It’s the festival that means more to me than any other…
In fact, it actually warms my heart. In more ways than one, literally!
And it kicks off today! Well, the main festivities anyways… Yes it’s Valencia’s frenetic, firecracker filled pyrotechnic period of parties that make up the annual Fallas festival. From 15th-19th of March each year the city turns into the place to be in Spain, as the streets are filled with locals and visitors alike marvelling at the bizarre spectacles and statues that have been lovingly constructed over the past year.
Only to be burnt down. What?!
Whilst the city actually comes alive from the 1st of March for the daily earth-shattering Mascletas (I’ll explain those later), today is when the real fun begins.
I made the journey over to Eastern Spain specifically for Fallas in 2011 and had, quite honestly, the best week of my life. I did plan to return this year, but other travel plans had to take priority. So to try and soothe my heartache at not being there, here’s Carl’s guide to what makes up Spain’s fire themed fiesta of fun.
But, hold on Carl… What actually is Las Fallas?
It’s a good question.
Originally held in commemoration of Saint Joseph, Las Fallas has morphed into a ritual burning of the “old” to welcome in the “new” season of Spring. Represented by the massive statues – themselves called Fallas and made up of several smaller Ninots – erected in every main neighbourhood of the city, these are then ceremonially burnt to the ground during la Crema (burning) to mark the end of the festival on the night of the 19th. And it’s a rather incredible spectacle, seeing much of the city on fire during la Crema. It’s also a warm one too, with just how close you can get to most of the Fallas as they burn…
With my feeble attempt at explaining the background of the festival out of the way, let’s go over some of the main aspects that make up the madcap five days of Las Fallas.
Maybe I shouldn’t really mention this first… But anyhow, each day of the festival begins at 8am with La Despertà. Or in other words – “the wake-up call”!
And it’s not just any wake-up, but a full on brass band that strolls through the neighbourhood playing not exactly quietly. They’re closely followed by the Fallers, whose job it is to throw large firecrackers onto the street!
It takes some getting used to, especially when you’ve likely been strolling the streets partying until the early hours, but it’s a unique way of having your day started. It certainly gets you straight into the spirit of the noise and craziness, and at least you won’t waste time in bed when the streets are alive outside.
But yeah, sorry about that deep sleepers!
Of course La Despertà really exists just to get you in the mood for this – Mascletà, the massive daytime fireworks display held on Plaza del Ayuntamiento! Kicking off every day at 2pm, prepare to feel the city shake as the coordinated display of fireworks and firecrackers goes off with one aim only – noise!
It’s daytime after all, so you’re not there for the visuals, but to
see hear the boundaries pushed every day with each display getting louder than the last. Canal Nou in the Valencia region helpfully measure the sound levels during their broadcasts, and you can expect the bombardment to build up to over 120 decibels by the end of a Mascletà.
It’s a truly unique aspect of the festival, and whilst Plaza del Ayuntamiento will be packed with people long before it actually kicks off, you should make the effort to catch at least one. Absolutely nothing can prepare you for just how loud these displays are.
Just prepare to feel the earth move…
Ninots y Fallas
Ah yes, the bizarre statues and structures lining the streets that will have you staring in bewilderment at whose oddball imagination these could have possibly emerged from. Those are actually Fallas, and they’re made up of several Ninots. Of course they’re probably the most recognisable aspect of the festival, and if you know anything about Fallas beforehand that’s because you’ve probably seen pictures of these works of art dominating the streets and squares.
But nothing can prepare you for the scale of these until you see them up close. There are of course several smaller junior displays, but prepare to have your breath taken away by Fallas that reach up several storeys high and in some cases above houses. The cream of the crop tends to be situated outside City Hall on Plaza del Ayuntamiento, and if you arrive in Valencia from Estacio del Norte it’s a rather jawdropping sight seeing that giant awaiting you when you step out of the station.
Oh and the point of them? Well each Falla generally tends to depict and mock various people and stories from the previous year. Although if you can make any sense of most of them I applaud you, as the fantasy nature means they all look absolutely crazy. But you’ll have to agree, they’re pretty impressive for a bit of paper, wax, wood and styrofoam.
Get your shoes on and check out the Russafa area – south of Estacio del Norte – for the best concentration of large Fallas.
Comida y Bebida
Of course as it’s party time that also means the food and drink will be flowing city wide. Get into the spirit of Valencia during it’s celebratory period by snacking on masses of churros and bunuelos, which you’ll be able to pick up from various carts all over the city. Think of them basically a doughnut, except churros are long sticks, and bunuelos are like churros tied into a pretzel shape. Grab a cup of thick chocolate sauce for dipping these in and you’ll be in baked heaven.
If you’ve still got room for more sweetness in your stomach then why not wash them down with a glass of fresh Horchata? Made from ground Chufas (tigernuts), it’s a sweet and refreshing creamy drink that won’t leave you feeling bloated like milk.
