The Old riverbed in Valencia makes up the biggest garden in Spain. Starting at the new Parque de la Cabecera near to the stunning Bioparc zoo and stretching down past the City of Arts and Sciences for a full 9km, the “Antiguo Cauce del Turia” (Old Turia Riverbed) makes up the biggest, and longest, garden in Spain. However everyone who comes to Valencia looking for a property always asks the same two questions, why is it here and where is the river then?
The fact is the history of the biggest garden in Spain dates back to the Gran Riada of 1957. As I have told many people over the years when it rains in Valencia it absolutely pours. Think monsoon type rains, rains that make you think there could be no more water left in the sky and you get the idea. And all of that rain is generally concentrated into a few days in October, this is when the summer breaks. It’s called the Gota Fria. The Valencians fear the Gota Fria a lot and it all comes from a collective memory imprinted into the psyche of even people who weren’t around in 1957 due to the images that can be found at various points around the city and online of course.
The city is four kilometres away from the sea, as the crow flies, due to the fact that the Medieval city grew up inside the walled area that started at the Torres Serranos, the old gates to the city. Marco Polo sailed up the Turia regularly to trade in La Lonja, the old silk market. In the first ever really badly thought out job creation scheme in the eighteenth century the city elders decided it would be a great idea to knock down the walls that lined the Riverbed leaving just the Torres Serranos and Torres Quart. There have been various floods over the years but the Gran Riada of 1957 following closely on the heels of another 1950’s flood was the last straw. The River Turia has therefore played a key part in the development of Valencia over the centuries and never more so than post 1957.
There are various theories about what makes a Gota Fria but that doesn’t matter here. The truth is that a simple weather phenomena can dictate the development of a city. The fateful day was the 14th of October 1957. However the major rains fell some way away on the 13th of course. The Gota Fria affected areas feeding the River Turia upstream and there was up to 30cm of rain fell in the 24 hour period. Another 10cm fell on the 14th but the majority of the water was heading to Valencia.
You can see some of the images in the post of course but read on for the response to the Riada.
The local government put together a plan called the Plan Sur to divert the riverbed around the south of the city. The Mayor of Valencia even defied Franco in order to get some action to help the city where in certain places the water got to a depth of 5.2m above street level. You have to remember that Valencia is essentially flat and despite this the area around the Cathedral remained water free whereas Calle Pintor Sorrolla for example was underwater to a depth of 2.7m.
The Plan Sur had one big idea, make sure it couldn’t happen again by taking the water around the south of the city and make sure that the new riverbed was wide enough and deep enough to take the water from a once in 200 year storm. The work started in 1958 with the plan but it was only 1973 when the waters of the Turia finally stopped flowing through Valencia despite Franco having opened the southern route in 1969. Part of the financing came from the people of Valencia as every letter and parcel that they sent during the whole of the construction period had an extra 0.25 parts of one peseta added.
However the question remained what could be done with the riverbed that would be drained?
The idea of a park wasn’t the city fathers’ main idea but a popular resistance movement grew up through the seventies with the slogan “The River is ours and we want it green” The popular movement eventually prevailed and as a result the town council relented on their original ideas of putting together an urban motorway (It was a good job that Spain was still essentially underdeveloped and the number of cars on the road were a lot less than most other advanced countries thanks to more than 30 years of intransigence and lack of development under Franco) Instead they started talking with architects for ideas for gardens and design. Ricardo Bofill, Santiago Calatrava and many others have been involved over the years in the design of the space and it is only now where we can see the final results, almost!
Winding its way around the old town the riverbed is a stunning example of what can happen when a city gets its ideas in place and decides to innovate rather than take the easy route. Cyclists, joggers and walkers move easily through the city using the riverbed without having to use the heavily trafficked roads of the centre of Valencia and all sorts of sports ranging from the obvious; Football, Basketball and Athletics to the more esoteric and unusual such as Tai Chi, Baseball Rugby and even Cricket 😉 take advantage of the open spaces in the riverbed.. The most spectacular (and overpriced) Millenium project in the World, the City of Arts and Sciences dominates the end of the riverbed towards the beach and the starting end is dominated by the new Parque de Cabecera.
So by an accident of meteorology, a popular movement rallying against authority and the foresight of a few politicians and architects, not to mention the recent added ingredient of corruption and excess by the current crop of inept idiots that call themselves politicians which gave us the Agora and the Saddam Hussein style bridge that stands next to it (Assut D’Or), the Turia Riverbed became what it is today, the green lung that makes Valencia stand out from the rest of Europe and a brilliant example of urban design that should be studied and copied by other cities around the World.