The most complete expression of Valencia’s unique culture and mindset, the mega-festival Las Fallas transforms the entire city into one big art gallery and street party for a few days every March. Complete with elaborate firework displays and incredible traditional costumes and parades, it comes at the end of winter and signifies new beginnings. Valencians spend an entire year planning the party and constructing huge, intricately detailed wooden figures (the Fallas). These artworks are placed in the streets during the main days of the festival for public enjoyment, before being dramatically set ablaze at midnight on the festival’s final day. It really has to be seen to be believed, or understood. Appropriately, the festival’s slogan is ‘Feel the Fallas’, as you’ll only really understand what it – and the people of Valencia – are about once you experience Las Fallas for yourself.
If you visit in early March, in the run-up to Las Fallas, you might think you’ve accidentally travelled to a war zone. Huge firecrackers go off in the city’s streets and squares from morning to night, the air is permanently tinged with gunpowder, and Valencians gather in the town’s main square, Plaza del Ayuntamiento, for an enormous firework display at 2pm every single day. A firework display in the middle of the afternoon may sound odd to foreign visitors, but it’s all about the noise – and the feeling of being shaken to your core by the power of half a ton of gunpowder. As the festival gets closer, the displays get bigger, and so do the crowds, though the vibe is relaxed and respectful, with groups of friends sitting on the pavement enjoying a beer or snack as they wait for the show to begin.
On a hot day at the end of August, thousands of visitors descend on a small town near Valencia to take part in what must be one of the most famous festivals in the world, La Tomatina. Participants throw over-ripe tomatoes at each other until the town’s streets run red with tomato juice, in this traditional food fight with a long history. You may be starting to notice that crazy festivals are a big part of Valencian life.
The Easter or Semana Santa parades in Spain are known for being large, elaborate, sombre affairs with legions of ashen-faced Virgin Marys taking to the streets, often by candlelight. Valencia’s maritime district, Grau-Cabanyal, puts on one such famous parade at Easter time, although the area is known for having a slightly more festive atmosphere than is usual elsewhere, and after the festival, the bars and cafes are filled with local people enjoying drinks in the warm spring air.
Valencia is famous for its ceramics, particularly the colourful tiles you’ll see adorning the inside and outside of houses, shops and restaurants, and even street signs and household items. The city has a deep and unique tradition of using this art form, and the ceramic tiles have become a visual symbol of Valencian culture. The tradition manages to move with the times – even the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences features a surprising number of ceramics in its design. Find out more at the Museum of Ceramics, housed within a stunning palace, or visit the Lladro centre, an internationally famous producer of high-art ceramics. You can also pick up souvenir tiles at artisan shops such as those in the Plaza Redonda.
There’s a reason Valencia is known as the Vienna of Spain. It’s home to more bands and orchestras than any other city in the country, and boasts not one but two world-class classical concert venues. Most traditional or classical music here is wind- or percussion-based, with groups playing either Spanish classics or local Valencian folk music, complete with curious costumes and instruments that seem to have come from somewhere more exotic; many of them date from the city’s Arab times. In the warmer months you’ll find bands of musicians roaming the streets, practicing in local squares or by the beach.
Valencia has perhaps the richest traditional regional costume in Spain, and these outfits are unlike anything you’re likely to have seen before. During Las Fallas, Easter and other special days, women wear wide-skirted, colourful and very expensive silk dresses with bold, shiny jewellery, and weave their hair into intricate lacquered arrangements. Men, meanwhile, rock a style that can only be described as inner-city pirate, complete with bandana, baggy shorts and often a flask of fiery liquor. Far from being a dusty old tradition, these costumes mean a lot to Valencians today, and they use every opportunity to show them off, from the biggest festivals to family parties and weddings. You’ll also see plenty of shops in the city centre where the dresses and accessories are made and sold.
Eating is a serious business in Spain generally, and Valencia is no exception. The city has its own distinctive flavours, born of its location by the sea and close to rice paddy fields. The variety of rice dishes available is mind-boggling, and seafood is as fresh as it could possibly be. Paella was invented here, and cooking a huge paella in the street over firewood on Sundays or on fiesta days is an old tradition that’s still going very, very strong.
You’ll often see people enjoying a cool glass of horchata (or orxata in Valencian), a type of milk made from tiger nut; another throwback to the city’s Arab past, not found elsewhere in Europe, and an inseparable part of Valencian life. Horchata is made at home or in special cafes called horchaterias. The most famous is the tiled Horchateria de Santa Catalina.
Not strictly exclusive to Valencia, you can also see calçotada in Catalonia, but it’s still a very proud tradition around these parts. A calçotada is a big, ceremonial meal at which people gorge themselves on a sweet type of onion called a calçot. Resembling oversized spring onions, the calçots are grilled over an open fire and dipped in a nutty romescu sauce before being decadently dangled over the diner’s mouth and devoured. It’s a messy affair, and an experience you can’t miss if you’re in the city between January and March.