The Real Valencia

Ruzafa is the working-class barrio where Valencianos go for the best bars, cafés and art galleries

Featured May 11
The Real Valencia

Most visitors to Valencia head for the Barrio del Carmen - the medieval centre of the city - to take a beer in a bar and a meal in one of the back-street restaurants.

They then perhaps go on to a late-night disco, thinking they've done the city. The Valencianos are happy with that, because Carmen is old hat; these days the locals head off to Ruzafa.

A casual stroll across this district will take you all of 15 minutes, but you would pass through a United Nations mix of cultures, people and histories, all living side-by-side, happily co-existing with their Spanish neighbours: Arabs, Chinese, Pakistanis, Italians, Senegalese, Irish, English, Russian, Australian; people from every northern-European and Latin American country, and pretty much everywhere else besides. This diverse population gives the area its unique feel.

Ruzafa is still very much a barrio de toda la vida, a basic working-class neighbourhood. Until as recently as 10 years ago, it was little more than a rundown area to the east of the central train station, Estació del Nord, while the Barrio del Carmen attracted much of the attention and investment. The layout of the streets created enormous internal ground-floor spaces that stretched into the centre of the building. They were primarily used for garages, storage spaces and supermarkets, but many were simply abandoned. A few adventurous artists began to rent these spaces at peppercorn rents and, just as London's Camden Town began to evolve in the 1960s to become an arty alternative to the city centre, much the same has happened in Ruzafa during the last decade.

Carmen Bonet is the manager of Sporting Club Ruzafa (5 Calle Sevilla, sportingclubrussafa.com), an artists' collective which, during the Civil War, was a boxing club, hence the name - the original sign hangs from the ceiling. "This was the first of the workshops that opened, just over 10 years ago. Originally it was painters and sculptors, but then a scenic artist joined because of the enormous space," Bonet explains. The Sporting Club is also a gallery and has a regular programme of events. Bonet is a dancer and opened her own dance studio, Sala Saltamontes (saltamontessala.blogspot.com), in the same street, where her students learn flamenco, Latin, tap and contemporary dance, and give performances at the Sporting Club.

The brightly painted Mercado de Ruzafa is pretty much the centre of barrio life. Get up early enough and you can watch the market stallholders artfully lay out their fruit and veg, fish and meat, bread and pastries. You may not have anywhere to cook the glistening, multicoloured produce, but you can drool over its freshness and perhaps buy some fruit, pan integral (brown bread), a few slices of the Serrano ham dangling from hooks around the stalls and a piece of baked pumpkin to make a picnic later in the day. If there's a shambolic queue at a stall where you want to buy something, simply call out "¿La última?" and the last person in line will wave at you to let you know you are next after them.

If you come to Valencia, what do you expect to do for a bit of a jolly? Eat, drink and be merry, probably, but I bet you don't expect to learn knitting, particularly as a way to meet the locals. Marion Deleseleuc drifted to Valencia from the south of France because the city offered opportunities she couldn't find at home. She opened La Casita de Papel (6 Calle Denia), a kitschy corner of a shop selling second-hand objets d'art and clothes from the 1950s, 60s and 70s that would have graced the sultry Jane Birkin wannabes of the time, if not the seductress herself. You'll find proper cinched-waist frocks, snakeskin handbags and a selection of sexy glasses that make batting the eyelashes a bigger come-on than any acreage of cleavage.

Apart from being able to buy something that your mum would have worn on her first date - hopefully with your dad - every Saturday between noon and 1pm, La Casita de Papel has a knitting group, not of grannies who can put together a sweater while discussing the news, but a "knit one, pearl knuckles, oh bother I've dropped a stitch, ouch!" sort of group of enthusiasts. It's a great way to make friends.

