A First-Timers Guide to Las Fallas

At nearly 6 am, small firecrackers still fizzled on the streets. I’d been awake for an entire day, driving from one end of Spain to the other before plugging my fingers in my ears every three minutes. This is Las Fallas, the Valencian festival celebrating Saint Joseph by burning a whole bunch of paper-mâiché effigies.

Fireworks and charangas? Well, color me hortera and show me the way!

Las Fallas Ninots Flamenco Dancer

I’ve used my Semana Santa holidays to explore the Balkans and India and had planned to walk part of the Camino up to Mérida in 2016. But when Valencia’s biggest festival falls during your vacation time and you have a friend offering up a couch, you curb your walking plans in favor of pyromania.

After a six hour trip from Seville, I parked my car at the end of the metro line in Torrent and hopped onto the train. Emily, a college friend, had recently moved to Valencia and into the trendy, central neighborhood of Ruzafa.

Beautiful ninots in Valencia

Almost as soon as I’d surfaced the street with a duffel bag slung over my shoulder and a pillow stuffed under my arm, I was met with smoke. Smoke from kids lighting firecrackers in the street at their feet, smoke from the stands frying up churros and buñuelos. The streets of Cádiz, Sueca and Cuba had become an all-out festival chocked with food stands peddling stuffed jacket potatoes and corn, people carrying cans of beer and ninots, two-story high effigies that would meet their fiery deaths during the Cremà.

It took me nearly 30 minutes to traverse the narrow streets that had been shut down, save foot traffic. The ninots – the valencià word for puppet – towered overhead, depicting current events, celebrities and political figures, as well as nods to Valencian culture. Traditionally, each pocket of a neighborhood has a special sort of brotherhood, much like Seville’s religious hermandades, called a casal. Each casal pools together money, time and resources to conceive and construct a ninot and then display it on a street corner in the days leading up to March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph.

what is las fallas like

Valencia has 750 casales with 200,000 members – about one-quarter of the city’s population. That made for a lot of ninots to see (pick up a map of the most popular from the tourism office or look for city patrons on the main thoroughfares and in booths.

Emily’s flat on the eighth floor near the market was close enough to the action but far enough that I could relax for a short time. I’d arrived just after the Mascletà, a daily barrage of noise emanating from the city’s main square. Em and I hadn’t seen each other since we graduated, but we fell into a rhythm, gabbing our way out the door and into the street to gawk at the ninots, cans of beers in hand.

Ruzafa is not only the city’s hipster paradise, home to a dizzying amount of trendy eateries and bars, but a hotspot (pun intended) during Fallas. Every Haussmann-style street corner had a ninot stacked up to three stories and fanciful lights, arbor-style, surrounding them. Even in the middle of the day, young people stumbled around, throwing fizzlers into their wake. It was hazy, despite the overcast afternoon.

Are there fireworks at Las Fallas

Crossing Gran Vía de Colón, we ran right into the L’Ofrena des Flors. One of the Novio’s coworker’s wife is a natural valenciana and gushed about this part of Falles in which falleros don traditional costumes and bring bundles of flowers to a towering Virgen de los Desamparados sitting in Plaza de la Virgen. Behind the barricades, I craned my neck and stood on my tiptoes to watch the casales pass by, arms full of daisies and sunflowers.

Women falleras take their garb seriously – like southern Spain’s traje de gitana, quality dresses are handmade, unique and costly. Come to think of it, dressing for Las Fallas was more like the Feria de Abril than I could have imagined. Consisting of a hooped skirt and bodice, they are typically made of pure silk and embroidered. Once you add the lace shawl and apron, shoes, jewelry and hair do, you’ve practically bought a wedding dress.

Fallera Women in Las Fallas

child fallera

typical costume in valencia

And it doesn’t end there – each casal elects a fallera mayor, who plays the part of hostess and attends to a court d’honor. This means food and fresh flowers for twelve people, much like entertaining in a caseta – and just about as costly.

Night was falling as L’Ofrena ended. Firecrackers sizzled under our feet as we looked for a tapas bar with room to squeeze into. It was drizzling and the center of town was packed with revelers. Dessert was a classic farton, a spongy cake made from sugar, milk, flour and eggs.

