Like a character in a popular novel, REBECCA GALTON travels to Valencia in search of the Holy Grail – and finds it surprisingly easy.
Uncertain, I made my way closer to the painting and scanned the 13 figures – Jesus Christ, in the middle, and his 12 Apostles. Are they all men?” I thought, and sent an enquiring look to the man standing to my right. He needed a haircut, but he wasn’t Tom Hanks or Robert Langdon. I was staring at a painting of the Last Supper, but it wasn’t by Leonardo da Vinci. We were both searching for the Holy Grail, but at no point in the past 24 hours had we decoded anagrams, become suspects in a murder or deeply offended the Catholic church. In fact, we’d spent the morning strolling in the park and eating ice-cream.
But now we were on the verge of discovering the truth and, thanks to the audio tour we’d bought for just a few euros, it hadn’t been the gruelling 605-page (or 149-minute) adventure as portrayed in The Da Vinci Code. Actually, it had only taken us about 15 minutes, plus we had a handy little map.
So Dan Brown could have saved himself – and the rest of the world – some time if he’d sent his symbologist hero straight to Spain’s third largest city, Valencia, the home of what’s claimed to be the Holy Grail. The chalice – from which Jesus supposedly drank at the Last Supper – is housed in the Catedral de Valencia, in the city’s Plaza de la Reina (also known as the Plaza de Zaragoza). And to see it, you just need to chance upon the cathedral during its odd opening hours – it shuts for most of the afternoon and reopens briefly in the evening – and take a tour.
But the Holy Grail isn’t the only reason to travel to Valencia (which is also home to the Spanish national dish paella). Nor is it the only reason to visit the cathedral. The magnificent church, which was built on the site of a former mosque, is said to be a microcosm of Valencia’s architectual history. Construction began on the early gothic structure in the late 1200s and further building, refurbishment and renovations over the years has seen Romanesque, baroque, neo-classical, Corinthian and Renaissance elements incorporated into its design.
Our English audio tourguide filled us in on the various architectual highlights and significant artworks within the cathedral, in what sometimes felt like an attempt to waste time and build suspense before the tour culminated in front of the Holy Grail. It wasn’t until he mentioned the words ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ that I put on my Dan Brown conspiracy cap, ready for an adventure.
But it was a false alarm – he was just referring to various influences behind one of the artworks in the Capilla de San Rafael Arcángel (the Chapel of St Raphael the Archangel) – one of the many chapels we investigated as part of our journey towards the Holy Grail. My ears pricked once more at the mention of Mary Magdalene (the key to The Da Vinci Code’s Holy Grail, and victim of an alleged smear campaign) but, again, no conspiracy there – just an innocent and non-controversial painting called Calvary, which showed her in the penitant position at Christ’s crucifixion.
The tour made its way around the cathedral with stops at 16 points before we reached El Museo (the museum). The museum houses many of the city’s important artworks, including the aforementioned Juan de Juanes painting that depicts the Last Supper and works by Spain’s father of modern art, Francisco Goya. Entrance is included in the cost of the audio tour.
Finally, at the far end of the museum’s final room we stood in front of a small, foreboding door, a door that we knew separated us from the object of our mission, a door that we soon discovered didn’t actually open. So we picked up our pace and made our escape from the museum and towards the Holy Grail – just around the corner in the cathedral’s Capilla del Santo Cáliz.
At last, there we were. We’d done the seemingly impossible. We’d achieved in 15 minutes what Tom Hanks couldn’t do in less than two hours and what Monty Python and Indiana Jones couldn’t do at all. In front of us – in a dark, quiet chapel – was the Holy Grail, the mythical, the unattainable Holy Grail, looking decidedly not-mythical and rather easy to attain. The chalice – housed in a cabinet above the chapel’s main alter – is made of agate and is about 17cm high and 9cm in diameter. It is said to have been brought to Valencia by King Alfonso V of Aragón in the 1400s and has since only been moved from the cathedral twice – during the Independence War (March 1809 to September 1813) and the National Uprising (July 1936 to April 1939).
So, the Holy Grail … we found it, it wasn’t difficult and wasn’t hidden away all shrouded in mystery. It is there for all the world to see, in a cathedral in Valencia. Now let’s see where I can find the Ark of the Covenant and the Meaning of Life.
When you are done pretending to be an internationally renowned cryptologist on a very important, not to mention controversial, hunt for the Holy Grail, take the time to visit the Torre Del Micalet – the belltower of the Valencia Catedral.
The tower has 207 steps – apparently all cut from the same piece of stone – which spiral toward a viewing platform that allows for a 360-degree view of the city of Valencia.
If you are lucky, you can stop halfway up, to see the resident bell-ringers give it their all. The display – a welcome relief to watch, after climbing the narrow, steep stairs – is an intricate and well-timed performance that involves one man in the middle of a circular room surrounded by ropes, which are attached to the many bells. He pulls on the ropes in time to create a melody and other bellringers hand him other ropes when it’s time to change the pitch.
Continue your journey to the top of the tower and, as you regain your breath, be prepared to have it taken away again as you take in the amazing view of the magnificant Spanish city of Valencia.