Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Queens of the Valencia Scene

OK this has, I'll grant you, been a long time coming, but I've at last found time to sit down and write up the last leg of my Spanish adventure. Ironically I'm doing so as the first leg of the Italian tour comes to a close - tomorrow I leave Rome for Florence - but the sooner I'm up to date the better so here goes.

I left Palma late on Friday evening, a little emotional but nonetheless excited about my next destination and all the more so for knowing that I'd be met there by Dougie who is at pilot school in the city for the next couple of months. Things didn't start well; I had a run-in with a vile German at the airport which left me ridiculously upset (I had the temerity to walk faster than him in the line to security and upon realising that his aggressive Teutonic expletives were falling on uncomprehending ears, he barked at me in English, "We are not here for fun!" "Fuck you matey, I am here precisely for fun," thought I, but kept schtum lest it turn into a new European conflict...) but all was soon forgotten when hardly as soon as we'd taken off we were landing again.

I called Doug as soon as I was off the plane and arranged to meet him at my hotel, the Melia Plaza, in an hour; I'd barely had time to dump my suitcase and utter a 'wow' at the vastness and loveliness of my room when there was a knock on the door and Señor Colman arrived. All residual sadness over thoughts of Fritz and anger over the German at the airport disappeared at seeing my long-lost dear friend, and we raided the mini-bar and caught up over beers while enjoying my spectacular view of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento below.

Despite having been in Valencia for two weeks already, Dougie had not yet made any forays onto the scene and so, like two naughty girls who've just been released from the convent, we headed out into the balmy night. All that we knew - from my trusty guidebook - was that the scene centred around calle Quart, and a moment of sheer hilarity ensued when we stopped at reception to ask where we might find said calle: the receptionist being busy, we asked a little bespectacled security guard, whose descent into uncontrollable giggles and knowing winks outed him as being on our autobus. 

Delighted to find that it was just minutes from the hotel (how I have such luck with these things I don't know - the same's happened in Rome but that's not for here!) we clip-clopped along à la Carrie and Samantha and after a couple of fruitless sashays up, down and around Quart we landed upon a packed and stylish café bar called Trapezzio where we downed drinks and eyed up boys until it abruptly closed around 1.30AM. Pleading first-night-in-town ignorance to one of the barmen as to where to go next proved beneficial: a flyer boy was summoned with a wave and thrust free passes to Deseo 54, the hottest night in town, into our greedy little hands.

A short taxi ride later we found ourselves at Rojo Vivo, the club where Deseo takes place, and a few generous-ish tips early on ensured that as the club rapidly filled up to shoulder-to-shoulder capacity, we alone never had to wait for a drink at the bar. Not being chemically enhanced as the vast majority of punters (mixed, but more gay by a long way, and generally beautiful) seemed to be, it was nothing short of miraculous that we managed to last until...oh I guess about 6.00AM when we finally admitted that we'd had basta and taxied it back to the Plaza.

Next morning - alive but for the grace of the gay gods - we strolled through Valencia's beautiful sunlit streets to the Plaza Santa Catalina, home to Valencia's hulking and not-really-very-pretty cathedral. We sat down to an al fresco tapas brunch at La Sardineria, a very gay-friendly place specialising in (no prizes for guessing, folks) sardines but also offering a wide range of tapas classics both fishy and otherwise, and chewed the (metaphorical) fat while enjoying the array of delights the cute Latino waiter brought out, among them huevos revueltos con jamon - that's yer actual scrambled eggs and ham, don't you know - and patatas bravas. Suitably nourished to brave the challenge, we paid €4 to climb the cathedral's impressive octagonal bell tower, El Miguelete, and - arriving at the top somehow not dead from exhaustion and altitude sickness - we were both impressed at the sweeping panoramic views over the very handsome city way below us (our smiles in the photo here may be because of this, or may perhaps have just been down to our relief at having made it to the top without falling to our deaths from the winding, vertiginous, rail-less stairs up!)

After a detour via the architecturally impressive, canary yellow wedding cake that is the Estacion del Norte to buy my ticket to Barcelona the next day, and having taken in the spectacular, Roman amphitheatre-style bulk of the bull ring, we were ready for more sustenance and headed for Bar Pilar on calle del Moro Zeit, reputed to be Valencia's best tapas bar and famous for its clochinas or baby mussels. The reputation is well-deserved; our clochinas disappeared in a matter of seconds, the calamari was, we agreed, the best we've ever had, and even a plate of whole baby squid in garlic, the result of a clumsy linguistic cock-up on my part and served when we were already pretty full, were delicious.

While Dougie went home for a little siesta (these midgets do tire easily...) I headed to IVAM, Valencia's contemporary art gallery, and although the building is a peaceful, calming temple of minimalism, the art within - echoes here of my MACBA experience in Barcelona - was disappointing, the work of one featured artist (Vicente Colon) consisting entirely of black scribbles. Three rooms of it. Undefeated, I took a long route back to the hotel taking in the outskirts of the city and a visit to the gorgeous shop of Paquita Ors on calle de la Paz. Doña Paquita Ors, a qualified pharmacist and expert in all things dermatalogical, is Spain's answer to Estee Lauder. Her appearance is utterly bonkers - do please have a look at her picture on the website - but she is absolutely revered by the cognoscenti who make up her clientele, and her two delightful assistants took great pleasure in helping me choose a cologne which (if you can catch me for a sniff you'll agree) has all the makings of a new signature scent.

