I met Marta and Alex in a small drab café on a Wednesday night that might’ve been Valentine’s Day. We introduced ourselves and Marta told me she traveled the world selling meat. I said I was a vegetarian. We got along quite well.
This was about my fourth time visiting the café: my roommate and I, along with a couple of friends, had become regulars. The drabness was kind of endearing, the food was decent and we liked chatting with the woman who worked there. It was usually empty, too. On this particular night the only other guests were Marta and Alex who struck up a conversation after correcting our Spanish when one of us made a mistake speaking to the waitress. Twenty minutes later we were deep into a somewhat silly and particularly loud debate about vegetarianism, which resulted in the waitress cranking up the volume of the soap opera that was playing in the background and Marta inviting us all to stay at her flat in Valencia for a festival known as Las Fallas.
Given the frivolity of the evening I assumed the offer wasn’t serious – and then a few weeks later I received a message to confirm that I would be coming and bringing friends. While I knew little about Valencia or the festival itself, I felt lucky to have been invited by locals and three of us decided we would go.
On a sunny Friday morning my friends and I traveled five hours north east to the coastal city of Valencia, capital of the autonomous community that shares its name. As we neared the city the language of road signs changed to what might appear to a foreigner as a curious mix of Italian and French. While not technically part of Cataluña, the region’s neighbor, many Valencians speak a version of Catalan known as “Valenciano.” Some claim that this is a language of its own , but at least as I understand it, there is very little difference between Valenciano and its neighboring language. The question of whether a manner of speaking in Spain is a dialect or language tends to be rather politicized. There’s no doubt that Euskara, spoken in the Basque Country, is a language of its own with unknown roots or connections. Categorizing Valenciano and Gallego (from Galicia) tends to be controversial, though. While I won’t go into detail about the strong and complex regional identities of Spaniards, it’s worth mentioning that such loyalty to one’s home region exists, as it helps to explain Marta’s firm insistence on how much better the food in Valencia is than in Granada.
It also might help explain the answer I was given when I asked what “Las Fallas” celebrates.
“Well… it celebrates tradition. It celebrates Valencia.”
I was used to answers like this while stumbling across various celebrations almost weekly throughout my time in Spain. On an orientation trip at the beginning of the semester we passed through a party in a small town while hiking in the Alpujarra Mountains. When I asked what the celebration was for, one of our program directors answered with, “a saint.”
“El Santo de ‘¿Por qué no?’” (The Saint of “Why not?”)
As it turns out, many cities, towns and churches in Spain have their own patron saints. In Valencia, Las Fallas, in part, celebrates Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, by building 40 foot elaborate statues out of wood and polyester (the statues are called ‘fallas’) and then proceeding to burn them down. This is somehow done in a controlled enough manner as to not char the entire city. The festival also involves an obscene amount of explosives and children wandering about with petardos, small (harmless?) fireworks.
Marta’s mom, who was also staying at the flat for the festival, had a slightly more satisfactory answer for me.
“Las Fallas celebrates the coming of spring,” she told me. “In the old days they used to burn chairs and things, now they spend all year building statues, and then burn them down.”
This is at least partially correct.
Las Fallas, as it turns out, began as a celebration of the coming of spring when local carpenters would burn old wood scraps along with the pieces of wood that were used to hold up candles illuminating their workshops during the dark winter months. They burned the scraps in celebration of Saint Joseph and as a kind of cleansing of unfavorable events of that year.
Since then the festival has evolved dramatically. What began as a pile of scraps gradually grew more elaborate with each neighborhood in the city presenting their own Falla. Today the temporary monuments often take on a satirical character, mocking current events or politicians (Trump was a common feature).
Growing in popularity in recent years, the festival was added to UNESCO’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in 2016.
But I knew nothing of this history during my time in Valencia, which was mostly characterized by constant confusion and sensory overload.
Arriving at the packed city center, most of what I felt was unprepared. Despite my best efforts at playing it cool (which really weren’t that impressive) I never quite adapted to the constant bang of fireworks. Breathing in the smells of Fourth of July and flinching at every opportunity, I gingerly followed the others to Marta’s flat.
Spaniards are known for being noisy. This, in fact, was one of the first things we learned about Spain during orientation. I don’t mean that orientation was noisy. Rather, we were warned directly about the difference in noise levels between Spain and, well, a lot of other places.
The constant bang of explosives (day and night) was not the only notable sound we heard while wandering the streets of Valencia. Reggaetón blared from temporary stages and dance floors and the occasional marching band squeezed through the crowd. And then, of course, there were the festival-goers themselves competing to be heard over the cacophony.
We spent our first night in Valencia dining with Marta’s extended family, which filled the entirety of a small corner bar. The food was excellent and the laughter loud. When a rather pouty child wouldn’t lift his head off the table his parents gave him a small box of explosives and accompanied him outside.
