Perched high above an ornate iron and glass dome, its feet resting on a golden ball, is the Cotorra del Mercat, a big green parrot, the symbol of the Central Market in Valencia, Spain. Cotorra means parrot in Spanish, but it also means chatterbox, and the weather vane is meant to represent the chatter and bustle of the business taking place fifty metres below its feet – although some local wags suggest that it’s more representative of the gossiping women stall-holders.

Built between 1914 and 1928, Valencia, Central Market is the largest covered market in Europe, the cast-iron framework towering over the multi-coloured stalls reminiscent of a huge Victorian railway station. The central dome is decorated with stained glass oranges and lemons, representing the typical produce of the Valencian region.

The market is divided into sections for different produce. In the fish market each type of underwater delicacy is separated; fat white pulpi (baby octopus) won’t be found snuggling up to deep purple slices of fresh tuna, and garish red languostinos (giant prawns) disdain the company of percebes, the grotesque molluscs that look like a tiny severed elephant’s leg – supposedly delicious, but I’d need to have my eyes closed to get one anywhere near my mouth. Nearby, fat live snails ready for the  specialty of the Valencia region , paella, try to escape from plastic bowls.

Parrot on Valencia's Central Market

Valencia Central Market

Specialists stalls sell that most tempting of Spanish delicasies, Jamón Serrano the Spanish version of Palma Ham although aficionados of either camp would strike dead anyone who made the comparison to their face. Jamón recebo, from pigs fed on a mixed diet, is the cheapest at around, but if you really want to pay an arm and a leg for the back leg of a pig (paleta is the front leg) go for pata negra, the black pig for which you’ll need to hand over seven or eight times the price of paleta, and then only if you buy the full leg at around eight kilo.

The Mercado Central is the beating heart of Valencia’s casco antiguo, the 13th-century centre of the city, more commonly known as the Barrio del Carmen, whose winding alleys lure you through centuries of intrigue. One of the most influential cities on the Mediterranean in the 15th and 16th centuries, at its peak it was more important than either London or Paris, its fortunes built on silk and wine.

A few narrow dog-legs from the market, the Cathedral is the spiritual home of Valencia, its three grand portals, Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque mirroring the history of the city itself. Impressive as the cathedral is, one of its most important historical features is that every Thursday at 12 o’clock on the dot a Water Tribunal, Europe’s oldest legal institution, dating from 960, is held in the Gothic Doorway. The land surrounding the city, once the most agriculturally productive of the whole of the Roman Empire, is watered by seven aquifers and the role of the Water Tribunal for more than one thousand years has been to judge disputes in water distribution. Even though its role these days is mainly symbolic it nonetheless continues a millennia-long tradition every single week.

If you need to take a rest, the 200-year-old Hochateria de Santa Catalina is just around the corner from the cathedral, in Plaza Santa Catalina, an oasis of cool on a hot summer’s day. Horchata is a milky white drink made from chufa (tigernuts) and is so full of goodness that devotees call it ‘a miracle in a glass’. Whether that is the case or not, it is the Valencianos’ favoured summer drink, cooling, sweet and delicious. During cooler months their preference is for buñuelos, doughnuts made with pumpkin, dunked in hot chocolate so thick that the spoon stands up in it, sold in enormous quantities during Las Fallas, Valencia’s 5-day shebang from 15th – 19th March, that culminates in over one hundred fantasy statues, some of them up to fifteen metres high, going up in flames,

The Spanish are obsessive about their food and you will find dishes from all corners of the globe, but for a genuine Valencian meal served in genuine Valencian surroundings make your way to La Utielana, a family-owned restaurant on Plaza del Picardo de Dos Aguas, close to the gloriously decorative Palacio de Dos Aguas, the National Museum of Ceramics. Tucked away on a narrow street, this lovely little restaurant is rarely visited by tourists but nonetheless gets packed during the lunchtime dining period, in Spain at the seemingly late hours of 14.00 to 15.30, mainly by locals enticed by the quality and value of its food, especially the braised leg of lamb that drips off the bone. The menu is only in Spanish but the very friendly waitresses speak English, and as an added entertainment you can watch the furore in the open kitchen as the chefs rattle them pots’n’pans.

Once ringed by a stout stone wall, now only two grand arches remain guarding the city, the Torres de Quart and Torres de Serranos, the latter facing outward over the dried-up bed of the Turia River, Valencia’s green lung, now a six-kilometre garden of delightful walks and bike rides. Beginning with the the Parque de Cabacera and its lake, perfect for picnics and pedallos, at the western end and ending at the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias at the eastern, the gardens pass through sports fields, fairground, quiet tree-shaded lawns for relaxation and Gulliver, an enormous playground in the supine shape of the eponymous traveller where kids and adults who should know better play Lilliputians, tearing down the slides formed in the folds of his jacket or clambering the rope nets that pin our hero to the ground. A happy day could be spent following the gardens, or the Jardin de Turia as they are officially called, discovering other parks and gardens on either side that cover the panoply of the rich variety of autochthonous flora of the Valencian region.

The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, the City of Arts and Sciences, is the showpiece 0f modern Valencia, the skeletal arms of the Museo de las Ciencias ‘Principe Felipe’ extending from its arched body giving the appearance of a gargantuan white arachnid on the prowl. Its futuristic complex includes L’Hemisferic, a great dome that sits surrounded by water, designed to evoke the human eye, with its sides rising like eyelids to expose a white tile-covered pupil within which houses an IMAX cinema; L’Umbracle, a 320 metre-long promenade with a central garden of trees and plants that change shape and colour throughout the season; L’Oceanografic, the biggest ocean park in Europe, and El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia an opera house and performing arts centre.

And if all this is too much for you, Malvarosa beach, 3-kilometres of glorious white sand set along the shore of the gently lapping Mediteranean, with its promenade, chiringuitos (beach bars selling excellent fresh fish), and the gentle waft of salt sea air is a ten-minute taxi drive away, with a glass of chilled agua de Valencia waiting for you, a frighteningly delicious cocktail of cava (Spanish champagne), orange juice, vodka and gin, or if that seems too much of a good thing, a glass of tinto de verano, an equal mix of red wine and gaseosa, a slightly sweet soft drink similar to 7-up.

Salud!