Las Fallas: 48 Hours in Valencia
Firecrackers, ninots and un poco de marcha. With the help of Tacho and friends, I embark on a journey to discover my inner Spaniard… or rather, my inner Valencian.
Less than 2 weeks ago, I was invited by my good friend Tacho to spend a few days in Valencia to see Las Fallas, an extraordinary festival which was recently touted as one of the 8 best parties on the planet. We went as a large contingent of 12 people, with 2 born-and-bred Valencianos – Tacho and Carolina – to lead the way. It didn’t matter that a number of us (including myself) had an important deadline the following week; all thoughts of university work evaporated when we touched down in Spain.
The minute we left the airport it became evident that something very special was going on. On the metro into town we spotted some falleras in their traditional dress – and what a sight they were! I would have taken some photos of them, but seeing as most of our troupe were obviously not Spanish (and the fact that we were on a metro), I decided that it probably wasn’t the best idea.
When the train got closer to the city centre the carriage filled with people and the route to the nearest door practically disappeared. It felt like rush hour but somehow you could sense that most people were going in to enjoy the night-time festivities. As we reached our destination Tacho gave us a valuable piece of advice: “Don’t be all British and polite… in Spain, you just push.”
Inwardly I was beaming because I missed jostling my way through the crowds back home. And what fun it would be to do it with our suitcases! When the train came to a halt, a narrow route magically appeared out of nowhere and we got off with a barrage of perdón and lo siento. As we emerged from Alameda station we could smell the gunpowder in the air. “Oh my gosh, this smells just like home!” I exclaimed. And it did – it was the same familiar scent that came with each fireworks display at Chinese New Year.
We climbed the ramp to the top of the old river embankment, and I took a moment to look around at the buildings and glowing street lamps. Valencia was just as beautiful as I remembered, except that this time the scene was accompanied by the sound of exploding firecrackers. It was glorious – you could instantly tell that this city was effervescent and full of life.
It took some time to find our rented apartment, but after settling in and a quick trip to the supermarket, it was time to have dinner at a nearby restaurant. Including some of Carolina’s school friends, there were 16 of us to a table in a large tent outside the main establishment.
Before we sat down Tacho interjected: “Okay, Spanish speakers on this end, English speakers over there, and those learning Spanish can go in the middle.” I decided to take a risk and jump in the deep end after my 5 months of Spanish classes – so I sat right at the Spanish end, surrounded by native Valencianos. After about 10 minutes the cultural differences became apparent: while the British end was packed with quietness and reserve, the Spanish end was boisterous, loud and animated, and soon we were all leaning over each other like long-lost friends.
For our dinner Tacho had ordered a vast array of bocadillos – think tapas in baguette form – with different combinations of meat, cheese and the very Valencian pa amb tomàquet (literally “bread with tomato”). As the dishes were passed down the table one particular bocadillo caught my eye. It was laden with small slices of beautifully cut pork, but I knew from experience that it wasn’t jamón.
“¿Qué es esto?” I asked Arturo, who was sat directly opposite.
“Ah, no he comido nunca.” – I have never had it before.
“Spanish people would take a piece and eat it just like that.” Then he started to make movements with his eyebrows. So I gingerly took a piece from the edge of the bocadillo and put it to my mouth. He smiled. “No lo he visto.” – I didn’t see it. And neither did the rest of the table, for they were too preoccupied with their ensalada rusas, chorizos,and cervezas.
Once we divided up the bocadillos and placed them on our individual plates, Carolina turned to me, smiling, and gestured towards her friends. “Here in Spain we are very possessive of our food… so you are in the right place.” I took a spoonful of ensalada rusa and laughed. “I’m not surprised, it’s the same back in Hong Kong!”
By the time we finished our meal it was nearly midnight. After paying the bill, we headed back to the apartment for a few drinks. An hour passed lazily by as we chatted around plastic cups of homemade cocktails and caramel liquor. I made some new friends and we talked about our varied backgrounds. Shortly before the fireworks display at 1:00 am, Tacho asked, “Who wants to see the castillos from the street?” No one seemed interested because the apartment had a generous balcony and it was somewhat chilly outside. “I do,” I replied. “If you go now you will still have a few minutes to make it before it starts.” Arturo began to put on his coat. “I’ll take him.”
