If you meander through the sleepy streets of Cabanyal, they reveal inklings of the fisherman village that this neighbourhood started off as. If you look close enough, you might spot traces of the original fishermen’s houses (barracas) in the still present gridded streets, with their steep slanting roofs. Or the unassuming wooden doors that lead you to some of the best fish and seafood restaurants in Valencia. Step into the Mercat Municipal and buy the freshest fish and have it cooked in front of you at Bar Mercado or wander to the beach at dusk and you may see some gentlemen waiting by the waters for that telling twitch in the line as one catches a fish.
Cabanyal has a somewhat pained history, right from its humble beginnings when a fire destroyed many of the original thatched houses back in the late 1700s, but the scars are not all that old. It was only in 2015 after more than a decade of turbulent back-and-forth building agreements that they officially retracted a plan to demolish pretty much the whole neighbourhood in favour of an extension to the avenue Blasco Ibanez that would have led directly to the sea. Due to a strong public backlash, over 500 properties in Cabanyal were saved and demolition plans cancelled, yet not without repercussions. The threat of extinction for many years lead to deterioration and paralyzed neighbourhood; locals left as it became unsafe and no businesses wanted to invest in an area that was soon to be destroyed. A future of Cabanyal seemed to dwindle. This is still evident as many of the houses are derelict or rundown and in great need of some love and work.
Yet all of this history may pass you by when getting lost in the little streets of Cabanyal, as you are charmed by the unique face of each still standing house that you see. Thanks to the ceramics brought to Spain by the Moors thousands of years before, ornate tiles dress the facades of these two or three-story houses in intricate ways. Styles vary from predominantly art nouveau to geometric. And again that inkling of the former fisherman’s village arises in the form of a tile decorated with fish or a mermaid above the front door. You’ll decide ardently which house you’d like to live in, – that one with the overrun plants draping off the balcony – until you turn the corner and come across another even prettier house than the previous one.
There may still be empty lots and crumbling buildings, but there’s been a new lease of life pumped into Cabanyal in the last few years, both from the council that has finally started investing in the area, and also from new fresh young things that are moving in and opening hip bars, cafes and artist studios. Such is the creature we call gentrification; what was an abandoned factory warehouse is now Fabrica de Hielo, a well established cultural space that thrives at the weekend with talks, live music and a popular food truck. Not far from a crumbling construction site you can now find a trendy cafe called La Batisfera, which doubles up as a bookshop and also has a packed monthly programme full of live music, workshops and tapas parties. Eat delicious cheap pizza in Festinar and share a jug of beer, or try some local fresh seafood in Espadán 31, its address helpfully in the name. All these places have popped up in the last few years and there are undoubtedly more to come. Just last summer Mercabañal opened to the public, which serves as an open-air gastronomic space with a bar, four food stalls to choose from and plenty of sitting and perching places in the sun. The growing artistic and musical community seems to be greatly supported by the surrounding bars and cafes. Local artists often display their work on the walls and pop up performances with local musicians happen frequently in the summer, not to mention the vibrant La Pilona, a new theatre space and bar with an eclectic programme. It’s located in the picturesque Plaza Rosario, next to a smart church and most likely near the local kids singing flamenco.
As important as it is to support new independent businesses, it’s also vital to keep the traditional long-running establishments going. It’s great to see life put back into a neighbourhood, but in order to avoid gentrification completely taking over, locals and their initial creations should take priority. Casa Montaña has been around since the early 1800s when Cabanyal was still a village and only recently earned a michelin star. Its cosy interior is like a timewarp and you can’t leave without trying their infamous habas estofadas (stewed beans). Or, for something slightly cheaper, 100 year-old La Pascuala is renowned for its giant bocadillos and you’ll find the bar packed full of locals eating them at around midday.
The local presence is still very tangible in Cabanyal and it’s what makes the area so appealing. Neighbours sit in plastic chairs outside their houses to gossip, children genuinely play in the roads and elderly locals peer down from their cramped balconies at the new faces that they see pass by. Cabanyal’s future is certainly no longer dwindling, but let’s hope it’s changing for the better and not losing touch with its past.