With Doug reappearing, rested and refreshed, it was time for dinner and earlier in the day we'd booked a table at Basilico, owned by friends of a friend of Dougie's, on calle Cadiz in the soon-to-be-supercool neighbourhood of Rustafa. This turned out to be undoubtedly one of the highlights of my whole trip to date for many reasons. Firstly, we were greeted like old friends by Arif, the chef, and his partner (in life and business) Alex, and an extra pavement table set up for us. Arif is a suave, worldly hunk of a man, not unlike George Michael in his sexy days before he turned to dope and went to seed, and Alex is six foot two of Gallic gorgeousness, charm and sang froid. The menu was intriguing, not the Italian one might expect given the restaurant's name but in fact a combination (please - we'll have no 'fusion' on this blog thank you very much) of Mediterranean and Asiatic influences accompanied by a short, interesting wine list.

For starters, Doug went for the seasonal salad with goat's cheese crostini and red onion jam, while I opted for steamed dim sum (which were yum yum); for our mains, I took Alex's recommendation of the teriyaki salmon, marinated for hours until rich with flavour then poached to just done-ness, served on dressed egg noodles, while Doug went for red curry prawn noodles which he ooh-ed and aah-ed over with all the enthusiasm he normally reserves for Argentine barmen. We washed it all down with a bottle of crisp, chilled Rueda, a Chablis-ish Spanish white, all the while being fussed over like VIPs (which of course honey, we are) by Alex and chatted to as often as kitchen lulls would allow by Arif. Portions were so generous that dessert was out of the question, but we did manage (between us, not each) some chilled vodka, super-duper espresso, a Martini and a mojito (the cocktails on the house, bless you Arif and Alex!) all of which took us and the Basilico boys well past closing time. If ever you go to Valencia - and I do recommend that you do - go to Basilico; I really loved it and everything about it.

Full not just of food but of energy too (probably down to the espresso!) Dougie and I again hit the scene, this time with Arif in tow; much to our delight, he had decided a few hours out would let off some steam after an exhausting night in the kitchen, so the three of us hopped in a cab up to Quart and hit Venial, a sprawling club and bar where it seemed at least half the folks from Deseo the night before had rocked up to get down (and perhaps get off) to the commercial dance soundtrack. For a breather (and to see if we could marry Dougie off to a sexy Spaniard) we popped round the corner to the dark, cruisy and fabulously named Nunca Digo No - 'I Never Say No'! - where Arif, so my new best friend, and I, married men both, propped up the bar while Doug went off to explore some of the 'darker' reaches of the venue. His exploring didn't last long; the lights went up not long after our arrival (it was only 3AM, after all) so we tottered back to Venial where we watched the stage show (men and a lady come on in sportsgear - men and a lady dance in sportsgear - men and a lady remain in sportsgear...thrilling stuff!) and giggled and drank for a while longer before we decided to call it a night and head for our beds.

By Sunday, Dougie was quite the broken flower so I was left to my own devices and filled my last few hours very pleasurably. I began by taking the bus across town to the Ciutat de les Artes y Ciencias, the spectacular complex of futuristic white buildings all but one designed by Santiago Calatrava to house the city's performing arts and science spaces. As I walked around taking in the exteriors of the rib-cage like Umbracle, the perforated drum of the Science Museum and the spaceman's helmet housing the concert hall, I sipped on a chilled horchata, every Valencian's favourite summer drink made of tiger nuts and tasting not unlike delicately salty soya milk. Returning to town for lunch, I pigged out, at Sagardi, on gourmet pintxos, a sort of tapas-for-one to which you help yourself from the bar and pay - by an honesty system - when the cocktail sticks each is pierced with are counted up at the end. My time slowly running out, I was simply delighted beyond words that with just enough time left to enjoy it without rushing I chanced upon a vast Tintin exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Culture, my absolute love of the boy detective meaning that I wrapped up my visit on a massive high.

I left Valencia with a smile on my face and some memories to treasure; I was delighted to have a chance to share them with Matthew and Xavi, the lovely friend who had invited me to dinner at his flat in Barcelona when I first arrived and who insisted I join him again on my return. My last few days in Barcelona were less packed but just as much fun as the first few; I enjoyed the Fundación Joan Miró more than any gallery I've been to this trip, and I rounded it all off with a mega-crawl of the scene on my penultimate night, revisiting some old favourites (including Dietrich, where a shine was taken to me by the Dutch squash team, still in town after that week's Gay Games!) and discovering new ones, notably Museo which was chic but unpretentious. I left Barcelona - and, for now, Spain - full of emotions, full of new experiences and lessons learned, all of which I'll sum up in a post of their own. For now it's on with the travels; hasta luego Spain, and ciao Italia!

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