Light streams between a forest of spiral stone columns. Each support twists upward, branching into a delicate web of ribbed groin vaults overhead. This airy—seemingly weightless—volume exalts Valencia’s commercial hub, unique to its time.
The History of This Temple of Trade
When Pere Compte (renowned master builder from Girona) began construction of this trade center in 1483, the Kingdom of Valencia was at the height of its cultural splendor and economic power under the Crown of Aragon. The site had long been an exchange hub since Moorish rule. After Jaume I of Aragon conquered his new kingdom in 1238, prosperity gained momentum, which led to a period of great expansion.
As a prime trade point on the Mediterranean, the new, more glorious Silk Exchange was built to impress. La Lonja de la Seda (La Llotja de la Seda in Valenciano, the regional dialect), named for the city’s most important silk trade and merchant guild, was Valencia’s only building devoted to its prosperous mercantile transactions. In 1407, the Crown of Aragon installed the Taula de Canvi (Catalan for “Table of Change”) at this site six years after they established the Taula in Barcelona as the first-ever public bank.
Today, La Lonja de la Seda is considered one of the finest preserved works of secular Gothic architecture along the Mediterranean. In 1996, UNESCO declared this 15th-century masterpiece important to humanity’s heritage and designated it a World Heritage Site.
The Architecture of This Complex for Commerce
It’s difficult to fully grasp the history that fills a space built before Columbus even set sail. Times were different. La Lonja was built with such a high level of quality—a shrine to commerce built to endure centuries.
At the same time, so much remains the same. The architecture of this fortified complex somehow transports me to their time. It feels surreal. (Of course, the audio tour probably helped.) Still, I’m amazed by the builders’ attention to detail and pride in craftsmanship.
Tooth-like crenelations on the roofline resemble a medieval fortress, emphasized by 28 attentive gargoyle water spouts atop the surrounding limestone curtain walls. A crown caps each projecting merlon to remind visitors of its royal allegiance. Carved figures and heraldic symbols crafted by skilled masons adorn the stone structure.
Elements of French Flamboyant Gothic cathedrals—lacy “flame-like” stone tracery (ornamental open stonework), gargoyles, pinnacle moldings, and steeply or ogee (S-shaped) pointed arches—clearly influence Valencian Gothic architecture. Parts of La Lonja also reflect the Italian Renaissance style, found in its symmetry and classical proportions, and the craft of Mudéjar (Iberian Muslim) artisans, evident in the diamond and star-shaped patterns.
The most beautiful facade of La Lonja overlooks the main plaza street and flaunts its three distinct bodies: the Trade Hall, the Tower, and the Consulate. Their positioning creates an architectural L-shape behind them, within which a walled courtyard nestles to complete the site’s 21,000 ft2 (2000 m2) rectangular footprint. Each space flows into the next to create cohesion between the sections:
THE TRADE HALL
Deals were made in the first main section. The column-filled Sala de Contratación (Contract Room) covers about half the site. Light pours through the windows as we pass through the courtyard’s arched doorway onto a shiny black marble floor inlaid with a pattern of white and golden marble that aligns with the wall openings between column rows. A gold inscription in Latin proclaims principles of honesty and justice on a dark blue band around the room’s perimeter that underlines the ceiling arches between engaged columns. Eight evenly spaced central columns spiral upward, seamlessly branching into the 57 ft (17.4 m) high groin-vaulted ceiling. The elegant geometry creates 15 spacious, open bays where merchants once gathered and negotiated.
The second middle section, a square Torreón (Tower) provides a lofty architectural link between the other two wings. Accessed from the corner of the Contract Room, a wrought-iron gate set between a large stone archway opens into the tower’s ground level chapel under two floors of merchant jails (for those declared bankrupt or who renege on their debt). Adjacent to the tower, a tiny archway in the Contract Room leads to a narrow spiral staircase and up to the cells above. At the chapel entrance, perched on the iron gate is the emblem of Valencia—a bat atop a crown atop a striped banner—symbols seen throughout the city. The elements symbolize the Moorish defeat (the striped banner: the Muslim red and yellow flag of surrender) to the Christian King (the crown) and his good omen (the bat1). Within the chapel, colorful light streams through a stained glass window on the plaza side, while the opposite wall invites me to a window-seat view into the garden.