Valencia city center

The night’s main attraction was surprisingly not pyrotechnics. Emily’s friends took us to an outlying neighborhood, Benimcalet, for a charanga. I confess: I have a soft spot for cheesy brass bands and Spanish wedding music. A small square was packed with people swaying back and forth to a rock band, and the old man bar anchoring the plaza served up cheap cubatas whose alcohol content was barely balanced out by soft drinks. By this point in time, I’d been up for 18 hours, and we danced and drank until the sun began to peek through the trees at 6am. I collapsed onto the couch, fully clothed.

A ripple of fireworks – the mascletà – rang through Ruzafa the next afternoon at 2pm. I was groggy, a product of both the deadly gin tonics from the night before and the crackle and pop from the rifles. I could already see smoke rising from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

I pulled on my boots and gulped down the coffee Em had made for me.Emily had already done her homework for the evening and had mapped out a route to see some of the city’s best ninots and lights displays before they’d meet their fiery end that evening. We spent the better part of the afternoon ducking out of the rain between visiting the city’s best ninots.

Tourists at Las Fallas Valencia

valencia festival las fallas

ninots las fallas mermaids

Popular lore says that the festival began as a way to burn off excess firewood on the spring equinox, eventually coinciding with the Feast of Saint Joseph, the carpenter. A typical piece of furniture burnt was the parot, a structure from which candles were hung. Over time, the primitive parots morphed into the effigies we see today, from rag dolls to elaborate, whimsical art pieces.

Like the chirigotas of the Cádiz Carnavales,  the majority of the ninots poke fun at politics and current events. We saw quite a few Rita Barberás, the former mayor of Valencia who was indicted for fraud in 2016, as well as ponytailed Pablo Iglesias, Belén Esteban and the King.

The rain meant we spent time drinking vermouths in Ruzafa’s trendy bars and watching the light shows on Calle Cuba. More than half a million colored bulbs glitter every hour after dusk, more than making up for the cancelled Cavalcada del Foc, a fireworks parade from Porta da Mar down Gran Via de Colón.

Light shows at Las Fallas

For hours, we powered walked, hand-in-hand, all over the center of the city, pushing past crowds and peeking into casales. The marquees were stocked end to end with tables and folded chairs, and scraps of food remained, untouched, in the centers. Falleras strolled in and out, often followed by a video crew.

As it neared 10pm, we were faced with a choice: nab a spot in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to see the city’s falla be burnt at the very end of the night, or catch a falla infantil and one of the neighborhood fallas. We were at Convento de Jerusalén, just in front of the Estació de Nord.

the ambience of las fallas

This casal is part of the Secció Especial, amongst the most prestigious in the city (if you’re in Valencia before the Plantà on March 15th, you can visit all of the ninots and vote which two to save. They’re at the City of Arts and Sciences, and the expo is 3€ for adults and 1,50€ for children).

Just before 10pm, the casal’s fallera mayor and her pint-sized counterpart stood in front of the smaller, satire-free ninot. This close, you could see the fireworks-laden base that made up the whimsical, storybook creation. At 10 o’clock, the fallera infantil was introduced to the local media. She had a long string in her hand and tears in her eyes as a band made up of trumpets, drums and dolçaina – a reed instrument – struck up. She tugged on the rope, sending off a pinwheel of firecrackers that would eventually spark the effigy – something out of a bedtime story – in flames.

children's falla in valencia

I fingered the earplugs in my jacket pocket, not sure if they’d do me much good against the deafening sound of firecrackers being lit across the city. My face burned from the intensity of the flames and the black smoke rising from every corner in Valencia, turning my camel-colored jacket a dingy grey. The small-scale puppet burned quickly, fizzling out with the help of a firehose in less than 10 minutes.

We rushed through the throngs of people back to Ruzafa. The streets had been difficult to traverse during the daytime, but the proximity to the main attraction – La Cremà – meant that we were pushing through crowds staking out a prime viewing spot. We’d wanted to see one of the Secció Especial ninots, but couldn’t push through all of the people quickly enough. Ducking onto a side street, we got a front row view to one of the neighborhood fallas, a wizard holding a key with a devil on the side. No one seemed to know the significance.

political irony at las fallas

Emily snaked her way through the masses to a street vendor and got some snacks and a couple of cans of beer. Like Semana Santa, there was a degree of waiting around during Las Fallas.

