Valencia, Spain – fun facts, tourism and the Holy Grail

June 4, 2024

Beautiful Valencia!

This is Spain’s third-largest city.

And I’ve been here several times now.

The first time was with my dad, about 20 years ago – how time flies.

From that trip, I remember walking along my first European beach, seeing more toplessness in half an hour than most guys from the Arizona desert see in a lifetime.

It was eye-opening. But when I called my girlfriend back home on a payphone and told her about it, she was (for some reason) pissed off at me.

Remember payphones?

Sheeit. I probably walked around Europe buying phone cards so I could call home. That’s how old I am.

I also visited, that first time, a small round plaza where a bunch of women were tatting. My dad knew the word, I didn’t. “Tatting” is making lace by hand, using small wooden shuttles. It’s a big thing in Valencia, apparently. Look up “encaje de bolillos” if you want.

After that, I came out here for one reason or another every few years.

One time, I ate rabbit paella on that same round plaza (or round square, perhaps?).

Another time, a friend and I went to the mostly-deserted beach at El Saler, where we spent the night in sleeping bags on the sand. (Beach camping in Spain is probably illegal or something… do your research first.)

I love these giant trees. This one’s in Valencia.

I remember coming once and realizing that Valencia seemed to be a few years ahead of Madrid in the great conversion to hipsterdom that went through European cities back in the 2010s. Suddenly every restaurant had a lot of decor, and a quirky concept. Silly names on the menu. The whole bit.

The fact is, Valencia has always been a bit more touristy than Madrid. But I’ve always loved it.

Now, fresh off the Route of Don Quixote, I’m back.

Valencia, the mecca of meccas

Years ago, when I was a real travel writer, doing restaurant reviews for Lonely Planet, I had to read the official style guide for their online publications. It had plenty of tips on how to make our reviews more inclusive and comprehensible for readers around the world – as well as lists of common clichés to stay away from.

Don’t assume they’re escaping a cold winter, for example. Don’t use “cum” as a preposition unless absolutely necessary. Avoid expressions like “lip-smacking”, “jaw-dropping” or “awe-inspiring”.

But by far my favorite line was “Don’t use ‘mecca’ unless referring to actual Mecca.”

Since then I’ve been aching for an excuse to use the word mecca in some article.

So here goes: Valencia has long been a mecca for paella lovers an horchata enthusiasts alike, and with its jaw-dropping architecture and history, it’s a great place to escape the damp and wind-swept rock you call home for some warmer weather – even in the cold of winter.

Getting off the regional train from Alcazar de San Juan, I take in the awe-inspiring beauty of the city for a minute.

But I’m not my usual sprightly self – the train left too early for me to find any coffee, and now it’s after 11:00 and I’m completely uncaffeinated. Luckily I’ve packed light, so I enjoy the walk across town with my backpack, stopping for coffee along the way.

Valencia: once a mecca for lace-makers and saffron merchants, now a mecca for uncaffeinated blogger types.

But coffee is just the first step in my plan.

I’m here to see the Holy Grail.

Search for the Holy Grail

Several years ago, it came to my attention that the Holy Grail is here in Valencia.

Of course, there are several Holy Grails out there, but the most “believable” one is the one in Valencia. It’s been used by two popes, when they gave masses on their visits to the city.

Later, in 2014, Pope Francis declared a jubilee year in honor of the Grail – to be celebrated every five years, forever. Apparently, that means that even the Vatican recognizes this one as being the true Grail – and that pilgrims visiting the Chalice will receive forgiveness for all sins – plenary indulgence!

The next jubilee year starts in October 2025. Mark your calendars.

And the other Grails of Europe? Well, they may be Grails, but they’re not this Holy…

You could almost say that this Holy Grail is the Holy Grail of Holy Grails.

Dropping my backpack off at the hotel, I wander down towards the cathedral. However, I find there’s something of a line, and if there’s one thing Mr Chorizo tries to avoid when he’s on vacation it’s line-standing.