A second chapel archway adjoins the long, narrow, more Renaissance-style third section used to administer maritime and commercial law at the other end. The Tribunal de Comercio (Trade Court) sits on the ground level under the even more impressive Consulat del Mar (Consulate of the Sea), accessed up an exterior stairway along the courtyard wall opposite the Contract Room. Beneath shuttered windows in each room, built-in stone seats provide me a relaxing place to admire the decorative ceilings: deep coffered timber in the lower Tribunal room, golden relief carvings on dark blue-painted beams in the upper Consul room.
Behind the tower and Consul wing is the fourth outdoor section: an enclosed central Patio de las Naranjas (Courtyard of Orange Trees), which completes the site’s rectangular shape. One side opens into the Contract Room; on the multi-story side, the Tribunal leads back into the courtyard through heavy, geometrically carved wood doors. Opposite the consul wing, along Carrer de la Lonja, a more recently added pale yellow reception section was built as the visitor entrance, reducing the area of the garden space. Upon garden entry, an eight-pointed star-shaped fountain greets us (although only I’m left to imagine water bubbling within it). Trees burst with Valencian oranges as we walk along garden pathways.
1 The bat has been Valencia’s symbol of good fortune since Jaume I, the King of Aragon, in 1238. In one legend, a noisy bat caught in a drum warned the king’s men of an imminent Moorish attack, ultimately aiding the king’s victory; in another account, a bat landed atop the king’s flag (or some say his head) after his victory, which the king interpreted as a good omen. As an agricultural region, Valencian farmers have long revered bats for curtailing the insect population.
Photo Tour of La Lonja de la Seda
The Marketplace Plaza in El Mercat
Barri El Mercat is one of six neighborhoods within the old city (Ciutat Vella). We walked north from City Hall at Plaça de l’Ajuntament (in the old center just a couple of blocks north of the València Nord train station), veering left onto Avinguda de María Cristina where we entered the buzzing marketplace neighborhood. As we neared La Lonja, tapa restaurants spilled into the streets and alleyways.
In the heart of El Mercat, an area that has been the hub of commerce for centuries, La Lonja faces two other cultural icons at Plaza del Mercado (Plaça del Mercat in Valenciano).
Built in 1914 during the Valencian Art Nouveau period, Mercat Central bustles daily with shoppers, where piles of produce and paella pans have replaced the sacks of silk once sold across the street. Each morning, vendors display and sell an extensive variety of fresh foods and crafted products from this subtropical region. Next door, Església de Sant Joan del Mercat, an 18th-century Baroque bell-tower church known simply as Santos Juanes, resides over the angled plaza. This national treasure actually has 13th-century origins, built atop the foundations of a former Moorish mosque, but was rebuilt after destructive fires.
We turned down Carrer dels Cordellats, a narrow passage on the northern side of the Exchange, toward an inviting view of yet another church, Basílica del Sagrado Corazón (Basílica del Sagrat Cor de Jesús), which led us to La Lonja’s visitor’s entrance at this church’s Plaza de la Compañía (Plaça de la Companyia).
Our entrance to La Lonja was provisionally free (and normally free on Sundays and holidays, while regular admission costs 2€). An extra 3€ bought a self-guided audio tour so we could learn more about its history and details. For about an hour, we wandered around the compound’s exterior and interior spaces. Along the way, we listened to historical accounts that set the scene and gave us insight into the intricate architectural details and allegorical carvings.
Not only is La Lonja de la Seda a historic and architectural treasure, but the whole plaza preserves its marketplace role, an essential cornerstone to the community. And somehow, its Renaissance days as a trading hub 500 years ago don’t seem that far removed from today’s modern-day activity at Plaza del Mercado (Plaça del Mercat).
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