Thursday, September 18, 2014

Las Fallas de Valencia, Spain; March 17 - 20

I love festivals and Europe has plenty of them. Last year when our friend Dave enthusiastically recapped his experience at the Las Falles festival in Valencia, I was immediately intrigued. He told us about amazing statues that the locals light on fire in the middle of streets packed with spectators and the amazing firework shows at night. I had not heard of Las Falles before. Most websites highlighted the statue burnings on March 19th but showed little about the rest of the festival. We took a leap of faith and planned a 3.5 day trip to Valencia with our friend Peter. In the end, we couldn't have been happier about our decision.

Las Falles is Valancia's largest festival commemorating Saint Joseph. It takes place the week before March 20th, the official start of spring. The festival is famous for its final night of flammable statue burning throughout the city, but it has much more than that, especially during the two days leading up to the burning.

Here's a video provided by Museum of Las Fallas explaining more about the festival.

We flew into Barcelona from Zürich, stopping for a quick lunch break, before heading down the coast by train to Valencia. We arrived at a relatively quiet city. It does not have a party atmosphere like other popular festivals like Pamplona's Running of the Bulls. I started questioning our decision of coming to this festival. But within a few blocks' walk our decision was reassured when we spotted of sculptures, many people, and traditionally dressed Valencians.
A lunch stop in Barcelona for seafood Paella and sangria.
Falla sculpture about the Tomato Fight which takes place in a neighboring town.
I was already amazed with the craftsmanship.

As we got closer to our AirBnB apartment, the crowds thickened. Once we battled through crowds with our bags on cobblestone streets, cut across a parade, and lost ourselves a bit in the narrow streets, we eventually found the apartment in the center of town blocks away from the old cathedral square.
Looks like we can't pass through this part of the parade.

After dropping off our bags at the apartment, we were free to start exploring the city and grab a bite to eat before the evening's fireworks  show. Every restaurant seemed to have tables spilling out on to the narrow streets and many of the intersections or squares hosted a Falla sculpture - a feast for the stomach and eyes.
A common scene throughout the old town.
One of my favorite Falla statues. About 3 stories tall.
The Fallas take a satiric jab at public figures and on current issues.
Most Fallas are accompanied with explanations written in the local dialect.
We really enjoyed viewing the artistic craftsmanship, despite not fully understanding the message behind some of the Fallas.

During the four nights leading up to March 19th, Valencia hosts an elaborate firework show in the central park, Paseo de la Alameda, at 1:30AM or 2AM. We caught the third night's firework display - which blew our minds. Peter mentioned how the fireworks halfway through the show matched a typical event's grand finale. We were flabbergasted when the actual grand finale did come.
A teaser of what to expect halfway through the show.

We learned the hard way that each morning starting at 8AM a brass band marches down each street for a morning wake up call called La Despertà. This is followed by the Casal faller setting off firecrackers on the streets. I swore I was having a nightmare when I heard them the first morning - ugh. I thought Spaniards liked to sleep in.

When we actually did roll out of bed, our lazy morning started just in time to grab a coffee and pastry on our way to the 2PM firework show called La Mascleta. That's right - afternoon fireworks. Unlike evening firework shows, which are meant to be seen, this show is intended to be heard and felt through vibrations. In each show at Plaza del Ayuntamiento, firecrackers and fireworks are strung up behind a fenced courtyard by a Casal faller group, creating a unique show of pyrotechnics. The grand finale of every show involves hundreds of explosives simultaneously going off creating a terremoto - earthquake. This event takes place multiple times until March 19th and  smaller shows take place throughout the city.

We secured our spot 25 meters from the fenced off network of explosives. We could feel the explosions inside our bodies and ringing in ours ears.  Puffs of color from each firework filled the sky eventually turning it a grayish pink blocking the sun. Especially since this was our first time watching a daytime firework show, we were caught off-guard about how intense it felt.
Peter is ready to party - I mean, he's ready for the show.
City Hall's Falla with one of the first explosives going off just beyond.
The sky behind city hall is quickly disappearing.
Eventually the smoke completely blocked the sky and sun around the statue.

Later in the afternoon, we once again stumbled upon the parade, now with more time to appreciate it. The parade is called Ofrenda de Flores a la Virgen de los Desamparados and takes place on the 17th and 18th from 4PM until 1AM. Falleras families from all over Valencia State parade together along with their local traditional marching band to the city square, Plaza de la Virgen. The women present an offering of a bouquet of carnations to the Virgin. Flowers are gathered and used to create a large statue of the Virgin. Unlike the Fallas statues, the Virgin does not share the same fiery fate.
Traditional hairstyle worn by every lady...
even the smallest of ladies.
All generations come out for the event...
deep into the night.
To accompany the parade: chocolate-dipped cream-filled churros.

Not too far off the city center is Museum of Las Fallas. Each year, two ninots (small Fallas statues) are elected by popular vote to be saved from the burnings and displayed here. The museum is open year round displaying ninots and posters from the last century. Works are presented in chronological order giving visitors a glimpse of how the style progressed.
One of the many rooms of this simple museum.
Worth the time and nominal fee to check out.
Display on the construction of the paper-mâché ninots.
This one deserves a closer look

To no surprise, a lot of our free time was spent aimlessly wandering the streets snapping photos of Fallas. There are supposed to be more then 700 Fallas sculptures throughout the city. Many Casal falles set up tents adjacent to their sculptures selling drinks, creating a mini party that sometimes carries on late into the night.
The City Hall's Falla produced by the children's group
The Fallas took on dramatic energy as night fell.
Many of the ninots were life size and could only be viewed from behind waist high fences.
This particular Falla allowed visitors to actually walk up to it.

