Spain’s third largest urban area is a city of layers. It was founded by the Romans as Valentia, controlled by the Moors and overtaken by Christians accompanied by a lucky bat. The bat is now the symbol of the city, found on monuments, drain covers and the badges of La Liga neighbours: Valencia and Levante. I took advantage of a quirk in the fixture list to watch matches at both over one weekend.
Valencia is home to unorthodox architectural beauties that reflect its varied history. The stunning Lonja de la Seda, the city’s first bank and silk market, is a forest of soaring Gothic columns. The jumbled cathedral, built on a Roman temple and converted from a mosque, has three doors that each reflect a different style: Romanesque to the east, Gothic to the west and Baroque to the south. And perhaps the greatest example of Baroque architecture is the overblown doorway to the ceramics museum. There is also a contemporary edge. The spectacular City of Arts and Sciences is located on the Turia riverbed and would not even exist had 1957 floods not caused considerable ruin to Valencians. La Mestalla, Valencia’s stadium, was closed for two months and the river was rerouted to the south.
La Mestalla is an unmistakable landmark, its vertiginous stands visible from the top of over-restored medieval towers that encircle the old town. It is on borrowed time. Recently agreed private equity investment is ear-marked for stadium redevelopment. And Valencia need the money to complete the Nou Mestalla, where work commenced fifteen years ago and was derailed by the 2008 financial crisis. Around the same time, I walked the ancient pilgrim routes of the Camino de Santiago with my father, following the iconic scallop shell symbols. This was a modern-day pilgrimage to La Mestalla, and Valencia’s fine seafood, with the intentional bonus that Levante were also playing at home.
Levante’s stadium is no eye-teaser from the outside, an uncomfortable fusion of prefab housing and IKEA superstore. Inside, the stadium looked smarter after a recent refit and rock-bottom Levante were looking for a miracle to start against a Villareal side rightly distracted by their upcoming Champions League clash against Bayern. The match had more north London connections (Emery to Coquelin, Mustafi to Aurier) than the Victoria line, but little intensity. I spoke to Paco, a friendly old-timer, behind the goal after a tepid first half through muffled masks and rusty Spanish. Paco said that the Levante crowd was more relaxed than at their big city neighbours, He also remarked that they had less ‘dinero’, reinforcing the point by using the universal hand action of rubbing thumb and finger tips together. “We will be second division next season. Like Fulham” quipped Paco, who clearly needed to revisit the Championship table.
There remained a faint hope. Two fabulous finishes from veteran Morales – the first a backheel assist from long-term strike partner Martí, the second a brilliant double dummy on the goalkeeper – secured Levante a precious win. Paco fell over in celebration. It was only Levante’s fourth victory of the season. I went to a nearby bar to celebrate with the locals and the rowdiest crowd were some visiting Scots. Levante look set to remain Valencia’s sleepier football option.
My weekend in Valencia was full of football, and also the traditional cuisine. It was wise not to combine the two given the insipid offerings at both stadiums. In the old town, Valencian paella (saffron rice with chicken and rabbit) and fideua (pasta noodles with seafood) were cooked in heavy pans and offered solid stomach lining. But even these specialties failed to soak up Agua de Valencia, a heady mix of vodka, gin and cava not quite eclipsed by fresh orange juice. Fortunately, the bars outside La Mestalla the following day were a good place to drink 1-euro beers to counteract the previous night’s indulgences. And to consider the rich history of the club.
Valencia have recently touched glory. They reached consecutive Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001, were the last team outside of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid to win La Liga in 2004, and contributed four players to Spain’s 2010 World Cup winning squad. Things had since regressed. The club were briefly managed by Gary Neville and fans have had a fractious relationship with Singaporean owner Peter Lim who took a controlling interest in 2014. Luminous “Lim Go Home” signs were handed out before my game against Cadiz.
The stadium was no disappointment. A brass band welcomed the bright orange team coach as it arrived outside the main stand, layered like a pile of Jaffa cakes. I circumnavigated the stadium, absorbing the club’s 100-year history through text and pictorial panels that included a colony of bats, a flooded Mestalla, David Villa and a young Benítez. I ascended the concrete San Siro style swirls to reach the top tier of the east stand. Knowing locals waited for the lift. I then clambered up twenty rows to the very top of the stand for one of the most impressive views in European football. It was like conquering a Mayan temple.
The east stand offers no shade or shelter. I squinted through the first half in a t-shirt and jeans despite an air temperature in the low teens. But I was cold and wearing three layers as a tetchy second half ended goalless shortly after the sun set over the main stand. As it will soon on this classic stadium.