Just about every town in Spain has a festival that it is known for. Some are more famous than others and the main attraction can vary dramatically. One thing that seems to be consistent across them all, however, is a party atmosphere with a focus on traditions during the day, and boozing and revelry throughout the night.
Pamplona has the San Fermin festival that is known for its Running of the Bulls. Cadiz hosts one of the country’s largest Carnival parties. And in Buñol, they have a messy tomato food fight in the streets called La Tomatina.
Valencia’s claim to fame are Las Fallas.
What the heck are Fallas?
The word Fallas refers to two things. It’s the title of the 2-week long festival in March commemorating Saint Joseph.
It also is the name of the elaborate monuments that pop up by the hundreds around town. Every plaza is adorned with an artistic construction of satirical images made from wood, papier-mâché, and cardboard.
It’s hard to describe the atmosphere that surrounds the city during this time. To put it in more familiar terms, it’s a cross between a State Fair, college football tailgate, Macy’s Day Parade, a frat party, and the 4th of July rolled up in one big round-the-clock party that the Valencians have perfected. And we had a front row seat to most of it.
Plaza del Pilar
We fought through a large throng of people just outside the entrance to our Airbnb rental smack dab in the old town (Airbnb offers $25 off your reservation by clicking through that link). Inside the apartment were the usual welcome documents along with an unexpected set of four blue and white handkerchiefs and ear plugs. This should be interesting.
We opened our first floor curtains and saw a team assembling a beautiful 5-story Falla so intricate it looked like it was defying gravity.
We had arrived just in time to see the opening ceremonies, so-to-speak. The first day that we walked around town, we couldn’t help but stumble across several relatively small processions of people escorting their creation to its final resting place.
Turns out each neighborhood is responsible for creating their own ninot (Valencian for ‘doll’) that is to be added to a collective Falla of an agreed upon theme.
The processions were lively, loud, and full of pride. In front was the flag bearer identifying themselves. Behind them were always a couple of handsome representatives dressed in traditional garb along with common folk blowing whistles and throwing firecrackers. A few of the more fancy delegations had a 6-10 piece marching band accompaniment.
The days are passed by drifting around town, admiring the Fallas of all shapes and sizes, and sampling the street food.
Because it is a competition and the losers get burned to the ground on the final day, it’s important to make your rounds before then.
You also can’t miss the non-stop parties of marching bands, singing, and dancing that can be found throughout the streets and other public places.
Another spectacle unrelated to the animated structures is the daily Mascleta. This is the coordinated rounds of fireworks that go off everyday at 2:00 pm. Thousands descend to city center to take part. It isn’t so much a visual display (since it happens mid-day) as much as a barrage on the ears.
You know the sound associated with a 4th of July firework grand finale in the States? It’s pretty much that for 7 straight minutes. Booming reverberations pound through your chest and the crowd erupts in appreciation at the end. It’s quite a scene.
Offering of Flowers
One of the more tender moments of the festival is the procession through the streets for the women to present their red bouquet of flowers to the Virgin Mary.
It’s a long parade and it was a joy to see everyone’s faces as they turned the corner to see the giant figurine for the first time. Slowly but surely, each bouquet filled in Mary’s extravagant outfit.
3:00am Wake-up Call
Because our apartment was right next to one of the most prominent Fallas in town, there was a 24-hour flow of people passing by our windows. This created a din that was somewhat easy to sleep through with the provided earplugs.
What did wake us up without fail was what sounded like a drunk university alumni band that came by precisely at 3:00am every morning playing brash marching music that would make you want to polka, chicken dance, or otherwise hum along (like the theme song from the A-Team).
Best in Show
Around dinner during our penultimate day, we heard a ruckus outside our dining room in the plaza. There, all the representatives were gleefully cheering and hoisting each other up like it was a Jewish Bar Mitzvah. It wasn’t until I heard the chant of “Campeones! Campeones!” (Champions!) that I knew what was going on. Turns out, the Falla in our extended living room won first place in the most prominent division.
A year’s worth of work had paid off and it was quite an exciting scene for those responsible. The head Fallera even got some play on national television.
While we didn’t stay until the final day, the end of the festival is marked by the igniting of all the Fallas.
After the fires take down the massive Fallas in a fit of glory, that’s the signal to the falleros to start thinking about how they are going to top it again next year.
For more pictures and a video of the festivities, be sure to click to Part 2.