Anything can happen at Las Fallas, the biggest and most important festival in Valencia, Spain. The whole city lets loose and the streets become an outdoor art gallery, non-stop firework display and party zone. Most of the city’s annual visitors arrive for the festival, which is officially from March 15-19. It’s full of surprising sights and sounds, so here are a few things to expect if you’re coming to Valencia for Las Fallas this year.
The festival centers around large, elaborate sculptures made from wood and papier mâché, sometimes 10 or 15 meters (33 ft or 49 ft) high. There are around 350 in the city, one for each neighbourhood falla organisation, and they’re often a satirical comment on the past year’s events. You’ll spot famous figures from Spanish and international politics, though the more controversial ones are usually found in smaller neighbourhoods and the most impressive are found in the central squares. The sculptures are paraded around the city during the week leading up to the festival before being set ablaze on the final night, known as la crema.
Las Fallas is the time when Valencians put on their best clothes and parade in the streets. You’ll see plenty of falleras, Valencian women of all ages, wearing colourful, full-skirted silk dresses and complicated plaited hairstyles held together with antique gold pins. Many of these costumes are family heirlooms and even double as wedding dresses. The men, or falleros, meanwhile, wander about dressed remarkably like pirates in brightly-coloured silk waistcoasts and bandanas, usually carrying a flask of something potent.
Fireworks for weeks
To say Valencians like fire and explosions would be the understatement of the year. Valencia gets into the party mood well before the official festival week, and you can expect official firework displays on the weekends as well as plenty of firecrackers going off in the streets day and night. Expect the volume to increase steadily from the end of February.
As well as the city’s nighttime firework displays, there’s the Mascleta. Not the kind of firework display you might be used to, this midday spectacle is all about noise, rhythm and smoke. From 1-19 March the city is shaken to its foundations at 2pm every day as up to half a metric ton of gunpowder is detonated in the central square, Plaza del Ayuntamiento.
A huge percentage of Valencia’s annual visitors come for Las Fallas, and the price of accommodation in the city becomes ridiculous. Try Airbnb for more reasonable options, or if you have access to a car it can be worth staying outside the city center.
Most of the action throughout the week takes place at night, with mobile discos, outdoor concerts and street parties popping up seemingly out of nowhere, attracting huge crowds of young people during the main nights of the festival.
Every fallas sculpture features one or two small, carefully-painted wooden figures, called ninots, which tell their own story. Around 700 of them are put on display before the festival at the Exposicion del Ninots in February and March each year at the City of Arts and Sciences. The exhibition also asks the public to vote to save their favourite figures from the flames.
Las Fallas has grown every year, especially since 2017 when the festival was recognised by UNESCO. New in 2018 is a special Las Fallas guided walking tour organised by Valencia’s tourist board, telling stories of the festival’s origins and traditions.
Early spring, especially the time around Las Fallas, is traditionally the time for eating churros with chocolate and the local version, bunuelos, a kind of fried pastry made with pumpkin and coated in sugar. Stands pop up selling the sugary treats all over town during Las Fallas, and there are plenty of local favourite shops where you can buy them, too.
When the sculptures go up in smoke at midnight on March 19, signalling the end of the festival, the mood is surprisingly sombre after weeks of partying. Crowds look on quietly as the bonfires are lit, cloaking the city streets in smoke and a surreal orange glow. Brass bands play mournful tunes as the sculptures vanish into the flames, and if you look carefully, the chief fallera standing to attention will be shedding a tear. By the next evening everything has been meticulously cleaned up, leaving no sign that any of it ever happened.