East From Madrid #2: Pious Rice Fields

Day three

Summer had finally had finally rid itself of the long trousers and jackets and had hauled itself over the Valencian Community; Spain’s eighth largest region. The air had taken on that spongy tangibility only really present in celestially warmed coastal zones; and the decision was taken to finally drive roofless. Exuberance at its finest. 

The aim of the day was the Albufera; Spain’s great freshwater lagoon that, as well as providing a home for myriad animals and birds - the skies were awash with black-winged stilts, common terns and marbled ducks, also was home to the country’s great rice paddies. And born out of the paddies was that most famous of Spanish dishes: paella

 Not much else to do.

Not much else to do.

The road skirted near the west flank of the lake before leaving it southwards through the characteristically unattractive skylines of Valencian towns with Arabic names like Alzira, Algemesí and Benifaió. Of all of Spain’s seventeen fascinating communities, Valencia does not stand among the top of the them for its glut of attractive settlements. That crown belongs to Aragon, Andalusia or perhaps Galicia. That being said, this is Spain, so there is still a somewhat embarrassing number of them, but they are more hidden, more tucked away. 

 More orange trees than you thought possible. 

More orange trees than you thought possible. 

The area around Valencia city is agriculture and farming; not a place of picturesque niceness to make your camera sigh. This is a land of countless orange and almond trees spreading out from oddly coloured blockish towns - cobbled together messes of ugly cuboid houses and lazy holiday-home style apartments - that are pierced by token church spires that remind us that history once happened there.

 Convento de Aguas Vivas

Convento de Aguas Vivas

The road then left the shimmering mirage flats and entered a green valley shouldered by Jurassic-looking heights and fat with birdsong and palm trees. On the side of the road was a building that looked like an abandoned set for a Victorian horror film, but was in fact a convent. The Convento de Aguas Vivas; a 17th Augustin monastery converted into a hotel in 1977 after Mendizábal had had his way confiscating and privatising ecclesiastical buildings in the 19th century. 

 Valldigna

Valldigna

Journeying southeast the valley opened up and widened, got more beautiful and renamed itself as Valldigna - the blessed valley - named by King Jaime II for its grace and fertility. The abbot agreed with him and another convent was built. Around the convent grew the scruffy Wild West village of Simat de la Valldigna. 

 Santa María de la Valldigna

Santa María de la Valldigna

What is left is a carved up complex of crumbled churches and walls and gardens, completely open to the public - school kids ran through it and cyclists jollied in and out. Something citric tinged the supple heat that lay like a moist cloth on the skin: lines and lines of orange trees. Dark-skinned locals clipped them from the green, a monk walked past, my mother pilfered one off the branch and promptly covered herself in the juice. It was a little lost surrealist oasis of history in a place full of old ladies, dogs, passing bicycles and not much else. 

 Sant Jeroni

Sant Jeroni

Further into the depths nearing Gandia, crossing over the verdant peaks of Parpalló-Borrell, came little squat and stout little castle-lite monastery of Saint Jeroni. It was closed, but some sweet talking words and, I suppose, our bemusing presence, meant that we were permitted in briefly to cast our eyes over the 16th century cloister, full of plants and a medieval cistern, and the frilly pink and white arches of the Gothic-Mudéjar orange patio that so reminded one of the Mezquita at Cordoba. 

 Albufera canals

Albufera canals

Having had our fill of the Lord’s buildings we reconnected with water. The genius of the Arabs: Rice. As far as the eye could stretch, the view was of a vivid green carpet. Frondy fields that shimmered with shallow water. A 15th century larder that had given Spain its most emblematic dish. 

 Out on the lake

Out on the lake

In the lake itself - a vast lapping 52,000-acre plate of turquoise - perch and mullet hid alongside the prized anguillas, the tasty freshwater eels so popular in this area.

 Muntanyeta dels Sants

Muntanyeta dels Sants

It was a place of flatness where bumps could rise up and be lucky enough to get a reflection at the break in the grass. The Muntanyeta del Sants with its little chapel smudged into the chartreuse for a moment before the world faded into the sea. 

 Paella valenciana

Paella valenciana

Opposite the Mediterranean a fine rice dish was eaten at the Arrocería l’Estibador. The wind flapped the translucent plastic windows that afforded us a view across the beach to the water. It was another example of simple luxury. The paella was the traditional valenciana style. No low-cost mussels and chewy calamari strewn artfully over bright yellow rice. Green beans, chunks of caramelised chicken, snails chopped up and turned throughout a golden rice. A hefty, sticky, savoury rice dish that had those pleasing ‘burnt’ bits on the sides and bottom: the socarrat - named after the red and black painted fired clay tiles made popular in the region in the 16th century. And wine, a creamy and lemony Verdil, and sardines from Santoña on tomato bread, and coffees. 

Terns whirled about in the breeze above the shoreline, the bobbing barcas that pootled around the lake turned off their engines and hummed to a halt. The day was done and all that was left was to once again perfect the art of doing nothing in that fine city of Valencia as our bellies did their utmost to digest the afternoon.