By Darryl Newman
Photos by the author or as noted
Valencia is probably best known as the birthplace of Valencia oranges and paella, but from March 15-19, you might think Spain’s third largest city was the birthplace of pyromania mixed with pageantry and celebrations. It’s the festival of Las Fallas, and it’s billed as one of Europe’s most spectacular events.
Fallas means “fires,” but is also the word to describe wooden-framed monuments that are placed in squares and key intersections throughout the city. The fallas depict current events, politicians and celebrities, and usually have a satirical tone. On the last night of the festival, the cremà takes place, the burning of all of the fallas, except the winning one.
HISTORY OF FALLAS
Why the burning? Over past centuries, carpenters cleaned out their shops by making bonfires of wood scraps. It coincided with St. Joseph’s Day, the patron saint of carpenters, on March 19. The wood scraps took on doll-like shapes and then became effigies reflecting whatever face was griping the neighborhood. Today the fallas still poke fun but appear as elaborate polystyrene (styrofoam) painted works of art that can tower as high as a six-story building and cost more than $1 million to construct.
The falla at city hall, more than 60 ft. tall.
At 2 o’clock from March 1-19, there’s the daily pyrotechnic mascletà in the always-packed City Hall Square. For 10 minutes, about 250 pounds of gunpowder explode in a rhythmic cadence of deafening blasts. Different sound artists shoot off a concoction of giant firecrackers, thunderous smoke bombs and screaming rockets to wow the crowds.
Valencia’s Old Town, the largest in Europe, is the ideal place to stroll around looking at the hundreds of captivating fallas (pack comfortable shoes). To accommodate the over one-half million visitors to this coastal city, 700 streets are closed to traffic. Down any street, you may see a 100-member falla commission with women, children and men in 18th century ornate Valencian dress being followed by their lively marching band. The streets are also filled with other kinds of sound. Random firecrackers can be heard everywhere and don’t be surprised to see toddlers, yes toddlers, taking part in the fun.
Even the very young dress in traditional garb for Las Fallas
On a food note, you might see paella being cooked over hot coals in the street. To quell any hunger, temporary food stands are also set up everywhere, serving hot buñuelos de calabaza con chocolate (hot pumpkin donuts with hot chocolate as thick as pudding). For a refreshing drink, you can try the local horchata from the tiger nut legume. It has a pear-like texture and a thirst-quenching sweetness.
Woman making bunuelos
As with any good festival in Spain, there’s always a crowd at the Plaza de Toros (bullring). For nine days, the best bullfighters in Spain descend on Valencia. This year, two young superstars, José Tomás and Sebastián Castella, were on the billing among many other talented bullfighters.
It’s said that Spain hasn’t seen a bullfighter like Tomás in decades. He excites the crowd with his poise and fearless entanglement with the bull. Many of his passes let the bull in so close that it actually grazes him. Somehow, Tomás makes what is arguably a cruel sport seem like a graceful and courageous ballet with death.
Amid the celebrations, there is a solemn aspect of Fallas as well. It is the procession of 105,000 Valencians from the edges of the Old Town to a 40-foot-high statue of Our Lady of the Forsaken, Valencia’s patron saint. Women carry bouquets of white, red or pink carnations that are offered to the Virgin. For two days, the flowers are placed in between wooden slats to fill in the pattern of her super-sized robe. The women become so emotional at seeing the Virgin that many are overwhelmed with tears.
NIT DE FOC
Every night there are fireworks leading up to the 1:30 am Nit de Foc (Night of Fire), the biggest fireworks show of the festival. Thousands walk across the bridges of the city to the Paseo de la Alameda to get a clear view of possibly the world’s noisiest and most colorful 22-minute extravaganza of fireworks. The sky is so bright with fireworks at the finale that it appears as if it is daylight.
The last night is the cremà with 766 fallas burning throughout the city. At 1 am, the huge falla at the City Hall Square is the last to burn. It is doused with gasoline and packed with fireworks and loud explosives before the immolation. Within minutes it goes up in scorching flames. It’s a sad ending to the festival, but the burning is said to take away the past year’s negativity in order to make room for a new season.
The next morning, the streets are all clean and a calm takes over the city. It seems as if Valencia just simply turned over a fresh new page.
HOW TO GET THERE
Valencia is relatively easy to get to from the US. First, get yourself on a flight to Madrid, Spain’s capital. From Madrid, it’s a quick 40-minute connecting flight to Valencia. Iberia, the national airline of Spain, partners with American.
WHERE TO STAY
Valencia has over 100 hotels to choose from. I stayed at the Hotel Astoria Palace. It is the emblematic hotel of Valencia, ideally situated in the heart of Old Town and a few short minutes walk to the City Hall Square, cathedral and restaurant/shopping areas. Its central location is key for all the main events at Las Fallas.
The lobby of the Hotel Astoria Palace. Photo courtesy Hotel Astoria Palace
The hotel itself has a long history of impressive guests from famous Spanish actors to bullfighters. Despite its 204 rooms, it has the elegant charm of a smaller hotel; it was recently renovated with a modern lobby and dining areas as well as with a spacious, high-ceiling bar. The rooms are classic Spain with rich wood furnishings.
During Fallas, the charismatic director Juan Torregrosa was present in the lobby and throughout the hotel to greet guests. He speaks English having had lived with a family in Arkansas for two years.
Vinatea, the hotel’s restaurant, features an extensive menu including a dozen unique rice and paella dishes. Its modern white setting with purple flourishes is the perfect place to dine and to try a bottle of wine from their extensive bodega.
WHERE TO EAT
If seafood is your thing, Civera, near the train station, is a must. You won’t believe their selection of shrimp and lobster in tanks to the scallops and dozens of different kinds of shellfish on display. All of their seafood is either from the bordering Mediterranean or Cantabrian seas. You can try the biggest oysters you’ll ever see — about the size of your fist. If you haven’t tried grilled sepia (local form of calamari) with olive oil, you’re in for a treat.
For a classic Valencian restaurant complete with paella and other typical rice dishes, try La Riuà. It’s one of the oldest establishments in the city with walls decorated with colorful and fascinating plates.
For artistic and mouth-watering tapas or pintxos, there’s Sagardi, a Basque tavern-like setting with an upstairs restaurant for dining including juicy T-bone steaks and popular fish like hake and cod.