In December last year, the first “AVE” high-speed train departed from Madrid for the coastal city of Valencia—ranked the third busiest MICE destination in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona. Traveling 204 mph, up to 20 trains make the 90-minute trip daily, with four luxury Club Class coaches seating 71 total. Previously, it required a glacial, nearly 4-hour ride to reach the sea. The zippy trains now complete the first stage of a 12-year redevelopment plan that’s converted Valencia into one of the Mediterranean’s most modern destinations.
In the mid-’90s, the metro was known as a fishing hub, the birthplace of paella, and the home of some of Europe’s most colorful festivals. And not too much else, especially with all the buzz surrounding Barcelona a few hours north following the 1992 Olympics. But in 1998, Valencia grabbed the architectural world by storm with the opening of the City of Arts & Sciences—a massive complex designed by the world-famous architect and native son, Santiago Calatrava.
Long and narrow, the conglomeration of buildings includes an opera house, science museum, aquarium and IMAX cinema. Each structure is visually striking. The Queen Sofía Palace of the Arts opera house is reminiscent of a Spartan helmet. The football-shaped Hemisfèric cinema and planetarium looks like it’s sinking into a reflection pool. Next to it, the Príncipe Felipe Museum of Sciences is an interactive museum designed after the ribcage of a whale. And the Oceanographic facility is the largest aquarium in Europe with over 45,000 species of marine life, surrounded by landscaped pools and tropical birds.
All of these popular attractions cater to the meetings market with a variety of group-friendly spaces for up to 6,200 delegates. In essence, a meeting planner would have a hard time finding as many unique cultural venues with as much volume so close together as the City of Arts & Sciences in all of Europe.
The unveiling of the cultural complex went a long way to help Valencia in 2007 and again in 2010 become the first-ever European city to host the regal America’s Cup yachting race. In preparation for the regatta, the city built the sharply modernist, 118,000-sf Veles e Vents (sails and winds) facility as the focal point for the Cup’s social and media events. Today, planners can create large events here with views directly overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Plus, groups can recreate the action by creating teambuilding events where attendees help sail the sleek racing boats skippered by America’s Cup sailors.
Valencia’s fabulous architectural vision continues at the Valencia Conference Centre, designed by another global architectural legend, Sir Norman Foster. Last year, the International Association of Congress Centers honored the VCC with its annual World’s Best Congress Centre award, beating over 1,000 contenders. This year, the Centre is expanding with a 50,000-sf addition, following the recent addition of a new photovoltaic roof last year. The amorphous silicon solar array is the largest of its kind in the world, which was instrumental in making it the first conference facility in Spain to be awarded the country’s Energy Management Systems Certification.
The beauty of Valencia, however, is how the fantastical modernist structures fit in so well with the UNESCO World Heritage city center. Definitely check out the 5-acre indoor Central Market, with a soaring Moorish dome and Art Deco stained glass windows. This is a must for foodie groups who can come to purchase supplies for evening cooking events in one of the oldest such markets in Europe, constructed in 1916.
As I stroll though the central district, I become enchanted with the narrow cobblestone streets, palm tree-lined parks, and the 13th century St. Mary’s Cathedral. I pop in to take a look at the Holy Grail, or at least the agreed-upon “most probable authentic chalice of Christ,” according to Christian scholars.
BIRTHPLACE OF PAELLA
“Watch out, paella coming through!” bellows a bearded Javier Bardem look-alike in a straw hat and scarf as he carries a steaming pan of rice and veggies to an open fire. I’m standing close enough to feel the heat of the flame while witnessing the making of a masterpiece—paella—the food that put Valencia on the map.
Today, I’m visiting La Matandeta, a restaurant known for its paella in the true Valencian fashion, over an open fire. The spot is situated between sprawling rice fields and the sea with a vine-and-lattice-covered patio and colorful, sun-drenched interior.
