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El Cabanyal

Last updated on November 4, 2019

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A typical Cabanyal house
You can see that there are people who take great pains to restore their houses with respect

UPDATE!  – Since I wrote this some years ago, Rita Barberá was ousted from her 24 year position as mayoress in Valencia and a left wing government was voted in.  This had the happy outcome for El Cabanyal which has now been spared and is being reformed and improved beyond all belief.  Properties have soared in value by as much as 300% in some cases  with about 45% being sold to foreigners.  The outcome for Rita however was not so good.  On the morning that she was due in court to face corruption charges she died suddenly of a suspected heart attack.  An autopsy proved she actually had cirrhosis of the liver.  Not surprising as she was known to be extremely fond of whiskey!

One of the most beautiful an perfectly restored houses in El Cabanyal
One of the most beautiful and perfectly restored houses in El Cabanyal

Just after World War II Spain started to attract increasing numbers of tourists, drawn by its amazing coastline and gorgeous climate.  With the exception of El Cabanyal and a few other enclaves, poco a poco the coast was cemented over, ugly high rises replacing the charming fishermen houses.  You can read about its commencement in the evocative book “Voices of the Old Sea” by Norman Lewis.

Today very little of Spain’s haunting fishing past remains in evidence along the coast.  One of the reasons why I live in the mountains is that as beautiful as the coastline is, turn your head in the other direction and more often than not you are confronted by a soulless concrete jungle.  Some tower blocks are so high and close to the sea that by noon the beaches they front are already in shade.

There are, however, some charming enclaves left, and one such is El Cabanyal, part of a collection of fishing villages originating from the 14th century that are now part of Valencia.  Several years ago writer Jason Webster published a tempting travel piece on the area in the Guardian that inspired me to visit it.  Since then I have been back time and again to marvel at the colourful mismatch of architectural styles while sorrowing at its, in part, hopeless decline.  As Jason wrote, “an unpolished gem”.

Decaying house, El Cabanyal
Cabanyal is an unpolished gem fraying at the edges

El Cabanyal is the shame of Spain, or actually a lot more than this.  Although the area is a historically protected neighbourhood, it is blighted by plans to drive a monstrously wide road through the middle of it.  Many houses, 1651 to be precise,  would be demolished, 214 of listed status, not least of all a block of striking terraces on the seafront built around the  very unusual Lonja del Pescado fish market with its internal courtyard and rare lattice covering.

La Lonja fish market, El Cabanyal, 2012
La Lonja fish market in decline

 

Th amazing inner courtyard roof of La Long de pescado, Cabanyal
I was let into this space reluctantly. The public are not normally allowed

The result according to many would be the fragmentation of a vibrant historic community by creating the right and the wrong sides of the tracks. In some ways this has already happened. Descriptions by estate agents are telling –  “the best area of Cabanyal…” or “grab yourself a bargain, only 30,000 euros for 90 square meters…” – so in the blighted area.

Salted sardines - a speciality much loved by the Spanish
The food market of El Cabanyal is better than that of Valencia centre. It just is.

This threat has hung like a cloying smog over the locals for 50 years.  The project has been put on hold several times, only to be resurrected by grandiose politicians with everything but the good of El Cabanyal or the needs of modern day tourism in their hearts. Their ears are deaf, seemingly even to the highest court in the land that declared the project illegal.

The devastation of El Cabanyal
Nowhere are the heinous acts of Rita Barbera more evident than here

A number of stunning properties have already been destroyed in preparation for this long outdated plan, leaving grim vacant lots of indecision. What was maybe a plausible proposal 50 years ago is no longer relevant today.  The idea was to connect the core of Valencia with its stunning coast, but it has since become easily accessible by car, train, tram or metro – without any demolition. Indeed you can bicycle here from the city centre in 15 minutes.

Nevertheless, it  appears that the politicians want to have their moment of glory willy-nilly in much the same way as they built the  ill-considered and absurdly expensive Cuidad de las Artes y las Ciencias.  Impossible to maintain, this gigantic mosaic elephant has had to be closed before it was ever really open because it is falling apart.

If the powers that be are not careful, their moment will become inglorious and they will be known for purposely removing a pivotal part of Spain’s heritage. This at a time when preservation and conservation is more the order of the day.

Decaying beauty graced by pretty graffiti
There is so much to Cabanyal and all people can do is show protest

In the three years that I have been visiting El Cabanyal I have never ceased to be bewitched by its colourful charm and ambience.  Its architecture is of a predominately Art nouveau nature à la espagnol interspersed with follies and pastiches of styles that clearly took the owners’  fancies in their day. The moor legacy of covering houses in tiles is in evidence wherever you look.   Strangely enough it reminds me of a great number of pubs in Liverpool…

Stop the indecision in El Cabanyal
El Cabanyal feels like Cuba in many ways

There is a certain  “Havana-ness” about it and all it needs to complete the picture is some retro cars.  This natural movie set is perfectly complemented by an atmospheric  food market that hums with good spirits.  It is here that I usually park, stopping to buy some fresh capers and marinated olives, then slowly meandering through El Cabanyal’s grid of streets to the super wide  Arena beach.  It goes without saying that I pause from time to time to talk to the locals whilst partaking of numerous refreshments along the way.  In no particular order.

