More on Valencia...
With our own car and our own schedule, we weren’t in too much of a hurry to get back to Barcelona when we left Valencia on Monday morning. We had café con leche and madelenas at our hotel, and, the sky cloudy and the air cool, headed up the coast, intending to find a small beach town to stop in for lunch. According to our wholly inadequate map, in the fully inadequate Valencia section of our Lonely Planet Spain guidebook, we’d reach a small town called Sagunto right at lunchtime.
As usual, we got lost immediately upon leaving the hotel. This had proven to be a theme of our weekend away. We had decided to take this road trip to Valencia somewhat at the last minute; we’d planned to take a train, but the return trains were sold out, so we rented a car instead. We didn’t really think about buying a road map, figuring we’d easily find Valencia if we just headed south on the main highway, autopisto 7. Indeed, we got to Valencia without much trouble, but we were hopelessly lost as soon as we were inside the city limits. We hadn’t accounted for Valencia not being a driver’s city. With five lanes of cars coalescing in a large, laneless, lawless group as they drove at high speeds around roundabouts; miniscule, unreadable road signs hidden on the sides of buildings; and the crazy, haphazard parking where any corner seemed to be fair game, we were helpless. Wrong turns were compounded and intensified by an overabundance of one-way streets that seemed to lead us deeper in the wrong direction once we were unfortunate enough to get trapped within them.
A few times, Andrew asked for directions at our hotel’s front desk; each time, the person nodding and helping would reach under the counter, take out a fresh copy of the Valencia map published in partnership with the superstore El Corte Ingles, which showed, along with a few roads and attractions, the exact location of every El Corte Ingles throughout the city, and circle the location of our hotel. The directions he relayed after the circling always seemed easy—one road, then another road to Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, for example; one road, then a roundabout until we’d be back on AP-7—but never were.
So we spent some time wandering through the area around our hotel until we found AP-7 and headed north. We were surprised to reach Sagunto in about thirty minutes, well before lunchtime. Unsure what any of the road signs meant, we got off the highway at an exit that we hoped would take us into Sagunto. We followed signs that seemed to point to the city center, then improvised when those signs mysteriously disappeared.
It didn’t take us long to reach Sagunto’s one main square, and it didn’t take us long to realize that, although Lonely Planet said Sagunto was good for a half-day or one-day trip, there really wasn’t all that much to see. We idly walked across the square. Andrew spontaneously stuck his hand in the open mouth of a stone lion and adopted a pained, horrified expression. By the time I’d snapped a picture, he was laughing, and in the picture his expression appears to be one of devilish mischief. We walked up a hill to the ruins of a Roman theatre, which had been “restored”—quotation marks are LP’s—in a questionable fashion. Once we reached the theatre, we agreed with the quotation marks. Rather than restore the theatre in a way that complemented the dark, heavy stone ruins, large expanses of pale-yellow bricks had been stuck on top of them. Here and there, ruins stuck out, but the overall effect was of a piecemeal, hasty construction project.
We pushed on. Our terrible map showed Castellon as a possible next stop up the coast, and we followed road signs for an hour or two. It’d been too early for lunch in Sagunto, but by the time the exit for Castellon appeared, we were famished. As usual, we got lost once we got off the highway. We found ourselves in a desolate, industrial wasteland, with large factories and enormous car dealerships lining the road strip-mall-style. “Spain’s not supposed to look like this,” I said. We saw signs for the city center, but we were intent on finding the beach, which only took us deeper into the strange outskirts of the city.
Eventually, we found Grau, which evidently is the beach section of Castellon, and spotted a restaurant with a view of the sparkling blue water. The fried fish platter and gazpacho we wanted weren’t available—not the season yet for gazpacho, the harried waiter told us—but we had a tasty lunch of fresh mussels, patatas bravas, salad, fried calamari, and croquettas bacalao. The restaurant, Mar y Mar, had only an outdoor dining area, the tables covered by a large tent. It was packed with Spanish-speaking families, everyone enjoying bowls of the mussels and large, cast-iron skillets of paella. Reluctant to leave, we ordered café con leche and lemon helado, which turned out to be lemon sorbet inside a hollowed-out, frozen lemon.
Finally, the afternoon long past waning, we hit the road again, our eyes on Barcelona. We’d had a lovely trip. But it was when we were back on the highway, sated and tired, that the full bliss of the weekend soaked in. The bright afternoons on the Placa de la Virgen, the seafood, the warm sun, and the leisurely exploring were fun, but now we were going home—and home was Barcelona. Eight days into my new Spanish life, it finally hit me that I’m really here.