March 16th to 20th, 2007
We came out of the dry plains surrounding Madrid to gentile hills and fertile valleys. It felt a lot like California, actually. The crops are varied, but much like the rest of the coast, the focus is definitely citrus. There is a reason why the Valencia orange bears this region’s name. The farms seem to be a mix of family businesses and full time industry. There are a number of charming old houses and buildings that let you know this area has been producing food for a very long time.
Arriving in Valencia, we piled out of the train to visions of more oranges – in decoration around the train station’s reliefs, as well as orange trees lining streets and public areas. The city seems a bit disjointed at times. The old city core has great buildings and interesting streets. But venture far enough away from that core and you run into soviet era style bland apartment blocks. The cranes seem to suggest they are building more of them.
Mixed in with this bland architecture, the city has a wonderful park running through the middle of it, following the path of the old river. Near the south end of the park they have a number of new and stylish museum buildings called La Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences). Off in the distance you can see the port cranes that have brought wealth to the city for a very long time. Though pricey, I thought the clear tunnels in L’Oceanografic were worth seeing.
We came to Valencia primarily for the Fallas festival. Wiki does a much better job than I would explaining it:
Fallas (in Spanish) or Falles (in Valencian) are a Valencian tradition which celebrates Saint Joseph’s Day (19 March) in Valencia, Spain. The term Fallas refers to both the celebration and the monuments created during the celebration. Each neighborhood of the city has an organized group of people, the Casal faller, that works all year long holding fundraising parties and dinners, usually featuring the famous specialty paella, and of course much music and laughter. Each casal faller produces a construction known as a falla which is eventually burnt. A casal faller is also known as a comisiÃ³n fallera. The name of the festival is thus the plural of falla.
Even then, it doesn’t really give you any sense of the scale of the event. It seems like everywhere you walk, you see a falla. Every local seems to be dressed up in traditional woven or gold threaded costumes and in a parade of some sort. When they aren’t doing that, the popular options seem to be a handkerchief around their necks or a blouse style shirt with the logo of their neighborhood. Once you have the outfit down, the only accessories you need are a smoldering rope in one hand, and a bag full of paper wrapped gunpowder in the other.
Everywhere in the city you will hear pops and booms, day and night. There are huge mascletÃ explosions during the day that shake your bones. Fireworks at night, and the ever present random bangs from people throwing firecrackers. The moment you relax for a second – BANG – one goes off beside you. This isn’t just kids either. Everyone gets in on the act. Surprisingly, everyone here seem to have all their fingers and hearing. I’ve got no idea how they manage it.
On the 17th and 18th each neighborhood takes turn dressing up, and marching with flowers to the virgin (Ofrenda a la Virgen de los Desamparados). There are two routes, and they are packed from about 4-10 pm for two days with different neighborhoods. The size of it all is staggering. The paper proclaimed 50,000 people in parade on one of the days, so I guess it would be 100k people in total from the different casals. Either way, that’s a pretty good turnout rate for the city. When they arrive at the virgin, they add their flowers to the creation, and leave a flower offering that some of the men have carried. By this time the kids have reached the end of their endurance and are starting to get a bit snarly.
The Fallas are wonderful, overwhelming, and at times, creepy. A few of the themes have writing in Valencian, so we weren’t able to get the full gist, but most were simple enough you didn’t need to read anything to figure them out. A few focused on local topics, like construction and politics. But there were more that picked country or worldwide topics like gay marriage, pollution, and fast food. They are all sculpted in a similar art style and color pallet, so the whole effort seems very coordinated. In fact, there is a whole section of the city that is dedicated to making fallas year round. I’m sure that even as they are constructing these, they are thinking about next year.
The last evening of Fallas started with the fire parade. We assumed it would be similar to the previous parades, with some torches thrown in the mix. The first few minutes of the parade were just that. But then we saw fireworks down the street, slowing moving towards us. A number of people dressed up in red overalls and hats were launching fireworks from sticks that they loaded new fireworks into. It is a good thing most of the buildings are glass and stone, because they were bouncing off the sides of buildings, patios, and roofs.
After that group came a number of different groups. All seemed to have different themes. Different costumes, props (like metal dragons), music, and pyrotechnics. They all put on a show that would have made an American fire chief run for the hills. The end result was some ember burns in our clothing, itchy eyes, and a lot of smiles.
After the fire parade, they start la cremÃ , the burning of the fallas. They start with the smaller children’s falla first, then the huge main ones. Each falla is packed with pyrotechnics, then ignited with a string of fire crackers. Fireworks go up, and the flames quickly curl around the falla producing intense heat and black smoke. The falla burns to its wood frame quickly once the fire starts. Besides the wood frame, most fallas these days are are built with polystyrene, rather than paper mache. This makes the structure much lighter and lets the builders be much more creative. But it also makes the flame much more intense, and packs the smoke full of toxins. Make sure you are standing upwind.
Many fallas are set up in street intersections. Some tower several stories, coming close to the six floor limit all of the buildings seem to follow. The intersections are not large, so with a large falla in the middle, the heat on people’s balconies around the falla must be quite intense. There are a few firemen on hand to hose down the buildings and other equipment near the fire, but generally they seem understaffed for the situation by North American standards. Considering they burn hundreds of these a year, I’d say they probably have it down to a science by now.
If you have a chance, the Mercado Central is worth a visit. This beautiful building of iron and glass houses everything you might have on your shopping list, and a whole lot you didn’t. The silk exchange next door is supposed to be amazing on the inside, but it was closed every time we wandered by.
We all really enjoyed our time in Valencia, and the fallas festival. I highly recommend going. Just make sure you book your hotel in advance, and bring ear plugs.