I’ve returned to El Palmar, an island in the depths of the Albufera rice fields and a popular holiday destination for boat trips onto the lake to birdwatch or watch the sunset.
It’s the 6th of January, an important public holiday in Spain when the arrival of the Three Kings is remembered and when Spanish children finally get to open their presents. I’m glad that I didn’t have to wait that long to open mine!
The car park is full to overflowing and, as usual, the Spanish are getting creative with their parking, blocking pedestrian crossings and, in places, the streets themselves. I feel that I’ve left it too late but the Three Kings seem to bless me and offer a present when I spot a space, partly hidden by another motorhome. The restaurants are very busy, well most of them are, and I avoid the ones that aren’t, trusting that the local Valencians are avoiding them for a reason. Most are offering a mouth-watering menu del dia, featuring the regional speciality of paella, which comes in many forms.
Arroz a banda – rice cooked in fish stock
Arroz con marisco- rice cooked with seafood
Arroz Valenciana – the original paella with chicken and rabbit
Arroz negro – rice cooked in squid ink
However, most restaurants specify a minimum of two people for this favoured rice dish and prices range between €15 and €25, not always including a drink.
I find myself at the same restaurant where I ate last year. The few outside tables are full but the maître de beckons me inside where the noise of chattering families and friends is quite deafening. He marches me through the throng to an isolated table beyond the kitchen and next to the bar. The cooking smells are not particularly pleasant and, after 10 minutes of being ignored by the overwhelmed waiters and bar staff, I decide to leave via the handy back door and seek somewhere else to dine.
Back along the canal I stop at the Isla Restaurant. There are many tables outside in the sun, under the silver birch trees. The waiter greets me warmly but is unsure whether the menu del dia is possible for one. Luckily, a young waitress corrects him and I settle down at my small, blue table and await a feast. First come deep fried chipirones, tiny and greasy, not as good as those in La Isleta. Then, a small pan filled with saffron coloured rice, though little in the way of seafood, which is very tasty and filling. Dessert ticks all my boxes – panna cota, smothered in sweet honey. A middle-aged woman at a neighbouring table eyes me suspiciously. In Spain it is uncommon to eat alone and I sometimes feel like a leper. She has clearly eaten well with her husband and they even have a doggy bag – well these days it’s a plastic container and I doubt it’s for the dogs!
Whilst it was a lovely experience on a happy, festive day, enhanced by glorious weather, I think I will stick to making my own paella. In my opinion, it’s much better and a lot cheaper too.