Here in the Valencian Community of Spain, we’re in the midst of the 2017 Fallas in Valencia – one of the biggest, and most unusual, festivals in Spain. We have to admit, that as crazy of a festival as it seems at first, we now find ourselves loving it and carried away with the locals by its spirit. How do we help you understand what Fallas is all about? For starters, think fantasy and fire – lots and lots of fire! Ok, with that in mind, here’s our own Falla that Eric drew, to show you what Fallas in Valencia is all about.
Know the Lingo for Fallas in Valencia
First, let’s get the ‘lingo’ down with the help of Javier, our friend at the Denia Office of Innovation and Creativity. He recently filled us in on the vocabulary for the Fallas Festival:
One word (Falla) can have three meanings:
(1) Falla > the monument, all the figures as one construction
(2) Falla > the group, the association of members
(3) Fallas > usually in plural, the festival: “Fallas”
Each figure/statue in the monument is known as ninot, so the figures (ninots) all together form a falla (the monument) (1)
“Iremos a ver las fallas durante las fallas”.
“We are visiting the fallas (monuments) during the fallas (the festival)”.
Also note that the Valencian spelling is Falles, versus Fallas which is Castilian (or Spanish as spoken here in Spain). We’re going to use the more commonly spelled Fallas for the purpose of this post.
Confused yet? Don’t be! You’ll start to get the hang of it once you see it and put some ‘faces’ to everything. Let’s enter the world of the Fallas.
The People at the Fallas in Valencia
A festival isn’t any fun if you don’t have people, and in this case, it’s the wonderful, friendly Valencians who are at the heart of it all. Fallas in Valencia brings out Valencians in droves! And we’re talking adults and children alike. When you aren’t witnessing the adults allowing kids to throw firecrackers precariously around (laughing at them as if it’s the cutest thing in the world), it’s because they’re joining them.
The local Valencians work on their beloved Fallas all year round, so it’s not only these couple of weeks of March that you finally see them come out and party it up with their Fallas; you may see them at other times of the year as well, eating paella together, going to events and, of course, working on their Falla.
Fallas in Valencia and the Casals
When you get a lot of people working together on a project of this scale, you’re bound to get some good old societies and groups that form. They’re also referred to as associations. For the Fallas, these groups are called ‘casals’ and are based on the different neighborhoods in Valencia. They have a place in their neighborhood where they meet, called the ‘casal fallero, and the casal organizes and manages year-round the raising of funds for, and designing and building of, the Fallas for their casal. They also have a president they elect, budgets to approve, and events they attend. Throughout the year they have several dinners along with meetings that relate to this. Another great reason to get together and eat and drink well, Spanish-style.
The Falleras & Falleros of Fallas in Valencia
Then there’s the Falleras and Falleros, the women and men of each association (or casal) who represent in their traditional old-world costumes. The true stars though are the women (Falleras) and the Fallera Mayor who is democratically selected each year. While the role may resemble a pageant queen, it’s way cooler than that. Her ‘reign’ is for one year, during which she attends events related to the Fallas and it’s like a profession and a full-time commitment during that time. Even the other Falleras have commitments and roles they fill throughout the year and not just during Fallas in March.
There’s also the Fallera Infantil, the young girl who represents the children Falleras and Falleros. Each ‘casal’ or neighborhood association, has selects their own Fallera Mayor and Fallera Infantil to then represent them and have the chance of being elected as the main ones for the entire Fallas.
The Falleros of course accompany the Falleras and many times, when walking around Valencia during Fallas, you can come upon groups of them doing the traditional, old dances. Their gowns and outfits are amazing, very elaborate, and the hair pieces of the Falleras are especially incredible. And come on, let’s be honest, they really do look like Princess Leia buns from Star Wars, but we think even prettier.
Creators of the Fallas in Valencia
We think one of the coolest design and creative jobs in Spain has got to be designing the Fallas themselves. These are artists and designers who get to imagine with their local casal the way they want to portray that year’s theme. Then with their group of artists, they get to work putting those ideas to drawings and then bringing them to life with the builders. First, smaller models are constructed and then the larger ones are finally made to bring the whole scene to life on a larger-than-life scale. It takes quite the team.
Can't Have Fallas in Valencia without Valencia!
Keep in mind that the “Fallas” take place in the city of Valencia (that’s where the biggest, main one is), but other towns and villages within the Valencian Community also have their own “Fallas”, like our town of Denia. With this in mind these particular characteristics are those that are traits of the city of Valencia. Stay tuned for our experiences this year of Denia’s Fallas.
So throughout Valencia City, you’ll see in many of the Fallas (monuments) the Valencian Bat, the city shield or coat of arms / emblem, and their flag with the colors of bright red, yellow, and blue.
The dates that the Fallas Festival takes place are from March 1st – March 19th. There’s a lot of sources out there that say it starts March 15th officially, but we’ve witnessed otherwise. This includes daily events like the Mascletas (we’ll get to that below) and is even preceded in February with ceremonies introducing the Falleras (yep, more on that below too). The biggest days though are the last five to four days and here in Denia and other towns, that is when the main festivities happen. Everything leads up to the final evening when all the different Fallas (monuments) are burned!
