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Spain's third-largest city, Valencia -- celebrated for oranges and paella -- lies in the midst of a huerta, a fertile crescent of alluvial plain that's irrigated by a centuries-old system. The area is a breadbasket of Spain, a place where "the soil never sleeps."

For such a major city, Valencia is relatively unexplored by tourists, even though it has some rewarding treasures, including a wealth of baroque architecture, fine museums, good cuisine, and a proud, if troubled, history.

The Costa Blanca (White Coast) begins rather unappealingly at Valencia but improves considerably as it winds its way south toward Alicante. The overbuilt route south is dotted with fishing ports and resorts known chiefly to Spanish and other European vacationers. The success of Benidorm began in the 1960s, when this fishing village was transformed into an international resort. Alicante, the official capital of the Costa Blanca, enjoys a reputation as a winter resort because of its mild climate. Murcia is inland but on the main road to the Costa del Sol, so hordes of motorists pass through it.