Valencia, Spain: Las Fallas, One Crazy Festival!
By Jean Miller Spoljaric
The ‘Fallas’ is a four-day and four-night invasion of art, music, fireworks, gunpowder, smoke, explosions and emotions in the ancient city of Valencia, Spain. The craziness is held every year during the second week of March.
I recently had the opportunity to experience the mayhem that is known as ‘Las Fallas’firsthand. For this trip, I also had to stow away my childhood fears about fireworks. Years ago, a teenage boy tossed a live cherry bomb under my chair. The explosion was loud enough to scare me for life.
I was not physically injured, but emotionally scarred forever! Since then, I tend to shy away from fireworks, so when I learned that ‘Las Fallas’ is all about fireworks, smoke, and loud explosions, I’m sure you understand my hesitation. My glee slowly turned to terror.
At Valencia’s fiery Fallas festival, the city is decorated with more than 800 cartoon-like statues, called ‘ninots’, and on the fourth and final day of the festival, they all go up in smoke. It was a real BLAST!
Crazy~ /Kr’eizi/ Synonyms: adjective: mad, insane, demented, daft, lunatic, nutty, cracked. Noun: lunatic. Synonym: mad.
Crazy was the word that I muttered at least a thousand times during ‘Las Fallas.’ All of us can be considered ‘crazy’ at one time or another. The human mind is so incredibly complicated; it only takes the right reason or situation for us to loose our minds completely.
The Fallas dates as far back as the 1700s. Many native Valencians believe The Fallas began as a bit of spring cleaning as they needed to rid their houses of junk accumulated during the winter.
They hauled it outside, tossed it in a heap, and set it on fire.
At some point, they introduced statues into the mix. The artisans spend the entire year perfecting the beautiful statues. During the early years, the ninots were constructed of wood and straw and their heads made of wax.
The last day of the festival is the last day of winter; the day of San José. It is on this day that the Valencian tradition goes up in flames. Originally, all were burned, and it wasn’t until 1934 that the first ninot was spared from the flames.
Since then, each festival’s ninots are voted on and two are spared from the flames. The spared ninots may be viewed at The Museum of the Fallas.
The Valencian people must have a great sense of humor as the ninots make fun of everything from politics and the financial crisis to single parenthood and the sexual revolution. Nothing is off limits during the Fallas.
They even had a giant Super Obama, cape and all, soaring through the sky with Michelle held tight in his arms. I walked the city streets for four days mesmerized by the beauty that each ninot held. It was preposterous to think that soon it ALL would be burned to the ground; some might even say it was crazy!
The real meaning of the Fallas becomes clear when the ninots are set on fire, for the Valencian people believe that it is then that the ninots are relieved of their satirical and critical burden.
Once the fire has died down and the cremation is complete, the ashes take on an aura of peacefulness as music and hymns fill the smokey air. Laughter and tears fill the faces of the Valencian people as they gather around the burned sculptures.
The Castle in the Sky
Each night of the Fallas, the Valencian people celebrate with not just any fireworks, but perhaps the best in the world. On the evening of March 18th, the Nit de Foc (Night of the Fire) is the largest display.
Called the Castillo (castle) in which more than 2,500 kilos of pyrotechnical material is launched into the sky above the city of Valencia, turning it into an indescribable spectacle of dancing light, fire and gun powder.
More than one million spectators attend the fireworks on this special evening. I watched from the safe distance on the St. Vincent Bridge as thousands of sparkling colored lights dotted the sky.
As if fire and fireworks are not enough, the people of Valencia celebrate the Fallas with a pyrotechnical display of sound called the Mascleta, and it is beyond anything you could possibly imagine.
Each day of the festival, at 2 pm, more than 300 mascletes are ignited in most of the city’s neighborhoods. The Mascleta is not meant to be a visual treat, for it takes place mid-day, but it is more about touching another one of your senses. It demands that you become one with the sound.
For me, this was the craziest part of the entire festival. More than 120 decibels of sound and more than 100 kilos of gunpowder are used in the daytime demonstration of pyrotechnical mayhem. It will take over your mind, body, and soul. Earplugs are a must!
It would not be an understatement for me to tell you that I thought my brain was vibrating out of my head. I now have a better understanding of what it must be like for soldiers who are subjected to the concussion of explosions in war zones. All the same, I thought even if I had a pacemaker in my chest, for certain my heart would have skipped a beat.
I watched in horror as people brought their dogs and infants to this event. Perhaps it was the cherry bomb under my chair so many years ago that did me in, but I couldn’t wait for the sound to stop.
I crouched near a dumpster on the street to video the madness. I slowly took baby steps backward as the massive explosions grew closer, my camera vibrating in my hand from the ground shaking bombs.
The loud sounds, the strobe-like blinking lights, and the massive crowds cramped together shoulder to shoulder like sardines was not unlike any bad disco back in the early 80’s.
The smell of the exploding gunpowder wafted through the air and consumed my mind. Overwhelmed, I hid behind my scarf, taking shallow breaths to filter out the smokey air. It was as if I was underwater and I needed to hold my breath just a little longer.
I was hoping not to expire right there on the streets of Valencia. I thought it might be impossible to get an ambulance through the crowd. I was on sensory overload! I couldn’t stop the internal explosion fast enough. Afterward, I thought I might be suffering from PTSD… and I should probably try and locate a spa ASAP!