Scrummy olives from El Cabanyal market
The olives from El Cabanyal food market are divine.

I love the area, even more with its continuing decline on the “wrong side of the tracks”.  I have seen and photographed many aspects of it, including its squalor – the gypsy squats, the now slum housing often with no running water, the Romanian children running and posing happily through the streets.

Romanian child in El Cabanyal
The chart of this area extends to the squatters

 

Ironing en El Cabanyal, Spain
some sights are comic, but also very sad

Beautiful buildings stand in the midst of all this like snubbed queens. There are gentrified roads, and then roads where  grandmas sit knitting outside their chalets while drugs exchange hands a few meters away. And a bit further still is the endless magnificent beach.

The beach at El Cabanyal
This beach goes on forever!

Despite any undercurrent of menace,  it is an enchanting mixture of bohemia and family, student  and weekend visitors, all oozing with atmosphere and character.  Maybe I should say excitement.  There are bars and bodegas and restaurants galore, and eccentric venues such as a diminutive puppet theatre. According to the owner of the watering hole opposite (no name )it will be demolished next month along with the square in front.

A house for the wrecking balls in El Cabanyal
Going, going, but thankfully not gone

This former bodega with striking features, already stands forlorn amongst the empty lots, the upper floors  bricked up due to its precarious disrepair.  Not worth fixing of course as it too awaits the swing of the wrecking ball.

“When”, I asked?  He shrugged.  “I don’t know. It has to go for the grand avenue.  But as long as I can stay here, I will”.

And he shrugged again.  Resignation was written all over him. Then he lit a fag. What did he care anymore about regulation?

Not everyone is against the road expansion, and some I ask insist that the demolition will be very limited.  It is hard to know.  Certainly if you look at projected photos in El Pais  the area affected seems large, an ever-widening pizza slice. On other sites the path is a manageable straight line.  However, the plans have been altered so often that I doubt anyone knows what the current state of affairs is.

The neighbourhood protest website cabanyal.com is similarly confusing, written in three languages Valencian, Castellon and English…but not really.   Click on a page and the language defaults randomly to Castellon or Valencian, with the latest entry sometimes going back to 2011.  It peters along, not properly updated, links not working, as tired as the slew of crumbling houses awaiting their fate.

A slew of crumbling houses in El Cabanyal
Are the locals getting as tired as these houses?

Something should be done, whether it is the implementation of this hair-brained idea, or, preferably, the definitive suppression of it.  Cabanyals needs to move on for much of it is falling apart at the seams.  At the moment there is no action, only stagnation.  No new building is allowed.  Only weeds and neglect can prosper.

“The Valencians do not seem to care about El Cabanyal”, an Italian student told me. It seems they pass blindly through (so it is easy to get to!) to sit on the beach and drink sangria in one of the many beach cafes there.  But enter this barrio of charming fishermen houses, a mere 5 minutes walk from the sea and I defy any visitor to be unmoved.

Italian student in El Cabanyal
An Italian student explains why he has stayed in El Cabanyal after his studies

Wander up and down the breathtaking streets, and snap away.  Wet your whistle at any of the numerous bars, and especially at Casa Montana, an atmospheric taverna dating from 1836.  Then, why not? – go to the swanky   beach front Hotel las Arenas and pamper yourself in its spa.

Hotel las Arenas, El Cabanyal
A favourite stop of mine – if only for the rosé!

It strikes me that this is the future of El Cabanyal, and actually what much of Spain needs.  Not a motorway to the coast that will fell an unique 18th century fish market.  No more golf courses and tacky theme parks. No more high rises.  None of this, but instead the promotion of enlightened tourism.

Proof of this is that the massive tourist complexes in Spain have actually not been doing so well for the last 8 years.  Just like the 50 year old plan to carve a physical and emotional divide through a truly beautiful area has had its day, so has mass cheap tourism in some fake wonderland lost much of its novelty.

Eating and drinking the old way in El Cabanyal
Casa Montana, expensive but a good stop and the oldest wine bar in the communidad of Valencia

The modern day tourist wants something different of a more authentic quality.  The past preserved in the present is a comforting escape from hectic work schedules and pulls like a magnet.  El Cabanyal has it in buckets and spades, but those who turn the screws seem dumbed by personal ambitions.

Meeting of The Fallas queens, El Cabanyal, 2019
El Cabanyal has its own “Fallas” – carnival to you and me – they invited me in to their gathering of past and present winners for free gin and tonics!

As Jason Webster said, “Head for Valencia’s fishermen’s quarter before the bulldozers get there”.  I concur, but would like to add a beacon of hope.  From my investigations it appears that even if they get there, much will thankfully still remain.  But then again, will it? I certainly hope so.

Waiting for the bulldozers, El Cabanyal?
Going, going, probably gone

 

One Comment

  1. Lisa Garrity
    March 24, 2014

    What a fabulous post with simply stunning photographs – an insight into a fabulous lost world. How I would love to be meandering round those streets right now. Such a shame that this, most interesting and culturally rich side of Spain, is forgotten and neglected in favour or the package holidays to the concrete jungles by the sea. A wonderfully evocative blog. Thank you as always Stephanie for allowing me to journey into this world.

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