Seeking the Holy Grail? Try Valencia.

Spud Hilton: Breaking news: Spud Hilton has unlocked one of the world's greatest secrets

03.17.10 | 1:35 PM ET

Cathedral in Valencia (iStockPhoto)

Standing in the doorway to the cathedral in Valencia, Spain, I couldn’t help but think: Man, Da Vinci didn’t have a clue.

“Está aquí?”


“En la Catedral?”


“The Holy Grail?”

“Yes, señor.”

The man taking tickets looked as though most of the salt in his salt-and-pepper hair was the result of people like me asking the same question three and four times. But in my defense, I had just unlocked one of the greatest secrets of the past two millennia pretty much by sheer dumb luck. I had succeeded where others had failed—Percival, the Knights Templar, Indiana Jones, Monty Python—and I wasn’t even looking. All this talk about the chalice being a Da Vinci-coded metaphor for Mary Magdalene, flushed away.

It turns out that the 13th-century Gothic cathedral, a blimp-hangar of a basilica built on the Plaza de la Reina in central Valencia, features some popular attractions for the tourists: a bell tower with a 207-step spiral staircase and an amazing city-wide view; two paintings by Goya; the mummified arm of St. Vincent the Martyr; and, oh, by the way, a little trinket called the Holy Grail.

Yeah, that Holy Grail—you know, the cup Jesus passed around at the Last Supper.

It seemed at the time as if that little fact was something the cruise director should have mentioned in the port briefing, even in passing: “Yes, folks, you’ll find Valencia is a terrific, friendly port whose main attractions are the great shopping bargains and yummy Spanish paella, especially in the lovely plaza next to the church with that Holy Cup thingy.”

Sure, cruise lines would rather not tell you everything about a port so you’ll be more inclined to take the packaged excursion, but this seemed kind of extreme. It’s a little like arriving at Skull Island and having the cruise staff tout the scenic, white-sand beaches and the colorful local culture, but neglecting to mention the 20-story gorilla with a weakness for petite blondes.

It seemed, also, that the easiest job on the planet should be director of tourism for the city of Valencia. You arrive at the office, have a cup of coffee and then prepare for the toughest decision you’ll make all day: “Should the next campaign emphasize the excellent climate, miles of beaches and historic district, or the fact that our city has exclusive display rights for the single most important relic and tangible icon of faith for, oh, say, a few billion Christians worldwide?”

“OK, that’s decided. Let’s go to lunch and have yummy paella.”

But I had already been to the tourist information office (not more than 100 yards from the cathedral), and no one made mention of grails, holy or otherwise. Maybe they were waiting for a leading question, such as, “Um, I don’t suppose you folks have any enormously well-known and historically sought-after relics lying around?”

Similarly, in the guide put out by the Valencia Tourism & Convention Bureau, the first of only two references to the artifact isn’t until page 23, a 25-word description that doesn’t get much more in-depth than that it was at the Last Supper. The second entry is even shorter, and both ranked in importance below El Tribunal de las Aguas (the Water Court), where local farmers settle irrigation disputes.

It turns out the Santo Caliz (Holy Chalice), a red agate cup with elaborate gold handles, was sent to Spain by Pope Sixtus II and soon-to-be-martyred St. Laurence when Rome was under siege in A.D. 258. According to one version of the story, it bounced around eastern Spain for a few hundred years, through the hands of monks and kings, until it was given to the church to hold—pawn-shop style—when Don Juan, king of Navarre, needed money to fund a small war. He never raised enough cash to get it out of hock, so the church has owned it ever since, moving it to the Cathedral of Valencia in 1437. 

Apparently, nobody sent out a memo, so people have been looking for it for centuries.

I began to wonder what other mysterious missing relics are simply scattered around Spain. Is the Lost Ark of the Covenant really lost, or just buried under a stack of old hymnals in the cathedral at Barcelona?

Inside Valencia’s cathedral, after admiring the Goyas and St. Vince’s arm, I decided that before “discovering” the grail, I should prove myself worthy, Arthurian knights-style, by climbing the bell tower. At the top (207 steps and 30 overfed German tourists later), Valencia stretched in every direction, an unpretentious working city—probably the type of place where people wouldn’t think to exploit a holy relic.

Had this thing made its way to, oh, say, Florida, the “cathedral” would likely be a glass and polished-steel monolith at the center of a sprawling theme park called Grail Land or Holywood. After a day of standing in line for the Water-to-Wine Log Ride and the KrazyKwest roller coaster (souvenir photos of riders are labeled “In Remembrance of Wheeee!”), the family would sit down for Chalice Cheeseburgers at the Last Supper Saloon.

Maybe it’s best that it’s kind of “lost” in Valencia.

As I descended the tower, questions swirled under my hat: Is it possible they’re trying to keep it a secret? Is there a Valencia Code? Do I need Tom Hanks’ mullet to break the code? Who dusts the Holy Grail?

Once back in the sanctuary, I found that the ticket guy was gone and the Chapel del Santo Caliz had closed for the day. No Holy Grail. My sacred quest, however brief, would have to wait for some other day. I went back to see St. Vince’s arm again and put five euros in the donation box—I thought it might go toward the effort to find the rest of the poor guy—and headed for the door. 

Next quest: yummy paella.

Spud Hilton is Travel Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and he blogs at Bad Latitude. His stories have appeared in more than 70 papers and magazines in North America -- a few of which still publish. He has been hopelessly lost on five continents.

4 Comments for Seeking the Holy Grail? Try Valencia.

GypsyGirl 03.17.10 | 3:20 PM ET

Did you count the stairs yourself…on the way up or down?

TKGO 03.17.10 | 6:19 PM ET

Valencia is an incredible city, and one I think a lot of travelers to Spain often overlook. It was one of the first cities in Spain I visited (I have since spent four months living in the country) and I was floored. This cathedral just gives me one more reason to return!


AL M 03.24.10 | 10:07 PM ET

I found the ” GRAIL” an interesting place to visit some day soon….
What is in Paella, that is so yummy?

Cecille Soriano 04.06.10 | 4:17 AM ET

Thanks for sharing your story.
  A really excellent one..

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