I Fell Into A Burning Ring of Fire: Las Fallas in Valencia, Spain
Ear-splitting explosions, blazing bonfires, enormous burning effigies and packs of feral children playing with matches. Nope, it’s not a war zone or the latest post-apocalyptic blockbuster. Welcome to Las Fallas; Valencia’s premiere party and one of the biggest, craziest festivals in all of Spain (and let’s face it, that says a lot).
Over the last six years of living in Spain, I’ve overcome 3 Carnavals in the Canary Islands and Cadiz, survived 3 Orgullos living in the center of Chueca in Madrid, and lived to tell the tale of countless pueblo festivals – from Celtic musicians camping in the beaches of Ortigueira to rowdy romerías in La Orotava valley. Spain likes a good party (and what can I say, so do I) but Las Fallas is truly something extraordinary. Picture a city where thousands of people spend thousands of hours and thousands of euros to build extravagant and elaborate floats… only to blow them all up in a single night.
Las Fallas is held annually from the 15th to 19th of March, but be sure to stay until the 20th, as the biggest and most spectacular celebrations happen on the final evening.
Come On Baby, Light Your Fire: When to Book Your Trip
Yesterday. The city fills to the brim during Las Fallas with Spanish revellers and overseas tourists alike, so you’ll want to book your accommodation right away if you haven’t done so already. Keep in mind that most hotels, hostels and Airbnb’s have minimum 4 or 5 night stays during the event, and the few that still have vacancies will fill up with last-minute party seekers over the next few days. If spontaneity leaves you waiting till the last minute with not a sofa in sight, I assure you that you won’t be the first, the last or the only free spirit using the beach as your (rather chilly) boudoir.
A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight: A Glimpse Into a Day at Las Fallas
Days at Las Fallas are long and LOUD. Firecrackers start early in the morning (8:00am), which under normal circumstances would pretty much be considered profane in sleepy Spain. The pop and bang is ‘delightfully’ accompanied by brass marching bands who parade down the streets of the city center – a not so gentle wake up call known as La Despertà. As a heavy sleeper with a tendency to stay up late and snooze through everything, I can honestly say I was unaffected. Most would disagree. If you sleep any less solidly than a hibernating bear, invest in some earplugs and strong café.
Throughout the day, there’s no shortage of things to see, eat, and make your ears ring. Processions of falleras in the ornate, silk gowns traditional of the region make their way through the city like ladies of a long-forgotten court. Street stalls and chiringuitos frying up churros, buñuelos and salchichas fill the air with smells of smoke and sustenance to get you through the long days, and patrons spill out of every overflowing bar and terrace serving cold cañas and fresh paella, Valencia’s specialty. Every afternoon at 14:00, the fireworks and firecrackers of the daily mascletà ring out from Plaza Ayuntamiento, the city’s main square. Fireworks in the middle of the day you ask… but why?! Why not! At Las Fallas, anything that goes BOOM, goes.
As the sun sets and the sky dims, the festivities do not. Firework displays are held each evening above the old riverbed, growing bigger and more spectacular with each passing day. Glittering lights sparkle all over the city, their florescent beams reflecting in the heavy smoke of the street stalls and firecrackers. Turning into any given plaza may lead you toward another incredible ninot, a spontaneous dance party, a court of falleras… or if you’re lucky, all three. The music, dancing, fireworks and festivities grow increasingly later and louder as each day goes by, until the culmination of la cremà or the La Nit de Foc on the final night.
Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire: La Cremà – Nit de Foc (Sunday, 19th March, 2017)
Do. Not. Miss. This. Night.
This year, La Cremà will take place on a Sunday night, meaning that many merrymakers may plan to leave Sunday and make it back for work on Monday. Don’t do this. If you have to lie, steal, cheat or beg your day off of work on Monday, I promise you it will be worth it. While the entire festival is unique and enjoyable, it is La Nit de Foc (The Fire Night) which you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
I can vividly recall the first falla I watched go up in flames and then burn down in a blaze of glory. It was a ninot infantil, and one of the earliest to spark that night. It was such a strange and surreal sight that the memory has happily stayed with me ever since. The falla was draped with cords and men and children from the Casal Faller were dousing it in liquid from 1.5-liter water bottles. The young fallera of the barrio approached in her elegant silk gown, looking nothing short of a young Spanish princess. It didn’t take us long to realize that the cords were fireworks and the liquid was gasoline. The little princess lit the fuse and BANG the fireworks erupted in a cacophony of lights and colors and the paper-mâiché falla smoldered and burned to a crisp before our eyes. To see this once is spectacular on its own. Now picture seeing it dozens and dozens of times.
The festivities begin with The Parade of Fire at 19:00 – La Cavalcada del Foc. At around 22:00, the first fallas infantiles – smaller and somewhat less elaborate – are burnt. From this point on, the party and the explosions remain nonstop. The smoke, sound and celebrations are hidden around every corner, essentially a pyromaniacs dream dance party. At midnight, the ceremonious burning of the grand fallas begins, heating the entire city with fire and flames. The only ninot to be saved from the wreckage is the ninot indultat (the pardoned puppet). This ninot won the most votes over the previous weeks’ festivities and will be protected along with past winners from the ninot netherworld in the city’s Museum of the Ninot.
The History Behind the Explosions and Effigies
The evolution of the fallas is said to have begun as early as the Middle Ages, stemming from pagan celebrations of the spring equinox. During the autumn and winter months, carpenters used planks or chunks of wood (parots) to place their candles or oil lamps while working on dark evenings. As days became longer and candlelight was no longer necessary during working hours, they’d celebrate the coming of spring by setting the planks alight. Overtime, the tradition grew to include children going door to door asking for rags to dress the planks up like puppets (ninots). It wasn’t until much later that the Saint Joseph – the Patron Saint of carpenters – became a part of the tradition, merging the age-old tradition with the Catholic faith.
Today, each of Valencia’s neighborhoods has a committee (Casal Faller) which annually organizes, fundraises and constructs their own ninot (Valencian for puppet) or fallas – the enormous floats that will soon light up before your very eyes. The floats are massive – they can reach over 25 meters tall – and are skillfully designed and constructed by prominent artists. They are almost always ironic or satirical (and often lewd) representations of politicians and well-known celebrities, both Spanish and international. Watch out Americans… I have a hunch we can guess at least one orange celeb-oitician who will be a common theme throughout this year’s festivities.
What to Expect… and A Forewarning
I loved Las Fallas, and if the stars once again align allowing me to prance between smoldering ninots over firecracker debris, dodging teens tossing pyrotechnics with a lukewarm can of Estrella Damm in my hand, I’m there (with bells on). It is however, important to remember that this festival is not for everyone. It’s loud in a way that’s impossible to explain, not exactly earsplitting but constant and thunderous. Let’s put it this way: pregnant women are not permitted at the events for health reasons. People have been injured (duh) and if you haven’t caught on quite yet, there is a lot (and I mean, a lot) of fire.
If this sounds like it’s the festival for you, then jump on into that ring of fire!
Have you ever been to Las Fallas before?
Did you love the lunacy, or crave some quiet?
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