Valencia: See you in court
IT'S noon on Thursday in Valencia and we've struck it lucky. Seven men wearing black cloaks and serious expressions are filing through the crowd towards Valencia Cathedral.
On cue, the bells stop tolling. The men sit in a circle of chairs outside the cathedral and focus on a man standing in the middle.
My friends and I have arrived in time to witness Valencia's ancient Tribunal de las Aguas, or Water Court. The court has been sorting out arguments over the precious resource of water for the past 1000 years, at the same time and place and on the same day of the week. It dates from the 11th century when the Moors reigned over Valencia, resolving conflicts among farmers competing for water for their crops.
The system worked so well that when the Christian King James I of Aragon took Valencia from the Moors in the 13th century, he continued the court.
The democratic Tribunal de las Aguas remains entrenched, its members still elected by the mainly farming community. On this particular Thursday, the court resolves the matter in 25 minutes.
"We deal with issues fairly and efficiently," says Francesco Falco. A courteous septuagenarian, he is president of Mestalla Canal, one of the areas in which the water disputes arise.
"We resolve the matter in public. Nothing is written down and the court's finding is legal and binding within Spanish jurisdiction."
Then he gets on to lighter subject matter, the Plaza de la Virgen, which encapsulates centuries of history and is a central launching pad to Valencia. The old cathedral, founded in the 1400s, is built where a mosque once stood.
In contrast, Valencia's futuristic City of Arts and Sciences will catapult you back to the 21st century.
A fun way to get there from the old centre is on a hired Segway. After a practice on the electric-powered sawn-off scooter, I head across town via a dry riverbed - converted to a 9km garden interspersed with parks, fountains, art and football fields. Valencians are very proud of it. The transformation of the Turia River began after it was diverted in 1957 to prevent the floods that periodically beset the city.
Along the Turia are several exits, one of which I Segway up and over to get to El Corte Ingles department store. An obliging Miguel Angel Perez, from the Valencia Tourism Office, is there to collect the Segway. I pop into the store to buy a €25 ($47) pair of black leather gloves before continuing on foot along the riverbed to the City of Arts and Sciences.
Valencia's hosting of the America's Cup races in 2007 and 2010 spurred construction of the dazzling cultural centre. The daring curves and angles of the museum, aquarium, cinema and arts' buildings gleam in the Mediterranean sun. You can work up a thirst in their vast spaces - especially for horchata, the refreshing milk and almond-flavoured drink loved by the Spanish.
When lunchtime swings round, my friends and I meet back in El Carmen (the old town) and take a 20-minute tram ride to El Cabanyal, Valencia's city beach - the city has eight splendid beaches. About 300km of sand separate El Cabanyal's promenade and restaurants from the water.
From La Pepica, which serves excellent paella - a dish invented in Valencia - we can see the America's Cup headquarters in the distance, before the coast stretches north and out of sight. Dining out in Valencia is superb at RIFF, where chef Bernd Knoller turns on Michelin magic with a degustation lunch of Mediterranean flavours that takes you from 2.30pm - the normal time to start lunch in Valencia - to5pm.
By which time you are ready for a siesta. This civilised snooze refreshes you for dinner at about10pm.
The appetising provincial fare at La Lola restaurant is almost outshone by a fiery flamenco performance by a 13-year-old Gypsy boy, encouraged by his guitar-playing uncle.
La Lola's owner is a bon vivant called Jesus. He won't let us go home without a party and a bag of luscious tomatoes from his father's garden. "You like Valencia? Sure you do," he says. "It's Mediterranean. It has life, passion. You feel warm." Jesus then plies us with jars of his father's tomatoes, bottled by his mother.
Before leaving the hotel next morning I donate the bottled toms to a surprised receptionist. And keep two fresh beauties from Jesus' father's garden for the journey to Madrid.