The Many Parades
The Fallas offers constant parade action! The most important parade of the festival takes place over two days. During The Flower Parade, more than 150,000 Valencian people make their way towards the Virgin Square to offer flowers to The Blessed Virgin Mary.
More than 100,000 spectators line the streets, many wearing ‘Pannulo de Hierbas’, the official blue and white neck scarf of the Fallas.
The devoted Valencians, in native costumes, strategically place their special bouquets on the structure until she is completely adorned.
It becomes the Virgin Square where soft music plays in the background and the air loses its smokiness and bursts forth with the scent of beautiful flowers. The calm serene scene transported me miles away from the craziness of the Mascletas.
Another notable parade of Las Fallas is the Fire Parade, a prelude to the cremations of Las Fallas. In this parade, all hell literally breaks loose on the city streets.
Devils on stilts, wielding giant flame shooting pitchforks, dance their way down the street. The high pitched squeals of the fireworks scream through the streets as an endless stream of sparks land on the crowds that line the parade route.
I was still fighting the ancient fears within me as I backed away from my front row viewing area.
Mission: Agua de Valencia
Everywhere I looked, people were celebrating in the streets. As we made our way towards dinner, people tossed firecrackers at my feet. I continued to jump and flinch at every bang and pop.
My senses just couldn’t seem to adjust to this crazy festival. I had the famous Agua de Valencia cocktail on my mind.
A cross between a screwdriver and a mimosa, the Agua de Valencia is made from a blend of vodka, fresh squeezed Valencian oranges, and the secret killer ingredient, Cava, Spanish champagne. For me, The Agua de Valencia was just what the doctor ordered.
With the Aqua de Valencia flowing through my bloodstream and my appetite peaking, I began thinking about the world famous Valencian dish known as paella.
Originating in Valencia, it consists of rice, chicken, snails, green beans, fava beans, and is finished off with smoked paprika, saffron, and a sprig of rosemary. Or, if you’re me, the vegetarian paella, made with fish and veggies was out of this world, as well. Both dishes are excellent!
If you’re in the city, the best Paella can be found at La Ruia on Calle del Mar Street. Decorated with Valencian pottery and local artwork, La Riua is a family run business.
If you prefer a rural setting, grab a taxi or a rental car and head to the nearby town of Alfafar and La Matandeta Restaurant. Surrounded by rice fields, La Matandeta offers a quiet countryside setting.
Rafael, whom I lovingly named the “Paella King,” heads the family-run business. Rafael and his ‘assistant,’ three-year-old grandson Manuel, proceeded to produce an entertaining paella workshop.
It was no surprise to me that Mario Batali and Gweneth Paltrow stopped by La Matendeta during their Spain ‘road trip’ in search of the best paella. The workshop taught us the secrets of how to make authentic Valencian Paella from start to finish.
Nothing like an open-air fire pit and fresh vegetables, mixed with the finest local ingredients, to create a meal and a memory. The homemade sangria was out of this world as well. For me, hands down, La Matandeta offered the best overall Paella experience.
You can’t go wrong with either restaurant, as both places are true Valencian treasures!
The Modern Beauty
Valencia has many wonderful sights. I was most impressed with the award winning, the internationally known architecture of Santiago Calatrava, clearly visible throughout the city. Many will remember his architectural creations from the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
The ‘Oceanografic’ is home to over 45,000 specimens and 500 different species that live in the nine underwater towers. It has more than 70 meters of tunnels, which make it the largest sea aquarium in all of Europe.
Known as ‘The City by the Sea’, the beaches and ports of Valencia are most beautiful and the Mediterranean climate is enjoyable year ‘round.
I went to Valencia during Las Fallas, a party time not unlike Mardi Gras and Carnivale, but I would not hesitate to visit this great city anytime. The people are welcoming; the food is special, the ambiance comforting, and the society remains progressive.
To learn more about Las Fallas visit valenciavalencia.com
To learn more about the history of Valenciavisit spain-info.com
For more about The City of Arts and Science visit valencia-cityguide.com
For information about Santiago Calatrava visit calatrava.info.com
To learn more about the Oceanografic in Valencia visit cac.es
Food and Wine:
Paella in the country: (Ask about the Paella workshops!)
La Matandeta Restaurant
Also find them on FaceBook.
Carretera Alfafar-El Saler / km. 4 – 46910 ALFAFAR / Valencia
Tel. 962 112 184
Paella in the City: (The seafood paella is the best!)
La Riua` Restaurant
Owners: Pilar Lozano – Francisco Castro Mar 27 – 46003 Valencia, Spain Tel. 96 391 45 71
If you’re looking for a great Tapas and Wine Bar… I have the place!
Casamontana Excellent, eclectic assorted menu!
C/ Jose Benlliure 69. El Cabanyal 46011 Valencia. Tel. 963 672 314
If you were in search of something very special, I would highly recommend:
C/ Almirante, 14 – 46003. Valencia Tel. 963 925 566
Arrop’s atmosphere is as wonderful as their culinary delights! This spot is one of a kind!
How to Get There
I flew business class via Air Europa. The over-sized leather reclining seats made for a wonderful night’s sleep!
Where to Stay:
Hotel Melia Valencia
During my visit to Valencia, I was lucky enough to stay at this beautiful hotel. Located in the new, more modern area of Valencia, it’s just a short walk to The City of The Arts and Science Building. Also, the Melia is close to the Port used for The America’s Cup. It’s very clean and your room fee includes a full hot and cold buffet breakfast every morning.