I don’t give a lot of credence to horoscopes, but there are a few things they get right. For example, mine is a fire sign. And I love fire. Yes, in a safe environment, thank you; you won’t find me maniacally starting forest fires. However, I do find it beautiful to watch. Regardless, I’ve now visited a city with far crazier fire-lovers than I am. In fact, one week a year is dedicated to revels starring every type of controlled fire they can get their hands on or build themselves.
You guessed it (or maybe you didn’t, it doesn’t really matter either way): I finally got to see las Fallas de Valencia, a local festival that I’ve been longing to attend since I learned about it in my high school Spanish class (shout out to Sra. Czinkota 😉 ). The basic concept is that each barrio (neighborhood) in the city pools resources to build a sculpture, called a falla (pronounced fahy-ya). These constructions are massive, artfully crafted and ornately painted, usually showcasing satirical representations of the folly of politicians, celebrities, and society that year. For one week in March, about 750 of these structures are assembled on the street for the enjoyment of the 790,000 citizens and the estimated one million+ tourists.
The festival culminates on the night of the Día de San José, the Day of Saint Joseph -the carpenter- when all of the incredible sculptures are set on fire and burned to smoldering piles of ashes in the street.
Now you might think it’s a waste of money, time, and resources. It may be. But it is an absolutely unbelievable experience. Even so, there’s much more to it than just that, which is what I knew about when I decided to come.
Since part of the reason that I had chosen Spain as my study abroad location was to come to this festival, I decided that it merited me staying over in Valencia to be there for the last two days. A friend and I got a cheap Airbnb in the city (if you want this, book in advance). I’m so glad I did.
Like on some of my past trips, my host mom packed some bocadillos (the Spanish version of a sub sandwich), crackers, and fruit for me so I didn’t have to buy much food. I wore my walking shoes, which is good because the whole city center is shut down to traffic for this festival so you really can’t take a bus or cab, even if you’re willing to spend the money.
We took a bus to Valencia, because that’s the cheapest way. And we took a 6:30 bus Monday morning, because that’s the cheapest bus. So I walked through a frigid and desolate Alicante at 6 am to get to the bus station, feeling like I was starring in a horror movie; the orange streetlight glow faded into the close darkness above and the silence was disturbed only by the unusually strong breeze making awnings flap into buildings, hinges creak, and the stray piece of litter scuttle across the concrete. Despite the Hollywood-induced goosebumps on my arms and walking into a parking garage entrance instead of the bus station beyond it, I made it onto the bus with 3 minutes to spare. I would have been comfortably early if it hadn’t been for the parking garage.
I flopped into a seat across from Sam. She had made a friend, a nice guy from Venezuela, and we talked for a bit before deciding to go to sleep.
I woke up at a stop in Benidorm, where three older ladies in hot pink jackets boarded the bus and paced up and down the aisles loudly trying to find the seats marked on their tickets. The 50-seater bus had 6 people on it, but dang those ladies were going to find the three that had their numbers in them. As luck would have it, those seats were in the row behind Sam and me where the nice Venezuelan guy was sitting. Gesticulating at the tiny seat numbers they’d found below the armrests, they communicated to him that one of the pair of seats he was sitting in was theirs. The next thing I saw he was squished between the window glass and a hot pink jacket encasing the loudest and least sensible of the three. When she’d finished prattling to her friends, she whirled on him. I don’t think she took a breath, and she definitely didn’t say hello before she nigh-on demanded his name, his age, and his origin. On hearing his nationality, she exclaimed (in Spanish, of course), “Oh isn’t the state of things in Venezuela deplorable!” and went on like she’d been aching to talk to someone about the atrocious state of his homeland for weeks. She exclaimed that what she didn’t understand is how la gente (the people), can be so educated these days but still stuck in the same bad conditions, insinuating that they were at fault for not rising up against the dictator before now. That’s when I quietly got up to go move to the back row of the bus.
Our friend handled himself very well. Honestly, he’s probably used to that reaction. He even waited till we made a ten-minute stop to politely excuse himself to find his assigned seat, now that they had so kindly shown us where the numbers were.
