Mention the Costa del Azahar and most people won't have heard of it. Yet it sits in the middle of the Mediterranean coastline of Spain, sandwiched between the better-known Costa Dorada and Costa Blanca, and looking out to the Balearics. Despite the unrelenting popularity of its near neighbours, this sliver of unspoilt coastline is as far away from package holiday territory as possible. Its cultured central city, richly decorated Moorish towns and unspoilt villages are separated by some awe-inspiring wonders of nature, including the Ebro Delta wetlands and the lofty landscape of Spain's interior plateau. And, of course, the countryside is dominated by the lush orange groves that give this most sincere Spanish Costa the moniker 'the Orange Grove Coast'.
At the heart of this tour lies the incredible city of Valencia, the country's third-largest after Madrid and Barcelona. While the top two welcome visitors in their millions every year, Valencia sits quite happily under the radar, maintaining its authenticity as a thriving Spanish city where local life hasn't been overtaken by the tourist trade. It's undoubtedly a cultural powerhouse, showcasing an impressive architectural mix – from the cutting-edge futuristic designs at the City of Arts and Sciences to an ornate blend of Gothic, Art Nouveau, neo-Classical, Renaissance, Romanesque and Baroque – that will leave you wide-eyed in wonder.
Green spaces are treasured in Valencia – the Turia riverbed has been transformed into a beautiful stretch of parklands that now runs from one end of the city to the other, giving locals and visitors a refreshing respite from the bustle of city life.
Surrounded as it is by the miles of traditional ‘huerta’ or market gardens and abundant orange groves that keep the city's two famous market halls stocked with ripe Mediterranean fruit and vegetables, it follows that Valencia is one of the best cities in Spain for food. It's particularly passionate about being the birthplace of ‘paella’, with locals fiercely adamant that their version is unparalleled worldwide.
From our city base we'll explore the area's other varied charms, including the exceptional Mudéjar architecture in Teruel and Elche, an exotic echo of 8th- to 10th-century Moorish Spain and a time when the Muslim and Christian cultures co-existed peacefully. We'll also discover the compelling histories and local handicrafts of the region's tiny hilltop villages – and get an insight into how the sweet ‘turrón’ of Xixona and the traditional ceramics of Manises are made. A river cruise through the vast wetlands of the Ebro Delta and an adventure to the villages of Spain's high, dry, interior plateau complete this exceptional tour of one of Spain's most underestimated and undiscovered coastal areas.
Explore exciting Valencia on a guided coach tour and on foot, with entry to the historic Silk Exchange – as well as a free day to enjoy the city at leisure;
Cruise the Ebro Delta to see the rice paddies and thriving birdlife of one of Europe's largest wetlands;
Follow a guided tour of the coastal town of Peñiscola, taking in the magnificent views from its castle over the shimmering Mediterranean;
Visit the Moorish town of Elche with a local guide and taste local palm date produce;
Marvel at the Mudéjar towers of /why-riviera-travel Teruel and wander the winding lanes of picturesque Albarracin – both with a local guide;
See ceramic handicraft-making in action at a pottery workshop in the charming village of Manises;
Learn to make an authentic paella at a traditional farm villa, before enjoying the result in its pretty garden surrounded by orange groves;
Return flights from a selection of regional airports, with hotel transfers;
Seven nights in four-star accommodation inclusive of all local taxes, with breakfast and three dinners;
Plus your tour manager’s drinks reception and a welcome dinner to meet your fellow travellers;
The services of our experienced and insightful tour manager;
Selected departures up to October 2020
Fly to Valencia. On arrival, transfer by coach to our hotel where we stay seven nights, with breakfast, at the four-star Eurostars Rey Don Jaime. This hotel is well-located between Valencia's charming old town and the modern City of Arts and Sciences.
We’ll enjoy our stylish surroundings during welcome drinks and dinner this evening.
This morning we discover the exciting city of Valencia on a coach tour of its main sights. The centrepiece of this cultured city of contrasts is the ribbon of green that curves its way from the port to the riverside Parc de Capçalera, hugging the historic old town as it goes. Once the Turia riverbed, this delightful urban park is now a series of manicured gardens, wooded areas, water features, whimsical play areas and monuments, all crossed intermittently by a series of handsome bridges.
