January 4th, 2012
It is common for people to ask about places to stay in Spain that are peaceful and quiet. But what about somewhere for those who like noise?
Well, for them, Spain can be a dream come true. Never more so than for those who go to Valencia to have their eardrums attacked or to smell fuel and listen to loud car engines.
They are spoiled for choice. Formula 1 motor cars race around the city in June. Petrol heads love that one. And soon, in March, all closet pyromaniacs head to Valencia for the annual celebration of fire that is Fallas.
The skies of Valencia light up. The smell of smoke fills the nostrils. And the city, and your body, vibrates to the sound of fireworks.
Fallas time comes in mid March. Be warned if you are planning a visit there seeking a peaceful, get away from it all break. I made that mistake a few years ago. I am not sure my ear drums have yet recovered.
When you live in Spain you almost get used to the nonsense that are daytime fireworks. Almost. All day, every day, during a holiday or a fiesta. Bangs so loud they make you feel as though you are in the middle of a war zone.
But nothing prepared me for the feast of fire that is Fallas. Nor the less than enjoyable torment of walking through the streets while having children throw little exploding firecrackers at my feet.
I couldn’t believe how parents allow their offspring to persistently and indiscriminately aim these little fireworks at passers by. “It’s fun,” I am assured by a smiling parent. The last time i was told this, while feeling as frightened, was when I was in the dentist chair aged 10 and the gas mask was coming in my direction.
Let me be clear. I hated Falls. Loathed it. There you go. Now you know the truth. But don’t let that put you off. I am in a minority. Most people love Fallas.
Don’t get me wrong. By daytime I did enjoy seeing the clever and skilfully constructed effigies or, to give them their correct name, ninots. Fantastic constructions, the majority of which are torched come the end of this rather unique celebration.
But Fallas is not meant for me or my other self, Victor Meldrew. It is aimed at the children and… well, I am not sure who else. Perhaps those who have no need for sleep, day or night. Or people with a personal grudge against the noise abatement society, (I’m thinking of setting up a branch in Spain, if you’re interested!)
I like Valencia a great deal. It’s food. It’s restaurants. It’s beaches. The stunning central market. Several museums. The architecture. There is much to see in the third biggest city in Spain. And if you can take the noise, then Fallas time sees the city at its most vibrant.
In the local language of Valenciano, Fallas means “the fires”. It all began as a feast day for St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, but now it is a five day feast of fire.
If you are one of those people who jump out of their seats when a firework goes off, do not go to Valencia during Fallas.
The crowds gather on the so called night of fire, or ‘La nit del foc.’ Do not try and drive around the city at this time. You will get nowhere fast. It is an excellent evening display, but crowds pack the streets and it is better to stand further away to watch the night time display. It is predictably more impressive than the constant daytime firework displays.
The main attraction is those amazing, gigantic cardboard, wood and plaster statues. The aforementioned ninots. They are located at more than three hundred and fifty key intersections and parks. The ninots are extremely lifelike. They often depict political figures in a satirical manner. When I was there George Bush and Osama Bin Laden could be found sat side by side. The creations look like huge spitting image creatures.
Created by neighbourhood organisations, the ninots can take over six months to construct and cost thousands of Euros. Many of them are so tall that cranes are employed to move them into position. They are truly amazing to see and you should allow time to study them in detail.
That makes it all the more baffling to understand the culmination of Fallas – the day known as ‘La Crema.’ On this last day of celebrations the majority of these elaborate creations are set alight. In the early evening young men cut holes in the statues and stuff them with fireworks. The crowds chant, the streetlights are turned off, and all of the ninots are set on fire at exactly the stroke of midnight.
Vast crowds gather to watch any one of the three hundred and eighty ninots go up in smoke. Then when the fires have taken hold those same people get in their cars and spend the next two hours trying to get out of the city. It was 3am before I got back to my hotel. A journey which on any other day would have taken fifteen minutes.
Now maybe it was me, or my alter ego Victor at work here. But I found this much anticipated moment to be one almighty anti-climax. Ranking up there on the ‘so what’ scale with every New Year´s Eve since 1976.
Perhaps the children love the fires. Like the equivalent of huge Guy Fawkes nights. I couldn’t help but feel that more of these wonderful creations should be saved for posterity.
Instead each year a popular vote is taken and one of the ninots is saved from the flames. It is then exhibited in the local ‘Museum of the Ninot’ along with favourites from previous years.