I decide to come back later, and instead end up inside the neighboring Basílica de Santa María de los Desamparados. The ceiling on this place is amazing, one of those heavenly dome scenes with angels floating overhead.

This time, I also notice a painting of the Degollamiento de los Santos Inocentes. This refers to the biblical story in which Herod the Great has all the young children of Bethlehem killed, in hopes of getting rid of Jesus before he becomes a problem. Politics worked somewhat differently back then, I guess.

degollamiento de los santos inocentes museo del prado
This Santos Inocentes painting is from the Museo del Prado.

Contemplating the scene in the basilica, I think back to the martyrs last week in Toledo – and Santa Úrsula, killed by Attila the Hun. We use the a lot of religious vocabulary to mean something completely different than its actual meaning, I think, heading off towards an Argentinian restaurant I’ve heard is a mecca for steak lovers.

“Stop being such a martyr!” It sounds like an admonishment for someone who’s whining.

Actual martyrs tended to be flayed alive, or burnt at the stake. Santa Eulalia, patron of Barcelona, was allegedly rolled down the street inside a barrel full of broken glass. And famously, they didn’t complain.

Things like that put my lack of coffee this morning into a bit of perspective.

Thinking of Saints Ursula and Eulalia, and of the Holy Grail, here’s some other religious vocabulary we use to mean something else these days…

They really crucified me at that meeting last Wednesday!

They probably didn’t crucify you, per se.

Crucifixion was a method of execution for a very long time, in many countries.

Jesus, of course, is usually painted on a T-shaped cross, but sometimes the cross is X-shaped.

Saint Peter, according to biblical apocrypha, was crucified upside down because he didn’t feel worthy of dying in the same way as Jesus. (More about the apocrypha below.)

Crucifixion is a thing in Sharia Law.

Saudi Arabia is, apparently, still crucifying people – usually beheading them first. The crucifixion is meant to display their bodies – not to kill them.

michaelangelo crucifixion of peter
Detail from the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, by Michaelangelo.

And even today, in the Philippines, some people crucify themselves (non-lethally) as a devotional practice on Good Friday. From Wikipedia: “Rolando del Campo, a carpenter in Pampanga, vowed to be crucified every Good Friday for 15 years if God would carry his wife through a difficult childbirth.”

If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

San Francisco’s crusade against sugary beverages…

Today we use the word crusade to mean an extended campaign against something considered to be bad.

The actual Crusades, of course, were religious wars starting about a thousand years ago. The First Crusade was an attempt to take the Holy Land back from the Islamic Seljuk Empire that was (in those days) making life difficult for Christian populations and pilgrims. Jerusalem was taken in 1099, after a five-week siege.

Official crusades were approved by the Pope, but there were popular crusades, also. The official ones involved knights, the popular ones were more spontaneous. And the Reconquista here in Spain was also a conflict between the Visigoth kingdoms and the Muslim occupation, but it’s not generally referred to as a “crusade”.

statue of el cid campeador valencia
El Cid, hero of the Reconquista.

In writing nearly 5000 words about Don Quixote a few days ago, I didn’t get around to researching knighthood in Europe at all, but I get the idea that knights would (among other things) protect groups of Christians around Europe – for example, pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.

Sinful chocolate cheesecake

Back when I was a bagboy at AJ’s Fine Foods in the desert wasteland outside Phoenix, there was a cashier named Joe who would flirt with the customers by saying stupid shit like “those cupcakes look decadent” or “that cheesecake looks sinful.” He’d kind of giggle as he said it.

Gluttony, of course, is one of the seven deadly sins – and its opposite, temperance, one of the Stoic virtues. Presumably gluttony is what we mean when referring to cheesecake being “sinful”.

On the other hand, I now discover that there are guilt-free cheesecakes as well. Seems like a lot of moral pressure to put on your cheesecake, either way. (What decadence has to do with desserts I have yet to discover.)

