Every March, Valencia's Las Fallas – with its fireworks, bonfires and blazing statues – transforms the peaceful Mediterranean city into Europe’s premier free street party. Here is a pyromaniac's guide
Red-hot sparks whip into the sky like a swarm of angry fireflies dancing in the night. As firefighters battle to control the inferno, satisfied crowds begin to disperse. By morning, black scorch marks visible amid heavy traffic are the only remaining evidence from the final night of one of Europe’s largest and most dramatic free street festivals – and in the warmth of a Spanish spring morning, preparations are already beginning for next year’s Las Fallas.
Focused in Spain’s southern port city of Valencia, Las Fallas (literally meaning "the fires") celebrates St Joseph’s day on March 19 each year. Five days of festivities precede the final night, a fitting conclusion to a year of hard work, planning, and preparation.
At the stroke of midnight on March 15, Valencia and its suburbs are subject to a rapid transformation. For the previous 12 months, artista falleros have been fully occupied in their workshops designing and creating this year’s Falla monuments. Falla was originally the name given to the fires themselves, but it now refers to each of the gigantic, intricately detailed papier-mâché statues erected overnight throughout the city. Standing between 2m and 20m tall, these giant structures (more than 400 in total) take a satirical and humorous look at modern life in Spain and beyond. Costing up to €200,000 no expense is spared in their design.
The city centre is closed to traffic for the festival’s duration and lends itself entirely to the celebrations. The Falla committees organise an array of street parties, or Verbeñas, located throughout the city which often incorporate live street music. With a chance to sample the region’s famous paella valenciana and red wines, you can party late into the night. Sleep should not be a primary concern during Las Fallas.
Throughout the week, extravagant firework displays pummel the senses as Valencia is turned into a pyrotechnic wonderland. These deafening Mascletas rock the city every day at 2pm in the central Plaza del Ayuntamiento, next to the town hall. Thousands flock to witness the ground- shaking spectacle, based more on volume than on visual effect. The dry river bed running through the city plays host to the night displays, culminating in the extraordinary Nit del Foc ("Night of Fire") display on March 18 at 2am, a 20-minute display to rival any New Year celebration.
For two days before St Joseph’s Day, more than 100,000 Valencians of all ages march through the streets in the festival’s most religious celebration. In the Ofrenda, members of every Valencian committee – accompanied by their musical bands – parade in full regional costume to offer flowers to Valencia’s patron saint, Our Lady the Forsaken. These floral offerings are then used to create a giant image of the Virgin in the plaza outside her Basilica.
The five-day extravaganza concludes on the night of March 19. During the morning, the leading Falla monuments receive their awards – but their fate has long been sealed. As the clock strikes midnight, the 400 Fallas spread throughout the city are reduced to nothing but ash in fires known as Crema. In an astounding display, the monuments are laden with fireworks and ignited amid large cheering crowds, the fires producing a black smoke that gathers in clouds above the city. Hundreds of firefighters are drafted in from surrounding regions to help control the city-wide blazes.
Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) flies daily from London Gatwick to Valencia. The airport is just 9km west of the city. From there, there is a major rail link (www.renfe.es/horarios/english/index.html) that terminates in the city centre
Compact and easy to navigate, the city benefits from a six-line Metro system (including an airport link) with extended operating hours during the festival. Due to the numerous road closures caused by the Falla statues, local bus services are severely disrupted during the festival.
Where to stay
Due to an influx of more than 1.5 million people – twice the city's population – hotel prices increase during the festival period. To secure your ideal location, I would recommend booking at least three months in advance. From a lively youth hostel culture to leading five-star establishments all budgets are catered for. Here is my choice:
Hospes Palau De La Mar Five-star accommodation conveniently located near the city centre.
Vincci Lys Part of the Vincci hotel chain, offers four-star accommodation in the heart of the city.
Hotel Astoria Palace Centrally located, affordable four-star accommodation.
Youth hostels can be booked through the Hostelworld website (www.hostelworld.com).