And so the #ThrowBackThursday series continues! This installment is going to take place in Valencia, Spain, and although I didn't come away from this trip with what I would consider to be amazing pictures, I did come away with one very scary story. Today I'm going to tell you that story (and also a few good things), but first—some context. Why and when was I in Spain?
In 2012, I lived in Madrid for my Study Abroad. Which means that I was, indeed, a college student during this time. That means articles in this series are much more heavily informed by "partying" than what you might be used to if you read my writing often. This story in particular will hinge on that facet, so I'm trying to acknowledge it up front. Sorry Mom.
And now, the article.
An Introduction To Valencia
Situated on the eastern coast of Spain, Valencia is the country's 3rd largest city, behind Madrid and Barcelona. There are roughly 800,000 people who live in Valencia proper and about 1.6 million that live in Valencia's metro area. It is also worth noting that Valencia's harbor is the busiest container port in the Mediterranean and the 5th busiest in Europe. That means that this is a city of economic importance. Stuff happens here.
Although Valencia has a long, storied history which dates back to Spain's days as a part of the Roman Empire, AND supposedly is the new home of the Holy Chalice (the cup that Jesus drank from in the last super), it's reputation in the modern day seems to consist of two main things: the beach, and Valencia C.F. (the city's football/soccer club). And like any group of good American college students, we came to Valencia ready to drink and go to the beach. It was the middle of the summer and there was a festival happening here call "Noche San Juan" that we thought would be fun. So, before I move on, let me first give you this map of Valencia in case you want to do some exploring of your own...
We arrived in Valencia by bus, and to be honest, I don't remember it as being a very beautiful place. I mean, don't get me wrong—it's Spain, it's Europe, it's all beautiful—but Valencia was a bit grittier than what I had seen of Spain thus far. The buildings and streets here were a bit more no-nonsense in their design. Not as many frills, not as much green space,
Still it held a distinctly Spanish energy... I'm not totally sure what that even means, but I think it has something to do with that feeling you get on a summer night like time is standing still. As I talked about in my article about Madrid, youth seems to last a lot longer in Spain than it does in the U.S. It makes you feel like you've got a lot of time on your hands, like there's no rush to "get a real job" and grow up. Once you tune yourself into that vibe, it’s intoxicating. I soaked this feeling up as I walked the streets of Valencia. It may not have been quite as easy on the eyes as I had expected, but—if this isn't too cheesy—it was easy on the heart.
Here are a couple old shots from around the streets of Valencia that I salvaged...
A simple Google search would have told me most of what I could expect from Valencia, but prior to my arrival, I had made no such Google searches. So when the cityscape broke to reveal something that looked like it belonged in Tron or the Jetsons, I was caught completely by surprise. Let me introduce you to La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (the City of Arts and Sciences).
With various facets of this massive project completed from 1998 to 2006, this architectural complex occupies the drained riverbed of the Túria river, which had to be rerouted after issues with flooding in the 1950s. This "city" has an interesting roster of inhabitants—here are a few highlights:
L'Hemisfèric—an IMAX move theater, planetarium, and laser light show.
El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe—An interactive science museum that resembles the skeleton of a whale
L'Umbracle—An open structure enveloping a landscaped walk with plant species indigenous to Valencia
L'Oceanogràfic—An open-air oceanographic park, Spain's version of Sea World
El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia—An opera house and performing arts center
El Pont de l'Assut de l'Or—A white cable-stayed bridge crossing the dry Turia riverbed, from
L'Àgora—A covered plaza for things like concerts and sporting events
Each of these various things takes the form of a futuristic structure, sitting in the middle of a serene pool of teal water extending symmetrically from all sides to form perfect rectangles. Each of these buildings looked like something I remember playing with as a child—probably something out of a Star Wars action figure set—but the closer we walked, the more we were dwarfed by the massive scale of this complex. These buildings are f**king HUGE!
As the Valencian sun beat down on us, we walked with squinted eye alongside this massive complex. The City of Arts and Sciences still unfolding before us, it was clear that we had a long walk ahead of us. It probably took us about 20-30 minutes to walk the length of this city. Our destination that day was L'Oceanogràfic. We walked through the aquarium and even caught a dolphin show (still the only one I've ever seen). Below are a few decent shots I dug up from this span:
The City of Arts and Sciences, although very cool, was not what drew us to Valencia. We had timed our arrival for the Noche San Juan festival that was happening on beaches all around Spain that weekend. So let's talk about that.
Noche San Juan In Valencia
Noche San Juan (or, the Night of Saint John) is really cool festival that happens all around Spain on the night of June 23, which is roughly the summer solstice. The festival serves as a symbolic welcoming of the summer season and, some say, a threshold for the paranormal. Indeed, Spain's more mystically-inclined citizens believe that this is the night when the ancient pagan Gods come closest to the human world. There's lots of culture and symbolism that plays into this, but all you really need to know is this: fire and water.
