Flowers and Flames Greet Spring in Valencia

by Susan McKee on March 3, 2014

Bam! I saw the firecracker flash just before I heard it.

Pop! Pow! Bam! The trio of explosions echoed off the office buildings lining the narrow downtown street. The boys throwing the noisemakers toward my feet then giggled and ran off. I stepped over the still-smoking debris and continued on my way.

It was just another day during Las Fallas in Valencia, Spain. Daffodils, anthropomorphic rabbits and dyed Easter eggs aren’t sufficient to signal to the end of winter in this part of Europe.

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For Valencians, welcoming spring does includes flowers (and great masses of ’em), but it also includes lots of firecrackers, cannons, fireworks and flames.

Fallas, which runs from March 14 through 19 each year, is a ritual rooted in Pagan times that’s been recast as a Roman Catholic celebration of spring centering around St. Joseph, the husband of Jesus’ mother. His feast day is March 19.

It’s hard to imagine how any work gets done in this city of 820,000 during those six festival days.

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First come the flowers. On March 17 and 18, hundreds of thousands of blossoms are carried through the streets of this Spanish coastal town during two days of elegant ritual. Men, women and children dressed in traditional costumes — accompanied by bands playing everything from boleros to rock music — parade through the center of town carrying floral offerings to the plaza in front of the Basílica de La Virgen de Los Desamparados.

There, a temporary 46-foot-tall representation of the city’s patron saint, Our Lady of the Forsaken (one of Mary’s names), awaits. A dozen costumed workmen scramble up and down the wooden framework of the Madonna’s enormous cape, catching the flowers tossed to them at the end of the parade and arranging them by color to create an elaborate design. More blossoms are used to create tapestries rising high on either side of the door to the basilica.

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A queen and her court are chosen from among the thousands of elegantly costumed women, and they are fêted at a gala luncheon downtown on the second day of the parade.

There is also the omnipresent noise. Throughout Fallas, one is assaulted by music, firecrackers, cannons and fireworks. More than 300 bands march around the streets, playing from morning ‘til night – when fireworks light up the sky.

At 2 p.m. each afternoon in the center of downtown, crowds gather to watch the boom of the mascletàs, with rockets bursting overhead sending down streamers, and gunpowder exploding into cannon fire — mercifully without the cannon balls. During this time of day, one can’t walk down the street without being attacked by firecracker-wielding kids and adults.

Since Las Fallas means “flaming torches” in Valencia’s Catalan dialect, it’s logical that fire is the crowning touch to this boisterous festival. Centerpieces of the annual festival are some 700-plus combustible constructions of firecracker-filled papier-mâché, styrofoam and cardboard layered over wooden frames. (This is the fortuitous connection to St. Joseph, whose profession was that of carpenter.)

Each falla is designed, financed and produced by some 700 neighborhood associations in line with a mutually agreed upon theme for the year. Most are small – just a few feet tall — but the biggest and most expensive rise up more than 65 feet right in the center of key intersections in the central city. The fanciful confections, peopled with figures called ninots (grotesque figurines) offer satirical commentary on the popular topics of the day.

As midnight approaches on March 19, La Cremà begins. Huge crowds gather in the streets. Fire fighting equipment rounded up from every corner of the country stands ready. Then, each of these highly flammable structures is set on fire. The flames crackle and leap, starting slowly but spreading quickly to engulf every inch of the massive constructions. Cheering spectators are showered with ash, and firefighters are kept busy hosing down rooftops until dawn.

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Traditionally, one of the fanciful structures is saved each year by popular vote, and put on permanent display in the Fallas Museum.

Photo credits: All (c)Susan McKee; used with permission.

NOTE: The author’s journey to Las Fallas was hosted by the Tourist office of Spain; the opinions expressed here are her own.

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Susan McKee is an independent scholar and freelance journalist specializing in history, culture and travel.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy Thompson March 3, 2014 at 1:53 pm

What an interesting article. I’m not always thrilled by random fireworks and gunfire, but this sounds like a festival not to be missed. Thank you for sharing your wonderful descriptions and great photos.

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Suzanne Fluhr March 3, 2014 at 3:29 pm

I would have loved to have seen a photo of an “anthropomorphic rabbit”. You don’t see that everyday. I was in Sevilla during La Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) one year, but Las Fallas sounds/looks like even more of a spectacle. I’m disappointed that we have to miss an invitation to Valencia this year because of a travel conflict. It will have to stay on my “must visit” list for now.

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Jackie Smith March 3, 2014 at 3:51 pm

My bucket list just got a bit longer as result of this fabulous post. Thanks for getting the ‘juices flowing’ for Spain again – we loved our time there and it is time to go back!

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Donna Janke March 3, 2014 at 4:58 pm

How interesting. It must be something to see all the structures set aflame. This summer I attended the parade that kicked off the Gracia street festival. One of the features of the parade is the correfoc (fire run), where groups of horned devils dance through the street brandishing tridents spouting fireworks. I remember thinking that would not be allowed in North America.

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Patti March 3, 2014 at 6:03 pm

My hubby and son spent time in Spain together, I’m waiting for my turn. These costumes the women are wearing are wonderful, love the color and textures.

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Donna Hull March 3, 2014 at 7:42 pm

I’ve visited Valencia in the fall on Mediterranean Cruises. A springtime trip during Las Fallas sounds much more exotic, and beautiful.

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Doreen Pendgracs March 4, 2014 at 11:20 am

I’d love to go to Valencia! Have been to Spain several times, but so far, Valencia has escaped me. I understand it has a lot of intriguing architecture. Now with the festivals, just another reason to put it on my radar. Lovely pics, Susan.

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Nancie March 4, 2014 at 2:19 pm

I absolutely love those dresses they are wearing. I close my eyes and I see them dancing in a gilded European ball room. What a great time of the year to be in Valencia!

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Marilyn Jones March 4, 2014 at 7:12 pm

I loved this article; your lead was brilliant and your descriptions excellent. It makes me want to go!!

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