In the Valencia station, we bid our new friend farewell and made our way to our Airbnb. On the way, we saw our first fallas! They loomed up in front of us in random intersections as we walked, and if we saw one a few streets over, we took a detour to go see it.
We finally made it to the neighborhood where Google Maps placed the Airbnb, but was the first time I had ever used the site, so I didn’t realize that’s only an approximate location and the host is supposed to send you the exact address before the trip. But no worries, we eventually realized that, and messaged her. Luckily she answered quickly with the street address.
We then decided to go meet up with our friends in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (central plaza of the city) to go see the Mascletà. I didn’t really know what a mascletà was, but I was there to experience everything, right? The city was packed, and we weren’t able to make it into the Plaza. You definitely need to come a lot sooner than ten minutes before if you want to do that. However, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you try to get into the plaza. Aside from the crowd, a mascletà is a pyrotecnic spectacle that is very strongly based in sound; loud, fear for your hearing sound. Basically, the mascletà it’s like a net spread in a column down a street, surrounded by rockets. They light the fuse on one end and set off a chain reaction, fireworks shooting into the air and the explosions traveling for minutes from one end of the net to the other, building in speed and fervor until you can feel the pressure waves of sound rolling down onto your body. It builds to what I can only describe as a tsunami of sound, so palpable and defined that it’s almost visible.
Here’s a video of the mascletà I heard, but I was only able to see the very high fireworks that reached above the rooftops two blocks from the plaza. I plugged my ears. It did not diminish the experience, because not only could I still hear the sound, I could also feel it, so nothing was lost by protecting my hearing.
However, as I soon learned while walking around the city, protecting your hearing is harder than you might expect. Firecrackers are very popular, and it is the fondest diversion of teenagers to casually drop one with a flick of their wrist while walking, and wait for the shrieks from the other pedestrians when it explodes unexpectedly right in front of them. I became conditioned to stop walking and cover my ears when I detected a quiet hissing noise, which is the precursor to the bang. I’ll be honest, it was quite amusing at first, and got irritating by the afternoon of the second day. I would 100% go again, but I would bring earplugs.
Firecrackers are so accepted that three-year olds walk back and forth in the park carrying little wooden boxes sold for their enjoyment, their parents casually talking on a bench as the little ones take out the miniature explosive devices, pull the fuse, and toss them down (usually before they explode), then wait for the bang. I honestly don’t know how anyone in this city survives childhood with their hearing and their appendages intact. Apparently it’s considered quite safe, though, because everyone was completely at ease.
Fallas is not just a glorification of fire, though. It’s also a celebration of the traditional Valencian culture. First of all, everything is firmly expressed in the local language, Valencian, and notably left un-translated to Spain’s official Castilian. Over fifty thousand local women and girls don the traditional dress of Valencia, and forty-some thousand men and boys the traditional suit, to become falleras (pronounced fayeras) and falleros (pronounced fayeros) respectively (I got the numbers on the internet, so take them as you will. Either way, there were a lot of falleras). Long before Día de San Jose, a woman and a girl are chosen as the Falleras Mayores. With the mayor, these women preside over the festival, pronouncing ceremonies begun and ended. All the falleras walk in endless parades, carrying bouquets of flowers to la Ofrenda, the offering, in the square behind the Cathedral. There, the bouquets are tossed up to people hanging jauntily off of slatted structures, who place them one by one between the slats, top to bottom. After a full day and tens of thousands of bouquets, the plaza is full of flowers and structures made of them. However, the grand centerpiece is the city’s patroness, a version of the Virgin Mary called la Virgen de los Desamparados (Virgin of the Helpless, Innocents, or Forsaken) who stands stories high in the square holding baby Jesus, her robes made entirely of flowers.
After hearing the mascletà on Monday, we walked around, saw some fallas, came upon the fallera parade, and saw the ofrenda while it was still in construction. Along the way, we found some street performers called Green Gos (“Gos” means “dog” in Valencian, so Green Dog) who were rocking the drums. We stayed to watch for probably half an hour. At night, we hopped onto a tour with our friends from Alicante and walked (an inordinately long distance) to the winning Falla, which was far outside the city. It was very impressive, so valió la pena. It was worth it.
