Your man on the bus seemed unpromising at first. In his seventies, and swaddled in one of those indeterminately brown coats favoured by pensioners the world over, he was complaining about the heat to start with. He stood up to open a window, and that got us talking.
I’d said I wouldn’t complain about it being 20 degrees at the end of December, like, ever. He asked me, in Spanish, ‘Are you French?’
To be fair, I often seem to be mistaken for a Frenchman in Spain. Given that they’re no more known than the Spanish for producing over six foot specimens with pale skin, blue eyes and a ginger beard, I can only assume it’s my accent: I explained that, no, I’d learned it at school, but as soon as I learned Spanish, all the French had gone. Desaparecido. Disparu, for that matter.
He confided in me that he spoke five languages: ‘Español, Valenciano, Frances, Claro, y Directo.’ Then, as the bus rattled on, he was full of banter: recommendations for the restaurant to go to when we got to the beach; notes and queries on the English sense of humour; and a story about his Edinburgh-based nephew’s medical career in Edinburgh when I assured him I was no more English than I was French.
He really was the best kind of random bus companion you could encounter: interested, interesting, an inquiring mind full of wisdom and humour. Although I didn’t try out my French on him – as I may have said already, it takes a left turn south of the Pyrenees these days before the end of the first sentence – he was obviously serious about his study of that tongue. And Clear and Direct, for that matter.
In language, he opined, there are often layers of meaning that are hard to appreciate as a non-native speaker. For example, he said, he had asked his French teacher what the difference was in that idiom between horrible and terrible. The Frenchman thought for a moment, and then gave the example of taking your mother in law to the beach with your family.
If your mother-in-law went swimming and was swept out to sea, he said, that would be horrible. On the other hand, if the tide brought her back in again, that would be terrible.
He got off well before the beach, having given me directions to the restaurant, and a recommendation that I try a dish of baby eels there as an aperitivo. He was going to eat, he said, at his wife’s house. Which was also his house. He was gone before he could explain that one more fully.
So, every guide book will tell you one of the places to visit when you’re in Valencia is the beach. And they’re right: I can imagine on a summer’s day the place is rammed with locals, tourists and beach bums alike, each of these tribes vying for supremacy, or at least first dibs on looking cool with a glass of something in hand.
On the other hand, we went on 30th of December, but even then it was pretty busy. So, to add in the boring travel book bit, the bus you get is a 32, and the area you’re heading for is variously called las Arenas, Playa Malvarrosa, or after the fishing village a bit inland, El Cabañal. We followed our new friend’s advice and got off at the first stop as the bus swings left along the sea front. From there, you head onto the front and turn right for a boardwalk cluttered with shops and restaurants, with a massive flagpole along at the far end.
To be honest, we didn’t follow your man’s recommendation of La Pepica – which I’d already read in a guide book was the one to go for. It had obviously benefitted from quite a few recommendations along the way; it was the swankiest of several restaurants who were aspiring to be swanky, and the prices were of commensurate swankiness. This isn’t like the beach front places I mentioned in Malaga: it’s been discovered long ago, so there are menus in English and meeters and greeters trying to grab you in – something that always makes me want to walk on.
That said, the inevitable paella we had in the place we went to was first class – we shared a vegetable one and an arroz a banda, similar to paella with shrimp and squid, preceded by a first course of calamares and salad. Not cheap. However, they have a bit of a captive audience: I set off in the direction of El Cabañal to see if there was something more authentic and inexpensive, but there seemed to just be block after block of flats before you got to anything approaching a village centre. Maybe worth a further explore if you’re feeling adventurous and you’re up for a decent walk.
Despite that, the beach is well worth a visit when you’re in Valencia. The locals still go there too, and it fairly buzzes with life. Even if you don’t get the best mother in law jokes on the way there.