“Here’s your ticket pack your bag
Time for jumpin’ overboard
The transportation is here
Close enough but not too far,
Maybe you know where you are
Fightin’ fire with fire”
I don’t really understand why Las Fallas isn’t more well-known in the States. Maybe it’s because it falls in March outside of the typical summer tourist season. Maybe Valencia isn’t top of mind for most Americans in terms of a place to visit (a big mistake in my opinion… I LOVED this city!). Whatever the reason, most of my friends back at home had never heard of this festival. Until I cancelled my trip to South Africa, I hadn’t heard of it either. I guess things work out for the best sometimes because this was a yet another once-in-a-lifetime experience.
What Is Las Fallas?
Las Fallas is technically a 5-day festival in mid-March; however, the festivities really start at the beginning of the month. The term “Fallas” (or Falles) is a reference both to the name of the festival as well as the name of the vast structures that are built and ultimately burnt. Each neighborhood rallies together throughout the year to raise money to build their Falla for the festival in March. The are roughly 400 neighborhood associations registered throughout the city. The festival has some religious connections to St. Joseph but there are others who suggest that the fires started as each neighborhood engaged in a spring cleaning of sorts. Like many other holidays and traditions, Las Fallas has clearly taken on a life of its own.
The best thing about this festival is the wide range of events happening all over the city each day. While each neighborhood follows some basic guidelines in terms of what to do, they still have a huge amount of freedom to set up their own festivities as they want. As a tourist, it’s great to walk around to see how each neighborhood celebrates differently. There is music, dancing, food, all kinds of contests and exhibitions, and of course loads and loads of fireworks. The downside to all this action is that with 400 distinct neighborhoods in the city, you can’t possibly see everything. In my opinion, it’d be best to come a few days before the festival and pick a few neighborhoods that you like and try to immerse yourself there as much as possible. Of course, like any other big city, some neighborhoods are bigger and more popular than others. It’s up to you to decide what kind of experience you want to have. So, even though I didn’t see everything, here’s the highlight reel of what I did see:
Starting at the beginning of the month, the city puts on a fireworks show at 2pm every day in the main city square. Fireworks during the day? As you can imagine, there wasn’t much to see here but that’s not what these fireworks are all about. These fireworks are all about sound… and they were thunderous! What was especially fun about this is that even in the weeks leading up to the festival, people would line up for an hour or two and wait for a show that only lasts about 5 minutes. It’s a festive atmosphere and adds a vibrancy to the city as you can hear La Mascleta from miles away. Additionally, while the city puts on La Mascleta in the main city square (Plaza de Ayuntamiento), many neighborhoods will have their own mascleta at some point during the festival. The city is booming for days!!
Here are a couple of short videos I shot so you can get a sense of what this is like. Both are less than a minute and both are awesome!!
Before the Festival started, they did a practice run of the grand finale. I was lucky enough to stumble upon it on my 2nd day in Valencia.
I cut this next one down to 47 seconds but turn up the volume as loud as you can and make sure you watch it until the very end. It’s the best way I can show you how the sound feels.
Fireworks! All day, every day! (and some spectacular light shows too)
Although I think everyone should try to go to Las Fallas, if you’re not particular comfortable with fireworks, loud noises, and big crowds, this may not be the best experience for you. In addition to the daily Mascleta, the city also puts on several fireworks shows during the festival. The two biggest shows are at midnight on the 17th and at 1:30am(!) on the 18th. As fun as these shows were, the best part of these events is the festive atmosphere in the streets as people wait for the shows to begin. I won’t bother posting pictures or videos of fireworks because fireworks are never as cool after the fact, but needless to say, Valencia did their fireworks right!
Individual neighborhoods also have fireworks shows though it’s hard to know when exactly these will occur without some local knowledge. Anyway, there are plenty of fireworks throughout the week so you won’t ever feel like you missed out on anything. Plus, some neighborhoods have really extensive light shows that are choreographed to music. Any chance to overwhelm the senses is taken full advantage during this week in Valencia!
Where the fireworks get crazy is on the streets. It seems like every person, both young and old, is carrying around a little wooden box of fireworks. This box isn’t just filled with little poppers and sparklers; it includes some pretty intense fireworks that flare, project, ignite, launch, and boom. People light these things throughout the day and just throw them around so it’s not uncommon to be minding your own business and suddenly a deafening boom goes off 5 feet behind you. Your ears will ring and you’ll jump out of your shoes but everyone is having a great time with it.
I don’t really understand how/why more people don’t get hurt during the week but it’s completely socially acceptable to do this and, in fact, I would even go so far as to argue that it contributes to a more festive atmosphere. Even kids are left on their own to play with their box of explosive goodies while the adults are having a drink on their own. The constant booms admittedly take a bit of getting used (especially coming from the land of the 2nd Amendment) but it really is a lot of fun.
While the fires and the fireworks get the majority of the attention, there is another event that involves no fire and is every bit as spectacular. It’s called La Ofrenda (the offering). While this may just seem like a festival of fire, Las Fallas is quite a spiritual event. Nothing epitomizes that more than La Ofrenda where people from all the different neighborhoods in and around Valencia come over two days to bring flowers as an offering to their Lady of the Forsaken.
Cabalgata del Foc (Parade of Fire)
At 7pm on the last night, there is one final event before all of Las Fallas get burned to the ground. It’s called Cabalgata del Foc (“parade of fire”). I’ve never seen anything like it before but it has me thinking that everyone else has been doing parades all wrong. The event is supposed to be a ceremonial opening for the fires to come and it certainly sets the tone for the night! Here’s two short clips of what a “Parade of Fire” looks like.
Starting at 11pm, the main event begins with the burning of some of Las Fallas Infantiles, smaller Fallas for the kids. In theory, each neighborhood does this at the same time so you have to pick your location carefully. Of course, not everyone is right on schedule so it’s possible to walk (jog) from one block to another and see another fire. I was able to see three of these smaller fires before I made my way to the area where one of the larger Fallas was.
Between 11pm and 1am, there are literally hundreds of fires throughout the city and the firefighters are at each location ensuring the safety of all the onlookers. It’s actually quite remarkable and there is great appreciation amongst the locals for the firefighters and the work they do on what must be an incredibly stressful night.
Finally, at 1am, they burn down the main Falla in the city square. It’s a large square but there are thousands and thousands of people trying to get a view of the fireworks show and the final burning so the side streets are also all packed with people. As you can imagine, the show was impressive but I made the unfortunate choice to go down the city street that was directly downwind from the fire. It was actually a bit scary as burning embers started raining down on the entire block. The city and the firefighters were absolutely first class during the festival but they can’t control the elements and though they do their best to control the fire, there’s not much they can do if the winds pick up.
Anyway, it ended up being ok though some people got a few small burns on their skin. My jacket was burnt and I think I got a few hairs singed but thankfully I avoided anything worse. I put together the following this short video so you can see the progression of these large Fallas going down. As you’re watching this, remember that each Falla basically sits in the middle of a normal city intersection. Imagine something like this in your neighborhood at home!
I hope these photos and videos have you convinced that you need to check out this festival. It is really a completely unique experience that you won’t soon forget. Plus, Valencia is a completely underrated Spanish city so it’s good to spend some time here regardless. My advice: Put it on your bucket list!!