Whereas Madrid is a giant sprawling amazing metropolis of goodness with a plethora of incredible shoe stores, Valencia is a calmer version with a slightly less touristy feel. I was enjoying a menu del día mid afternoon at a charming little cafe in a plaza in Valencia. A plaza as in a little square. I love discovering these. They are sometimes large and easy to get to, other times they are tiny and only if you take the meandering narrow streets that seem to lead nowhere will you find them. Museums are often fascinating and fun to see but I can only handle a maximum of two hours before I feel a pure sense of quiet death creeping up on me from the slight boredom of moving from one famous piece of art to another. I much prefer to explore new places on foot outside one street at a time, craning my head into coffee shops and restaurants, people watching and walking down every tiny alley barely wide enough to fit a car let alone a small crowd of locals laughing their way to a cafe for a menu del día.
Apart from some colorful apartments buildings no more than four or five floor high, there was also a bookstore and a vintage clothing shop next to the cafe, across the way a store selling ceramics. I sat under several large citrus trees, the fruit deep green, curiosity making me ask the waitress what kind of citrus it was. Lime? She told me they were ornamental orange trees and that they bloom in the spring.
Blue and white checkered tablecloths adorned each table flapping gently in the wind like a long skirt flowing serpentine around a woman’s ankles. It was hot in the sun but chilly in the shade because of the breeze. As I sat eating a salad of greens, goat cheese, walnuts and strawberries I listened to the air causing the orange tree leaves to clap together slightly. Such a soothing sound, the noise leaves make when they are shaken awake after a spell of still air.
Despite the fact that I was reading a book, I was also eavesdropping on the conversations around me. I usually do this to see what of the Spanish I can understand without actually being part of the conversation and constantly asking someone to repeat themselves. When I can more or less understand whole snippets of conversations I sometimes want to turn to the speakers and tell them excitedly that I can understand them! However, if someone were to randomly turn to me and say those words, I would be weirded out, to say the least, so I keep my excitement contained.
I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation in English at another table near mine. There were four people, an English couple perhaps in their 60’s and two young women perhaps in their early 20’s. One woman was from the United States and the other was also from England, I gathered. I couldn’t figure out their relationship though which was bugging me. The way the couple was acting towards the young women, it seemed that they had just met. Lots of pleasantries being exchanged and the American girl telling the couple what her family was like in the states and about the farm that she grew up on and her father’s subsequent business from that farm. She spoke quite eloquently of the massive problem the United States has with factory farming and what a sickening business it is. I wanted to be her friend on that statement alone. Both the women seemed like backpackers, travelers passing through Valencia only for a few days. They both wore hiking boots and outdoorsy looking clothing. I envisioned them with their heavy packs on, a life I have led as well but no longer have the desire to, rather preferring to find a Spanish place to call home for some time and use that as a base for a trip here and there. Besides, those packs kill my back and knees, I’ve moved on to a small suitcase with wheels. My, don’t I feel mature?
Tucking my fork into my second course, seafood paella (pronounced pie-aye-ya), a speciality in this part of Spain, I lost interest in their conversation and focused on lunch. I have eaten paella every day that I have been in Valencia, typically pairing it with an albariño (a Spanish or Portuguese varietal of white wine delicious with seafood) searching for the place that has the best. Here’s the thing, and I feel like a jerk for saying this, I’m not that impressed with paella. I think it’s because I’m not a huge fan of saffron, one of the spices used giving the rice an orange hue. It’s been good, but it hasn’t blown me away like the various cured meats and delectable cheeses have or the pulpo (octopus) with cilantro pesto I had at a restaurant in Madrid.
As I was presiding over a cup of cafe americano post paella (espresso with water, this rare caffeine drinker would be climbing up buildings like Spiderman without the added water), the waitress came over and asked me if I wanted to try some herbero de Valencia, a herbaceous liqueur made in Valencia. She rattled off the ingredients; manzanillo, romero, anís (chamomille, rosemary, anise) and the others I couldn’t understand but said yes anyways, the first three ingredients ones that my taste buds dance for on any given day. The color was like watered down honey, the taste heavy with anise. Only this past summer realizing what a big fan I am of Ouzo, Pernod, Sambuca and any anise liqueur in general I was overjoyed with the herbero. What a perfect afternoon in this little plaza, people watching, eavesdropping and enjoying a long lunch.
After paying my bill and thanking the waitress for the herbero on the house and the information about the trees, I stood up to seize the rest of the day by exploring more. One Valencian nook and cranny at a time.