Whilst thousands of festivals are celebrated all over Spain throughout the year there are only a few that bring overseas visitors specifically for the event. The Fallas fiesta which takes place in Valencia from 15th to the 19th of March every year is undoubtedly one of those ‘super-festivals’ attracting many foreign visitors as well as Spanish tourists from all over the country. This was the first major festival I ever went to in Spain and to this day cannot get over the sheer craziness of it all.
San José (Saint Joseph), the patron saint of carpenters, is the official focus for the festival. It all started back in the Middle Ages when carpenters used to hang up planks of wood called ‘parots’ in the winter to support their candles when they were working. At the onset of spring these pieces of wood would be burned as a way of celebrating the end of dark, winter working days. After a while they began to put clothing on the ‘parot’ and then started to try to make it identifiable with a well-known local personality. These became the forerunners of the contemporary ‘ninots’, the enormous cardboard, wooden, polyurethane, Styrofoam, cork, plaster and papier-maché figures of today. The authorities later decided to link the burning of the ‘parots’ with Saint Joseph’s Day to try to stop it getting out of control!.Nowadays, each neighbourhood has an organising committee, the ‘casal faller’, who raise the necessary finances for constructing the ‘ninots’. There is even an area of the city called the ‘Ciutat Fallera’ where whole groups of workers and designers spend months creating all the incredible towering tableaux. The ‘ninots’, which are placed at key places throughout the city, are often cruel satirical lampoons of well-known Spanish and international celebrities or politicians.
A Day at the Fallas
If you decide to go to the Fallas festival prepare for an early start. Each day begins with a startling wake-up call known as ‘La Despertà’ at the ridiculous time (in Spain) of 8am. You’ll just love being woken by brass bands marching down the streets accompanied by those preposterously loud firecrackers; which themselves activate car and shop alarms – just to make sure you’re ready for a day’s fun.
All day, you’ll see processions and hear explosions and then at 2pm ‘La Mascletà’ begins when there are organised pyrotechnical explosions all over the city, especially in Valencia’s main square, the Plaza Ayuntamiento. At first you’ll think they’re earth-shattering but they’re just an appetizer for what will come later.
On each night there is a firework display in the old river bed and they escalate in degrees of spectacle culminating in La Nit de Foc (the Night of Fire) on 18th March. The following night la Cremà takes place when all the ‘ninots’ are burnt. Neighbourhoods will have their own ‘falla infantile’ for the children at about 10pm and then, at around midnight, the neighbourhood ‘fallas’ will begin. The final, grandest fire, in the Plaza Ayuntamiento, won’t get under way until 1am at the earliest with huge crowds waiting in eager anticipation of the burning. The ‘ninots’ will all have been stuffed full with fireworks, the street lights switched off and the firemen will be in position when the 20 to 30 foot models, which took months of painstaking construction, will be razed to the ground. Each year, one ‘ninot’ is spared the ordeal (as a result of a public vote) whilst the rest suffer a spectacular fate.
A Festival of Noise and Fire
However loud you think this is going to be you’ll be wrong. There is no way of beginning to describe the amount of noise generated. Pregnant women are forbidden from attending and each year people are injured or faint. It is true that you should keep your mouth open to allow the sound to escape and not echo around your head – or something like that – but be prepared to feel the ground shake beneath your feet and your head to spin uncontrollably. This is an adrenaline rush with few equals and a completely unique experience.
And please don’t think you can rest up during the day to prepare yourself for the evening’s bombardments. After you’ve been unceremoniously startled awake at 8 o’clock the whole of Valencia is one enormous street party, with various parades, pageants, beauty shows, paella competitions and bullfights all over the city.
Whilst photos of the event give you some idea what the effigies are like they cannot portray the atmosphere of the city during this crazy fiesta. The following video goes some way to giving you a feel for street life during the festival. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching a news report on TV from a war zone!
Hotels in Valencia and the surrounding areas sell out many months before the Fallas festivals so be sure to book your Valencia hotel well in advance. And make sure you don’t ever book to go back to work on March 21st: you’ll need at least two days rest and relaxation before you can even think about it! For more information and a calendar of events please refer to the Official Falles de València Website.
If you’ve been to the Fallas festival please let us know what you thought of it in the comments section below.