Fallas in Valencia is All About Satire
If you’ve ever tried to put the word ‘Falla’ into a translator you’ll see the word ‘failure’ come up. So no wonder this festival is so great at humorously targeting the failures of society. You’ll see this blatantly and hilariously demonstrated in each of the Fallas (monuments) with satire. No Fallas is complete without having a cartoon-version of some politician acting out whatever scandal or campaign they were involved in recently. Of course, there’s a fair share of figurines of celebrities as well. Social and political alike, it ends up in the Fallas.
Buñuelos & Fallas in Valencia = Yummm, Yum!
Buñuelos are the favorite, iconic food of the Fallas. Our particularly favorite kind are the buñuelos de calabaza (pumpkin fritters). Some call these delicious, fried pastry goodies ‘fritters’ but they also resemble doughnuts. There’s traditional flavor and there’s also some that have whole figs in them – yeah, killer delicious! During Fallas, there are stands all throughout the city where they’re being made fresh.
The best ones to go to though in our opinion are the ones being manned by the little old Spanish ladies. You can bet they’ll be mixing the batter themselves right there before your eyes and as you began to drool they’ll literally being frying them up to serve fresh and piping hot in a paper cone. Hmmm, hmmm good!
Fallas in Valencia is Time for Anything Explosive + Loud
We’re not sure how most of the population here in Valencia is not going around with missing limbs and deaf, because they love their fireworks! It can be a toddler in a stroller and even the little one will be throwing those little white, loud spit-fire things onto the ground and laughing liking a maniac the whole time.
Okay, maybe we’re exaggerating a bit, but really – kids of all ages are throwing firecrackers and lighting fulling on fireworks, setting them off right in streets among crowds and even on windowsills. And where are the parents? Oh, you know, standing by holding the rest of the fireworks so they can keep it going! Either that or the adults are joining in and throwing their own firecrackers as well.
There’s usually large fireworks that are set off on some nights and along with the Mascletas, which yes we’re still getting to further below. Just know that during Fallas, the startling sound of explosions, jumping out of your skin, and the smell of the smoke is an every day occurrence.
Fallas in Valencia Rocks Out with The Mascleta
Ah, the Mascletas…A true tribute to the unexplainable love Spaniards have for incredibly loud, deafening noise – just for the sake of noise. Every day of the Fallas (remember, that’s 19 days) at two o’clock in the afternoon, they set off huge fireworks and explosions of gunpowder and noise in Valencia’s Plaza de Ayuntamiento. Seriously, every day. The Fallera Mayor lights the starter fuse for it all from where she stands with her Falleras in the balcony of the Ayuntamiento building, overlooking the plaza.
All the streets here are closed off and fill up with thousands of people. Leading up to the explosions, drum groups are going around playing loudly and doing dances. They’re really good too. When the explosion goes off, it’s literally so loud that you have to have your mouth slightly open so it doesn’t rattle your jaw and blow your eardrums. Not to mention that you can see the glass of the building windows wobbling and shaking from the intense sound waves rocking through the place.
We’ll never forget that the funniest thing about the first one we went to last year, was that at the loudest point we could see that everyone was shouting out in excitement, yet you couldn’t hear anyone else, even yourself, because the explosions were so loud. Yet it has an effect on you (we’re talking more than the ringing in your ears afterwards) – it’s a contagious, thrilling energy that courses throughout the immense crowd, the feel of all the sound blasting through you, vibrating your whole body from the ground and up through your feet into every part of you. It’s incredible and great to experience at least once.
How Does Anyone Sleep During Fallas in Valencia?
Well, simply put, you don’t get a lot of sleep during Fallas if you live in the city of Valencia. On top of the noise from the fireworks and firecrackers and the above mentioned Mascletas, it’s a cacophony of noise for over two weeks straight.
Oh, but there’s even more to the noise – there are band groups that go around playing brass instruments as loud as they can. It’s called the ‘Despertá’ or wake-up call, which they play every day during Fallas, at 8am, walking through the neighborhoods, usually in costumes and crazy dress, just blaring out music. Sometimes you’ll also find them playing in the afternoon and evening. It’s usually pretty good songs too and when different bands encounter each other in the street, it’s a little showdown that takes place or mini battle of the bands. Pretty fun to watch and hear.
Fallas in Valencia Sparks Romance
Amidst the noise, explosions and crowds, there’s something really romantic to us about Fallas. At night everything is lit up and you feel like you stepped into a fantasyland. The countless booths of delectable treats to eat and trinkets to purchase, give a carnival kind of atmosphere. If you are there with a ‘special someone’, we recommend you take time away from the crowds by grabbing lunch or a drink at a romantic cafe during the Mascleta. Go around 1:30pm or by 2pm and you’ll get some quiet, much-less-crowded time with your sweetheart. Just make sure to make reservations at some of the more popular places and choose a restaurant far enough away from the Plaza Ayuntamiento where the Mascleta takes place. We recommend the restaurants tucked back off the Plaza de la Virgen. The Café de las Horas is a particularly romantic place with the best Agua de Valencia, other wonderful drinks and good tapas.
