Through my work as a travel writer, I attend World Travel Market, the world’s biggest travel trade fair. In 2014, I headed to the Valencia stand and spread the map of the city out on the table, behind which stood an important tourist board representative. I jabbed my finger at the El Cabanyal area, a district built by fishermen, which borders on the beach.
Here, I said. I want to go here.
Of course I didn’t mention that I already lived in the area for half the year and was very familiar with its many charms. For me it’s the best bit of this delightful city, a highlight of any trip to Valencia.
But the Tourist Board official clearly didn’t agree. He began to squirm with discomfort.
‘It’s difficult’ he muttered in embarrassment. ‘We don’t like to promote this area. It’s a sensitive subject.’
In 2015, I returned to the same stand. This time the tourist board representative was much more jovial. Once again I spread the map out on the table and asked the same question, but the response was far more satisfactory.
Fantastic he exclaimed. This part of Valencia is the new Soho!! It’s so up and coming. You’ll love it.
As I left, clutching a press kit with information about the place where I had bought a flat three years previously, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. After the demise and final ending of Rita Barbara, Shakespearean in its drama, El Cabanyal has changed dramatically. Gone are the sad brown and white striped walls indicating mayoral possession.
Instead there are wonderful murals, bursting with colour and finely crafted.
The ramshackle houses are being restored and painted. There’s even a big household paint shop on Calle Mediterannee, where once there was an empty former branch of Santander.
A tanning parlour, which always seemed superfluous in such a sunny place, has now been transformed into a spacious, friendly bookshop selling intriguing publications about Valencia, as well as books from many Latin American countries.
In the square next to the Mercado del Cabanyal, Work in Progress is a vibrant, laid back bar, run by two charming Sicilian women. Selling stuffed squid and caponata, arancini and insalada capresa, it lends a new flavour to the food scene, competing with old timers such as Bar Flor. Although it’s hard to imagine bettering the Bocadilla con Pintillas y Tortilla de Espincacas(fried bits of squid in a baguette with a gooey spinach omelette) served in this more traditional café.
On one warm evening, what was described as a ‘light S & M performance’ took place in Work in Progress but I was too busy eating my dinner to stand up to watch.
Around the corner at Mar d’Amura, Calle Progres 159, a shady outside terrace is used to serve more delicate versions of traditional Spanish dishes. Despite the slightly fancy menu, you can still eat a three course lunch with a drink and coffee for 9 euros. Inside it’s roomy and tastefully designed and you would never know it was a rundown house until recently. So many houses in this formerly shabby street are looking smarter and smarter as the old fishermens’ quarter is brought to life.
In Justo Y Vilar, always a popular pedestrianised strip, set back off the main street of Calle Mediteranee, there is now competition for the vibrant Ca la Mar, which opened three years ago. Painted white with blue trimmings this lovely, friendly restaurant is airy and bright, and the shady outdoor terrace is hugely popular. The food is typically Valencian, with dishes such as Titaina(a kind of cold Ratatouille) and Esgarrett – peppers and salted cod.
Next door at L’Ancora they are maintaining the tradition of seafood dishes from its previous incarnation with sepia sucia(dirty squid) and pulpo a la plancha. You can sit outside here too, enjoying the mild bustle of Canyamelar, as this part of the Poblats Maritim is called.
After dinner, you can wander a few paces down to Olivares, for thick, sticky chocolate and churros,the sugary strips made from batter, like long doughnuts. Join a determined group of local women who congregate here to play Ludo at an outside table, even on colder nights.
Along the seafront a range of tourist restaurants serve set lunches for around £15 a head. Just back from the sea, is a less traditional hangout, La Fabrica de Hielo – a former ice factory which has been converted into an airy venue for live music, including many free performances. There’s a bar, a food caravan and a regular rastro, or flea market. It’s very cool, in both senses of the word and just the place to escape from the heat of the sun on a sticky summer’s day.
A few streets back from the beach on queenly Calle La Reina is Tasca la Reina, specialising in delicious fish tapas and platters of fresh local seafood. Lively and busy, this is the sister restaurant to local stalwarts La Paca and La Peseta which have been dishing up bargain tapas, including spectacular tortillas, for years.
At the far end of Calle Progresso, El Rinconcillo is a well-run and fetching little bar with an outdoor space, where coffee comes with a free wedge of flan. Although originally founded in 1896, it’s a new alternative to the neighbouring Casa Guillermo, famous for its amazing array of anchovies.
Although many of the new bars are in the area known as Canyamelar, the more ramshackle streets of El Cabanyal, the ones the former mayor Rita Barbara had lined up for destruction, have also seen some changes.
Even old neighbourhood favourite Bar Aldeana has a new menu del dia served by waiters in matching t-shirts.
One of the best examples of eateries is Fumiferro on Calle Vicente Ballester 36. Walk through streets previously grimly covered with Rita’s brown and white stripes but now painted with beautiful, exciting street art. There have been many changes but it’s still quite a surprise to see such a swish looking joint in a place once threatened by destruction.
Fumiferro, is spacious, sophisticated and elegant, specialising in grilled fish and meat. It’s more expensive than most(around £20 a head) but the food is a cut above. Pulpo a las Canarias, grilled octopus served with papas arrugas and a spicy sauce is delicious. Or try the subtly stuffed tacos filled with a mix of fish and gently steamed salmon.
This buzzing bar/grill is full and noisy, packed with well-heeled Valencianos who wouldn’t have ventured anywhere near this extraordinary neighbourhood until a few years ago. Now they are beating a path to eat, drink and be merry here. And despite the muttering about gentrification from long standing Cabanyaleros, the revitalisation of this precious barrio can only be a wonderful thing