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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Plazas and Terraces

Plazas and Terraces

Because of Valencia's fine weather, people like to sit outside at cafés throughout the year. There are very few days when yo won't see at least a few brave souls sitting at tables on the sidewalk or on park benches. The big plazas in the center of town are filled to the brim with cafés and are a natural place for people to gather and just hang out. I think it is an innate human instinct to group together with family, friends, and total strangers in a public place. In the summer months here in Valencia there are so many people lying around in cafés that you almost feel like you should have called ahead for reservations.

Every neighborhood has its own little park or plaza where people come and go throughout the day and each one of these spots seems to have its own personality. If the park happens to have a fútsal court (a small concrete soccer pitch), sport will dominate the theme of the place. Perhaps the ethnic make-up of the area will influence what goes on in the cafés. If there are a lot of Latin American immigrants, you will hear salsa music coming from portable CD players or car stereos. If you grow up under the influence of the rhythms of the Caribbean, music is one of those non-negotiable items in your life. Age groups often vary from one plaza to the next. Where one place seems to be reserved for older folks, another is full of young parents with strollers, and another may look like a nightclub for teenagers. The bars and cafés surrounding a park or square also tend to dictate the clientele. Any place in the center of town will be the realm of tourists, especially during summer.

Right outside of my building you will find a plaza as pleasant as any in the entire city. The Plaza Doctor Lambrete lies on the north end of the Ruzafa market. The 15th century church of San Valero is at one end of the small plaza. The square is more of a pedestrian shortcut for the neighborhood than a plaza. People flow through here all day on their way to the market or towards downtown a few blocks away. There are two cafés in the plaza, which along with the half a dozen park benches seem to invite pedestrians to stop and sit for a few minutes on their way to where ever they are going. Consolat de Mar, the only street adjacent to the plaza, is choked down to a single lane—thanks to double parking—and cars can barely be heard—a big advantage for any hangout location. Get rid of automobiles and people will flow in. There is a modest fountain that is just big enough for kids to float their toy boats.

A few elms, a few orange trees, and three big date palms keep the plaza in the shade even at midday in August. The breeze that is funneled between the church and the adjacent apartment block is almost always welcome. At just about any time of day, when you walk past the square, excuses for stopping for something to drink disappear. Since this beautiful little plaza lies directly below my apartment, it has become my de facto living room. If someone is planning to come to visit me I can sit at one of the cafés downstairs and head them off as they approach the front door of my building. I find it easier and more pleasant to read in a café than at home, and this time of year it is cooler in the square than in my place so I spend a lot of time at one of the tables.

This could be the world's fanciest cat door. It is in the old section of town and is in memory of the four cats who lived in the neighborhood (that's what the inscription says in Valenciano).

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