but lots of fun – especially with some of the top bullfighters in Spain. At that time, we saw the famous toreros El Viti, Paco Camino, Antonio Ordoñez and a young upstart named “El Cordobés"!

The port city of Valencia has been a portal for many Mediterranean cultures, especially from the Middle East with the arrival of the Muslims. We have great appreciation for their decorative art, which to this day flourishes throughout the homes and patios of Valencia, as well as in neighboring Andalucía.

Years ago, my wife Ruth and I strolled the streets of Manises, now a suburb of the city of Valencia, in search of tiles for our home in Virginia. Shop after shop offered a fascinating array of tile designs, so different from anything we know as North Americans. A town of craftsmen and tile producers, Manises is one of the focal points of decorative tile designs which trace back to the Moorish times.

In the world of art, the Islamic religion, as the Jewish, avoided human figures and living creatures for fear that they could encourage the slippery slope to idolatry, which had competed with emerging monotheism. For this reason, the Muslims chose symmetry and balance as an expression of the Divine.

During the Islamic era, the areas surrounding Valencia were already an important ceramic producing region. The tile makers of Manises shipped throughout both the Christian and Muslim Mediterranean, for Valencia was the busiest port in the Mediterranean at that time. Tiles from Manises were also used as far away as Venice, Egypt, Syria, Naples and Turkey. It was also the main supplier of paving for the Papacy in Rome, whose rooms it decorated during the 15th century.

The seven hundred year Islamic presence in Spain brought rice, something even more widespread and fundamental than tile. Rice is the fundamental gift of Valencia to the rest of Spain, and through paella, to the world. The Muslims brought this grain from the Middle East and began to plant it along the lowlands near Valencia. Rice was integral to their diet and they soon passed their production techniques to the Christians who continue to use them to this day.

Paella galore – we have enjoyed it in so many forms. Although essentially it is a rice dish prepared by workers in the field, it has risen to new heights at the hands of the chefs of Valencia. Arroz a banda is our personal favorite. It is a very old dish of fishermen, which is deceivingly simple to prepare – merely rice cooked in fish broth and a few other ingredients sautéed in olive oil.

But it is the painstaking hours involved in creating the broth that separate the men from the boys! We have not truly succeeded in re-creating arroz a banda in our home. A banda means “apart” in Valencian, meaning the rice is served first and apart from the fish, which is served as a second course. It is traditionally served with alioli - a garlic mayonnaise. Our first taste of arroz a banda was when we visited a modest restaurant at the sea side town of Denía south of Valencia, famous as a source of extraordinary arroz a banda.

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