At the building’s front entrance, we joined the crowds strolling down the avenue toward the Turia. I loved the fact that it was so late but the streets were still thronging with people – it was something of an experience to be part of that human flux. Eventually we reached a large open intersection as the fireworks were just beginning.
“Is this a good place?” Arturo asked.
“Yes, yes it is. We can watch it from here.”
In a scene reminiscent of Chinese New Year, the entire crowd stood still and gazed upwards at the unfolding kaleidoscope of colours. As I took in the sounds of the explosions, feeling the force of the compressed air against my bare skin, I closed my eyes and instantly I was home. Suddenly I was no longer a visitor in a foreign land – in that moment I became one with the crowd around me. In that moment they became my people, my family. It was a moving experience that I cannot put easily into words.
When the fireworks finally ended the whole crowd erupted in a rapture of applause. On the bridge nearby a few firecrackers were set off by groups of young people – instinctively I knew this meant that an after-party was now under way. As we strolled back towards the apartment, Arturo pointed out a scene that could only be typically Spanish:
“Mira, look at those kids in pushchairs, it’s almost 2:00 am and they’re still wide awake!!”
My jaw dropped. “¡Qué fuerte!” I cried. “¡¡Qué fuerte!!”
Once we made it back indoors, it became clear that everyone was preparing to go for botellón. With our drinks in hand, we left the apartment and walked around some of the nearby fallas. A falla is a giant, beautifully decorated sculpture made of cardboard and papier-mâché which is placed in the street for the duration of the festival, until the last night when it is lit as a giant bonfire. They are often designed according to a satirical theme, and are also symbols of pride as each participating street or neighbourhood competes to see if their falla can win 1st prize.
Eventually we made our way into the centre of town, towards a small square with a tent. Inside the tent was a free dance party headed by a couple of DJs. Needless to say, we ended up dancing until they played the last song at 4:00.
The next day we arrived in the Plaça de l’Ajuntament (town square) an hour and a half before the Mascletà, a uniquely Valencian pyrotechnic display of firecracker and fireworks barrages that is a highlight of Las Fallas. It occurs every day at 2pm from the 1st of March until the 19th, the last day of the festival. Thanks to Tacho we managed to get spaces in the 2nd and 3rd rows from the front.
Before we knew it, we heard the cry of the fallera mayor from the balcony of the city hall. “Senyor pirotècnic, pot començar la mascletà!” – Mr. Pyrotechnic, you may commence the Mascletà! The crowd cheered. And then it began. BOOM!! BOOM BOOM BOOM!! We stood awestruck as exploding firecrackers filled the sky above the square.
To our delight, it seemed to last longer than the 4 minutes it was supposed to have been. Once the final barrage had gone off, Tacho and the rest of the front row pushed the barriers out and we ran clapping towards the middle of the square. Senyor pirotècnic emerged from the smoke, raised his arms and we cheered.
When it was all over we began an epic journey on foot to see the big prize-winning fallas around town. After walking for hours our only break was a late lunch at the apartment followed by another trip to the supermarket.
Just after nightfall we ventured back into the city centre, where we found my favourite falla, which won 3rd prize. Titled “Crisis, what crisis?”, it was a caricature of the world’s spending habits in the months leading up to the global financial meltdown. Along with a fat cat banker seated in his plush armchair, two decadent women smoked cigarettes in long holders – à la Audrey Hepburn – while the smoke rose in distinctive dollar, euro and pound signs. Then there was a whole host of other figures doing different things around them, including Valencia’s own mayor “La Rita”, who was dancing on giant coins with another Spanish official. And around the back were satires of key heads of state in various stages of economic trouble.
Like the fallas, there was a competition to see which street could have the best night-time decorations, and that night we walked the illuminated streets that won 1st and 2nd prize. For me it was strangely comforting to wander through the masses of people – I could instantly draw a parallel with the hustle and bustle of the night markets back home.
Eventually, when it got to 11pm, we all decided that we only had enough energy to see one more falla or particular place before heading back to the apartment for some food and rest. On Tacho’s initiative we chose to finish our night-time walking tour with the Plaza de la Virgen, located deep within the historic heart of the city.
Over the past two days falleras and falleros in their traditional clothing had been walking in a procession from their respective neighbourhoods towards the plaza, where they would offer flowers to the enormous statue of the Virgin Mary, which is erected especially for the festival. These flowers would then be prepared and used to construct the dress of the Virgin, which is kept a secret until it is finished in its entirety.
