I clutched my seatbelt tight when the taxi turned from the street onto a walkway. Our driver continued along the sidewalk, nudging pedestrians out of the way and dropped us at the front door of our rental apartment in the tiny Plaza de Cisneros. We were shocked at his brazenness, until another car came along and we realized this was not a sidewalk but a street.
This was our introduction to Valencia, and we were glad that we had decided not to drive ourselves into the center of the Old Town. The maze of narrow streets is part of the charm of the city but you’d better stay on your toes, looking out for speeding cars, bikes, and Segway tours.
Valencia was once a walled city. The wall stood from the 11th-century until it was torn down in 1865, but two of the original gates to the city, the 14th-century Torres de Serrans and 15th-century Torres de Quart, still stand in the Ciutat Vella (Old City). Here you will also find the Valencia Cathedral, Mercado Central, museums, and an abundance of bars and restaurants.
The 3rd largest city in Spain, Valencia didn’t open itself up to us as easily as the smaller Spanish cities had. We struggled for the first few days to get in step with local life. Street signs didn’t say what we expected – many are written in Valencian, using plaça instead of plaza and carrer instead of calle.
Restaurants only loosely adhered to posted hours. More than once, we arrived at a place that should have been open only to be told to come back later. To be safe, we learned to wait until after 2pm for lunch regardless of information on a website. For dinner, we usually went for tapas or pinchos. Not only are they a lot of fun, they are also the easiest food to find before 9pm.
We were especially fond of pinchos (Pintxos in Basque). These are like tapas, but usually served on small slices of bread with toothpicks holding everything together. Originating in the Basque region of Northern Spain, pinchos have become popular in Valencia.
They are self-serve, so going to a pinchos bar is kind of like grazing through hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party; except with a price at the end. When you are finished, you will be charged based on the number of toothpicks you have accumulated on your plate, usually less than €2 each. You get up close and personal with the other bar patrons, reaching between them to get to the food. Don’t worry, because they’re going to do the same to you when you’re seated in front of the pincho they desire. It helps to be an adventurous eater. There is no description of ingredients, you just grab what looks good and be ready for the occasional surprise.
Here are a few places that we enjoyed:
Sagardi Valencia Centro
Grupo Sagardi is a Barcelona-based restaurant group with about 30 restaurants specializing in Basque cuisine. They have several restaurants in Valencia with pincho bars. Sagardi Valencia Centro on Carrer de San Vicente Martir is one of them.
Sagardi’s menu and décor are inspired by Basque ciderhouses and taverns, where small bites of food were served to keep customers sober while tasting cider. The pinchos bar at Sagardi is open all day from 10 am, but the place was empty when we arrived at 7 pm. We ordered two glasses of wine, grabbed an empty plate and selected a few of the cold pintxos at €1.95 each from the extensive assortment lining the bar. A server also walked around offering delicious hot bites like crispy croquetas filled with ham and cheese, or tender cubes of rare beef nicely complemented with tangy roasted red pepper on top. Our timing was just right, as ten minutes later the bar was suddenly packed with people meeting up for pre-dinner snacks. It’s easy to imagine how much fun this would be with a group of friends.
Just two blocks down the same street is Orio Valencia Centro, another member of Grupo Sagardi with a different, more modern feel. Orio is inspired by fishing villages of the Cantabrian sea on the North coast of Spain, with a 12-meter fishing boat hanging upside down over the space.
We were there late in the evening and the place was full of activity. Colorful pintxos covered the bar that was filled with patrons. We ordered 2 canas of Estrella beer and walked along the bar, selecting the pinchos that caught our eye. Yummy bites of salty ham, cheese with olive spread, seafood salads, and a few tasty mystery foods made it onto our plates.
North west of the cathedral, Calle Caballeros (Carrer dels Cavallers) is a popular street for tapas crawling. Cava Siglos is a small, trendy restaurant with a tapas bar in front and tables in the back for more intimate dining.
They offered a vino y tapa special of a glass of wine with one tapa for €3.50. The tapas on display here look just like pinchos, but without the toothpick. Technically, these are called montaditos and are typical of southern Spain. We pointed to our selections and the bartender heated them before serving.
We tried tapas of ham with quail egg and pork with slightly spicy roasted green chilis. From the menu, we added some croquetas de pescado that were crispy on the outside with a creamy potato and fish center. We also tried our first Aqua de Valencia, a local specialty drink of orange juice, cava, triple sec and vermouth. It was a little sweet for our tastes, but we had to have at least one while in Valencia.
Tapas at Cava Siglos
Also on Calle Caballeros, Taverna Cavallers is an authentic little tapas bar serving simple, traditional tapas. We each had a glass of red wine at €2.50 each and tapas of morcilla (blood sausage) draped with roasted red pepper. The acidic bite of the pepper cut through the richness of the heavy sausage, making for a wonderful combination of flavor and texture.
For a late night treat, Chocolatería Valor in Plaza de la Reina was a great spot for amazing chocolate and churros. The Spanish tend to have this in the morning for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. They’re probably much smarter than us in this respect, because a heaping cup of dark, rich thick chocolate before bed is a recipe for a restless night of sleep. We may have to rethink our chocolate and churros strategy.
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