When America's Cup organisers announced in 2003 that the Swiss victors Alinghi would defend their title in Valencia, it's a fair assumption that quite a few people - including me - were sent scurrying for an atlas. Until then I'd known Valencia only as a type of orange, but there it was, about two-fifths of the way down Spain's Mediterranean flank on the aptly named Costa del Azahar or 'Orange Blossom Coast'.
Last year the city grabbed international headlines again when Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone added it to the global Grand Prix circuit (the inaugural race howled through its streets this August). "Valencia is the best-kept secret in the world," Ecclestone declared at the time, reassuring all those with a dodgy grasp of Iberian geography that we were not alone.
Valencianos are only too aware that their sunny, surprising city struggles for recognition, particularly against the charisma of Barcelona and the grandeur of Madrid. Not to mention the competition it faces from Granada's Alhambra - Spain's most visited monument - Bilbao's Guggenheim and Seville's noble assembly of UNESCO-listed monuments.
But it's not called Valencia - from the Latin valentia, meaning strength and vigour - for nothing. In the past two decades its citizens have relied on these traits to transform their sunbaked, once sleepy settlement into today's dynamic city of 800,000. In addition to securing international sporting events, its leaders have invested vast sums in the destination architecture of Santiago Calatrava's City of Arts and Sciences, in renovating historic monuments and neighbourhoods, in the five Metro lines that link the airport, city and port, and in the 10 kilometres of parkland that have supplanted the old Turia riverbed through the heart of Valencia - among many other civic advancements. This not-so-subtle transformation has come at a cost of billions of euros, but has firmly positioned Valencia as Spain's 'city of the future', as a senior tourism official from rival Catalonia conceded to me.
To an outsider it can seem as if Valencia's eagerness to embrace the future stems from a desire to erase its past, and I put this to my guide as we cycled along the Turia. As the capital of the Republican Government during the Spanish Civil War, Valencia finally fell to Franco's fascist forces in 1939 and languished under his rule as punishment for supporting the losing side.
"There's an element of that, definitely," said Luisa Forner, a history graduate. "Because, after 50 years of dictatorship, it's like we were the last carriage on the European train… ever since then we've been trying to catch up. Plus, I think you could say we had an inferiority complex, both within Europe and Spain. There's big competition between people from here and those from Catalonia to be recognised as a modern city. People want to be on the top of the wave, as we say in Spain."
Biking along the Turia provides a neat introduction to this city that's riding the wave of the present while preserving the past. The ancient river's route (it was diverted after floods devastated Valencia in 1957) from the west to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean begins with the Cabecera, a leisure zone of lakes, gardens and walkways that opened just five years ago. Before that, this section of the riverbed was a dry wasteland; now flash apartment towers jostle for views over its green expanse. "Everything is changing so fast," Forner marvels.
A bridge over the Cabecera forms the entry to the Bioparc, Europe's newest zoo. The first stage, Africa, opened this year and its lack of formal enclosures and cages lets visitors meander through replica landscapes as if on safari. Natural barriers of water or ditches ensure there are no grisly encounters between man and beast, but also allow extraordinarily close contact with the likes of giraffes - their heads almost close enough to pat - and sociable lemurs.
The Turia passes beneath 20 bridges that range from the modern elegance of La Peineta, the haircomb, completed by famed Valencian architect Calatrava in 1995, to the Trinity Bridge, Puente de la Trinidad, with its Gothic arches dating to 1402. Joggers, cyclists and walkers pass beneath almost 600 years of history every day, while musicians delight in the acoustics of the older bridges' vaulted stonework.
At the Turia's eastern terminus lies modern Valencia's boldest claim to posterity and popularity, Calatrava's spectacular City of Arts and Sciences. Banking on the so-called 'Bilbao effect', by which Frank Gehry's extraordinary Guggenheim structure thrust Spain's unloved industrial hub onto the global style radar, Valencia has invested 10 years and many millions of euros in a vast complex of fantastic landmarks it hopes will secure its reputation in similar fashion.
The 'city' comprises an opera house, planetarium, aquarium (designed by Félix Candela), science museum, a covered boulevard, a lyrical harp-shaped bridge and, due next year, the public meeting space of the Agora. This architectural anthology is clad in broken white trencadís tiles that shimmer under the sun and glower in the evenings, breathing life into Calatrava's wildly imaginative forms. Some see nautical origins to the buildings; others see spaceships. I saw dinosaurs, a prehistoric menagerie inspired by the carapaces of a stegosaurus or ankylosaur, though whimsically rearranged into a Gothic fantasy for the 21st century.
The riverbed ends here - for now - but just beyond lies the port, split into the old working harbour and the sleek America's Cup facility with its soaring Veles e Vents (Sails and Winds) racing headquarters, team bunkers and new restaurants, bars and nightclubs. The port's rejuvenation heralded a new perspective for the city - the first time it had really connected with the sea - and created a new nerve centre. Where once there was nothing, now Valencianos flock here for sunset cocktails and to graze on ostrich carpaccio at the glam waterfront address Mar de Bamboo.