After the tour, we went to the Airbnb to eat dinner and rest. Then it was back out to see the firework display. The penultimate night is Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) the most elaborate firework display of the festival. The problem is, the fireworks didn’t start until 1:30 am. So beforehand we found a party in the street and joined up. It was my first time ever dancing in the streets, and I loved it. I think I was the only sober person there, aside from the bartenders. There was the occasional whiff of weed and stench of cigarette smoke, the occasional couple making out, and a lady next to us dancing in blissful intoxication, unaffected by the fact that she was inexplicably carrying a large black garbage bag over her shoulder (Still not really sure what that was all about, but if that’s your style, go for it). I didn’t have to be drunk to be enamored of the atmosphere of pure fun.
We eventually made our way to out of the street party to the fireworks, and were not disappointed. There were all the normal kinds: the ones that shriek, flash-bangs, the ones that explode in colors, gold corkscrews, the gold sparkles that sound like a sound inversion or static in the TV, fountains, and the red ones that shoot across like a giant garden sprinkler. Then there were some I’ve never seen before: ones that changed color halfway through after exploding, ones that hung in the sky for thirty seconds, and some where the gold seemed to rise back up after they had exploded, like a jellyfish. Here’s a video if you care to watch.
Afterwards, we didn’t want to give in yet, so we went back to the party in the street for at least an hour. We got back to the Airbnb at 4 am, and collapsed into sleep.
We woke up around 11 and leisurely packed up our things. We thought about going to the mascletà in the city center again (it happens every day in the early afternoon) but we didn’t want to rush, and it took a long time to walk there from where we were. Luckily for us, while strolling toward the city center, we came upon a mascletà net in the street. Come to find out, they happen all over the city on smaller scales. We didn’t know when it was going to start, but a crowd was gathering, so we figured we’d stay. It didn’t dawn on us what they were waiting for until the mascletà in the city center started at 2 pm and all heads turned to the sound that we couldn’t see, but heard loud and clear, rolling across the city to where we were, nearly two miles away. As the final echoes of that died away to the cheers of the crowd where we were, a man lit the fuse of the first rocket of this mascletà, and the excitement started all over again. This time we were close enough to see it, the explosions traveling back and forth, zigzagging closer and closer up the street, building in speed and force until its crescendo climaxed in a final burst of sound.
That afternoon, we met up with some friends in the Plaza de la Virgen, and saw the complete Ofrenda in all its glory. There were flowers everywhere, and other, smaller flower-covered sculptures as well.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets, looking for fallas. At one point, we found churros and chocolate. 😉 However, a few hours in, we seemed to have wandered into a falla-less part of the city. Instead we came upon what seemed to be a parade route. Sure enough, there was a parade scheduled called “Cabalgata del Fuego” (Procession of Fire) to start in an hour. We walked to a circular plaza which seemed to be the end of the route, and found a spot, then plopped down to eat our bocadillos and rest our aching feet.
In no time, night fell and the parade appeared, sporting varied and creative forms of fire. A fire breather, and then what appeared to be sparklers on steroids: sparklers on bicycles, parade floats, torches and huge wheels, people dressed like demons in red and black holding wands shrieking and throwing sparks in spirals, with which they ran in circles or at the quailing crowd, torches and huge wheels, gigantic dragons breathing the fire out of their mouths and through the steel form that made their bodies, and a guy who was very committed to his role as a wizard atop a dragon.
When that had run out, fireworks began from the island in the middle of the traffic circle. It was another impressive display, this time silhouetted by the buildings around the plaza. Here’s a video that sums it up if you’re interested.
After that we sat in the park. The Cremà (The Burning) of all the Fallas was set to start in only a few hours. While everyone who hadn’t eaten ate, I looked up the best fallas to see and plotted an optimal path between a bunch of them on Google Maps, ending in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, where the tallest Falla is set alight as the crowning achievement of the festival at 1 am.
We walked from falla to falla mostly following my map, occasionally discovering a representation of our president slipped in among the Spanish-based satire.