Bardem’s twin is Rafael Galvez, the man in charge of the restaurant, which opened in 1991 under his late father-in-law. After about 30 minutes of watching him prepare lunch and snacking on mouth-watering tapas, our group sits down for a homemade feast. Many of the ingredients are unloaded right off the boats that pull up in the lagoon adjacent to the restaurant. One signature dish is the paella de pato, pollo y conejo (rice with duck, chicken and rabbit), complemented by over 50 olive oils. You too will be in awe of this only-in-Spain dining experience, which can be arranged here for up to 250 diners.
“Groups from around the world love coming to my cooking classes on the terrace and eating at our restaurant,” Galvez says. “It is a very popular thing to do in Valencia.”
Also attractive for groups is a visit to nearby Albufera National Park. Visitors can take a boat ride through waters where in the mid-1800s, fishermen first created paella. Check out the restored fishing huts sitting along the coast too. As an extra special treat, groups up to 32 pax can organize a paella meal right on the boat. Binoculars are provided, as the area is a haven for bird watching enthusiasts.
Valencia offers a variety of group-friendly properties, headlined by the 204-room Ayre Hotel Astoria Palace. The property opened in 1959 in the central historic district with top-line amenities, having since attracted Fortune 500 companies around the globe. The lobby has been renovated with a clean modern decor featuring marble floors and a cavernous lounge with cathedral ceilings and plush couches. Construction is underway on the guestroom updates—many of them are already finished—slated for 2014 completion.
The ninth floor is almost entirely reserved for meetings for up to 400 attendees, with picture windows showcasing Valencia’s terracotta roofs. The mezzanine floor has a 15-person meeting room overlooking the lobby, and a larger space with three room dividers for 250 guests.
Just off the lobby, Restaurante AB Vinatea is a 4-star eatery that boasts incredible paella, to-die-for olive oil chips and modern Mediterranean cuisine. The crunchy salmon cannelloni with spicy ruccola and a light Provençale tapenade was a definite group favorite.
We also visited the 253-room Hotel Santos Las Arenas Balnerio Resort, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World. The property sits on a vast plot across from the beach and sports a gaping and very luxurious lobby. Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling, leather couches form circles for conversation around sparkling vases of fresh flowers, and floor-to-ceiling windows reflect the glistening water. Guestrooms are modern yet cozy with tan wood and balconies overlooking a beachside boardwalk.
“Our location is perfect, right in front of the water—no one has that in Valencia,” says Moisés Martínez, sales manager. “Everything has a water view, including our fantastic restaurant.”
Brasserie Sorolla is the onsite eatery and it is divine, with oversized original art, a glass-enclosed boardroom, extensive wine list, and, again, paella. It never gets old in Valencia.
The hotel is designed with the meeting attendee in mind. A courtyard and reflecting pool sit just beyond the lobby bookended by two, multi-story Romanesque buildings. Both buildings can accommodate up to 500 people, each with auditoriums and meeting rooms. But each has a different decor—one a wood, rustic chic interior while the other has a glamorous flair with marble and sparkling chandeliers.
Rounding out the area’s meeting hot spots is the luxurious Parador de El Saler, located about 9 miles south of the city on a secluded plot of land near the water. The 65-room property went through a complete renovation in 2007 and sports an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and five meeting rooms (400 pax). Its setting is incredibly serene—meeting delegates can follow willow-lined trails out to the beach or enjoy the view from an interior sun-lit restaurant and an outdoor patio.
Beyond the hotel restaurants, groups should check out the Sagardi Restaurant Group, which has two establishments in Valencia: Sagardi and Orio. Both in the central city, Sagardi specializes in tapas and has a wraparound bar. The upstairs is artfully decorated in wood and can seat up to 110 people for a reception or dinner. Across the street is Orio, a seafood restaurant that opened in February and dedicates its entire downstairs to groups. Most interesting is its open boardroom area within exposed Arab ruins. Next to the ruins is a large room that can seat up to 110 for a banquet and 220 for a cocktail reception. Make sure to try the oysters. They and the setting alone will have you booking your next trip to Valencia.