On the terraza we sit, my husband Chris and I, watching the world go by. Sipping my cortado while listening to a string quartet play Pachelbel’s Canon in the lively square of Plaza de la Virgen. Lined with iconic historic buildings and outdoor cafes, this plaza is less than a 10-minute walk from our apartment. The sky is blue and cloudless with the sun shining directly at our table, warding off the chill of 12C weather in late November. I ponder how our lives have brought us to this beautiful city.
Reeling from the onset of retirement and being empty nesters in 2016 has opened ourselves to exploring what it is like to live in another culture and learn a new language. How does one choose where to live: which country, which city, which town?
I am a Filipina married to Chris, a British man and born traveler. We married in Hong Kong where our two children were born. By the time our children left to study and work in the UK, we had moved ten times in four countries. It seemed we didn’t really know what it meant to stay permanently in one place. After living an expatriate life, I really thought Chris and I would finally retire in the Philippines.
We decided to have a place in Europe to be close to the children in the UK. We preferred, however, to be in a country with more sunshine than cold wet weather. The choices were narrowed down to Portugal and Spain. During the summer of 2016, we explored various places in the Iberian Peninsula looking for the right place to beckon us. We looked at Fatima, Caldas da Reina, San Bernardino, and Cascais in Portugal; Barcelona, Madrid, Girona, Santander, San Sebastian, and Costa Brava in Spain. We flew back to our home in Manila thinking that we would move to Portugal and build a house!
Our children Then one day, close friends in Manila arrived from Europe raving about Valencia. Ganesh advised Chris to consider visiting Valencia before finalizing plans for Portugal. I actually visited Valencia in 2010, during a football tour of our son when his team played in Barcelona and Benidorm. I was there for a few hours just to see Santiago Calatrava’s Ciudad de Artes y Ciensas. If Barcelona has Antoni Gaudi, Valencia’s equivalent is Calatrava who designed and built the modern urban complex for culture and science. Little did I realize that my passing encounter with Valencia would turn into a lifelong affinity for me and my family. With this fleeting memory in mind, we flew to Valencia in October 2017 to try living there for few months. I considered this serendipity. I suppose my heart is really in Spain, because of my heritage.
I flew to Valencia from London after visiting our daughter. As I sat in my aisle seat, a woman with her daughter took the seats next to me. I helped her hoist her carry-on in the overhead bin and when they finally settled in their seats, we started chatting. During the two-hour flight, Teresa and I related our life stories. Teresa was excited to hear of our prospect of living in Valencia. She immediately offered to help in every way she could, “I have good network of friends so just let me know what you need.” I felt a deep connection with her that she makes an effort to meet our friends who visit us in Valencia. In turn, she has introduced us to her family and friends. Her daughter Maria share the same birthday as Chris. They live in Russafa with Toto, their toy poodle.
Then, we were introduced to an English couple in Russafa by our friends in England. Mike and Gina have been residents of Valencia for nearly 40 years. They welcomed us like we were family and drove us to Albufuera during our first meeting for the best paella experience. Mike and Gina introduced us to another couple: Guy, who is English, and Paz, who is Spanish. Guy is an English author whose books were published by Cambridge University Press where my husband used to work. Guy owns a boat and my husband is a keen sailor. Guy and Paz together with Chris and I sailed and travelled to Mallorca, Ibiza and even met up in the Philippines.
Sailing off Sagunto
These unexpected meetings developed into genuine friendships that just made it easy for us to choose Valencia for our European homebase. Within the first two months of our trial run in Valencia, we purchased an apartment in the old city, renovated it and turned it into our home.
As expatriates, we consider ourselves city dwellers. For me, Valencia is similar to Hong Kong and Singapore with the easy 10-minute access to the beach and the mountains from the centre of town. Without the skyscrapers common in big cities, however, we enjoy seeing unparalleled views of the changing cloudscape and azure sky which prevail for 300 days in a year throughout the four seasons. Valencia retains a hometown feel with smaller crowds when compared with the more populous cities of Madrid and Barcelona.
I like the contrast of the old city and the modern city of arts and sciences. When I walk along the cobblestones of the historic centre, my senses are heightened by the sights and sounds of music from buskers, the dances on the plazas, the fiesta culture (particularly before the pandemic) and the lure of Spanish cuisine. We live within a 5-15 minute walk to various museums and there are around 10 churches within a 500-metre radius. The peal of the church bells is music to my ears. Valencia is home to outstanding street artists who incorporate hidden messages and political statements in their art. It is a bit similar to the fallas which are monuments built and destroyed during the annual March festival, one of the most joyful celebrations in Valencia’s calendar.
If the way to someone’s heart is through the stomach, Valencia is a perfect blend of culture and gastronomy. Restaurants of superb quality abound within a short walk of our apartment. Mercat Central at the heart of the city is the biggest enclosed markets in Europe. The abundance of fresh local produce means that we have no excuses not to eat healthy meals.
As the third largest city in Spain, Valencia has an international airport and one of the best hospitals and medical care in the world. It is a good take-off point to travel in and around Spain and Europe with regular flights to the US and Asia. This is good news to us as retirees and empty nesters.
Covid street art
It Is Meant To Be
“For more and more of us, home has less to do with a piece of soil
than a piece of soul.” Pico Iyer
Who would have thought we would be where we are now after the fledglings left their nest? Home is where the heart is. It seems Valencia found us through serendipity.