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Monday, June 16, 2008

El Cabañal / Les Arenes

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Just when I think that I have seen absolutely everything there is to see in Valencia, just when I feel a bit jaded with my new home, I have my eyes opened to an area of the city that I thought that I already knew well. The barrios of El Cabañal (written “El Cabanyal” in Valenciano) and Les Arenes run along Valencia's beautiful Malvarosa Beach. Valencia is probably one of the few cities in the world in which the wealthy inhabitants don't want to live on the waterfront. This area of Valencia has been in decay for many years but is rapidly showing signs of gentrification (I'm not sure that word exists in Spanish, nor do I know the Spanish equivalent). This past weekend the excellent (at times) Spanish TV program Callejeros did a feature on El Cabañal which has made this area the focus of countless conversations in Valencia.

It is a very interesting area architecturally with countless examples of modernist style homes. What sets this area apart from the rest of the city are the one and two story homes in most of the neighborhood, instead of the larger apartment buildings found in the rest of the city. It's has the feel of a funky beach town mixed with a gypsy camp. Most of the life here goes on in the street, more so even than the rest of the city. I have never passed through this part of town without hearing guitars playing people singing mournful flamenco ballads. People here use the sidewalks are extensions of their living rooms. Whenever I ride my bike through El Cabañal I feel like I am passing homes without walls.

This week's episode of Callejeros brought you into the homes in this area, for better or for worse. I was cracking up laughing at times when the journalists simply walked up to a door, knocked, and then asked if they could enter with the film crew. People would allow them to enter their apartments, many of which were pretty funky: junk everywhere, filthy toilets, half-dressed family members, you name it. This area is probably one of the poorest in Valencia with some streets looking like a gypsy camp out in the country. Goats and chickens can be found in some of the vacant lots littered with trash. There are a couple of streets I pass on my bike rides that are particularly colorful, if by colorful I mean naked children running around, and mothers who don't look to be more than 16 years old screaming after them. I'll have to look up the Spanish word for “squalor” and "squalid." Those words would be "mugre" and asqueroso," respectively—two words that I already knew as it turns out.

But as I said, this area runs right into one of the finest beaches you'll ever see next to a large city. Besides the great location you have some really cool architecture from the 1930-40s. For every crappy gypsy squat you probably have a couple dozen incredibly cool homes that have been restored to the old splendor, and then some. What I am seized with while riding around admiring these old city homes is an acute sense of patio envy. Just look up and you can see rooftop terraces complete with palm trees, not to mention stunning views of the Mediterranean. In my opinion that's just about the best thing this life has to offer.

There are now two streetcar lines linking this area with the center of Valencia, not to mention a half a dozen bus lines and two bike trails. The adjacent port has also been recently overhauled and in August the Formula 1 circuit will be up and running for the Valencia Grand Prix. I would say that El Cabañal's reputation as a sort of rough area of Valencia are numbered.

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