And I couldn’t possibly forget the jewel in Valencia’s culinary crown – Paella! It’s not uncommon to wander the city and see free paella parties where it’s freshly cooked out on the street. Indeed, there was one on Plaza Vicente Iborra right outside my hostel. So keep an eye out, as if you want to try real Valencian Paella cooked by local Valencianos, Fallas is the time to do it. Oh and if you fancy noodles instead of rice Fideua is just as easy to come by. Get munching!
Also decorating the streets during Fallas are several light displays. It’s just like a cross between the fairground and Christmas! You’ll normally find the entrance to each neighbourhood decorated with a light display spelling out the name of the Falla too. Not just a pretty sight, but also helpful for keeping track of where you are.
Now remember how I mentioned the Russafa area earlier? Well get down there and check out Calle Sueca Litorato Azorin for a pretty unbelievable sight…
Yep, that’s the entire length of the street, made into an incredible tunnel of lights. It’s not exactly a short street either. The time and work that must go into setting this display up is unreal, and the best part is that it’s completely different every year (although always sponsored by Estrella Damm). Past years have even included a replica Eiffel Tower constructed from lights!
I must say though, it’s a good thing Fallas brings the tourists in with that electric bill to pay at the end of March…
With all the madness going on it’s easy to forget that Fallas is a hugely traditional celebration for the Valencian people. Thankfully you’ll get a sharp reminder when – as is bound to happen several times – your path is suddenly interrupted by a parade of Falleras.
Dressed in stunning traditional Valencian dresses, each neighbourhood has their own Fallera Mayor (head Fallera) and a throng of several additional Falleras. Note the respect that the rest of the community shows the parade as they pass by, and rightly so, as they’re keeping Valencian traditions and the community spirit alive.
You may also notice quite how emotional many of the Falleras can get. But it’s a real honour for a woman to be chosen as a Fallera, let alone Fallera Mayor of their neighbourhood – just imagine how the lucky lady chosen as Fallera Mayor of Valencia feels – and particularly if a girl happens to be carrying on the tradition of Falleras in a family. Add these feelings into the main occasion each year for families in the Valencian Community to get together and celebrate, and you can understand why emotions are high.
So remember to show the ladies of Valencia your respect! They’re earning it.
Back to the visual aspect of Fallas, and what could be more appropriate for a pyrotechnics party than some epically large fireworks displays!
Each night of the festival is rounded off by a massive display from the old Turia riverbed along Paseo Alameda, which progressively build up to the massive Nit del Foc (night of fire) on the penultimate evening of the festival. They don’t kick off until late – we’re talking 1.30am – but hey, the parties are just starting around then anyhow!
But far from being the climax of the visual entertainment, the Nit del Foc is actually the final warm-up for one more incredible show. One that I almost managed to miss, as I had no idea about it until I caught my hostel roommates right before they left for it – the Cabalgata del Fuego.
And with a name that translates to Carnival of Fire you know you’re in for a show! Around about 7pm on the final night of Fallas you’ll want to be at Porta de la Mar to catch this insane display of costumed flaming entertainment. Huge sparklers, fire dancers dressed as all manner of creatures and epic fireworks combine to put on one jaw dropping show.
Oh and to finish off, they pretty much blow up the archway of Porta de la Mar. Think I’m joking…?
Sadly however, every great festival has to come to an end. And what better way to go than by burning every part of it to embers!
Yes, when I said the festival warms my heart, this is what I meant! Because it gets damn hot on the final night.
La Crema means the burning, and it’s the aforementioned act of burning each and every Falla to the ground to end the festival. That is, all but the selected one which is kept to be preserved in the Fallas museum. From 10pm onwards though, the city starts to burn as each neighbourhood Falla goes up in a concoction of flames and firecrackers.
It’s best to get hold of an official Fallas guide to check out the itinerary of when each Falla is set alight so you can sprint around the city catching as many as you can. Stock up on beers from street sellers and get into the festival mood as the city takes to the streets for one final crazy night. The big one on Plaza del Ayuntamiento tends to be one of the final ones to go, but good luck getting anywhere near it. You’ll be able to see it from miles back thankfully.
Just be aware though that it gets damn hot as they go up in flames. There may well be safety barriers around each one, but expect to get jump back quickly as the heat kicks in and you get spattered with paint.
Don’t expect the festivities of la Crema to end before dawn however. Even after all the Fallas have bid farewell the streets will be packed with people, and possibly the local Bomberos (firefighters) finally letting off steam after their long night of work. They just happened to be hosing the crowd down – all in good spirits – at around 4am during my visit. I finally made it into bed around 6.30am after my experience of la Crema, and safe to say it was truly unforgettable.
So there you have it…
That’s my Fallas (not so) mini-guide for you. As mentioned it’s all underway today in Valencia. If you’re not there this year try and check it out online to get a taster of this incredible fiesta. If you are there, well, I’m very jealous. And hey, maybe I’ll see you there next year when I make my return.
¡Disfrutan Las Fallas!
Have you been to Las Fallas in Valencia? If so, what did you think of it?