How I Came to El Cabanyal
On holiday in Valencia in November 2012, we decided to head for the beach, which feels separate from the main city, even though it’s very close and easy to reach. You just take the Metro line number 5 to Maritim Serreria, where it ends. A tram then transports you down to Las Arenas, a long, long sandy beach fringed by palm trees and seafood restaurants.
On this sunny Sunday, however, we chose to walk the ten minutes to the seafront and as we set off, we could almost see the Mediterranean shimmering in the distance.
Half-way there we stopped for habas y jamon and patatas bravas in a small corner bar outside which local people were eating and chatting. I liked the mood of this bar straightaway, realising that it wasn’t a tourist spot but a place where women aged 70 plus could sit and drink cold beer and smoke cigarettes at midday without fear of condemnation.
Full of food and feeling happy, we walked along a beautiful street called Calle Rosario, where the facades of many of the houses featured exquisite tiles with ornate designs. They had curved iron balconies too and peeling paint didn’t detract from their deep charm.
Along Rosario, there was a lovely church in a large square, with fountains and children playing football. Families sat outside on the street, two voluptuous women with black hair piled on top of their heads, were dancing to Flamenco music while others clapped around them. This was all part of the street scene but it was hard not to gawp.
Outside a busy bar called La Paca, a cooler crowd were drinking little cups of coffee and eating huge slabs of tortilla. They looked as if they had been there all day and had no plans of moving on.
Intrigued we kept walking, noticing the names – Escalante, Barraca, Josep Benllure, Progres, Reina. This grid of long streets had so many wonderful houses, each one different and painted pink or yellow or blue or green. Especially lovely were the amazing tiles, a world of patterns and colours. Dates were often included in the design, 1913, 1918, 1930, presumably the years when these houses were built. The state of these streets varied widely. Some looked as if they had been recently bombed, others were smart and restored with roof-top gardens. There were signs up on some of the houses which read: Rehabitiaceo Sense Destrucio, which means Restore don’t Destroy in the Valencian Language. In places well-dressed groups of Spanish people and a few smart tourists drank glasses of Cava and chatted loudly, while in others slightly dishevelled families sat outside their homes, watching as we walked by.
I liked Valencia a lot, but until this point I had felt no particular connection here and certainly no desire to buy a flat in Spain’s third largest city.
Suddenly though, an urge overwhelmed me and within an hour, I was looking in the estate agents’ windows. The next morning at 10am, I was in an estate agents, where Gloria from Area Maritima spread out a selection of keys in front of me with a flick of her carefully painted finger nails. The day after that, we were in her husband Pepe’s car, driving around the streets of a place which I now knew was called El Cabanyal. Fishermen had built these ornate and decorative houses after their original homes were destroyed by a storm. They were badges of pride and of a new life, many using the colours of the sea and sky and the sunshine.
Gloria was a few years older than me and rather glamorous. With her beaming smile and non-stop sales pitch, little of which I understood, she put British estate agents to shame. She had no problem ascending the 60 steps of the first apartment building we entered, talking and smoking at the same time.
She flung open the door, to a place where the rooms were filled with sun and floors were covered with the softly-coloured original tiles from when the block was built in 1913. The kitchen looked like a remnant of the 1930’s with stone work surfaces. The bathroom was a sickly green shade and some of the ceilings had been lowered and covered with nasty white tiles, a legacy of the previous owner, a woman called Concepcion, who had died a few years ago and left the flat to her two brothers to sell. At the back, a bright room with wood-panelled windows across one wall looked like a covered in terrace. The flat ran the length of the building and was far more spacious than I had anticipated. I stood on the little balcony at the front and felt as if I would be standing there a lot in the future.
Gloria could see the interest in my eyes and responded with what I soon learnt was one of her favourite sayings.
She was delighted. She was delighted by the flat, it seemed but far more than this, she was delighted that I was so delighted. At last she had a customer.
We saw five other flats that day, some cheaper, some in better condition or closer to the sea. But the first one was the only one that touched my heart. We returned three more times and the last time I decided to time how long it took to walk to the sea. If we could do it in five minutes, I was sold. And yes we could. I stood on that long, sandy beach waving my arms around, then walked into the sea. I felt a rush of happiness and certainty. Why not make this special place my home?
We left for the south of the province, for Granada, for Malaga, then London. We found an excellent solicitor, also called Gloria. The first Gloria couldn’t understand why I needed the second one, but the second one was calm and reassuring and very efficient indeed.
By the middle of January, I owned a charming, slightly crumbling flat in a funny square in a funny place called El Cabanyal.
As I write this I can see the square three floors below. There are two palm trees, a few seats, older ladies playing cards. A crowd of guilt-free idlers drinking and reading the paper outside the local bar. And most importantly, gypsies sitting or leaning against the walls of the various buildings, as if in their own living room. Which this square is, as gypsy families have lived in the area for years in their spotless houses with gleaming floors.
You can hear them clapping, singing and playing the guitar throughout the day and often for much of the night, except when they retreat inside and watch their massive TVs.
Friendly yet self-contained, they watch us just as we watch them but rarely speak to us, except for once when a man asked if we would buy them a bag of oranges. It seemed a very modest gift considering that you can purchase three kgs for one euro.
Rita Barbara, the much hated Mayor of Valencia has tried to knock down many houses in these delightful streets and got as far as sending in bulldozers to destroy them while they were still inhabited. She wants to extend an avenue from the centre of Valencia to the sea and eliminate many houses in the process. It’s called Avenida Blasco Ibanez, named after the famous writer, who loved this area, championed its people and would be appalled to see the way that in places, it has been allowed to fall to pieces Luckily there are many fans of El Cabanyal to wish to renovate and restore it, because, like me they love it. It’s so distinctive, familiar, fun and fascinating and makes Valencia so much better.
I’m so glad I didn’t take the tram straight to the beach that day and I discovered this slice of maritime treasure.