Just before midnight, half a dozen firemen placed their helmets on their heads and stood poised to put out flames, lest they get out of control. The metal gates surrounding the sculpture were pushed back, leading festivalgoers to be crammed into doorways and even scrawl their way up light posts. I saw kids with firecrackers in their hands, ready to toss them at the open flames.

I glanced at my watch. At promptly midnight, the murmur reached a fever pitch and the firemen grabbed their hoses. I couldn’t see over the shoulders of the revelers in front of me, but heat rose from the bottom of my boots and up my legs. One of my greatest fears is dying in a fire (…and jellyfish), but stepping back from the flames was not an option. I had arms tangled in mine, elbows next to my ears and even a child underfoot!

Festivals in Valencia Las Fallas

Ninots burning in Valencia

The Cremà in Valencia

As quickly as it had gone up in flames, the statue burnt to the ground, a mass of smoldering ashes in mere minutes.

We tried to get close to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to catch the city’s gargantuan falla, which is burned after all others have met their fiery demise. From the front of the train station, we only caught a sliver of the multi-story statue of a faceless man’s blaze of glory.

I found it disappointing that every single ninot was set ablaze at exactly the same time. I likened it to having to choose a bunk on the first day of summer camp – you never really knew it if was the best one, if your friends were nearby, or if you’d be stuck next to the kid who talked in his sleep.

ninots in valencia

The whooping and hollering in the streets lasted until the following day’s mascletà. My head was swampy, a mixture of warm beers and smoke inhalation. I’d spend another day with Emily traipsing around the Jardines del Turia before stopping by the Quixotic windmills in Castilla-La Mancha and the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Úbeda and Baeza.

Like the Tomatina, Las Fallas was a festival I was glad to see once, but it didn’t spark (sorry, I am the worst) enough interest in me to go back another year. It felt like waiting in a long line only to be slightly disappointed when you had something shiny and new in your hand.

Perhaps we didn’t do it right. Perhaps the rain hampered the festivities. Perhaps I just didn’t feel the true emotion, my senses dulled after a long car ride and the inability to shake the damp. And as someone whose favorite holiday is the 4th of July, even Valencia’s fireworks and fanfare weren’t enough to move it to my top-of-mind when it came to Spanish festivals. It was a lot of fun, laced with beers and laughter and smoke.

a first timer's guide to

If you go: Las Fallas is one of Spain’s coolest festivals and happens during the first three weeks of March, culminating with the Cremà on March 19th. Book ahead and consider staying in Ruzafa or L’Eixample, where you’ll be within walking distance of public transportation and all of the major casales. Also bring cash – lots of street vendors won’t accept cards. You can find an official 2017 schedule here as well as a map to all of the city’s ninots.

Valencia is a city I love more and more with each trip. Check out their crazy ice cream flavors, the UNESCO lauded Lonja de la Seda and the famous tomato slinging festival, La Tomatina.

Have you ever been to Las Fallas or Valencia?

Practical Advice for Attending Spain’s Messiest Festival, la Tomatina

If I could live on one food for the rest of my days, I would choose the tomato (or maybe ice cream…just not tomato ice cream). Like Bubba Gump can eat shrimp in every which way, I’m a huge lover of the perfect fruit/vegetable/I don’t even care and easily eat them daily.

Then, say you, what happens when my friend convinces me to hop a flight to Valencia to attend the Tomatina, a tomato chucking festival and one of Spain’s most well-known fêtes?

You say tomato, I say HELL YEAH!

A Brief History of La Tomatina

Buñol, a small village just a half hour’s drive from Valencia, has been practically half-asleep for its history. In the mid 1940s, however, a group of youngsters wanting to demonstrate during the town’s festivals grabbed a bunch of tomatoes from a local frutería and began throwing them. The following year, they did the same. Since the early 1950s, the town hall has allowed revelers to chuck tomatoes (grown in Extremadura and unsuitable for eating) on the last Wednesday of August.

