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A Spanish Explosion: Valencia's Las Fallas Festival

Valencia, Spain's Festival of Flowers, Fireworks and Flames

by Susan McKee

Bam! I saw the firecracker flash just before I heard it. Bam! Bam! The trio of explosions echoed off the office buildings lining the narrow downtown street. The boys throwing the noisemakers then giggled and ran off. I stepped over the still-smoking debris and continued on my way.

Three young ladies dressed in their Fallas finery.

Three young ladies dressed in their Fallas finery. (Photo by Susan McKee)

This is just another day during Las Fallas in Valencia, Spain. Flowers, anthropomorphic rabbits and dyed eggs aren’t sufficient signals to the end of winter for Spain in March.

For Valencians, looking forward to spring does includes flowers, but it also includes lots of firecrackers, cannons, fireworks and flames.

Fallas, which runs from March 14 through 19 each year, is a ritual rooted in Pagan times that’s been recast as a Roman Catholic celebration of spring. It’s hard to imagine how any work gets done in this city of 820,000 during those six festival days.

On March 17 and 18, hundreds of thousands of blossoms are carried through the streets of this Spanish coastal town during two days of elegant ritual. Men, women and children dressed in traditional costumes — accompanied by bands playing everything from boleros to rock music — parade through the center of town carrying floral offerings to the plaza in front of the Basílica de La Virgen de Los Desamparados.

There, a temporary 46-foot-tall representation of the Our Lady of the Forsaken, the city’s patron saint, waits. A dozen costumed workmen scramble up and down the wooden framework of the Madonna’s enormous cape, catching the flowers tossed to them at the end of the parade and arranging them by color to create an elaborate design. More blossoms are used to create tapestries rising high on either side of the door to the basilica.

A queen and her court are chosen from among the thousands of elegantly costumed women, and they are fêted at a gala luncheon downtown on the second day of the parade.

There is also the omnipresent noise. Throughout Fallas, one is assaulted by music, firecrackers, cannons and fireworks. More than 300 bands march around the streets, playing from morning ‘til night – when fireworks light up the sky.

A Fallas construction in the center of Valencia.

A Fallas construction in the center of Valencia. (Photo by Susan McKee)

At 2 p.m. each afternoon in the center of downtown, crowds gather to watch the boom of the mascletàs, with rockets bursting overhead sending down streamers, and gunpowder exploding into cannon fire — mercifully without the cannon balls. During this time of day, one can’t walk down the street without being attacked by firecracker-wielding kids and adults.

Since Las Fallas literally means "the fires" in Valencia’s Catalan dialect, it’s logical that fire is the crowning touch to this boisterous festival. Centerpieces of the annual festival are some 700-plus constructions of papier-mâché layered over wooden frames.

Each is designed, financed and produced by a neighborhood association. Most are small – just a few feet tall — but the biggest and most expensive rise up more than 65 feet right in the center of key intersections in the central city. The fanciful confections, peopled with figures called “ninots,” or grotesque figurines, often offer satirical commentary on the popular topics of the day.

As midnight approaches on March 19, La Cremà begins. Huge crowds gather in the streets. Fire fighting equipment rounded up from every corner of the country stands ready. Then, each of these highly flammable structures is set on fire. The flames crackle and leap, starting slowly but spreading quickly to engulf every inch of the massive constructions. Spectators are showered with ash, and firefighters are kept busy hosing down rooftops until dawn.

Traditionally, one of the fanciful structures is saved each year by popular vote, and put on permanent display in the Fallas Museum.

Fallas may be the loudest and most colorful reason to visit Valencia, but there’s more going on in this third largest city in Spain. The 32 nd America's Cup yacht race was held here last year, with the 33 rd edition scheduled to repeat in Valencia in 2009. This summer, the first European Grand Prix Formula One race will be held in Valencia on Aug. 24.

Architecture fans know Valencia as the home of renowned Modernist architect Santiago Calatrava. Some of his most sculptural buildings are found here, including the Hemispheric at the City of Arts and Sciences, which resembles a lidded eyeball. The complex of museums, gardens and performing arts venues is located in the dry riverbed of the Turia.

Paella pans of all sizes in the City Market.

Paella pans of all sizes in the city market. (Photo by Susan McKee)

Foodies know Valencia for its signature crop, the Valencia orange, but also for paella. This popular dish — its name is derived from the Spanish word for a distinct kind of large, flat frying pan — has three key ingredients: rice, saffron and olive oil. Additions are as many and varied as the cooks who make it, but the traditional paella always has a base of crispy, toasted rice called “ socarrat” in Valencian.

So, the next time you are searching for a springtime festival with a Spanish flare, visit Valencia and its festival of fire, Las Fallas.

Learn more about Las Fallas.

If You Go

Region of Valencia Tourism
Aptdo. de Correos 48
46100 Burjassot.
Phone: 902.12.32.12