Ruzafa is full of elegant bars and restaurants, but it also has its bohemian element, mainly found in Ubik Café (13 Calle Literato Azorín). Run by three young Italians, furnishings are junk-shop pieces fixed up with a spot of glue and a coat of brightly coloured paint. As well as a café, it's also a bookshop with a collection of new and second-hand books, as eclectic as the furniture. Every Sunday there is live jazz and, if you happen to have kids with you, each week there is a workshop where they can learn to make things out of cardboard and cast-offs. Once a month Ubik features Tapa del Libro, where for €3 you get a glass of wine or beer, a homemade tapa and a second-hand book.

As Ruzafa is being resurrected as an artsy colony, it's no surprise that most wall space, in hairdressers', bookshops and bodegas, has an exhibition hanging on it. (Ubik Café is probably the only bar in the world that celebrates the opening of a new exhibition in its toilets, because three times a year, a local artist is given the opportunity to use the toilet walls as their canvas - with a proper inauguration to show it off.)

L'Eco de Russafa (12 Calle Donoso Cortés, ecorussafa.com) is a shop selling ecological food products but, working on the premise that, if you have it in the shop, why not cook it as well, it's also a restaurant. And, as you might expect from such an establishment, it's not even a vegetarian restaurant, as the owners Isabel and Javier are quick to point out. The menu (which changes every day) also serves organic meat. Twice a month they have live music, but when you enter the restaurant you wonder where, as it's a bit on the small side. In a corner at the far end there's a set of windows, behind which is the storeroom, and that's where the musicians perform. They simply open the windows and you see them from the knees up. A couple of times a month there are free therapy sessions on, for example, Bach Flowers or the Grinberg Method.

It's pretty fair to say that the Spanish don't make particularly good cakes - they're far too full of air, fake cream and gaudy colourings. But if you do have a sweet tooth, you should take a stroll to La Recoleta (Calle Sueca), where the Tarterolo family makes patisería artisanal - drool-worthy handmade cakes. It's also one of the best cafés to hear ace Latin-American music while you lunch on a blini or the lunchtime menú exclusivo of totally natural products and international flavours. Next door, El Deván de Café takes you back to the Paris of the turn of the 19th century, even though it has only been open a couple of years, with its tiny round tables and the walls covered in bric-a-brac. Staying on the same street and sweet-toothed theme, you should definitely sample some of the moreish Moroccan pastries at La Casba.

To finish off the day, you could take a copa (a long drink) at Café Mercedes Jazz (27 Calle Sueca) while listening to a live band, or a mint tea and dainty Arab pastries while lazing on floor cushions in Al Rusafi (3 Calle Buenos Aires), a Moroccan tetería (tearoom) that looks as if it has been transplanted stone by stone from the Kasbah in Marrakech.

RUZAFA - LIKE A LOCAL

MERCADO DE RUZAFA Start your day at the café in the market with a carajillo, a short black coff ee with a shot of whisky or brandy, to give yourself a kick-start and watch the stallholders set out their wares.

EL HORNO DE LOS BORRACHOS If you have the munchies after a late night clubbing or you suddenly fancy a sandwich in the middle of the night, El Horno de los Borrachos ("The Drunks' Oven", Calle Denía) bakery is open from midnight to 7am, 365 days a year.

BODEGAS BIOSCA Fancy a G&T but a bit bored with Beefeater and Gordon's? Then check out Bodegas Biosca (20 Carrer del Doctor Serrano), which has 150 different brands of gin. It's also where the locals buy their wine direct from the barrel. It has a very good selection of wines in a shop that hasn't changed a bit since it first opened its doors in 1932, and is run by the fourth generation of the same family.

PLAZA MANUEL GRANERO The park on Plaza Manuel Granero is the only green space in Ruzafa, where kids play in a Wendy house, on swings and slides, or kick a football around, while adults beef up their muscles on the machines in the open-air gym or take a beer in the dappled sunlight outside Bar el Parque.

EL BODEGON You can try food from almost any Latin American country in the streets of Ruzafa, but only in El Bodegón (3 Calle La Fuente de San Luis) can you try Colombian lechóna - a full roast pig stuffed with rice and peas, which stretches along the bar every Saturday and Sunday.


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