VALENCIA, Spain — I first tasted paella in an impromptu campground in northern Spain. The evening fog, like a friend with a surprise party up its sleeve, followed my camper down a narrow mountain road, preventing escape. The fog also had brought the Pedroso family to the same spot, and we decided to share a meal.
Senor Pedroso contributed paella, a dish he cooked in a large pan over an open fire. Simple, complex, fragrant, divine — I don't have enough adjectives to describe the paella or the pleasure it brought. Suffice it to say, I fell in love and have been pursuing this Spanish national rice dish happily ever after, traveling through every region of Spain and eventually taking a pilgrimage to Valencia, paella's birthplace and producer of the purest paellas of them all.
Of course, Valencia is noted for more than paella.
Located in the center of Spain's Mediterranean coast, the city is the third largest in Spain, following Madrid (222 miles to the west) and Barcelona (up the coast 217 miles to the northeast). It also is the fifth-busiest container port city in Europe. Rather than congested and frenzied, however, Valencia translates "large" and "busy" into tourist infrastructure that includes fine hotels, great restaurants and much to do and see.
Founded as a Roman colony in 138 B.C., Valencia attracted a slew of invaders through the centuries. Remnants of past cultures grace the winding streets of the old quarter and include such gems as L'Almoina, an archaeological museum revealing Roman, Islamic and early Christian ruins; Llotja de la Seda (Silk Exchange), a remarkable civic building, the center of commerce in the 15th and 16th centuries and now a UNESCO World Heritage site; and the Cathedral of the Holy Chalice (catedraldevalencia.es/en/index.php), showcasing a variety of architectural styles as well as the city's top treasure, a chalice considered to be the Holy Grail.
Relative new kid on the old-quarter block, Central Market (www.mercadocentralvalencia.es), was constructed in the early 1920s on a site that has been an active market since the 13th century. The modernist building encases about 1,000 stalls selling the region's most luscious foods. (This is where to buy paella ingredients as well as a paella, the classic pan for which the dish is named.)
Despite its abundance of historic masterpieces, Valencia's architectural fame does not rest on the laurels of the past. The City of Arts and Sciences (cac.es) previews the future in its 11/4-mile-long complex of contemporary buildings that house, among other delights, an opera house, planetarium, aquarium and science museum.
Though Valencia thrives as a major metropolis, the city's ambience remains gentle, no doubt softened by profuse natural elements.
Turia Gardens, a 5.5-mile-long park planted in the space of the former Turia riverbed, gift-wraps the city in a ribbon of grassy grounds and landscaped promenades.
Other presents from nature include Mediterranean beaches on the eastern edge of the city and the Albufera Natural Park, about seven miles south.
As much as I like the beach scene, it is the Albufera, a large freshwater lagoon and centerpiece of the nature park, that makes my heart flutter, being the bull's-eye birthplace of paella.
The Moors planted rice in the marshlands around the Albufera in the 8th century. Workers cooked the rice in the fields, with ingredients at hand, and the rest is delicious history.
The nature park offers much to the visitor — boat rides, beaches, profuse flora and fauna, all enjoyable — but perfection to me is seeing the rice paddies that proliferate in the marsh around the lagoon and sampling the rice made into paella in the same way it's been made for centuries.
Of course, seeking out authentic paella is easy in Valencia, as wherever one happens to be staying, sightseeing, shopping and otherwise enjoying the city, you can find a nearby restaurant that serves the traditional classic. Or conversely for those who put food first and foremost, wherever one happens to be lunching on paella (as paella is an afternoon dish, not evening), you will find abundant attractions and fun activities to supplement the meal.
If you go
Air: Many airlines offer one-stop flights from O'Hare to Valencia, but Iberia often is easiest and cheapest, making one quick stop in Madrid.
Hotel: The Ayre Hotel Astoria Palace (ayrehoteles.com/en/hotel-astoria-palace) in the city center offers four-star comfort and a destination restaurant, AB Vinatea, featuring paellas and a variety of other rice dishes. Winter rates start surprisingly low, less than $100 a night, but even summer rates are cheap by European standards.
Paella: Valencians serve two types of paella: Paella Valenciana (made with meat) and Paella de Marisco (made with seafood); the best Valencian cooks do not mix seafood and meat in the same paella.
For quintessential Paella Valenciana as well as cooking classes, reserve at La Matandeta (lamatandeta.es/?lang=en), a farmhouse turned restaurant in Albufera, or the sleek new Restaurante Levante Valencia (restaurantelevante.com) in the city center.
For a divine Paella de Marisco, head to Malvarrosa Beach and Sorolla Brasserie (hotelbalneariolasarenas.com/gastronomy/sorolla/?lang=en) in Hotel Balneario Las Arenas.
Information: spain.info and turisvalencia.es