My experience with ceramics began at my first job in high school, scraping baked mozzarella and burnt tomato sauce while washing dishes at our hometown pizzeria. Here in Valencia, one of Spain’s principal ceramic centers, I found out that much more than pots and pans can be made of clay.
In Valencia, the National Ceramics Museum documents its storied history of tile, pottery, and porcelain production. Housed in an opulent 15th century palace, the museum’s important collection spans primitive prehistoric wares through contemporary works of art. The museum also includes a representative collection of traditional ceramics from nearby factory towns.
To visit one of these production hubs, we rode the Valencia Metro to the suburb of Manises. Known for its quality clay deposits, Manises was developed for ceramic production by the Moors in the early 14th century. Over the ensuing centuries, Manises produced some of the most elaborate and luxurious ceramic objects in Europe.
Our first stop in Manises was the tourist office, which is stationed in a former ceramics factory. Appropriately, the building façade was plastered with deep blue tiles, a signature color of Manises pottery. Following the self-guided walking tour, we were pleased to find that Manises itself was like an outdoor ceramics museum.
The oldest local factory still in operation is the workshop of José Gimeno Martinez, one of Manises’ 20th century masters. With potter’s wheels spinning and kilns firing on the ground floor, we went upstairs to admire a large display of the artist’s creations and purchase a small representative piece in the reasonably priced gift shop.
Amidst the tiger nut fields on the northern edge of Valencia, we found another renowned Valencian ceramic center. Founded by the three resident Lladró brothers in 1953, Lladró porcelain has become an iconic Spanish brand now sold in upscale boutiques in 120 countries.
From Madison Avenue to Rodeo Drive, collectors pay big bucks for the high-quality figurines with characteristic soft pastel tones, smooth finishes, and detailed floral compositions. We registered for a free English language factory tour, and made the short Metro ride to the Lladró City of Porcelain.
Observing the skilled Lladró artists in their workspaces assemble the recognizable forms, we learned that each figurine is made of multiple parts that are “glued” together with liquid porcelain. One eminently experienced artist works solely on anatomically reduced flowers of various sizes and species.
As in all factory tours, the last stop is the gift shop. Here, at Lladró there was nothing we could afford. In the high porcelain room, reserved for masterpieces of extraordinary artistic and technical quality, Lladró’s largest creation to date, “Carnival in Venice” was listed at a mere €186,000 (US$211,000)!
Glazed by Lladró sticker shock, we exited the factory for a refreshing horchata and an order of fartons. Dipping the spongy confectionary into the ice-cold tiger nut milk, we reflected on the remarkable transformation of soft humble clay into so many artistic ceramic creations, as well as utilitarian items that are both durable and dishwasher-safe.
Feature Image: “Flamenco Dancers” by Lladró