From zero to hero, Russafa has recovered from urban malaise to become Valencia’s most happening neighbourhood in record time… miss it and you’ll be missing out, says Duncan Rhodes.
One of the first pieces of advice given to Eurotrippers in times past was “on exiting the station, keep your wits about you and head directly into the centre of the town.” For one reason or another the area around the train station in any given city was always one of the least desirable areas of town and rife with drugs and petty crime (and usually one god-awful hostel to be avoided at all costs). Walking around today, it’s hard to believe that not so long ago Ruzafa was that district.
In the space of a decade however Ruzafa has enjoyed a rocket ride rise from shabby barrio to the place to be in Valencia…
In the space of a decade however Ruzafa has enjoyed a rocket ride rise from shabby barrio to the place to be in Valencia, thanks to a combination of creative residents moving in and a concerted effort by the city to revitalise the district. Streets were pedestrianised, pavements were widened (allowing for bars to set up attractive street terraces), bike paths were added and buildings were renovated, none more symbolically than the local market, whose Brutalist grey facade is now painted in bright shades of blue, green, orange and red – a metaphor for the district’s transformation from drab to fab.
Don’t get the wrong idea though. In the whole district you won’t find anything architectural to rival even one block’s worth of beauty from the Old Town. However away from the tourists and the winding claustrophobic streets of the ciudad vella, this is a district where you’ll find a strong sense of community and where the young and hip locals act out their social and cultural lives. If you’re determined to experience “the real Valencia”, you’ll need to leave the bars of El Carmen behind and head over towards the area by the station.
At the heart of Russafa (as it’s also spelt) is the aforementioned district market which was built in 1957 and today is a foodie’s paradise where you can find stall upon stall of mouth-watering produce like fresh asparagus, seasonal mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, artisan Spanish cheeses, every seafood you can imagine – and even marsh-harvested snails (they are used in the traditional paella Valenciana). Meat lovers can shop at fifth generation butchers selling ecological beef and even Japan-imported kobe beef, and if you’re scouting for souvenirs you’ll find a rich selection of spices, soaps and oils to fill any holes in your suitcase. If you happen to be in Valencia for the weekend, then head over on Sunday to El Patio De Ruzafa (Calle Literato Azorin 13, 10am-3pm) for more great produce but with a bit more of a hipster buzz… workshops, live performances and street paella create a festival atmosphere.
The other major joy of walking around Ruzafa is cafe hopping, and the district is full of charismatic watering holes.
The other major joy of walking around Ruzafa is cafe hopping, and the district is full of charismatic watering holes. Foremost amongst them is Ubik, a culturally inclined cafe-cum-bookshop which is (partially at least) credited with kickstarting the zone’s Renaissance, and still a thriving part of the local Bohemian scene today with live music, workshops and of course craft beer. My favourite spot however is Jardin Urbano, an eccentric cafe that has grown out of a garden shop. Plant life competes for shelf space with old books and threatens to obscure the colourful oil paintings hung on every wall, whilst a chess set, grand piano and resident dog add to the fun. They also do a mean orxata and great snacks.
Vintage and design shopping is another big draw for the district and here it’s Gnomo that lead the charge. This lifestyle and concept shop, housed in what was once the magician’s association (they have kept the stage for events and presentations), has done what many rivals failed to do, and endured the financial crisis. “People are more willing to buy new things and experiment with design. Even the old people,” says Ester Martin, one of Gnomo’s co-owners. Within their space, decorated by famous local street artists like Beans and Paula Bonet, you can buy pop art and posters, T-shirts and totes and re-purposed telephones, amongst many quirky gifts on offer. For threads you’ll find various stores on Calle Cadiz, including Kauf, which has well selected vintage clothes for very reasonable prices – I pick up a mint condition sweater for €23… and I won’t have anyone say that salmon pink is not my colour.
The place looks like a sixth form art room would look like if the professor went on holiday for three years…
Those interested in the local arts scene could try popping by the Sporting Club Russafa, an erstwhile boxing club that is now a co-working space for ten or so artists of different nationalities. The place looks like a sixth form art room would look like if the professor went on holiday for three years, ie. a riotous mess of easels, half-finished canvasses and unwashed paint brushes. If the artists aren’t busy it can be great fun to talk to them and see what they’re working on right now, whilst possibly regretting you never did just jack it all in and move to Spain with nothing but an A3 sketchbook and a 2B pencil.
