Valencia in spring is truly delightful. From the moment the Fallas festival in March marks the arrival of the new season, you can feel the warmth in the air as days start to get longer. Soon, the city streets fill with the sweet aroma of the orange blossom and the terraces in bars and restaurants start to come alive. As the thermometer reaches the mid 20s, Valencians (and any visiting tourists) head to the beach for a stroll or to sit on the sand with a good book while soaking up the Mediterranean sun. It is the time to blow the winter cobwebs and head outdoors. In the city, the long green ribbon that is the Turia Gardens provides the perfect spot for a walk under the trees. But to truly enjoy nature at its best, a trip to the Albufera Natural Park, half an hour south of the city, is a must.
The Albufera lagoon is the largest freshwater lake in Spain, occupying a surface of around 3,000 hectares. It is separated from the Mediterranean sea by a thin strip of land. This includes the protected area known as the Devesa de El Saler with its unique ecosystem of sand dunes, dense Mediterranean scrub, and a thick forest of vines, shrubs and pine trees.
Surrounding the lake are the rice fields, 14,000 hectares of marshland which will feed countless paella pans around the region and beyond with its crop. The tradition of rice growing in this area of Valencia dates back to the 17th century. Long before that, the lake was mainly exploited for fishing. You can still see fishermen going out in their traditional boats to catch eels, freshwater shrimp, mullet or seabass. And if you arrive at the end of June, you may see them honour their patron saint, St Peter, with a sailing procession carrying his statue to the middle of the lake.
Springwatch in the Albufera
Above all, the park is one of the most important wetland areas in Europe, and a haven for wildlife. Most of the migrating birds, mainly ducks, that come to spend the winter in the warmer Valencian climate head north to breed in the summer months. But as some birds leave, others arrive from Africa to breed here, and spring is still a great time to enjoy birdwatching in the Albufera.
More than 4,500 couples of herons and egrets, as well as other, more exotic species like the African ibis, can be seen in the reed beds. The park is also the second most important nesting site in Spain for terns – both common and Sandwich terns – with an estimated 5,000 couples arriving every year. The shallow waters of the freshly waterlogged rice fields, home to an abundance of small invertebrates, provide rich feeding grounds for these birds.
But you don’t need to be a keen birdwatcher to enjoy the Albufera. You can simply enjoy leisure walks through the forest of the Devesa, which comes alive in spring with wildflowers and the birdsong from warblers, serin and great tits. Or cross the sand dunes to reach the beautiful beaches of El Saler. There are also well-marked cycling routes around the park, or you can take a boat trip to explore the lake, by far the most relaxing way to learn more about the different ecosystems, wildlife and history of the park. You can book different excursions to the Albufera Natural Park from Valencia, often combining a boat trip with a paella meal.
That is because no visit to the park would be complete without a stop for lunch at the traditional fishermen village of El Palmar. Being so close to the rice fields, it is no surprise that this should be one of the best places to try paella and other traditional rice dishes, with scores of restaurants, such as Mateu or El Palmar, lining the streets. Here you can also try other local specialities such as All I Pebre, made with eels freshly caught from the lake. Relaxing with a delicious meal in the sun, surrounded by beautiful nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the city… what a joy!