Valencia is a jewel that foreigners are only beginning to discover. For years it was Spain’s unloved sister: in 1970, critic Kenneth Tynan dubbed it “the world capital of anti-tourism”. To be in Valencia “is to be permanently 20 minutes this side of suicide”, one visitor told him. All that, thankfully, has changed, with a thorough face wash and big building projects. The gothic architecture is world class, and the Mercado Central knocks the socks off Barcelona’s La Boqueria market.
Valencia cathedral is home to the holy grail (as verified by a Pope or two). I was drawn here by love – my wife is from the area, and later my two boys were born here. It has become my Spanish hometown: the people are friendly, the food is spectacular and the weather divine (if a little sticky in summer). What more could you want?
Mention Valencia to a Spaniard and usually three things come to mind. First, the pyromaniac spring festival known as Fallas. This is a bacchanalian orgy of fire and noise in which, for five days, the streets turn into a kind of battleground and sleep becomes purely theoretical. Second, paella: Spain’s national dish was born in the rice paddies south of the city, and is treated with a near-religious respect by Valencians. And third, political corruption, of which there seems to be an endless supply, making the city an ideal backdrop for my crime novels.
One of my favourite areas is El Cabanyal, the old fishermen’s quarter, where many of the terraced houses have brightly coloured tile facades. Several years ago it was in danger of being pulled down. Now, with a new city government in charge, the threat has lifted and money is being spent on doing up the neighbourhood – though this brings other challenges, such as gentrification. For now, it retains much of its original character. Casa Montaña bar and restaurant has a vast wine cellar, and is the best place to eat there.
Cabanyal beach is a short bus ride from the centre and lined with bars, restaurants and ice-cream parlours. La Pepica is a traditional paella place and a Valencian institution. The walls are covered with photos of celebrities who have eaten there, including an occasional royal and the ubiquitous Ernest Hemingway. The rice dishes are second to none.
In the 1930s Valencia was an important centre for Spain’s anarcho-nudist movement. (I’m not making this up.) Today, quieter and more picturesque beaches are often clothes-optional. They tend to be the more remote beaches, and so have a more “natural” feel (in every sense). One of the most accessible is El Saler, south of the city, with protected dunes, lifeguard, showers and a relaxed atmosphere. The only worry is jellyfish.
El Garbí mountain, a few miles to the north, provides wonderful views. You can see the city, the market gardens surrounding it, and the Gulf of Valencia, from Montgó mountain in the south, and far into Castellón province. I once spotted a tiny patch on the horizon, which I subsequently realised was Ibiza. This area is the setting for much of my latest novel, Fatal Sunset. Valencia’s heat and noise can sometimes be overbearing, so this is my favourite spot for cooler air and a quieter perspective.
• Jason Webster is author of Fatal Sunset (Chatto & Windus, £16.99). To buy a copy for £11.04 including UK p&p visit the guardian bookshop