Before they are torched, the ninots are without doubt the main reason to attend the Fallas.
But, of course, there are many other reasons to visit Valencia. Those that are well publicised, such as the city of arts and sciences. Without question one of the best modern museums I have been to in Spain.
Then there is Paella and all manner of other rice based dishes to enjoy. Valencia claims to have been the birthplace of the national Spanish dish. Rice is the most commonly presented ingredient in the restaurants here. You could try Arròs a Banda – a dish where the broth is cooked apart from the rice, and using mixed fish such as red mullet and monkfish.
Fideuà is a popular type of paella that uses noodles, rather than rice. It is cooked in paella pans but there is a skill to getting the heat and proportions just right. This excellent dish gives its name to another celebration. In neighbouring Gandia, a location well worthy of staying in or visiting itself, the Concurso de la Fiduà is staged annually. Cooks from overseas come to Gandia to test their skills at making this meal, up against chefs form Valencia.
Arróz Negro (or Arròs Negre , as it will appear in Valenciano) is rice cooked with squid. The rice turns black when it is seasoned with the dark ink of the squid. A real favourite of mine, it can also be found on every restaurant menu.
In my experience rice dishes in Valencia are a cut above those found elsewhere. No danger here of being served a concoction which, were you to throw it at a wall, would stick firmly to it. Chefs in Valencia will tell you that the rice should not be sticky. It should be light and dry.
Fast food is also on offer during Fallas.
Buñuelos con Chocolate are very popular and can be sampled from any one of the many food stands on the city streets. They are circular fritters covered in sugar and with a hole in the centre. They are named after the women who, historically, always cooked them. A ‘Buñolera’ is a Valencian woman from the agricultural heartland. She would form the fritter using only two fingers.
Or try a glass of milk to calm your nerves. Well, not milk exactly, but Horchata; something else of which Valencia is rightly proud
I soldiered on for Fallas. I awoke in the charming apartment I had rented for part of my stay, outside of the city centre. But i did not awake naturally. A marching band roused me from my slumber at 7am. On a Sunday! Is there no rest for the wicked in Valencia?
So it was that I prepared myself for another day of bang, crash, and the proverbial wallop! Earplugs were employed and I entered back into the throng and switched on that false smile that said: “Fallas is fun” – with all the conviction of a man who wanted to be somewhere else.
But compared to bullfighting, Fallas is much more acceptable to me. If animal blood, rather than fire, is what ‘floats your boat’ you may have attendance at a bullfight high on your ‘to do’ list when visiting Valencia. The ring is impressive and, during Fallas at least, ticket prices are at a premium. Ticket touts will make you an offer you can refuse. Or at least I did. As i have explained previously on this site, I love to sit in bullrings when nothing is taking place.
Alternatively, during this week of madness in March, you could simply take part in a parade. They are pleasing on the eyes and ears. Or watch a paella making contest. Or do as I did and rest your feet outside one of the many cafes in Valencia. Sit back and people watch while drinking a glass of ‘Agua de Valencia.’
This is a Cava fuelled drink that is potent mix of orange juice, vodka and gin. At least that is what it should include. Predictably, at a time when tourists are plentiful, some bars and cafes ‘forget’ to include the alcoholic ingredients in any significant quantity. It took a while for me to find a place serving this drink as it should be prepared.
But, after the fourth glass of the real thing, I was in a more tolerant mood to take on another evening of Fallas fires and fireworks.
You should at least try to attend one daily mascletá. It takes place in the Plaza Ayuntamiento at exactly 2pm. A large mountain of firecrackers is ignited. The explosions ensure that the ground under your feet shakes for the next ten minutes. Pregnant women are asked to vacate the plaza for their own safety, and that of their unborn child.
Once you have experienced that, you may wish to get out of town a little for some tranquility. Take a short journey to the districts of El Saler and El Palmar. The latter being where the paella has been, in my opinion, perfected.
It is said that Paella was born nearby at Lake L’Albufera. Today you can take a stroll around the nearby nature reserve. Here the only noise is from the thousands of birds who, like me, are getting away from the noise of the city.
But if you cannot beat a path away from the revellers, then join them. The masses of happy people who join in the fun of Fallas. Tie a traditional multi coloured neckerchief around your neck. Sample some street served food. Drink and be merry.
And when that child throws a firecracker at your feet, be a sport.
Join in the fun and throw it right back at him. It worked wonders for me.