So…speaking of romance, let us explain about our caricature of the viejito and the young woman – we jokingly laugh about how here in Spain men never seem to loose their libido (it’s the case throughout Europe and especially Italy too). It seems to be a Latin thing and we’re referring to situations that are good-natured and harmless. After puberty, there is no age here in Spain that stops an older Spanish gentleman from letting a woman know she’s beautiful and desired by him. We have this as part of our ‘Falla’ because the Fallas Festival also makes light of the every-day aspects of their culture here in Spain and the Valencian Community. This is one of those things.
Fallas in Valencia is the Best Pedestrian Take-Over
Yeah, this is not the time you want to have a car in the city, much less be trying to drive around. Most of the streets in the very center of Valencia are closed, meaning tons of detours. Being that the center of Valencia is very historic and old, many streets are one-way and narrow, so already confusing and stressful to navigate even without Fallas. There’s also incredible crowds of people, even as you get detoured, chances are you’ll be sitting in your car 4-times as long as you usually would to go a short distance, and you’ll be hard pressed to not hit a person with your car!
Gotta Have Saints & Sinners at Fallas in Valencia
Like any good Spanish festival, there’s going to be saints and sinners involved. Many of the Fallas (monuments) have characters portraying this. Everything from the angelic to the hellish and demonic. There is also an actual saint that is celebrated on that last Sunday and day of Fallas, San Jose.
Fallas in Valencia & the Flower Offering to the Virgin
The most significant event, aside from the burning of the Fallas themselves, is L’Ofrena de Flors (in the Valencian language). This is the flower offering to the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Forsaken (or some translate it to homeless or despaired) (el Virgen de los Desemparados). This takes place all day during the 17th – 18th of March. We’re discovering that here in Denia, and possibly the other towns in the region, they have theirs at one time, on the last day of the 19th.
It’s a long procession of the Falleras and Falleros walking through the historic center of the Valencia’s old town, to place bouquets of flowers upon a large constructed statue of this Virgin.
It’s a very emotional experience for those taking part and many times the Falleras are crying, touched by the emotion and significance of it for their culture and for many, related to their religious beliefs. It’s a beautiful event that really should be seen if you’re attending Fallas.
The Bomberos of Fallas in Valencia (No, it's not bombs)
Don’t you love that Spanish word ‘bomberos’? It’s their name for Firemen. And this is a must have for the Fallas. They’re the ones who of course make sure that the burning of the Fallas (monuments) doesn’t end up burning down buildings, houses and trees as well (or people for that matter). After all, these Fallas or right in the middle of city neighborhoods.
In Valencia City, they have enough bomberos that they light all their Fallas at the same time, just at midnight on the last night. But in smaller towns like Denia, they have to light each Falla separately so that the bomberos can be at each one to monitor it. So everyone literally just follows them from one Falla to the next to enjoy the end of the festival.
The Meaning Behind Fire at Fallas in Valencia
The final night is all about the burning, or the crema as they call it here. It really is amazing to see that they actually light on fire these tall, huge structures made of paper and wood and various other materials, right in the middle of streets, squares, and more amazingly alongside of the charming, old-world renovated or modern-style apartment buildings that make up the city.
So why fire? The Fallas festival has always been about celebrating the spirit of impermanence in this life and that nothing lasts. Along this theme, it is also to welcome the coming of spring and rejuvenation of the community. So even though these Fallas are worked on all year long, are incredible works of art and collaboration of creative talent, and investment of large amounts of money, they too will still not last.
Talk about being committed to way of thinking, huh!?! When we think of it, it fits with what is very characteristic of the Spanish culture and people – taking their time, savoring life, and enjoying today. Because the believe that nothing lasts and that the important things in life are family, being happy, and relishing in the beauty and even the failures all around us, because that is life and we get to be here experiencing it. No wonder we feel so at home in the Valencian Community of Spain!
Fallas in Valencia is a UNESCO Designation
With all this talk about fire and impermanence, you’d think that’s it – fine! But perhaps there are things that do last. Just this past year, the Fallas Festival was listed by UNESCO on their Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
This kind of designation gives great support to the Valencian Community in preserving this festival as their heritage and tradition. How far back this festival goes is still in question – some say it originates all the way back to the Medieval Ages, yet the practices most similar to today can be traced back to the 20th century.
During the Spanish Civil War, the festival was strongly censored by the government and country’s dictator Francisco Franco, and could not be as satirical. Once the government did return to a Democracy, the figurines have been even more brazen and obscene satirical scenes. They’re downright clever and hilarious. It’s truly fantastic.
Why We Love the Fallas in Valencia
Yah, at first we thought it pretty crazy that they light giant beautiful structures of art on fire in the middle of the city (among other things), but the Fallas Festival has a way of swooping you up into its fantastical energy. It’s the culmination of the people and their passion for their culture; you see it in their faces and the breathtaking Falla scenes with their vibrant colors; you hear it in the music and noise, and taste it in the food and treats. For us, the Fallas have become a part of our life here in Spain; it’s really growing on us and we love it!