VALENCIA grew alongside the river Turia for many years and has a very special relationship with its water way. After the devastating flood of 1957, it was decided living alongside the river had become too great a risk and it was diverted. Today, the Turia’s old courseway is the largest urban garden in Spain, even though there was pressure for it to become a motorway...
LAST OCTOBER, the floods in Valencia were all over the news. Yet in Spain, it is a kind of ritual: every autumn, the heavens open. And what tends to alarm visitors and those new to the area doesn’t bother the Valencians, who have lived with the October deluges for centuries.
In fact, it was October, fifty years ago, when the great flood of Valencia left the city underwater and forced the river Turia to be diverted southwards, for safety reasons. These days, there are still odd problems with the river bursting its banks, but nothing comparable to that great un-damming of the Turia in 1957.
As the popular Spanish proverb goes, ‘nothing bad ever happens where some good doesn’t come out of it’, and the catastrophe of 1957 brought with it an amazing silver lining. The river turned into a magnificent garden that crosses the city from the north to the south and offers numerous possibilities for walking and sightseeing to visitors and residents.
City break in Valencia
You could do worse than spend a weekend exploring the capital of the Turia river. A city break in Valencia lets you not only get to know the history of the great flood but also to enjoy the river as it is today. A river that magically transformed into a massive and beautiful garden with some of the city’s greatest cultural attractions on its shores.
Among them, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias; the Valencian Contemporary Art Museum (IVAM) and the San Pio V, one of Spain’s largest and most famous classical art galleries. Sports fans will also find a world at their feet in the old Turia riverbed. Mountainbiking, football and pingpong are all popular in the area. In fact, the horror and devastation that went with the disaster of 1957 turned Valencia’s ground zero into the heart of this beautiful, cosmopolitan and versatile city.
The great flood
Valencia is commemorating the catastrophe that changed the face of the city this autumn. On October 14, 1957, when the river Turia burst its banks and flooded practically the whole of the centre of the city, some of its most attractive and central streets like Calle La Paz and Calle Las Barcas were submerged in water of up to 2.5m (7’8”).
Strolling through these streets you will see small inscriptions on the rendering of some of the buildings that say, ‘the water came up to here’. The material damage and human loss were catastrophic. The tragedy did not appear on the news because we didn’t have TV in those days, but the camera footage of a number of intrepid photographers are pretty impressive.
Move the river
This was not the first time Valencia suffered a great flood. Earlier ones were recorded in 1897 and 1949. After the flood of 1957, the authorities decided to divert the river towards the south of the city. Meteorological records show that during the 1957 flood, 600 litres per square metre fell in 24 hours. Considerably more than last week, when around 100 litres per square metre were registered in Valencia city.
The triumph of environmental battle
The decision to move the river was the most important that Valencia has ever made, but it gave vent to a long, drawn-out battle for the old riverbed to be turned into a public garden. Massive protests and demonstrations managed to stop the authorities, thankfully, from turning it into a motorway in 1966, and led to their giving in and letting the people of the city have the spectacular, verdant, garden of Eden for which they had campaigned.
Citizens and environmentalists won their battle and the old Turia riverbed is now Spain’s largest urban garden. It has become the main artery that gives life, oxygen and a breath of fresh air to the city.
A walk along the Turia
It is best to explore the Turia, by starting from the south and heading north, beginning with a visit to the impressive Arts and Sciences complex (second photo) designed by prestigious architect, Santiago Calatrava. This year, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (CAC) is celebrating its tenth anniversary, so it is a good time to visit and enjoy some of the one-off activities that are taking place. Go to www.cac.es for further information.
A visit to the CAC will take the best part of a morning, and later you can go down to the riverbed and start walking away from the sea. You can either cover the route by bike or rent a six-person bike, just for fun.
For those who are allergic to exercise there is a miniature tourist train that runs along the riverbed. The first feature you come to is the Gulliver, a children’s park with Jonathan Swift’s character of the same name lying asleep. He also serves as a climbing frame with several slides and other apparatus to keep the kids amused.
Next is the Palau de la Música, the first of the city’s musical buildings and at its feet, some beautiful palm-lined gardens popular with skateboarding fans. Nearby fountains provide other activities for parents and children such as sailing remote-controlled model boats.
Further on, there are several tiny copses where residents practice jogging, T’ai Chi and gymnastics. Soon you come across a bridge known as the Puente de las Flores. This walkway that crosses the river is home to – hence the name – thousands of flowerpots that change shape and colour according to the seasons. Later, there is another bridge, the Puente de Santiago Calatrava (third photo), which the Valencians call the Puente de la Peineta (‘little comb’) precisely because it looks like the comb-type accessories that falleras wear in their hair. Here, the trees begin to take on a dense, green lushness and their shade is very welcome on a warm, sunny day.
Next, you will make out the shadow of the San Pio V fine arts museum (fourth photo) with its blue dome alongside the Jardín de los Viveros. Both garden and museum are well worth a visit. The San Pio V gallery houses Spain’s most significant collection of 19th-century painting after the Prado museum in Madrid.
A few metres on and you will probably come to a mass of people playing football at the feet of the Torres de Serranos (fifth photo). These imposing towers are one of the twelve gateways that gave access to Valencia via its old city walls - the majority of these gateways have disappeared now but these towers remain in a good state of repair, despite having been built as far back as the 14th century.
Continuing on to the Pont de les Arts – a recently-constructed bridge that is influenced by 1970s’ architecture.
Next, you will reach the entrance to the IVAM, or Instituto Valenciano del Arte Contemporáneo, one of the largest and most significant of its kind in Europe. Here, you can stop for a wellearned rest and a bite to eat in the cafeteria, which has a varied and tempting menu at very reasonable prices. If you want to go more upmarket, try Restaurante La Sucursal, an exquisite eatery inside the museum itself.
In the afternoon, with a bit of modern art indelibly printed on your retinas, you can continue along the Turia gardens as far as the Parque de Cabecera, crossing the La Petxina bridge and admiring the shell of the same name that christened it.
Just another quarter of an hour further on, you come to the last of the parks built into the riverbed that is soon to become home to Valencia city’s new zoo.