El Palmar, the birthplace of paella

El Palmar is a small town near Valencia. It’s in the Albufera National Park and on the shore of the largest lake in Spain, which is separated from the sea by a spit of land. Two of its claims to fame: being the spot where paella was invented, and being the setting of a couple of novels by famed Spanish writer Ibanez. It’s a must-see for some 350 species of migratory birds and those who seek to spot them. You can also see traditional fisherman’s cabins called barracas. Doesn’t this sound great? We had high hopes for El Palmar.

And yet.

We arrived via bus to a 1970s town, loaded with restaurants and their hawkers, surrounded by agricultural land. Where was the park? Where was the traditional village? I was convinced that we were missing something. Surely this isn’t all there is? We ran around the whole town and started circling the lake.

Yes, this was it and this is what it is.

My first mistake: being from the US, I’ve got a somewhat modern idea of natural areas. The first national parks were American, far away from civilization. Preservation apart from human influence was the goal. Thus we have this idea that nature is other than us. I’m here. Nature is there. I go to visit it, but I’m not part of it. In El Palmar, rice farming is part of the natural area, providing food and refuge for both birds and people. The shores of the lake have been farmed for rice for centuries. We watched flocks of cattle egret following the tractors that were cutting down last year’s rice stalks. People and birds both find their ecological niche here.

My second mistake: thinking that time should stand still. Of course people are going to prefer to update their housing. It’s a town, not a museum. The traditional dwellings were made with mud and thatch. Human nests. There’s only a few left.

I came wanting this place to be something else, but it was resolutely as it was, as places are. I had to stop trying to see what I wanted to see and let this place be. Only then did I find it charming, in a 1970s working agricultural/tourist town sort of way. What do we travel for if not to see what’s there? All you can do is see things as they are, not how they used to be. I’m often jealous of people who saw places 50 years ago that I’m seeing for the first time, as if they saw the real deal and I’m left with an ersatz version of the place. But I’m seeing it now, that’s all there is. This will be someone else’s nostagia some day.

Yes, of course we had paella. It was delicious.



  1. Please write a column in a widely diffused newspaper, magazine, newsletter. Your point of view is sorely needed in this world we try to live in. Oh and a book would be welcome too.


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