Some of Valencia’s trendiest fine dining spots are located in Ruzafa, including two by one of the city’s most famous chefs, Ricard Camarena. The Michelin starred restaurant bearing his name uses locally sourced products from the surrounding region, including the Mediterranean sea, on a choice of tasting menus; whilst another of his projects, Canalla Bistro, brings novel takes on dishes around the world to Valencia, for example Mexican tacos stuffed with oxtail and mushrooms or a smoked nigiri sandwich. It’s part of the gastro bar trend that is bringing fun and unfussy eating experiences to the city. For something truly informal – and dirt cheap – you can’t go wrong at Finestra, a “Pizza Cafe” where you can buy a small beer for €1 and a mini pizza for not much more! Very popular with beatniks and students.
Once dinner is over, you won’t struggle to find a good bar. Just head to one of Cadiz, Sueca or Literat Aforin streets and you’ll find more bars here than in the whole of Norway (or so the urban myth goes!). Cafe Berlin with its mismatched furniture, cool clientele and well, Berlin vibe, is a personal favourite. Craft beer enthusiasts might want to call in on Ruzanuvol an Italian run cerveceria (I heard from a reliable source that it’s the only place in town where you can get unpasteurised beer). Whilst my fellow travel blogger from Travels of Adam recommends La Bella de Cadiz in his own Russafa write up.
Craft beer enthusiasts might want to call in on Ruzanuvol… the only place in town where you can get unpasteurised beer.
Did you read our article about the intimate culture revolution in Seville? Well it has in part expanded to Valencia, and here in Ruzafa you’ll find Micro Teatre’s Valencia branch. The concept is short format small production theatre, usually delivered in 15 minutes by just two or three actors in spaces smaller than your bedroom (audience number is also limited!). The result is fantastically fun and intimate performances that you can easily fit into a night of eating, drinking and debauchery (the theatre has a great bar as well!). Try it!
Still going after all that? Drop by Calypso for an unpretentious boogie.
“I was born in Ruzafa in the 80s and I have seen the evolution of the neighbourhood,” says Carla, who now works as a tour guide in the district. “In the beginning some streets were a little bit dangerous, plenty of drugs. Some immigrants were not integrated into the neighbourhood. Now it’s totally different because it’s a multicultural neighbourhood and people are proud.”
“I was ashamed of living here, for example when I was younger and I went out at night I used to come by taxi. People considered it was far away. Now people come to my neighbourhood so now I don’t have to take a taxi, which is great for me. At the weekends it’s very popular to come here for dinner and go out later.”
Despite her love of the district, Carla does wonder if it has now peaked creatively speaking. “In my opinion it was very nice to see the evolution of the neighbourhood but now things don’t surprise me any more. Now the rent is higher. Maybe in the future I will move to Cabanyal because now there are many things happening there and I like to be next to the Mediterranean sea…”
“…some streets were a little bit dangerous, plenty of drugs. Some immigrants were not integrated into the neighbourhood. Now it’s totally different because it’s a multicultural neighbourhood and people are proud.”
So there you go, if you want to be ultra hipster you will need to head to Cabanyal (although Russafa was plenty cool enough for Urban Travel Blog!). Meanwhile if you want to take a tour with Carla (before she moves!) she offers guided, tapas and bike tours of the district, and although her website Visitruzafa.com is in Spanish only, she speaks great English.
I mentioned the one dodgy hostel you always get next to any train station… well don’t worry the Russafa Youth Hostel is not it! Brightly coloured rooms, open 24 hours, wifi zone and a good bathroom to guest ratio means you’ll have a comfortable stay. Those with a bit more dinero to throw about might prefer the three star Petit Palais Germinais. Some of its double rooms come replete with a roof top terrace, and their location on Calle Sueca means you’ve got a mere 10 metres to stumble home at the end of the night.
Duncan would like to thank Visit Valencia for inviting him to experience the city, as well as Hospes Palau de la Mar Hotel for accommodating him and of course to Carla from Visitruzafa.com for an excellent tour of the barrio, which formed part of the research for this article. For more Valencia adventures find out what happened when he went cycling in the Turia Gardens, or check our city break guide. In the mean time you can follow all of the Valencian adventures of The Travel Mob bloggers by following the hashtag #VivaValencia on Twitter.