At 10pm, the burning of the small fallas started. We waited for a long time as some men wound a long brown cord with lumps on it around the falla. The streetlights went out. I thought they were just going to set it on fire. How silly of me. Instead, they sent fireworks up into the sliver of sky between the buildings, set fire to the end of the cord, and we all watched as fireworks traveled up the rope and finally exploded in fountains of light around and around the falla. And then it caught on fire.
On the upside, once the fire is started, there’s no need for crowd control, because the heat pushes outward in an expanding half sphere and the people naturally move back. The flames danced in an intense orange and yellow inferno. I thought of Mr. Hogan’s sophomore year literature class.
It was a pleasure to burn. . . It was good to burn.Ray Bradbury, *Fahrenheit 451*
After the outer layers of the statue had melted to ashes, and only its revealed supports slowly burned, we kept walking to see more of the big fallas. We saw a few more small ones smoldering, firemen standing by, and large ones being celebrated for the last few hours of their existence. The first big ones to go started around midnight, and we made it to one of the first near the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to watch it from afar. The process was the same, but bigger: fireworks into the air, sparkling explosions around the statue, and then flames silently climbing 6 stories in the air, above the buildings silhouetted around.
We were very far away from that one, though, so we went to one that was smaller, with a correspondingly sized crowd. Here, we had a front row seat to its demise.
Not to pat myself on the back, but due to my impeccable planning, we now found ourselves directly outside of Plaza del Ayuntamiento about a half an hour before 1 am. We could have stayed in the less congested street outside the plaza, but what fun is that? I will be at Fallas maybe only once in my lifetime. I was sure as heck going to have a good view. I led the charge, pulling my friends into a flow of people moving through the crowd much like a vein of lava moves through stone. Sometimes it gets blocked, but eventually pressure builds until it bursts through. We finally found a spot where we could see the enormous Ayuntamiento falla looming up ahead, and literally couldn’t penetrate the crowd of people to get any closer. We were shoulder to shoulder, pressed up against at least three random strangers at once. Then we just had to wait. While we waited something unbelievable happened. It began to rain.
We were gobsmacked. It does not rain in Valencia. Most of the Iberian peninsula is in a chronic drought. The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain! Everyone knows that. But as we stood in the thicket of people waiting to watch an epic bonfire, it rained. Lovely.
Some people in the crowd were more prepared than we were. Unfortunately, that was a bad thing, because the umbrellas went up and we could no longer see the falla. Buuuuttttt, luckily for us, there was still a little time. The rain lightened up most of the way, and I suppose everyone wanted to see, so as the spectacle approached people pulled down their umbrellas.
Finally, all the lights in the square shut off, and simultaneously the first round of fireworks exploded into the night. This fireworks display was very grand, impressive, and violent-sounding. I imagine it would sound about like that to be in a war zone. Then the explosions gave way to the hiss of sparklers at the foot of the falla and suddenly flames crackled hungrily up the structure. Eventually grand music began to play as the statue burned layer by layer. You can try to watch this video, but it can’t even capture it.
One thing that was incredibly impressive is how the statues were constructed to look cool while burning but also fall safely. As we watched the layers peel away and the shape morph and change, it was obvious how much engineering went into making sure that when pieces fell, they wouldn’t land on a person or building. Although, caveat, Kristen did take firework casing to the bridge of her nose at one point. She was bleeding. So be careful of falling debris. Nevertheless, the structures themselves were equally as impressive on fire as they were in the daylight.
We were catching the bus back to Alicante at 2:45 am, so we began to walk toward the bus station. Along the way, we stopped at two more burning fallas, and I marveled again at the intelligence of the design. When it had smoldered down to ash, we even got up the courage to ask a fireman for a picture. They’re the real heroes of the day: they stand by every falla with a hose, soaking trees, buildings, and banners to make sure the only thing on fire is the sculpture.
After three hours on a bus, I walked into my house at 6 am, frosted with ash, smelling of smoke, and hecha polvo, made into dust, as they say in Spain. I had class at 9:30 am. I didn’t even care. I went without a complaint. An hour of being tired in class was a pittance to pay for 48 of the most unforgettable hours of my life.
If you are ever in Spain in mid-March, go to Fallas. It’s a priceless experience. Just bring ear protection. 😉