LAAF's real English writing columnist Caroline Fakhri aka Teacup, escaping Brexit is presently on tour in Spain.
The gently sloping tree-lined streets looked marvellous in their autumnal shades of orange. The leaves fluttered slowly down to the pavement and crunched underfoot as I ambled along, looking up towards the castle perched on a hilltop, appearing to stand guard over the town. To start my walk I ambled along the wide tree-lined boulevard.The magnificent sycamores formed an arch over the street, providing a shady paradise on a hot sunny day, where you can sit for hours at one of the many cafes and wile away the time reading a favourite book or enjoying the view.
Before long I stopped at one of the many cafes and ordered a coffee accompanied by a farton, a long, sweet sugar-coated finger which lent itself so well to be the perfect companion to my hot cafe con leche. The day was overcast, greatly appreciated, as the grey cloud would made the hike up to the castle so much easier. Across the other side of the boulevard, the old town streets hide behind the newer elaborate buildings, before weaving upwards. The ancient shuttered houses appeared to march up the hillside before coming to an abrupt halt. From there, the streets began to climb quickly and we soon found ourselves zigzagging steeply upwards under the magnificent pine trees which line the road. No dusty uneven tracks to navigate, or wild bushes jagging at our legs, the way to the top of the hill and eventually to the castle is really quite majestic.
Xativa, which sits at the junction of the Valencia-Murcia and Valencia-Albacete railways, is 25 kilometres west of the Mediterranean. It sits at an altitude of 115 metres, on the northern slopes of Monte Vernisa.
Xativa suffered dark moments in its history at the hands of Philip V of Spain, who had the city besieged then ordered it to be burned and renamed San Felipe. The portrait of this monarch hangs upside down in the local museum, L’Almodi, in memory of the insult.
Xativa was famous for its linen fabrics as far back as Roman times. and also known as an early European centre of paper manufacturing, when during the Islamic era, the Arabs brought the technology to manufacture paper.
After the Reconquista by northern Christian kingdoms and following the Christian repopulation, the city became a cradle of one of the most powerful and controversial families of the Renaissance: the house of Borgia which produced Pope Alfonso de Borgia and Rodrigo de Borgia who were controversial because they were suspected of many crimes including adultery, incest, theft, bribery and murder especially by arsenic.
The reason for visiting the town of Xativa was solely for enjoying the town itself and the walk up to the castle was a bonus.
30 October 2021
A fortified gem nestling in the mountains of Valencia Region.
Think of Spain, and sea, sunshine and sangria might spring to mind; but penetrate Spain’s harsh interior landscape and you will be surprised and entranced by a medieval walled town, the ruins of a once imposing castle, and higgledy-piggledy cobbled streets filled with shops selling local Spanish delicacies, and cafes serving aromatic coffee and magnificent meringues.
Morella is a medieval gem of a town, inland from the sparkling Mediterranean coast, deep in the Valencian countryside. Sitting at an altitude of approximately 1000 metres, it is surrounded by a fortified wall, and entrance to the town is via one of the many well-preserved portals, giving a feeling of safety once inside.
From a distance Morella resembles an elaborate cake, the roads swirling round and round like snakes of icing, as its houses climb the hillside. The remains of the once imposing castle, illuminated at night, finish the illusion of the cake perfectly.
Morella is not for the faint-hearted or the unfit, as I found out on a recent visit, as everywhere is reached by steep steps, whether you want to go sightseeing, explore the delightful cobbled streets lined with attractive shops, or just fancy people-watching from the terrace of one of the many cafes whilst drinking your morning cortado.
Morella played a pivotal role during the Napoleonic Wars and the Spanish Civil War. The town, which is heavily fortified, has witnessed the comings and goings of many: there are traces of settlements from the Iberians, succeeded by the Greeks, Romans and Visigoths; then in 714 the Moors took the town, naming it Maurela. Centuries later, in April 1938, towards the end of the Spanish Civil War, the town was captured by General Franco’s forces.