“Rick and Morty” canon, Led Zeppelin apocrypha

In the biblical sense, “canon” refers to the texts that are officially included in the Bible. If a religious text from around that time period has been examined and determined not to be canon, it’s apocryphal.

So, for example, the Catholic Church (at the Council of Rome in the year 382 AD) drew up a list of 73 documents that now form the Catholic Bible – 46 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament. Those are the Catholic Canon, the real-deal Word of God. Your denomination may have a slightly different list of texts.

In geek fandom they use the word canon to mean something fairly similar: Rick and Morty canon refers to the main plotline of what “really happens” within their fictional universe. An episode that takes place inside a video game might contain plenty of silly events that aren’t “canon”, in the sense that they didn’t “happen” in the fictional universe – they happened in a video game inside that universe – and won’t have further consequences in the story.

Similarly, you could write Star Wars fan fiction in which Princess Leia and Jabba the Hut are unhappily married, living in the suburbs, and arguing while standing in line at the Space Walmart… but it wouldn’t be canon.

I’ve also seen “apocryphal” used to refer to stories about famous people that aren’t true: “the possibly apocryphal story of various members of Led Zeppelin using a fish to sexually pleasure a red-haired groupie”, for example.

I could go on here.

But instead, let me just say that the steak at the Argentinian place was good, but not ambrosial, and that while Valencia is a very nice place, I would hesitate to call it a “Mediterranean Paradise”.

In any case, it has recently been named the #1 city for expats – as well as one of the healthiest cities in the world. And then, of course, there’s the paella.

paella madrid
This paella is madrileña, at Casa Jacinto in Madrid.

Spanish people go absolutely apeshit if you suggest (as a foreign person) that you know anything at all about paella, so I’ll just say here that while I’m happy to eat it about once a year, it’s far from being my favorite rice dish… in fact, I’d prefer to get a shrimp fried rice from a good Chinese restaurant.

(Shrimp fried rice is is better than paella… They’re gonna crucify me for that one.)

Several “fun” facts about Valencia

I decide to leave my visit to the cathedral – and the Holy Grail – for tomorrow, and instead spend the afternoon wandering around Barrio del Carmen.

Here’s a fun fact about Valencia that I learned today: the Borgia family of popes were from right down the road in Xàtiva. That means they were Valencian, and therefore, canonically, Catalan. It’s weird that the Catalans don’t go around trumpeting the fact that one of the (allegedly) most evil families in history is one of their own.

(Cultural note: the Valencians are usually happy to be Spanish, but the Catalans like to expand the definition of Catalonia to include all sorts of people who want nothing to do with their independence movement. Also, the Valencian language is very similar to Catalan. Some would say they’re variants of the same language. It depends on who you ask.)

In any case, the Borgia palace here in Valencia is closed until Monday, and that’s a bummer. But it gives me a reason to come back soon – and to plan a visit to Xàtiva.

The Borgias are ancient history, though.

More recently, Valencia is famous for the Fallas festival (in which giant effigies are set on fire) and the Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias (a museum complex designed by Santiago Calatrava – it has a pretty good aquarium).

If you’re into wacky festivals, the nearby town of Buñol has one in which people spend a day throwing tomatoes at each other. It’s in late August, and it’s called La Tomatina. I think you need to buy tickets in advance.

And that’s about as much info as you’re likely to get from a list of facts about Valencia online.

Visiting the Holy Grail (or chalice) in Valencia Cathedral

The next day I’m up early, as usual, and while sitting in the one open coffee place, it occurs to me that the cathedral might be open for mass in the morning.

I google, and it is. Free entrance until about 9:30, it looks like.

The Grail is in a chapel off to the side. It’s a small red stone cup with a golden base with handles that was added centuries later. Archaeologists have actually decided that the cup itself comes from the time of Herod the Great, so it’s old enough to have been around for the Last Supper.

holy grail in valencia cathedral
The Holy Grail is the black dot right in the center of this picture.

I’m in the little chapel when a couple of priests walk in and close the door behind them. Before I know it, the dozen people in the pews are on their feet and we’re doing mass. Guess I’ll be here a while.