Today, both of these elements still figure strongly into the way this night is celebrated: bonfires on the beach. Every year, on June 23, every beach in Spain is packed with roaring bonfires, and lots of people coming together to talk, eat, laugh, and get drunk. Looking back on this, I'm pretty sure this is my favorite holiday (after Christmas of course). Most people just take the celebration as a night of love and community, but for the superstitious, there are actually a few things that can be done during Noche San Juan to ensure good luck for the next 12 months:
Jump over a bonfire
Write the name of your lover on a piece of paper and burn it
Burn something old / personal to leave bad spirits in the past and move forward
Swim in the ocean after midnight (this is said to purify the soul)
Drink from a fountain or from a natural water resource (these are said to be healing)
I did not know any of these 5 things at the time, but when people started stripping down to their underwear and running into the ocean, my group and I were more than happy to follow suit. The Mediterranean water was warm and the ocean floor was smooth and sandy as we ran out to deeper water. Once we were up to our necks, somebody yelled towards us, proudly holding their underwear in their hand above their head. We looked at each other, and with a shrug and a laugh, we all took our own underwear off and held them above our own heads, yelling back in reply. I was neck deep in ocean water, waves lapping at my chin, so I wasn't really exposed to anybody, but I felt like I was living on the edge, in the best sense of the word. In this moment, treading water in the Mediterranean, naked, a few meters off the coast of Spain, I remember the noise around me fading away as I thought to myself, "I love this. I'll bet this will end up being one of the best moments of my life." I have always struggled with anxiety, and I was having a tough time back in Madrid, but every once in a while those mucky layers of anxious feelings clouding my heart fade away and I feel free for a few seconds, minutes, or even hours if I'm lucky. This was one of those times.
Here are a few crappy iPhone pictures that I snapped that night on the beach. Every region of Spain has their own set of traditions associated with Noche San Juan, so these photos will look a little different place to place, but this should give you a flavor for Valencia's take on things...
So this was a pretty good night. Good times were had in Valencia… but we also had some BAD things happen. For this, we'll rewind to a night earlier in our stay in Valencia.
The Ugly Side Of Valencia
It was the middle of the goddamn night. Maybe 2:30 or 3:00am. A group of friends and I were out in a crowded bar in the middle of Valencia. I'm usually the sober one in these situations, so when the time came for us to go home, I led the way. Once we had confirmed that everybody was cashed out and accounted for, we all locked hands to form a chain, and I led the charge out the door, pulling my crew of drunkards behind me. Once we had all made it out the door, we regrouped and hailed taxis back to our respective hostels. It wasn't until I was in the taxi that I realized that we were missing somebody. There was a member of our group who I had not seen make it out of the bar, even though I knew that he knew we were leaving. (He shall remain nameless.)
This is the part of the story where you're probably thinking that we should have gone back to find him, right? Well we might have done that, if it wasn't for the fact that this person had a habit of intentionally running off on their own when they were drunk. Even with your wits about you, it was hard to contain them. We all knew it was a lost cause, but that was besides the point—the most important thing was that we all agreed that this person would be fine. He'd probably turn up soon, back in the hostel, safe and sound. We went to sleep assured in the knowledge that everything was going to be totally fine.
The next morning, we awoke to the door being slammed open as our long lost friend, sunburned and drenched in sweat, literally fell face-first through the door with a loud gasp. As we sat up in our bunks, rubbing the sleep out of our eyes, this guy was frantically searching through his stuff, breathing heavily as if he had just run a marathon.
"Dude, what is going on?" one of us finally asked with a laugh.
Are you ready for this? Here's the story:
Apparently, as we were all leaving, instead of grabbing a hand to join our chain, he wandered off to the bathroom. And of course, when he re-emerged, we were all gone. So he did what anyone would do: he shrugged and hailed a taxi of his own.
When the taxi pulled up, its driver opened the front passenger side door up, gesturing for him to get in. As he stepped into the taxi, the driver discretely took his identification card off of the dashboard and hid it out of sight. This should have been a big red flag, but apparently not big enough. The door closed and they were off.
The driver took a few quick turns and quickly had them zooming down a narrow Spanish alleyway at terrifying speeds.
Then driver pulls out a knife and tells him to hand over everything he has.
So he hands over his phone and his wallet. (Thankfully, he passport was in the safe back at the hostel.)
At this point, it might seem like the logical move would be for the driver to kick him out right there on the curb, but that's not what happened. Instead the driver drove our poor friend a few miles outside the city, and just left him. With no money for a taxi home, no phone to access a map, a nobody walking around on the street since it was still the middle of the night and he was now outside of the city, he was left with no recourse but to just start walking. It had taken him up until just this moment to find his way back.
*looks at watch*
It was 10:30am. That meant he had been trying to find his way back for like 7 hours.
Here's actual footage of us hearing this story:
This was the day that I first learned about Western Union. What a life-saver. Anyway, when it comes to traveling around Europe, you will often hear people complain about thievery in places like Spain and Italy. I've heard tons of stories like this. I actually had my camera stolen in the Sevilla train station! But I haven't been told many travel stories scarier than this one. Let that be a lesson kids: Spain is fun, but travel in pairs and keep your wits about you.
So that's Valencia! This trip was a bit of a mixed bag, but when I look back on this trip what I remember most is Noche San Juan. What an awesome holiday. You can bet that I'll be back to celebrate Noche San Juan a few more times in my life. But for now, it's time for us to move on to our final #TBT destination in Spain: Barcelona.
Before we wrap up, let me say a few words about this 'Track of the Day' — when I was in Madrid, I was splitting my time doing university classes and working as an intern at a Spanish record label and booking agency. I spent a ton of time doing bitch work for ticketing and event promotion (some even for events associated with Noche San Juan), and that meant that spent a lot of time on Google Translate. There was an artist that did their booking through my employer named Joe Crepúsculo. He always sticks out in my mind because when I would drop huge swaths of text into Google Translate, it would come out the other side ready "Joe Twilight." I would always chuckle at this name. "Crepúsculo" is my favorite Spanish word. It doesn't exactly translate to 'twilight' though—it's more accurately used to refer to the red-ish hue that you see in the sky both in the morning and the evening.
It’s a hell of a stage name.