Despite these invasions, the Old Town remains completely enclosed by 2.5 kilometres of intact stone walls, pierced at 7 points by gates and portals. Morella lies between the plains of the River Ebro to the northwest and the coastal plains of Valencia and Castellón. Access from the northwest lies through the passes of Torre Miro at 1259 metres and Querol at an altitude of 1020 metres. The river Bergantes skirts the southern boundaries of the town.
The steep streets of Morella are lined with charming houses which feature hanging balconies, protecting passersby from the midday sun. The shops, also lining the streets, sell local delicacies; anything from honey to cheeses, black truffles to olive oil and wine to a vast variety of sausages; a paradise for any food lover. I also found a shop selling handmade soap, as well as lotions and potions for the most discerning lover of anything handmade and beautifully perfumed.
I stayed just inside the town wall, in the aptly named Hotel El Cid, my room overlooked the valley, with views to the aqueduct which once transported water into the town. I drifted off to sleep to the cool night breeze and tinkling bells of the goats that grazed just outside the city limits. I slept soundly, imagining the watch towers were manned to guarantee my safety from advancing invaders.
19 October 2021
Relojería Desde 1925 * JJ Dominé 5 * Valencia
All that glitters is gold or silver or precious stones and even beautiful watches.
The shop window of Relojeria-Joyeria Esparza is testament to this, as, like a magpie, I was drawn towards it whilst in search of a jeweller’s to take my watches to for replacement batteries.
It is one of those establishments where I feel slightly in awe of what I see, almost to the point of presuming I have no right to enter. Everything looked fabulously expensive and beautifully crafted, from the designs of Salvatore Plata, to Casio G Shock watches as well as the Citizen and Seiko watches. Relojeria-Joyeria being a Seiko, Casio and Citizen official distributor. Watch out (excuse the pun) if you are a collector, Esparza will hook you in due to the amazing display as well as their online presence, initiated by the fourth generation of the team, Javier, four years ago, in a bid to make sure that Esparza, although offering traditional face to face customer service, has a foot very much in the 21st century, with a website, Facebook page and an Instagram account, with an impressive 50.000 followers.
But Relojeria Joyeria is no newcomer to the jewellery and watch business. Started by Javier’s great grandfather around the turn of the century in El Cabanyal, a very old part of Valencia, and once upon a time a separate town. In truth nobody in the family has an exact date of the opening, due to the great grandfather dying when still young.
But it can be said with confidence, Relojeria Joyeria dates back at least as far as 1925, with the opening of the shop at 318 Avenida del Puerto, which despite Javier’s great grandfather anticipating problems with the landlord at the outset, went on to trade all the way up to 2018-the closure of which being due to a massive rent increase. Sadly, 318 still stands empty today whilst a stone’s throw away the shop in Calle Doctor Juan Jose Domine, Relojeria Joyeria, is thriving, with an interior refurbishment going on as I write. The shop in JJ Doming was opened a couple of years after the opening of the Avenida del Puerto shop.
Whilst relating the beginnings of the business Javier explained that it was his great grandfather’s love of watches and repairing them that had sent him down this pathway. But, as Javier went on to explain, it wasn’t just his great grandfather in the shop; he employed twelve watch repairers who also designed and repaired jewellery. They worked for other jewellery shops and businesses in the city that did not have the necessary expertise for watch and jewellery repairs, or the time, and/or preferred to pay other businesses to do the work for them. He set the craftsmen up with benches and they got to work, so unlike what I had originally imagined, which was a lone jeweller.
Javier’s father, Ramon, along with one of Javier’s uncles, Enrique, started in the Calle Juan Jose Domine shop and both of them are still there today. I was lucky enough to meet both of them on my first visit to the shop. I was struck by their genuine warmth and humility, and this is what drew me back to the shop to ask if I could write about the story of Relojeria Joyeria. Three more of Javier’s uncles remained in the Avenida del Puerto shop. On quizzing Javier on what took him, the fourth generation of this family, into the jewellery business and not elsewhere, he explained that he had gone to university and studied civil engineering, and also spent time in England in order to learn English before deciding to follow his father and uncles into the business. ‘I didn’t want the shop to close when my father retires in a few years time. It seemed a shame not to keep it going, so the best way to stop the shop closing was to go into the business myself. But like all good businesses they need updating from time to time, so besides the interior refurbishment I decided that Relojeria Joyeria needed to be brought firmly up to date with an online presence. This has worked really well and opened up opportunities to sell not only outside of Valencia but also out side of Spain. So in a nutshell we are a traditional business using modern technology; we are in the top ten list of shops that supply the Casio G Shock Watch.’