I sit down after the first blessing. The priest lifts his head and looks at me over his glasses, and I glance around. Oops. I’m the only one sitting. I get back up. I don’t go to mass very often, and I’ve forgotten some of the protocol.

“Yo confieso ante Dios Todopoderoso, y ante ustedes hermanos que he pecado mucho de pensamiento, palabra, obra y omisión. Por mi culpa, por mi culpa, por mi gran culpa.”

He repeats the “por mi culpa, por mi culpa, por mi gran culpa” part several more times.

It’s interesting how this is pretty much the exact opposite of the message you get casually scrolling through Instagram. Humility isn’t popular these days. Nor is a sense of duty to something higher than one’s own desires.

Our Lady of the Forsaken

The priest talks about Our Lady of the Forsaken – La Virgen de los Desamparados, whose basilica I visited yesterday. She’s the virgin who protects the weak and needy. The homeless, the addicts. The people with nowhere to go. In any case, the message is of hope, and peace, and brotherhood.

After a while they pass the collection basket. I barely ever carry change anymore, but I dig into my pocket. Nothing. The basket passes me by and I see there’s only a euro and a few copper coins in it. The part of the “sign of peace” comes and I stick out my hand to the guy next to me. He gives me a funny look. Okay, nobody else is shaking either. But after a moment’s hesitation, he takes my hand. He’s a skinny guy in a denim jacket, and he’s looking a bit desamparado himself, like he’s maybe had a few really rough decades.

I can’t do the bread and wine bit – as an unbaptized heathen (and occasional elephant worshipper) I’m not supposed to take communion. But I’ve sort of changed my mind about religion over the last few years. Or at the very least, I’ve decided that the current culture of hedonism and self-aggrandizement is a total dead end.

I walk out feeling lighter – spiritually lighter. Also, mass in the Chapel of the Holy Chalice – How cool is that? It’s pretty much the Holy Grail of Holy Grail experiences, if you ask me.

Back outside, it’s a sunny Saturday morning in Valencia…

Most people writing about Spain focus on the “fun in the sun” aspects. They make it seem like the whole country is fully occupied with drinking sangría at the beach, or hanging out at rooftop bars.

But I’ve been in Spain almost 20 years now, like I said, and I’ve been writing about it for more than a decade. I was never much fun to begin with, and I’m no longer interested in making lists of the top 9 “authentic” paella restaurants, or whatever.

Hopefully you’re with me on this journey through some of the deeper aspects of Spanish culture.

My last stop in Valencia is the Museum of Fine Arts. I remember seeing this building on my first trip as well – the distinctive blue tiled dome just across the riverbed from downtown.

Speaking of chalices, there’s a painting of Jesus bleeding out into a large cup held by one of his followers. There’s Saint George, his spear buried in the mouth of the dragon. And there’s a skull, reminding us of our final end.

The inscription below the skull is in Latin – the translation is “In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin.” This is apparently a quote from the book of Ecclesiasticus AKA Sirach, Chapter 7 – a book that’s included in the Catholic Bible (and most Orthodox Bibles) but not the Protestant version. It is, therefore, both canon and apocryphal – depending on which version of Christianity you’re following.

One steak lunch and one coffee later, I’m on the train back up the coast towards Barcelona.

Have a good one, y’all.

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. Let me know if there are any topic you’d like to see on the blog. I’m always on the lookout for interesting things to write about. Also, did you know you can donate? Why yes you can: buy me a (virtual) coffee, etc, right here. Thanks!

P.P.S. I was hoping to work the Holy Prepuce into this article, but in the end I didn’t manage it. In any case, several churches around Europe used to contain relics of what was (allegedly) Jesus’ foreskin. Some denominations still celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1 each year – stories about the origin of the Holy Prepuce being first laid out in the (apocryphal) Syriac Infancy Gospel. By now, all known foreskin relics have been lost or stolen, unfortunately. Now you know.

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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