Located just 10km south of the city of Valencia is a wonderland for nature lovers – the Albufera de Valencia. This huge (21,000 hectares) natural park contains a 3,000-hectare freshwater lagoon which is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, and taking a boat trip is the ideal way to observe some of it. There are several places around the edge of the lagoon from where boatmen will take you out on a 45 minute trip for around €5 a head, although you will have to pay more if there are fewer than six passengers! We decided on departing from the town of El Palmar at the South East point of the lagoon. Staying in nearby Cullera made for an excellent few days away from home.
We opted for a tour with “El Roig” simply because we saw their website and as a midweek trip meant low visitor numbers we felt it best to book in advance. Our boatman Roget, and his first mate Rogi who constantly patrolled the boat, saw us safely around a circuit of the water, and we were joined by a lovely couple from Alcoy which kept the cost down. A word of warning – if you can’t speak Spanish then check that whoever takes you out can speak English. Roget cannot which was good for our Spanish but we know many friends who would have struggled.
The lagoon is a crucial part of the natural park because it contains the water that irrigates the rice fields in the local area. The flora and fauna of this environment is very extensive and varied throughout the year. The Albufera is visited by different species of migratory birds such as the flamingo, the ibis or the cormorant. Traditional fishing has also been carried out on the lake for 700 years. Here mainly eel, mullet and carp are fished. Crabs are also caught. Take your binoculars and camera because you are sure to see an abundance of feathered friends no matter what time of year you visit.
The lagoon is surrounded by marshlands which is the area where the rice fields are cultivated. These are watered by the canals and are divided into “tancats” that are large plots of rice fields with water pumps and gates to regulate the flow. Since it was declared a natural park in 1986, the landscape of the lake has stopped being modified to protect it. Although you see them from the boat, having a wander around El Palmar once we were back on dry land gave us a chance to see the rice cultivation close at hand.
In the 15th century, the Arabs began to cultivate rice around the Albufera in Valencia. They designed and created the first irrigation systems and ditches. They were the forerunners of modern rice cultivation in the area, taking advantage of the abundant water to create the first rice fields in history. When the reconquest ended and the Christians returned to Valencia, rice cultivation stopped and did not start again until the 18th century. An interesting left-over from the reconquest are the crosses on the apexes of the fishermen’s cottages which distinguished them from Moorish houses, protecting them from the violence which was going on. If you are interested in the yearly calendar of rice cultivation, here’s a translation from Roget’s website.
Inside Roget’s house he also showed us a collection of tools for harvesting the rice. As well as that, he showed us his morning catch from the lake – two buckets full of blue (male) and pink (female) crabs!
Around El Palmar there are many restaurants where you can enjoy a paella for lunch. Sadly we were not able to take advantage, as we were still full from breakfast! There are also a few murals which are quite interesting.
Unfortunately a great morning out turned sour. We returned to our car to find the rear window had been smashed. This serves as a warning – don’t leave anything on the back seat. All they took was a cool bag with cold water in it, but getting the window replaced takes time and patience. It was annoying, but the other car which suffered the same fate had documents strewn all over the seats so we were perhaps a little luckier in some way. From the comments of the people who helped us out this is probably quite a rare incident, but please be careful.