As we limped past the Marble Palace, Tacho turned round and inquired about the state of my well-being.
“Cómo estás?” He asked.
“I’m ok, but my feet are really tired.”
“Well, think of it as your own march to the Virgin.”
We walked down a number of narrow streets, turned a corner, and suddenly there we were, at the edge of the Plaza de la Virgen. And a short distance in front of us was the statue of the Virgin herself, with her colossal dress of flowers. I had seen it being made on television back at the apartment, but nothing had prepared me for seeing the real thing – it was spectacular.
While the main group stayed somewhere near the back of the statue, a few of us tried to get as close as we could to the front. It looked as though the falleros were putting on the finishing touches to the bottom of the dress, but people were still streaming in with their floral offerings. I would have happily stayed there a bit longer, but everyone was tired and hungry and we had to have dinner before the big fireworks at 1:30.
After what seemed like a good half hour walking on sore feet, we managed to get taxis back to the apartment. Ever full of energy, the Spaniards proceeded to begin cooking up dinner in the kitchen while we collapsed onto the sofas. Eventually the food was served at around 1:00 am – a beautiful salad with cubes of fresh cheese for first course, and a delicious tuna pasta bake for mains. I finished mine just in time for La Nit del Foc – “The Night of Fire”, the biggest fireworks display of the festival.
I stood on the balcony observing the masses of people in the streets below; they were all streaming towards an already heaving crowd on the banks of the old Turia. It was an incredible sight because they just kept coming and coming as though some metaphorical floodgate had opened up to release a deluge of people.
That night, so many fireworks went off that the sky was soon enveloped in a thick cloud of smoke. I could not help drawing yet another parallel with home because that’s exactly what happens at Chinese New Year whenever there isn’t enough wind to clear the smoke. Halfway through the Valencianos returned to their dinner but I remained on the balcony, entranced by the illuminated cloud and the visible fireworks.
A few minutes after the end of La Nit del Foc, Tacho approached me with drink in hand. “How do you feel about un poco de marcha – a little bit of nightlife – after the fireworks?”
I hesitated for a moment, remembering my exhausted feet. “Yes, but I don’t think I could last for much more than an hour… maybe an hour and a half at the most.”
As it happens we ended up staying out in a street party until 5 in the morning. The after-party continued in the apartment’s living room, where we sat around the coffee table finishing up the leftovers from dinner. By the time I got into bed the sun was up and firecrackers were already going off in the streets below, probably in anticipation of la despertà – the festival’s daily wake-up call. I couldn’t believe I had to leave Valencia in barely 12 hours’ time.
After no more than 3 hours’ sleep, and a very lazy morning with a bowl of chocolate cereal for breakfast, we ventured out into town to see the falla that won 1st prize. Tacho was already at the front row of Mascletà, but we were walking into town just as it was happening – it was just as amazing to hear it from a distance. And it seemed as though each neighbourhood was holding its own Mascletà because the firecrackers were going off all around us. Clouds of white smoke rose into the air and the ground was shaking from all the explosions. I absolutely loved it.
When we did get to the 1st prize falla we were impressed, but the crowds around it were such that we could not even get close. 3rd prize was still my favourite and this one was nowhere near knocking it off the podium. On the way there I bought a few churros chocolates and a porra from a street stall; it was a wonderful substitute for lunch.
Afterwards we split up into smaller groups and strolled through town, stopping for a drink of horchata de chufa – a famous local speciality – at the Horchatería Santa Catalina, an establishment which had been there for more than 200 years. Horchata (spelt orxata in Valencian) is a refreshing drink made of pressed tiger nuts, water and sugar. If you like sweet soy milk you will like this too – they have an uncanny resemblance to each other.
Once we finished our horchatas it was time to head back to the flat to pack for our flight. I began to sense the overwhelming sadness that was also present on my last day in Valencia the previous summer. Reluctantly we walked home, packed up our suitcases and shuffled onto the metro en route to the airport.
As the plane taxied down the tarmac towards the runway, I closed my eyes and re-lived that moment under the fireworks on the first night. Then I looked out the window and saw the illuminated lettering above the airport terminal. V-A-L-E-N-C-I-A, it said. With the noise of the engine beneath me, I made myself a promise that I would one day return – not just as an everyday tourist but perhaps as something more.