The Tomatina is now considered a Festival of Touristic Interest – so much so that the town decided to limit the entrances this year, allowing just 20,000 tickets to be sold to help pay for operating costs, including clean-up and security. About 5,000 of these were reserved for the residents of Buñol.

Getting to Buñol

The town of Buñol is located about 40km inland from the region’s capital of Valencia, cozied up to a mountain. Served by the regional RENFE commuter trains on the C-3 line, you can arrive to Buñol’s train station (if you can call it that) in 45 minutes. The station is located at what locals call ‘Buñol de Arriba,’ or the part of the pueblo on the hill, and there are plenty of places to buy souvenirs, leave your bag at a local’s house in exchange for a few bucks, and grab a beer or sandwich.

In the end, we decided to take a tour bus, which promised round-trip transportation and safe-keeping of our belongings. Though Kelly and I made an effort to speak the bus driver to get an idea of just how safe the bus would be in the middle of a festival of drunk guiris, we watched the bus pull out 20 minutes before the assigned return time, and we were forced to wait 90 minutes while it went to Valencia and came back for us. We had decided to take our bags with a change of clothes and snacks with us and store them at a local’s house, thankfully, or we would have been cold and stinky for hours. The organization was terrible and not worth the 35€ we paid for the entrance, transportation and luggage storage. If we did it again, we’d take the cercanías train.

Keep in mind that you can’t just show up to the Tomatina after this year – revelers are required to pay a 10€ entrance fee, and only 15,000 tickets are allocated for visitors. While there was outcry that the town hall of Buñol has privatized the festival without debate, I personally thought this was the best way to make the party accessible and enjoyable.

The Clothing and Gear

Rule of Thumb: everything you wear to the Tomatina will be covered in tomato gunk and stink, so be prepared to part with it once the tomato slinging is done. I threw everything away but my swimsuit!

Kelly and I made a run to Decathlon for a plain white cotton T, elastic biking shorts, a swim cap and goggles. You’ll see people in costumes, in plastic rain coats, in swimsuits and the like. We also bought disposable waterproof cameras, a small wallet for our IDs and health insurance cards and paper money, which we put into plastic bags.

I was surprised to see the number of people with GoPros. Having gotten mine for the Camino and then unpacking it for sake of weight, I wish I would have had it on me. Word on the street is that you can get relatively cheap cases for your DSLR or point-and-shoot, so consider it if you want better pictures than this:

Without fail, you should bring a change of clothes. Most townspeople near the center of the village will let you use their hoses for a minimal fee, but wearing wet clothes in damp weather won’t do you any favors. I brought a simple dress and a pair of flip-flops for the after party that rages on all afternoon, as well as a bottle of water and a sandwich. Food and drink is available in Buñol, and for cheaper than the Feria de Sevilla!

The logistics of La Tomatina

There are two parts to the city of Buñol: la de arriba (upper Buñol) and la de abajo (lower Buñol). Kelly and I got a call from our friend Gatis just as we pulled into the parking lot. Scoping out the party, we assumed we were near the entrance, so we told him we’d meet him at the gates in 10minutes, after we dropped off our bags.

Turns out, the village is a lot longer than we thought, and it took us far longer to get there!

When you sign up for the Tomatina, you’ll be given a wristband that you must show to access Plaza del Pueblo, where the action takes place. You then have to walk about 500m downhill towards the castle, passing food stands and bars, before arriving to two of four access gates. Show your wristband, but not before going to the bathroom – there is NOWHERE to pee once you’re in Buñol de Abajo.

Shortly before 11am, one of the townspeople participates in the palo de jabón. Climbing up a wooden pole slicked with soap, the trucks can officially pass through once the pueblerino has reached the top and hoisted the ham leg, which sits at the very top, over his head. Five trucks carrying tons and tons of tomatoes will pass through once a siren has been sounded. Participants understand that they cannot throw anything but tomatoes (which you should squeeze first to avoid injury), and only between the sirens signifying the beginning and end of the event, which only lasts one hour.

Those who live in the city center board up their houses and drape plastic sheets over their facades, though they’re quick to douse you with water after you’re finished. Call them campeones – they’ll hit you with water first.

