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The Albufera in Valencia

The Albufera in Valencia

La Albufera. The Albufera in Valencia, Spain is a natural park formed by a freshwater lagoon that is separated from the sea by a sand bar.

When you hear about Valencia, the capital of the regional community of the same name found on the central Mediterranean coast of Spain, it is easy to imagine the festival of Las Fallas, the City of Arts and Sciences and many other landmarks. We miss walking along its sunny streets and avenues, enjoying a walk through the Turia Gardens or eating mouthwatering paella.

A not-so-hidden natural gem located only 6 miles (10km) from the downtown is a surprising landscape that has come to become one of Valencia's unmistakable landmarks over the centuries—the Albufera. This name comes from the Arabic البحيرة or al-buhayra which means "little sea". An Albufera is a lagoon that is located next to the sea separated by a small spit of land or sand. The water within the lagoon can be salt water or water with a very low concentration of salt. There are many albuferas along the Spanish Levante coast as well as around the island of Mallorca, but the Albufera, capitalized, pertains to the one located in Valencia.   

Writer, journalist and Valencian politician Vicente Blasco Ibañéz published at the beginning of the 20th century (1902) a novel titled Cañas y Barro. This story was a portrait of rural life around the Albufera of Valencia. This novel was adapted to television in the form of a six-part series and achieved enormous ratings when it was broadcast. Today you can still view this series online for free here.

The Albufera in Valencia is a natural park formed by a freshwater lagoon that has an average depth of only a little more than 3 feet (1m) and is separated from the sea by a sand bar called a restinga. On this restinga you will find pine trees holding the sand in place with their roots. The surface of the lagoon or lake occupies an area of 9.2 square miles (24 km2) and the land surrounding this wetland is dedicated to the farming of rice. This crop and its production is woven deeply into the fabric of Valencian tradition and its 86 sq mi (223 km2) of land is dedicated to its cultivation which stretches from Valencia to Cullera to the south. The Albufera receives water from a watershed of almost 386 sq mi (1000 km2) and reaches as high as 3281 ft (1000 m) above sea level. This watershed is fed by waters from the Júcar and Turia rivers as well as the extensive system of irrigation canals located around the area.

Its official Natural Park status was granted by the Generalitat Valenciana (the autonomous regional government) in 1986. The reason for the classification comes from the importance this areas has for wildlife and nature conservation since this is an important stop for migrating birds and home to native species of fish like the farfet or Spanish toothcarp (Aphanius iberus) and the samaruc or Valencia toothcarp (Valencia hispanica) which are both is danger of extinction.

In this lagoon, fishing has been a very important part of the way of life here since 1250. During this time people catching fish here had to pay a type of fee which amounted to a fifth of whatever they caught to be able to fish in these waters. This area has also been an important hunting reserve where boar, deer, hare, partridge and other aquatic birds have historically been abundant. In the middle ages, this area was considered to be a "corner of heaven".

Around the middle of the 19th century, people began to reclaim land from the lake by filling the area in with sand and earth brought over from surrounding areas. The reason for this was to create more arable land and permit the growing of rice. This practice made this lake system diminish is size to alarming levels. Much of this was the consequence of this land being the property of the Spanish Crown which permitted a lack of control in how the land was managed. This disorganization was brought under control in 1865 when the lagoon and the Dehesa del Saler (the name of the pine forest that is found on the restinga which separates the lagoon from the Mediterranean) came under state control and finally, in 1911, this area formally became the property of Valencia.

Taking a tour of the Albufera, we can observe different ecosystems beginning with the Dehesa del Saler, the marjales (areas that form part of the lake around the Albufera used for rice cultivation) which are the home for various ullals (springs). In fact, there are 50 natural springs found throughout this area which feed the crops of the Albufera and ultimately feed the lake. Finally, there is the freshwater lake on which you can take a boat trip on special flat bottomed boats which are powered by the traditional perchas  or poles (not unlike what you would find in Venice, Italy) that the boatman drives into the ground to push the boat with.

This area, with its multiple ecosystems, offers us a great variety of plant life like the grama (a type of grass) and the lentisco (mastic tree). On firma land you will also find juniper plants, thyme and rosemary. Along the shores of the lake you can find carrizo (beachgrass), cañas (reeds) and aneas (cattail).

The Albufera in Valencia is a privileged corner of Spain where you can find a biological and ecological diversity difficult to find anywhere else. Just steps from the modern city and modern living of Valencia, this is one place you definitely shouldn't miss.