On the port side of this green thoroughfare we'll see the City of Arts and Sciences, a truly fantastical collection of buildings designed by world-famous local architect, Santiago Calatrava. An opera house, science museum, IMAX cinema and aquarium rise out of still pools of bright blue water like something in a science-fiction movie!
Contrasting the futuristic with the historic, we'll also follow a local guide on a walking tour through the old town, where leafy, boutique-lined avenues branch off down narrow alleyways, leading to little squares overlooked by pastel-coloured town houses, and a diverse smattering of architectural masterpieces. Our tour includes entry to one-such building, the Silk Exchange, which is a UNESCO-listed site and striking Gothic marvel. It's not difficult to imagine the city's prosperous 15th-century merchants trading under the grand vaulted ceiling of the interior hall, supported by towering fluted columns.
Just opposite sits the modernist market hall, which you may wish to visit during your free time for lunch. Built in 1928, this vast structure blends coloured glass and iron to beautiful Art Nouveau-style effect – to step inside is to submerge yourself in a swirl of smells, sounds, movement and colour, from the rainbow of fresh produce grown in Valencia's fertile huerta gardens, to the calls of traders and the bustle of local shoppers.
In the afternoon we travel out of the city to the huerta to learn about the history and production of horchata, a traditional drink made with tiger nuts to create a version that's unique to Valencia. Of course, we also get to sample this creamy, sweet and malty drink, perfect with a farton, a spongy finger-shaped pastry glazed with sugar.
This morning we drive south to Elche, which sits slightly inland just beyond Alicante. Elche is especially interesting for its cultural fusion, merging the Moorish legacy of the 10th-century Arab occupiers with additions from the Christian conquerors who ousted them from their Vila Murada home three centuries later. During our guided tour we’ll see this evocative east-meets-west amalgamation, illustrated perfectly by the ornate Spanish-Baroque Basilica de Santa Maria, which sits between the Arab fortresses of Calaforra and Altamira.
This cultural diversity is also displayed in the natural areas for which Elche is renowned, as the Vila Murada historic centre is caught between the Huerto del Cura botanical gardens and the vast Palmeral palm grove. The date palm orchards were planted by Arab settlers and are the largest in Europe. These natural havens give the old town of Elche a 'desert oasis' feel that we get to fully appreciate on our guided tour, which ends at the Huerto del Cura, the ‘Priest’s Orchard’ – the most important botanical garden of the Palmeral. Here we’ll get to see an amazing collection of tropical plants, including a rare Imperial Palm dedicated to Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and we’ll also taste a number of local date-based delicacies.
The rest of the day is free for you to explore at leisure. You may wish to visit the archaeological museum or perhaps learn about Elche's famous passion play at the Casa de la Festa. We return to Valencia in the afternoon. This evening, we enjoy dinner in a portside restaurant, with views over the fine golden sands of the city beach and out to the Mediterranean Sea.
Today we travel to Spain's 'interior plateau', a seemingly endless 'stepped' area that rises up into mountains and falls to dusty highland plains, river basins and arid valleys. Teruel in Aragon is our first stop and another excellent example of the cultural medley that was Moorish Spain. Here we see Gothic and Islamic architecture, fused in the distinctive Mudéjar style, and ornate Arabesque buildings. The towers of San Martin and San Salvador are especially beautiful, while the cathedral, with its bell tower, colourful mosaic tiling and splendid interior, is recognised by UNESCO as one of the finest examples of this unique architectural style. Another pretty Mudéjar church, the turreted San Pedro, hides a romantic legend – the tombs of the 'lovers of Teruel'. The star-crossed couple has inspired artists through the centuries and their exquisitely carved tombs can be found in the church’s mausoleum.
Next we visit Albarracin, one of Spain's most picturesque villages. Perched on a precipitous outcrop above a bend in the Gaudalaviar river, this tiny place feels eerily isolated, overlooking the shrubby, rocky hills that rise up to meet it on all sides. We take a walk with a local guide through narrow lanes passing stone cottages, the village cathedral and red-clay houses. At the very top of town, we see the crenellated city walls that snake their way even higher across the nearby mountain ridges. A charming casa gives us a glimpse back to the 17th century before we return to our hotel for dinner.