The majority of the after party from what we could see is held in the part of the town uphill. There was music, beer and sausages. Had I not been so cold and smelly, it would have been my happy place.

The Experience

I can’t say that experiencing La Tomatina was ever on my Spain bucketlist (and neither is San Fermines, so don’t ask if I’ll ever go to the Running of the Bulls). But when a week with nothing to do, a cheap place ticket and an eager friend suggested going, I figured this would be my one and only chance to do so. Am I glad I did it? Most definitely, but I’m not planning on signing up for it again.

That said, it was a lot of fun. Being crunched up between total strangers, mashing tomatoes in their hair and putting it down the backs of their shirts, swimming afterwards in what was essentially an enormous pool of salmorejo, was serious fun. Belting out Spanish fight songs, squashing the fruit so as not to hurt anyone when I pelted him with it. The water fights, the after party, the townspeople who so graciously gave us their gardens and their hoses to use (Luisa, I’m looking at you, and we owe you a bottle of your beloved fino). I even found the downpour just before 11am to be hilariously good fun.

Have you ever been to the Tomatina, or are you interested in going? What’s your favorite festival in Spain – have car, will rock out – y’all know me!

Spain Snapshots: The Lonja de la Sede, Valencia

The Llotja de Sede was once the Valencia’s major trading post, leaving behind a legacy as a great merchant city on the Mediterranean. Named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the late 1990s for its late gothic architecture and impact on commerce, the museum was crowned with gargoyles and inlaid iron and gold work.

Thanks to the wealth that Valencia once enjoyed as an important port and commercial city, the entire structure was built with no expense spared with the purpose of not only housing trade and tribunals, but also to show off the money the city brought in.

Having already been to Valencia several times each, Kelly and I beelined straight from our apartment near the Quart Towers to the Lonja, as it’s known in Castillian Spanish. After seeing where merchants once bartered and traded, we did a little but of our own shopping through Carmen’s boutiques and whimsical shops. Valencia had never really done it for me on my two previous visits – it seemed too brash with its nightlife and as if the Arts and Sciences complex had taken all the fun out of exploring the old city.

Being able to explore the grandiose halls and chapel of the Llotja and realize its impact on the city’s wealth and history made Valencia a little more humanized for me.

If you go: The Lonja de Sede is located in front of the Mercat Central in the Barrio del Carmen. The cost for non-students and non-residents is 2€, and you can visit between 1oam – 2pm and 4:30 – 8:30pm Tuesday – Saturday and from 10am – 3pm on Sundays. Plan about three-quarters of an hour to see the Great Trading Chamber, courtyard and tower.

Tapa Thursdays: Heladería Llinares and its Wacky Ice Cream Flavors

Outside of Italy, I’d never seen a group of camera-clad tourists so fascinated by a street side ice cream display. In a city known for its rice dishes, avant-garde architecture and brash fireworks display (oh, and being the region from which those crazies the Borgias came from), I never expected to see such fuss over an heladería.

As we got closer on a walk around Plaza de la Reina of Valencia, crowned by the cathedral, I realized why.

Behold:

Yes, those flavors are cream of shellfish, Asturian bean stew, anchovies in vinegar and gazpacho. The girl in line in front of us tried a bit of the fabada stew and spit it out immediately. I dared to try the anchovies (which I normally only eat with picadillo), and it tasted like just that: fishy vinegar.

The girl scooping ice cream behind a high counter turned up her nose at the girl, telling us that all of the flavors were artisan and made in the company’s obrador, just like Dispensa de Palacio in Estepa. Just for good measure, we tried gazpacho and tortilla. They tasted just like the flavors they claimed to be.

But don’t worry, if you’re not adventurous, Heladerías Llinares has all of the normal flavors and a few twists, too. I chose piña colada and mojito, preferring something fresh to something chocolatey. The company operates several ice cream shops, but the most central is located in Plaza de la Reina, 6, and open daily until midnight. A cup or cone with two flavors will cost you just 2,20€ – not much more than you’d pay for an ice cream bar on the beach.

What’s the strangest ice cream flavor you’ve ever eaten?

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