La Más Bonita café is blessed with an ocean view, and outside a beautiful, warm morning is getting underway – just another of the 300 sunny days Valencia enjoys each year. Paula Sanz Caballero orders a cup of tea and opens up her laptop. A slender 44-year-old with an engaging laugh, she works as an illustrator for magazines in Spain, the United States, Japan and Germany. First she will sketch a scene, simply and elegantly, then superimpose fabric onto figurines using embroidery or glue. Caballero’s work has enjoyed global success, but for her there’s no alternative to life in Valencia. “We Valencians like to socialize. My family and friends are here – lots of times we’ll have a beer in the early-evening sun and end up partying until late at night.” Caballero’s life wasn’t always this carefree. “Before I went to art school, I worked as a flight attendant. I was in an unhappy relationship: I was willing to follow this man anywhere. I got so bored on the overnight flights, I started doing embroidery. It was only later that I realized I actually needed to live through this phase of my life – that heartache and pain are necessary to give birth to beauty.”
Ingenious, narcissistic design
The same might be said of Valencia. Despite all the gifts that nature, history and its hard-working residents have bestowed upon the city, Valencia still suffers from an inferiority complex – the sense that it is neither as big nor as cosmopolitan as Barcelona or Madrid. Even the city’s soccer team, FC Valencia, tends to defer to its two main rivals. So deep-seated are these feelings that the city’s residents refuse to designate their dialect Catalán – the official term here is Valenciano, even in the strongholds of government.
To combat such sentiments, government officials decided to upgrade the city’s image. The result is the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of the Arts and Sciences), a spectacular cultural park complete with opera house, cinema, museums, a gigantic aquarium and a planetarium. The brilliant, highly original design hails from Santiago Calatrava, architect, engineer, artist and the city’s most famous son. Like lethargic aliens, the buildings rise amid a former riverbed. As contemporary landmarks, they rank among Spain’s top 12 cultural treasures, along with the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
The city’s residents have other things on their mind, though: like Emiliano Garcia, who just handed over the reins of Casa Montaña – a bodega considered an institution in the Cabanyal neighbourhood – to his son Alejandro. Along with sensational Spanish wines and delicious absinthes, the bodega also offers a taste of the past: Its interior, complete with tiled rooms and old wooden casks, has hardly changed in 175 years. An odour of vinegar lingers in the air, fishermen wander in to refill their wine from the casks. And while Alejandro hobnobs with guests from behind the bar, Emiliano is already on his way to a meeting whose goal is the preservation of the former fishing village. Plans are afoot to construct a grand Avenida Valencia that marches straight to the sea, right through the heart of Cabanyal. The quaint two-storey houses adorned with colourful tiles are scheduled for demolition. But if there’s one thing residents have learned over the years, it’s that taking the city’s destiny into their own hands is a worthwhile endeavour. Russafa has already shown the way forward: The old neighbourhood located right in the centre of town is enjoying a new lease on life, even while being overshadowed by massive construction projects. Initially, the neighbourhood’s venerable buildings were snapped up by artists at rock-bottom prices; nowadays, the city’s bohemian set is busy transforming them into co-working spaces.
A city’s growing pains
Sidewalk cafés dominate the streetscape, with vintage clothing shops, vegan eateries and tiny art galleries squeezed in between. Here, high above the rooftops, is where Vinz Feel Free – a street artist regarded as the Valencian equivalent of Banksy – has his atelier. A highly alert man in his mid-thirties, Feel Free keeps his real name a secret because his works, though highly sought after, don’t exactly walk the straight and narrow: After photographing his naked models, he paints their bodies full-scale on yellowed sheets of paper which he pastes onto walls throughout the city, adding birds’ heads painted directly on the walls’ surfaces. These mythical creations are his way of addressing Spain’s Catholic heritage, his city’s growth and the Spanish crisis in general. His works are transitory by nature, and their nudity offends some Spaniards. Collectors, on the other hand, will not hesitate to rip a genuine Feel Free off the wall. And although Vinz’s works are exhibited in galleries in London and New York, where street art commands much more respect than in Spain, he remains true to his hometown. “I can’t live in the cold,” he says. “In London it rains four months at a stretch – how could I possibly do street art there? Here in Valencia the weather is so good that you can be outside almost all the time. And I love my family.” And so he has chosen to export the new Spanish style to the world’s great metropolises – from a city that still can’t quite believe that it numbers among their ranks.