The breathing of the animals was slow and steady, just like the sun over my head.

Even before I arrived in Valencia, I knew a visit to the Bioparc was a must. The developers of this progressive zoo wanted to minimize the space between animals and people and dethrone the notion that animals must be kept cages. Here the animals have room to roam, and there are hardly any glass or metal dividers to break the illusion of a natural habitat or to block the views. The designers had hoped to weave the animals and their enclosures in with the zoo-goers and their spaces to create an atmosphere of trust and awe. I think they did.

I explored the park as the unwavering sun began to soak my shirt with sweat. But no matter how hard the sun beat down, it could not drain my energy or enthusiasm. I felt closer to wildlife than I had in years. Time retreated into the depths of the city, and I was left with only the animals as I walked through the lion, lemur and flamingo exhibits, among many others. But it was the giraffes that stood out in comparison to the others. One giraffe considerably taller than the others was so tall that the other giraffes had to step back and look up to see him in the eye. The tall giraffe—I’ll refer to him as Big G—was bold and inspected the visitors in the same way they were inspecting him. Eventually, he cautiously stepped forward to the edge of his enclosure and slowly moved his dark brown, spotted head toward the nearest human. The man reached out and delicately placed his hand on the side of Big G’s massive head. A connection was made that day—one between human and animal—and it was beautiful.

Still inspired by the moment, I made my way home, sticky with the salt from dried sweat.

A short sleep and a cab ride later, warm, salty water splashed into my eyes as I struggled to find my balance on the rented paddleboard. The Mediterranean Sea stretched before my eyes. On the horizon,  where the blue of the sea met the lighter blue of the sky, outlines of dark green mountains danced in and out of the clouds. In front of the mountains, the Valencian skyline shined in the sun. Even though had I wanted to escape the rapid pace of the city for a few hours, I found myself marveling at it and its surrounding landscape.

Cotton clouds dotted the sky while my friends and I sat far from the coast. We relaxed on our boards,  admiring the view and water so clear that I could see far into it—and I could see that we were not alone. Beneath our boards, white jellyfish puffed along in the water. They moved slowly and seemed to know exactly where they were headed. I felt like I could stay in the water, surrounded by jellyfish, forever. I paddled for an hour more and head back to shore.

I once again made my way home, smelling of saltwater and happiness, and as I lay in bed waiting for another day to arrive in Valencia, I again felt sticky. The sea salt on my sunburned skin and crusted in my hair indicated an amazing weekend, but there was more to it. The Valencian climate and rhythm had settled into my soul.