El centro, el casco antiguo, El Carme, Carmz, the historic centre… Valencia’s old town goes by many aliases – possibly one for every opportunity that it presents.
Old Town Valencia is beautiful: from the iconic bull ring, stretching up to the Torres de Serranos, passing through various beautiful plazas and past picturesque churches. All that the eye meets is beautiful. Orange tree-lined streets lead you deeper and deeper into Barrio del Carmen, sunny terraces entice you in for a cold caña and discreet bars offer, arguably, the tastiest jamón you’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming. Tranquility. Enchantment. Beauty. Apart from the horse poo in Plaza de la Reina – but I’ll not mention that.
The area is so alluring, in fact, that I made it my home for a short period of time. It was only then that I begrudgingly realised the downsides of living in the casco antiguo. Now, it’s called this for a reason – the old town, you guessed it, is old. The buildings are old – many falling down or derelict. The streets are small, winding, dark and many smell as if 5 tramps have just been to the toilet right there and, let’s face it, they probably have. It’s also a pain in the arse to park and there aren’t many supermarkets, which means missioning across town to the nearest Mercadona. All this, though, still didn’t detract me from living in my dream area. Until one fateful day…when I found a cockroach…on my toothbrush. And its younger sister on my bath sponge. We had been infested. Walls breached, Señora Cucaracha and her 100’s of children running amok on the kitchen floor and, bizarrely, treating my bedroom as some kind of cockroach graveyard. Unfortunately, because many old Muslim irrigation channels still run beneath El Carmen and because Valencia sits at such a low altitude, cockroaches come out in wriggling force in the humid Valencian summers. Something to think about before the winding, cobbled roads and cute balconies lure you in!
But whether you’re a visitor or a carmenite who’s lucky enough to a) live in a refurbished apartment or b) live at peace among our creepy crawly friends, there’s no getting around the fact that Valencia centre has it all: history, architecture, great nightlife and shopping. The latter is especially popular on Calle Colón and the pedestrianized Calle Don Juan de Austria. “Shopping heaven”, some might say. From here you can arrive into the centre of El Carmen via flower-clad Calle de la Paz which, in turn, is often used for parades.
A concise list of must-see monuments in the centre and El Carmen:
- La Lonja – The 15th century silk exchange on Calle Lonja; a Gothic building and UNESCO World Heritage site with huge pillars and stained glass windows, complete with a patio planted with orange trees.
- Mercado Central – Valencia’s biggest food market. Across the road from La Lonja, the market is architecturally stunning and boasts a great array of locally sourced fresh food every morning (apart from Sundays)
- Torres de Serranos – The old gateway to the city; a castle-like, senyera-topped building guarding the northern-most edge of El Carmen, looking over the area where the river Turia once flowed. Don’t forget the Torres de Quart, similar in size and just as imposing, located at the end of Calle Quart.
- The 11th century Muslim wall – Remnants of the wall, which used to protect the town, can be seen among the labyrinthine back streets of El Carmen.
- Plaza de la Reina – Home to the Valencia Cathedral and Miguelete tower. Valencia open-top tour buses leave from this square.
- Plaza de la Virgen – The central hub of the old town; home to the Neptune fountain and the Basilica.
- Plaza Redonda – An unusual round square filled with artisan shops and a small fountain.
- Plaza del Carmen – Once a botellón hotspot, now a peaceful square inhabited by a large church and convent.
- Plaza del Ayuntamiento – Valencia’s main square which houses, you guessed it, the town hall and the surprisingly beautiful head post office.
- Marqués de Dos Aguas – This ex-palace and ceramics museum on Calle del Poeta Querol boasts stunning stucco-clad façades.
Be sure to climb the steps to the top of the Miguelete in Plaza de la Reina in order to appreciate El Carmen and Valencia from one of its highest monuments. The €2 fee is a very small price to pay for such wonderful and wide stretching views, that include the Torres de Quart, La Lonja, the City of Arts and Sciences, the Mestalla football ground and the Mediterranean Sea. Just don’t stand too close to the bells.
As the sun sets on Valencia and the Miguelete dings its last dong, the shoppers and marujas leave and the party animals arrive. Plaza de la Virgen becomes a hive of activity thanks to skateboarders and groups of friends doing botellón. It is also one of the main access routes into the old town from Northern barrios and the tram stop at Pont de Fusta. The square is often the starting point to many a night due to the fact that the iconic fountain transforms itself into a rudimentary meeting point. If you’re set for a night on the “cobbles” the first place you head is in the direction of Calle Caballeros – Valencia’s answer to The Golden Mile. Posh restaurants and classy bars merge with student hangouts and dive bars – the mix of punters spilling out onto the cobbled, winding streets. From here, many opt to either wander down the characteristic roads of Calle Alta and Calle Baja or to the relatively hidden Plaza del Negrito square, three sides of which are home to a different bar.
So, what are the highlights of El Carmen nightlife? Well that depends on the kind of night you’re after. A common stop off on the train to embriaguez is Picapiedras, a bar named after The Flintstones, where drinks are typically served in porrones (spouted jugs) The only way to drink a porron is to tip it up so that a stream of wine flows into your mouth. Not on your face. Not down your shirt. Into your mouth. Yes, it’s as difficult, and hilarious, as it sounds. Or do what my friend did and suckle on the end of it like a baby pig.
Head to Bolsería (Plaza Tossal) to dance to pop, reggaeton and R&B hits and score a free Agua de Valencia cocktail if you arrive before 2. Or try out new rock bar Rewind on Calle Pintor Zariñena. An all-round favourite and popular place to dance until 4am for locals and tourists alike is Radio City just off Plaza Tossal.
Much like many cities across the world, Valencia has its fair share of nutters. One of the most well known characters often lurks in the shadows of Calle Caballeros. Peer closely enough into the small winding streets, cast your vision past the hoards of punters out for a good time, and you might just see a face staring back at you from the darkness. Tarantula is a lady often seen waiting on corners and seen trudging through El Carmen, carrier bags in tow. What? That doesn’t sound that strange?
That’s because I haven’t told you the best part yet – her face is painted black and white à la Gene Simmons and she has a large multicoloured mohawk. I’m sure you’ll remember her now. Word has it that she also has a son named Tinieblas (Darkness). Goth culture is alive and kicking!
Also take care if passing near the park area on Calle Guillem de Castro, as this place is often populated by homeless men having a kip on the benches and/or getting rowdy over a bottle of Don Simon.
I once had to define the word “grubby” for my students in an English conversation class. In the end I used El Carmen as an example: sometimes a bit dirty, a bit rough and ready round the edges, but charming and lovable all the same.
Find most of the places mentioned in this post over on our Valencia highlights map.
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