It’s late. The streets of Valencia are still thronged with people spilling from one bar to another. The atmosphere is anything but threatening, as Valencianos, young and old, follow their noses and instincts to the next tapas bar. It’s a pub crawl or bar hop with a very Spanish difference. The locals have refined the art of snacking and drinking to such an extent, they have turned it into a verb–tapear: to go from one bar to another in search of the tastiest, most innovative small dishes you can imagine, washed down with a beverage of choice.
Every Spanish town has its own tapas scene but Valencia’s is one of the liveliest to experience. Spain’s often overlooked third city is home to a vibrant night life, managing to combine local traditions with a modern twist. We have long since discovered that a tapas weekend is a great way to blow away the cobwebs. We started the evening in a small bar to the side of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento with a wheel of anchovies–not the salted variety from tins, but ones freshly soused in lemon and a little brine. The cool, crisp Albariño wine refreshed the palate in readiness for the next flavor.
After a relatively short walk, our next stop was on the corner of Calle de Samaniego, in the La Seu district. Las Cuevas lives up to its Spanish name, a grotto-like basement in terracotta brick. The tapas, lined up in front of us, were mesmerizing–a truly creative display. Too late for a table, we took up residence on bar stools next to the counter, hypnotized by choice: sautéed broad beans and Serrano ham, chicken in a rich, piquant tomato sauce, mushrooms stuffed with local cheese and chorizo flambéed in rum. We could go on . . . Dish after dish appeared before us; the barman, on seeing our empty glasses, offered us the bottle and invited us to help ourselves. No tapping on tills or scribbling in notebooks, on paying the bill–amid the magnificent chaos–we simply shouted across the bar the dishes we’d eaten.
Moving on, this time in search of a seafood tapa, we went to the Bar Pillar, recommended by many as the finest place to eat mussels in town. It didn’t disappoint. We opened the door to a cacophony of voices, shells rattling against dish-sides, people greeting each other in voluble Valenciano, orders yelled to kitchen staff. The small crowded bar was filled with the unmistakable aroma of garlicky ozone; the irresistible taste of the sea cooked in a spicy soup known here as an entero. We dived straight in, throwing our discarded mussel shells into the troughs on the floor–especially designed for the purpose.
Temporarily sated, we maneuvered our way back out into the embrace of a velvet Mediterranean night. Ambling along to the next bar, we found ourselves in the Cathedral Square, its architectural mix of Romanesque and Gothic chiseled into relief by the strategically placed spotlighting. The historic center and its buildings are a perfect accompaniment to such a time-honored way of passing the Spanish night. Modernity, however, still has its place, represented by Valencia’s spectacular City of Arts and Sciences with its iconic reptilian Hemisfèric designed by Santiago Calatrava. Situated out towards the suburbs, that was our plan for tomorrow.
A Valencian night is never finished until you’ve stopped for a buñuelo or a churro from one of the street-side stalls on the way home. Doughnut-style fritters in different shapes, they are best eaten hot and dipped in rice-flour thickened hot chocolate. Although food is central to the tapas tradition, other ingredients are essential–the people, the location and an innate talent for squeezing every drop of life from the night.
Written by Suzanne and Andrew Edwards. Andrew is a translator currently working on the translation of a Spanish travelogue, whilst Suzanne is a lecturer. Together they have written freelance articles on Spain and Sicily.