Today is yours to spend as you choose in Valencia – and there's plenty to see in this large and lively Spanish city. Perhaps visit the excellent science museum, which sits almost skeletal in the City of Arts and Sciences, before joining the locals on a stroll through the Turia gardens to the arched viewing point overlooking the lake of the Parc de Capçalera. If you prefer to discover Valencia's historic landmarks, the Church of Saint Nicholas may have a modest façade but its interior is a wonderland of colourful frescoes that is often compared to the Sistine Chapel.
Of course, Valencia Cathedral is an undeniable highlight of this city's richly diverse cache of architecture. A mesmerising mix of Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque and neo-Classical elements – the result of a centuries-long building process – this cathedral comprises a decorated dome, a soaring tower and intricate façades. It's also home to a holy chalice, endorsed by centuries of papal use and said to be the cup used at the Last Supper.
A uniquely Valencian phenomenon is the springtime Fallas Festival held to commemorate St Joseph. Colourful sculptures transform the streets and a five-day celebration of music and dancing ensues. A collection of these often satirical, cartoonish figures can be seen in the city's Fallas Museum, which takes a light-hearted look at this lively fiesta.
If you wish to soak up the atmosphere, perhaps over a glass of sangria and a plate of tapas, the Central Market bar is a perfect spot. Sample juicy shrimp, fluffy tortilla and crispy calamari while observing the bustling market life. Or maybe you'd prefer a plate of paella looking onto the cathedral from one of the surrounding smart squares.
This morning we start by visiting the nearby town of Xativa, which is dominated by its hilltop castle that overlooks the surrounding countryside. Its history is long and distinguished, and it is even said that Hannibal stayed here en route to his daring attack on Rome. In the middle ages Xativa rose in prominence as the home of two of the infamous Borgia popes, who became infamous both for their corruption as well as their patronage of the arts. As such Xativa was dotted with numerous grand villas and churches, many of which can still be seen today. Following a guided tour of the charmingly compact old town you have free time to explore at leisure.
After lunch we head back towards Valencia, but first we stop at Albufera, a large freshwater lagoon just to the south of the city. Here we will take a cruise on a typical shallow-bottomed boat through the tranquil maze of reeds that are a veritable birdwatcher’s paradise, so keep an eye out for grey and purple herons, glossy ibis, grebes and even flocks of pink flamingos. This wonderfully peaceful place is exceptionally fertile, with the flat surroundings and abundant water the ideal combination for rice production, the essential ingredient for Valencia’s renowned paella. We will also stop at a traditional Valencian barraca, a triangular thatched house, to learn about the lives of the farmers of the Albufera and the Valencian region.
We then return to Valencia where the rest of the day is free.
This morning we visit nearby Manises, renowned for its traditional ceramic crafts. There's a real feel of authenticity as we explore the narrow streets of the quiet and largely pedestrianised old town with our guide, passing pastel-coloured houses, leafy squares and the occasional whitewashed church. The only nod to tourism is the charming ceramics museum, displaying examples of local pottery and the colourful tilework seen throughout this part of Spain. A pottery workshop visit is followed by free time for lunch – perhaps join the locals at a tiny patisserie or relax over plates of tapas in a cosy family-run café.
The afternoon is at leisure to enjoy Valencia, so you may wish to indulge in some souvenir-shopping on the tree-lined Carrer de Colón avenue or the alleyways that branch off it. One such alleyway leads to the striking Art Nouveau Mercado de Colón building, a grand construction of shimmering glass and colourful tile, where you can peruse the stalls or enjoy a refreshing drink.
Our final dinner will be spent at a nearby masia, a traditional farm villa, featured in paintings by Spanish artist Ignacio Pinazo. Here we’ll learn to make authentic paella before feasting on our creations together in this beautiful setting, surrounded by fragrant gardens and orange groves.
Transfer to the airport for your return flight.
The price of this holiday is per person based on one person in a double/twin room for sole occupancy. The price includes seven nights’ dinner, bed and breakfast, welcome drinks reception, all tours as mentioned, scheduled flights as mentioned, airport departure taxes, all local accommodation taxes, transfers and the services of a Riviera Travel tour manager.
Included excursions: entry to Peñiscola Castle, guided visit of Ebro Delta ecomuseum, Ebro Delta cruise, entry to ethnographic museum in Albarracin, horchata tour in Valencia, entry to Llotja de Seda in Valencia, final evening paella cooking experience.