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Three Kings procession
Three Kings procession in Valencia

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July 2008 Email this to a friend
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Discovering Valencia
For sensitive, determined travelers open to the unexpected, this sunny Mediterranean region offers rich rewards, and glimpses of homoerotic life lost in the West.
By Frank Laterreur

Spain is not one country, but several. In addition to the Castilian-speaking culture centered in Madrid, there are four regions in Spain speaking their own languages and maintaining various degrees of autonomy. Valencia is one of those distinct "countries." Basque nationalism, of course, has a high profile, even as the origins of that people remains shrouded in mystery. (The Basque language does not derive from Latin, is not even Indo-European!) And visitors to Barcelona quickly learn they're in Catalonia, not just Spain. By contrast, the sense of nationhood in Galicia or in Valencia isn't so in-your-face. But it's real, and thriving. Since the death in 1975 of Spain's dictator Francisco Franco, regional identities have been flourishing. In Valencia, schools teach in the local language (and nationalists insist theirs is a language, and not simply a dialect of Catalan, as linguistic purists label it).

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Spain's "otherness" has long intrigued artists, intellectuals -- and among them always homosexuals -- from other parts of Europe and the Americas. Spain is cut off from the continent by the Pyrenees and its south nearly touches Africa. Too much on the edge to be a crossroads, Spain has nonetheless been a mixing-ground -- often tragically. Over the millennia, Spain is a place where pagan and Roman, Christian and Muslim, and fascist and socialist have dug in for bouts of ruinous battle.

Yet there's something about Valencia that sets it apart, even from the rest of Spain. You can sense it in the ancient mountain villages, in urban streets of unevenly plastered apartment blocks covered in graffiti, in the fiestas that are utterly all-consuming village- and city-wide affairs.

The city of Valencia proper numbers nearly a million. Their comunitat (state) or pais (country), as Valencians call it, is geographically diverse. About the size of New Jersey, Comunitat Valenciana contains high mountain ranges, fertile plains, and hundreds of picturesque villages and towns. Large expanses serve agriculture, with orange groves to rival Florida's. There's a marshland -- the Albufera -- with dikes and thatched-roof cottages that recall the Netherlands. And Valencia's Mediterranean coast boasts some of Europe's most beautiful beaches.

Valencia's weather is the best in Spain -- cool in winter, but never freezing, warm in summer but never stifling. There's day after day of flawless blue skies and sunshine, interspersed by mostly gentle rains.

Hard nut to crack

"Though Valencia is blessed with an excellent climate, situated in the midst of beautiful country," wrote Giacomo Casanova, in the 1760s, "though its women, and even its men, are the most handsome in Spain... in spite of all these commodities, it is a most disagreeable town... and there is no good or easy company."

Close-knit families are one obstacle to getting to know Valencians, as Casanova himself found. Young men and women live with their parents, often until well into their 30s. Family groups are seen hanging out together all over.

The stern older men and women one encounters everywhere in Valencia are also off-putting. Parisians, Berliners, Amsterdamers, and Londoners may be moody and rude, but scratch them, and they're often quite available for animated, casual conversation with strangers. Valencians stand apart. Here, the older people almost universally wear strained, pained, angry, and just plain unhappy faces. A factor may be Spain's millennia of tragic history -- some of it recent and local. The ice can be broken, but it takes persistence.

Still, the gay traveler won't miss the casual male affection everywhere visible -- from light touching and leaning on shoulders, to hugs and kisses on cheeks. Familial affection is quite extraordinary. A particular tradition seems to be for boys and young men to play with each other's hair and ears in the most provocative manner.

Yet it's difficult to tease out homoerotic intentions. Certainly, overt gay displays are now much in evidence in a Spain suddenly liberated by the Socialist government from ages of homophobia. At swimming pools (they're in almost every neighborhood), at fiestas, in the streets, and on the buses, one sees obvious homosexual affection. And not only from the queens (who are also to be seen, wearing heavy mascara and lipstick), but from "regular guys" of all ages.

One Friday night at the Plaza Colon, where literally hundreds of youth gather each week, I noticed a couple of 16-year-olds playfully biting each others ears and giving each other quite sloppy kisses. All of this now passes without so much as a turned head. Yet this easygoing erotic behavior is hard for outsiders to join in. The joke here is that while the legal age of consent for sex is 13 -- the youngest in Europe and one of the youngest in the world today -- the age of consent for meeting people is at least 30! Indeed, homosexuality, as all forms of sex, are largely endogenous here -- kept within the family or a well-established friendship circle.

Woven into the fabric

Public homosexuality in Valencia reminds one of homoerotic styles in America before Stonewall. There's active gay cruising in the Turia (Valencia's dry riverbed park), in the Royal Gardens, and in plazas near the train station and the university (especially in the Tossal plaza in El Carmen, and around the fountain at the plaza of the Virgin). Look for t-room cruising at the train and central bus stations and other public facilities. Add to that the action at peep shows and porn cinemas near the train station and also near the Pla_a de l'Ajuntament (City Hall Square). After dark in neighborhood parks one can find the occasional trick.

Officially, the gay world consists of more than 60 bars and discos and cafes. They cluster especially in El Carmen, just up from Plaza de la Reina, along Calle de Caballeros, but also in Russafa, near the North Station. (Look for a regular Guide feature on Valencia, coming soon.) Besides bars, there are quite a few alternative cafes and bars where gays mix with hippies, goths, and other types -- Ca Revolta (Carrer Santa Teresa 10) is the busiest of these, with regular avant garde art, film, and music. Most places do not open until 11 p.m. or, in the case of some discos and sex bars, not until after 1 a.m., while still others are open only in the afternoon and early evening.

"Lesbians and gay men are more friendly together here," says Pau Vendrell, editor of the Valencia gay monthly Full Lambda. To meet locals in the afternoon he suggests dipping in to a mixed bar, such as El Principito (Plaza Vicent Iborra 5, in El Carmen), open from about 2 p.m. until just before midnight. Or in the late afternoon and early evening, there's the gay Cafe Cola Cao, and next to it Cafe Tertullia 1900, both open from around 6 p.m. and both on Calle d'Alt near the Tossal park. "Or even just sit in the Tossal Park in the evening after about 9 p.m.," Pau suggests, "and of course in the discos and bars after midnight or 1 a.m., it is easy to meet people."

"The first thing a gay man or lesbian should do is pick up one of our maps of the gay sections of El Carmen and Russafa," Pau adds. They're available at Full Lambda's offices (Calle Vivons 26), not far from North Station.

What can one say about Valencia to the gay tourist? Curious, sensitive travelers will be rewarded for exploring a unique small nation, with some xenophobic characteristics, but also with an exotic and erotic reality lurking beneath the surface.

"I wanted to go where town was still town, country, country, and where traditions remained authentic, not spoiled in either," wrote Robert Graves, the English poet, when he moved to Mallorca in 1927. Valencia has not yet been spoiled, in either countryside or city. You can sense it best in the amazing fiestas. During Las Fallas in Valencia, two- to four-story figures -- some comic, some grotesque, all strangely haunting -- tower over city streets, presiding over raucous festivities before they are consumed in massive bonfires. Or consider the muixeranga -- acrobatic pyramids of men and boys that are the hallmark of the fiesta in the town of Algemesi. Our new global era dissolves the differences between places into cyber abstraction. These fabulous towering constructions stand like guards keeping the integrity of the Valencian past safe from the crush of the virtual.

see the next sections of our coverage of Valencia...
-- Not Always a Gay Time
-- A Paella for Ya
-- Revel Without a Cause
-- Beyond Quiet Matrimony

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