After we had finished eating and as the “sobremesa”* was winding down, we headed out to the streets for a bit of dancing in a nearby alley turned discoteca.
Our crew was eclectic. Three guiris** looking surprised by everything we saw, and various members of Marta’s family ranging from 1 to around 50 years old. The baby spent the entire time in a stroller, awake but not crying, despite the noise. He had a look of indignation on his face (if babies are capable of that), as if thinking that all the people around him had completely lost their minds — which I couldn’t dispute.
We danced for about an hour to Spanish songs that everyone seemed to know and I pretended to sing along to. The Valencianos laughed when I flinched involuntarily at nearby booms. I shouldn’t worry, they insisted, no one ever gets hurt at Las Fallas.
We stayed up until 5 that night (not abnormal on a Spanish weekend) and awoke late the next day, immediately heading for the city center where “La Mascleta,” an insanely large firework show, would take place. It is important to note that we arrived two hours early in order to get a good spot to “watch” the fireworks. It should also be noted that arriving two hours early meant arriving at noon, meaning the fireworks would explode at 2:00 p.m. – sound was clearly prioritized over vision.
Upon arriving at the center we ducked into a corner café to grab snacks and caffeine. By the time the countdown to Mascleta began there was no way out of the café. We made it about ten feet away from the exit before we were quite stuck.
What happened next was perhaps one of my favorite moments from the weekend. While peering over the sea of heads that clogged the “Salida de Emergencia” I began to hear shushing. Clearly, a number of people in the mob that surrounded us were quite concerned about the full effect of the explosives being drowned out by excited voices.
So for a brief moment, after counting down, the crowd was hushed — a grand feat for any group that size but especially in this context. All that was left was the quiet buzz of excitable whispers. Then the ground began to shake. The event lasted about five minutes, and while I couldn’t appreciate the physical appearance of the fireworks, the booms were perfectly timed – like a giant explosive marching band audible from miles away. At one point the crowd began to clap along. When all was done a giant gray cloud drifted over the city, darkening the sky. The magnitude was impressive – I wondered how much all those fireworks cost, I wondered if anyone was bothered by it.
Then I learned that the Mascleta takes place not once during Las Fallas, but every day for the 19 days leading up to la Cremà – the burning of the statues.
That afternoon we packed ourselves into a city bus to the beach. I had expected the center of Valencia to be situated closer to the water but the beach zone of the city felt sleepy. Side streets and neighborhoods still presented their Fallas but they were smaller, less impressive. Petardos still exploded along the cracked, sun-bleached streets, but with less frequency.
At the beach we ate some renowned Valencian Paella before heading back to the city center to explore some of the Fallas.
I was struck by the way most of the statues resembled one another in style. All bulging, colorful cartoon-like representations of historical, mythical or political figures, all to be burned down the next night. I was told that the Falleros (those in charge of designing and constructing the figures) often stood by crying as their year’s work caught fire sending a large black obnoxious-smelling cloud into the atmosphere. We wouldn’t witness la Cremà, though, as we had planned on returning to Granada the next morning. Or so we thought.
Our plan was to use BlaBlaCar*** to get back to Granada – we had a car booked for the three of us that would leave late morning on Sunday. We bid farewell and gave many thanks to Marta, Alex and their friends, then proceeded to wait for our car for over an hour. This was no one’s fault really, the car had broken down, and whatever word our driver used to describe this was one that we didn’t understand, resulting in exasperation and frustrated phone calls. By mid afternoon one of our crew was off to Granada in another car, and two of us would spend hours wandering to the bus station, train station and any café with Wi-Fi that wasn’t filled up to double its capacity.
Eventually both my friends had rides home and I was left to spend the night again with Marta, Alex and Co. This also meant that I would witness La Cremà, which was quite unlike anything I had ever seen. The falla we decided to watch burn, one of the biggest in the city, was lit from the bottom. Bright flames shot upwards and danced around as the structure, as tall as the four story buildings on either side of it, began to turn black. Pieces began to detach and fall to the ground, somehow all within the designated safety area. Dark clouds of funky smelling smoke curled in the sky and began to send small, floating, red-hot remnants of the Falla raining down on the crowd – which was when we decide to head out.
The road home was lined with bittersweet scenes of burning embers.
When I awoke the next day preparing to leave, the city looked like any other — booms of fireworks were replaced with honking cars and festival-goers replaced with commuters. The feeling in the air was that specific kind of confusion and emptiness that replaces days of excitement: winding down only to wind back up again, for soon would come Semana Santa, and before that, surely many other festivals of “¿Por qué no?”
*I first encountered the term “sobremesa” (over the table) during my travels though Chile last summer. It refers to the period of time spent talking around the table after everyone has finished eating, which in Spain and Latin America tends to be much longer than in the United States.
**A slang term Spaniards use to refer to foreigners.
***A ride sharing app, popular in several European countries. It functions a bit like Uber, but for longer distances.