There's a similar renaissance underway at the adjacent beaches, where designer hotels and clubs are muscling in on the paella and seafood restaurants that have plied their trade here since the late 19th century. A seaside spa dating from 1898 has been reborn with eight presidential suites and Hermès toiletries as the Las Arenas resort, providing five-star lodgings to moneyed sailors and Formula One stars. "Before the America's Cup, we didn't live on the beaches," a local friend tells me. "It was like we forgot we had them." Now, in summer, you can barely move for the sunbathers and swimmers thronging the shoreline.
If the narrative of Valencia is sounding a little disjointed so far, then that's as it should be. This is not a city to be smugly stereotyped like its rivals Barcelona and Madrid. It is a place to be discovered, often in fits and starts as the visitor lurches from Calatrava to, say, the Museo Fallero across the road. The City of Arts and Sciences captures Valencia's visionary future, but this small, fascinating museum - housed in a former lepers' hospital - provides an unexpected window to its character.
Valencia is typical of Spanish cities in that it has a bulging calendar of street festivals and spectacles, including the celebration of San Antonio Abad on 17 January, when owners take their pets to be blessed by the saint (Dog bless you!), and the riotous Batalla de las Flores. Gourmet Traveller chanced upon the latter in July and witnessed a million freshly picked blooms flying through the air and beauty queens parading in the streets aboard brightly decorated carriages. But the city's biggest celebration is Las Fallas, held during the Feast of Saint Joseph from 15 to 19 March and culminating in a bonfire of elaborately sculpted floats. The tradition dates to the Middle Ages, when fires were lit throughout the city to mark the start of spring.
Since the 1930s, guilds of artists have collaborated to create huge, vibrant sculptures that can cost up to 600,000 euros and often satirise social themes - immigration, the environment and gay marriage featured in the 2007 parade. Each year a ninot or life-sized figure from one of the floats is saved from immolation by popular vote and these artworks, rendered brilliantly in modernist, cubist, pop and abstract styles, form the basis of the Museo Fallero's collection.
This juxtaposition of the staunchly traditional and the starkly modern is a common refrain in Valencia. The City of Arts and Sciences versus the medieval old city with its ancient cathedral built atop a mosque and, beneath that, a Roman temple dedicated to Diana. House music thumping out from mega-clubs in the port versus the Gregorian chanting that fills Iglesia del Patriarca church each morning from 9.30am. The World-Heritage listed lines of the Gothic Silk Exchange, commercial hub in Valencia's 15th-century heyday, versus Norman Foster's slick steel and glass convention centre, where modern Valencia does business with the world. The fabulous rococo exterior of the Museum of Ceramics and its displays of a thriving artistic industry rooted in 12th-century Arabic traditions, versus the sharply angular Valencian Institute of Modern Art (IVAM) with its 20th- and 21st-century offerings.
Valencian food, too, provides ample nourishment for both traditionalists and modernists. On a day trip to the Albufera Nature Reserve, we took a boat cruise through the extensive lake system bounded by emerald rice fields that stretch endlessly to the horizon (about 20,000 hectares of them) and help earn the region its reputation as Spain's food bowl. Afterwards we dined at Mateu, one of more than a dozen restaurants in the fishing village of El Palmar. It is said the best paella is served here, close to the source, which explains the constant weekend convoy of Mercedes, BMWs and Audis filled with hungry city dwellers.
Back in Valencia we tasted entirely contemporary treats, despite the city lacking the culinary reputation of Barcelona, say, or the Basque country. At Torrijos, a restaurant in the up-and-coming barrio of Ruzafa that earned its Michelin star 20 years ago and has held it ever since, a pigeon breast is paired with glossy blueberries and a powdered purple sweep of dried violets. At Submarino, a potentially ghastly novelty restaurant within a floor-to-ceiling aquarium, the blandly named 'piece of pork' turns out to be a deeply desirable plate of Iberian pork carpaccio, arranged chequerboard style with piped Comté cheese and tiny green dots of apple granita.
Valencianos readily confess they lack the tapas culture of other major Spanish cities, but I think they undersell themselves. Trawling through Carmen, a gentrified barrio now heaving with bars, clubs and trendy apartments, I snacked on superb cuttlefish with baby beans and spring onions at L'Hamadríada, then swooned at La Salvaora over Basque chef Angel Mujuruza's slab of caramelised foie gras paired with jammy dollops of bitter orange, mango, almond and fig. His rabo de toro - bull's tail - was steeped in a heady red wine sauce and was also excellent, but it left me no room to sample the abundant hospitality at our next stop, La Lola Restaurante, where the focus is on fresh fish and meats from Valencia's elegant Art Nouveau market. La Lola was perhaps the city's first designer restaurant/bar but it's still as fresh and friendly as when it opened six years ago, thanks largely to the charm of owner Jesús Ortega Villanueva.
Jesús (he was born in a convent hospital on 24 December - the nuns insisted upon his name) worked in London bars and clubs before returning home to open two clubs and a clothing store. These days he has La Lola, a private club called L'Ocult and, it seems, one eye always on alert for the next opportunity. You could say he typifies both the entrepreneurial spirit that pervades Valencia, and the rewards in store for those who make an effort to know the city properly. This is not a destination to be simply ticked off an itinerary; to understand why Valencianos are so passionate about their corner of the world, you need to spend a bit of time with them - especially now that they've earned their place on the map.