Valencia really kept us on our toes. We were always either dodging kids setting off firecrackers on the streets or trying to figure out what we could find around the next corner. After snapping a few pictures at one Fallas statue, we started to walk away when suddenly the street lights went out. We thought for sure one of the kids setting of firecrackers must have blown the city block electrical wires. But we were wrong. Without warning, fireworks started going off in the narrow street right behind us.
Almost scared the pants off of us.
Questioning the Valencian sanity.

Later we stumbled across a court yard playing swing music with a few dozen swing dancers. Even though we had been on our feet all day, we found the energy to swing out.
And now for some real rest over a long dinner. Cheers!

We didn't stick around long for the last night's firework show. The streets surrounding the central park were too crowded to see much. This was one of the many times we were glad we arrived a few days before the vast majority of the visitors. Instead we walked around the city, chowed down festival food, checked out the street graffiti art and more Falla statues - I'm sure you're shocked with that last one. We also found a lively Casal Falles tent and joined their party. We bought a couple drink tickets and hung out with the locals listening to the DJ.
Valancia has a seemingly never ending supply of Fallas to admire.
Valencians are also artistic in other mediums.
Fresh doughnuts.
Sleep is overrated when fried goodness with chocolate dipping sauce is available.

With each passing day, getting out of bed became harder and harder, especially for Peter who was still recovering from jet lag. The 8AM walk up call didn't make things any easier. Q and I made it out to the day time firework show again - along with the rest of southern Spain. We were shocked by the number of people trying to get into the square - and later trying to get out of the square. Even though a different group put on the show, it was pretty much the same as the day before, just as impressive and loud.
 A small sample of what the show is like

We were pleasantly surprised that most tourists were Spaniards.

Walking around afterwards, we realized the two day creation of the floral Virgin statue was finished and spectators were allowed to have a close-up view and pay their respects.
"Close-up" being a generous word considering the crowds
Impressed or wishing he had slept in?
Thankful for no pollen allergies.

Since the city was now incredibly crowded, we stuck close to our apartment for lunch - which turned out to be our favorite meal. We settled into an outdoor table of a small restaurant on a narrow alley serving a delicious set menu accompanied with sangria. We must have been there for hours enjoying Valencia style paella (using chicken, rabbit, and beans) and indulging on numerous pitchers of sangria.
Our apartment just to the left of the fork and our favorite lunch spot just to the right.
Our favorite meal in Valencia

We spent most of the early evening walking around the city searching for the street light display with no luck. Eventually we gave up and picked a spot close to the end of the fire parade route at Cabalgata del Fuego. This was one of the most unique parades we had ever seen with a grand finale of fireworks at the end point.
We weren't sure what to expect but this wasn't it.
The parade turned out to have lots of people... with fireworks...
and a few parade floats.... with fireworks.

After two full days on our feet, we were pretty burned out and more than happy to park our butts at an outdoor restaurant table where we filled up on tapas and local wine. Considering all the wondering we did, it felt like we didn't have enough time or energy to see everything. The festival ended up being larger than we had anticipated.
Found a perfect place to people watch in Plaza de Doctor Collado and re-energize for the long night.

We had already picked out a few Fallas that we were interested in seeing burned; all close to each other in the old town. Not all statues are burned at once. Burnings are staggered, allowing firefighters time to get to react. It also gives us an opportunity to watch multiple burnings. After getting some tips from the local Casal Falles, we made a rough schedule of which order Falla burnings we would be able to witness.

The first Fallas to be burned are the children's, starting at 10AM. Statues are soaked with gasoline and wrapped in a network of firecrackers. After a short ceremony, fireworks are set off and the children's Fallas are ignited. Within 30 minutes, a year of hard work is gone, making room for the cycle to start again.
Ceremonial lighting for the Fallera children.
But before we light the Falla - you guessed it - fireworks.
The children watch until there is nothing left of their creation.

At midnight the larger Fallas start igniting. Fireworks can be heard from  the distance signifying the start of another burning, which constantly reminded me of how large this festival was. We got lucky and our first burning was unforgettable. The gasoline-soaked statue quickly ignited sending out a wave a heat, forcing spectators to step back. The whole experience was intense.
Setting up the string of firecrackers around the Falla
It begins with fieworks.

Letting it crash and burn to the ground.

We were able to watch two more smaller burnings before catching the grand finale, the Crema. As great as watching the Crema burn, we enjoyed watching the smaller Fallas burn in the narrow streets much more. We felt more connected with the Casal Falles groups; watching the group ignite the Falla and then watching their reactions as their creations disappeared.
Spectators and firemen ready

Here we waited for the third burning of the night. Since no one knows just exactly how the fire will take down this statue, a larger area was cleared for the burning.
Setting up this smaller burning.
"Smaller" being around 30 feet high.
Falleros admiring their creation one last time.
And the crowd goes wild.
Burned down to the structure.

And finally, the Crema. The crowd was so dense that we couldn't get close to the burning. In fact, we were lucky to even get into Plaza del Mercado where the Falla was set up.
Entering the plaza to see this massive sculpture and crowd
A little midnight snack before the finial fire.
Even if you're too short to see the burning, you can watch it later on your phone.
The enormous fire sent flaming ashes into the crowds

The next morning we set out by train to Barcelona, where we caught our flight back to Zürich. Most of the fire debris was cleaned up during the night and Valencia had already fallen back into the rhythm of a normal Thursday.

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