Javier also has an older brother who currently lives in Finland; he has been helping out with the graphic design for the new-look interior, and generally overseeing the revamp of the shop. He has considered moving back to Valencia to help when their father retires. Besides all the impressive achievements above, the icing on the cake for me was when Javier pointed to the elegant clock tower which stands guard by the Marina and explained that any clock repairs are done by them, and if that wasn't impressive enough, just behind the shop in Placa del Tribunal de les Aigues stands the impressive church of Santa Maria del Mar, and guess what? All clock repairs of this beautiful church are also carried out by Relojeria Joyeria.
‘Next stop Big Ben’ I joked! ‘Repairs are being done at the moment, if you hurry maybe you can help repair there too!’
Esparza, the original shop
@mikengocafe, Valencia, Spain
Carrera J.J. Dómine 9 46011 Valencia Tel 673613180
Whilst scurrying to get out of the cold December wind and find a hot cafe-con-leche I came across the unusually named Mikengocafe situated on the corner of Calle J.J Dómine No 9 and Calle de Josep Aguire at what I call the seaside end of the city of Valencia. Placing myself at a table just outside the serving window of the cafe where I had a great view of the food that was being prepared I felt immediately welcomed by the friendly staff who to my surprise were chatting in English.
Richard, who hails from London, accompanied by his wife Kami, who is Valencian, own and run the cafe alongside staff who come from various countries in Europe, adding to the truly cosmopolitan feel of the place.
My first stop at Mikengo cafe was very positive, from the friendly staff to the smooth coffee. All the coffee is sourced from a local company called Bluebell and coffee is not their only strong point. Since that first encounter I have had tasty lunches as well as homemade cakes accompanied by a nice pot of tea with milk on the side, great for the days whenI have a hankering for England.
I feel Mikengo cafe is something a little bit out of the ordinary so I was interested to find out more about the ideas and inspiration behind how Mikengo came into being and one afternoon at the end of a busy lunchtime session Richard very kindly agreed to tell me more, starting with the unusual name that sounds slightly Japanese but is in fact a combination of their children’s names Kendrix and Tiago - prefixed by Mi the Spanish for My - as, in a way, all of this, Richard indicated to the cafe, is forthem.
Richard comes from a catering background and ran several pubs in London before coming to Valencia to set up shop and home.
Mikengo opened in May 2019 following a complete renovation with the idea of keeping it light and bright which is the perfect backdrop for the regularly changing artwork on the large back wall of the cafe. Other features that break up the white are the open shelves in the kitchen area, which is on full display, and a unit which glasses hang from. After a reasonably short first season Mikengo was forced to close its doors in March 2020, like so many places all over Europe, because of the pandemic. Like many of us the world over Richard imagined it might be for a few weeks only, time to have a good clean and rearrange the cafe but Mikengo wasn’t allowed to open again until May 2020 a year since their original opening.
But Mikengo is more than a pleasant place to while away a morning with an almuerzo (traditional Spanish brunch), or amerienda (afternoon tea), it’s also a great place to lunch where Richard and Kami’s menu represents the best of the cuisine encountered on their foreign travels: hearty salads using grains to add body, curries, Spanish stews with a healthy twist, vegan dishes with an ever changing variety. Everything is homemade, including lemonade and ice tea; I will be down there in the warmer months on a regular basis for these last two items.
Mikengo customers range from office workers, Monday to Friday, to the general public throughout the week, carrying over into the weekend. A system for pre-ordering food to take away, especially for the lunchtime rush, is available now via Instagram and WhatsApp, which takes pressure off the staff as everything can be got ready in advance.
I now think of Mikengo cafe as my local, a place where I can go alone when feeling in need of a familiar, friendly face, as well as with friends and family, knowing I will have a good time, good coffee and tasty food.