Las Fallas (1)
The people of Valencia celebrate their patron saint’s day and the passing of winter with a fiery party of ferocious proportions: ground shaking fire-cracker fights, rockets booming overhead, billowing clouds of sulphurous smoke, and colossal bonfires on street corners that could cook your eyeballs from twenty metres. The main feature of Valencia’s famous festival is the fallas effigies themselves, which come in all shapes and sizes, the most spectacular of them being enormous affairs. Almost four hundred are erected around the city, and as many as four hundred more in the surrounding towns and districts. Combine all this with the Spanish love of sangria, bravado and all-hours partying, and you get one hell of an early spring line-up that draws two million people from all over the world.
The origins of Las Fallas are connected with pagan celebrations of the spring equinox. Reports of the festival date back to 1497 and relate to the custom of early craftsmen – San Jose is the patron saint of carpenters – who burned the wooden candelabra they had used to illuminate their workshops during winter. Later on, the candelabra were adorned with old clothes and burnt in a bonfire to accompany the night-time fiesta. Later still, a human visage was added to make a more lifelike figure, and the ninot, or doll-like effigy, was born, with whole groups of neighbours contributing to the display.
Las Fallas was actually outlawed in 1851 by the mayor of Valencia, as the huge fires were considered a threat to the city. It was revived in 1883, but a tax was slapped on each falla, with the result that only four fallas were set up. By 1886, the city had no fallas at all – much to the chagrin of the locals, who complained bitterly – but the following year, the tax was reduced and 21 fallas were built. The festival has grown in strength ever since. Festivities are centred on the Barrio del Carmen, a maze of narrow streets enclosed by Calle Colon, Calle Xativa and Calle Guillem de Castro (note there is some confusion in street names, as both Spanish and Catalan names are used – many local maps freely mix the two). This area is closed off to all traffic except buses and taxis, so getting around isn’t too much trouble. Outside the Barrio del Carmen, stick to the Barrio de la Turia, between the Mercado, Plaza de la Reina and the Jardi del Turia – a beautiful, four-mile strip of gardens in the city’s old riverbed, which hosts a variety of live-music events throughout Las Fallas – for the best of the festivities, day or night.
The highlights during the day make for top-quality entertainment and at night the partying presses on long and hard, but the only fixed points in your schedule are the daily mascleta firecracker display in the main square, Plaza del Ayuntamiento (2pm), and the midnight firework isplays over the Jardi del Turia. Valencia has some of the most famous pyrotechnical engineers in the world and they take the bang business very seriously indeed, with advanced research into chemical reactions, computer- aided analysis and field trials that would make NASA proud.
As a tourist, you won’t need any special kit for the party, just some reasonably heat-resistant clothes, and, of course, some firecrackers available from most street stalls – so you can join in the perpetual banger-throwing along with everyone else.