Days: 15-16 (19 March 2017 – 20 March 2017)
Total distance travelled: 20,204.45 kilometres (12,549.30 miles)
We’ve fortunately, never found ourselves in a war zone.
Hopefully, that is a situation that never changes.
However, on one cool March evening on Spain’s eastern shores, we could have been forgiven for thinking we were in ones midst.
Explosions tore through the air above and all around. Crowds pressed and half of the city was seemingly ablaze.
It was one of the craziest of events we’d encountered to ever fall under the moniker of a ‘festival’
This was Las Fallas, a UNESCO World Heritage listed cultural event that the good people of Valencia hold to herald the approach of Spring and the end of Winter.
Hours earlier (in fact during the morning of that same day), we were suddenly skeptical that Valencia would even be made that same day.
“What do you mean there’s no train?”
That is the predicament we faced at the railway station.
We’d checked online, it listed services and made no mention, none at all, that we’d be unable to take a rail service to Valencia!
It felt a hopeless situation at first, however some alternative routing eventually got us there, and the late afternoon had us wandering the tree lined Passeig de la Ciutadella on our way to our fairly packed hostel.
A short right hand turn near the Pont del Real and we were there.
The hostel crowd was pretty young and they were offering to guide the guests as a group through the festivities (I’m pretty sure guide them to the nearest pub or liquor store was more likely).
We however were happy to do our own thing, and as the skies darkened (due to the setting sun, not foul weather), we could be found exploring the streets ourselves as the celebrations began to really kick off.
The streets were packed and it was at times, a real effort to push our way through the press of people, at least on the major thoroughfares.
So what is Las Fallas and what is it all about?
We turned up knowing little, but thinking it was something to do with heralding the end of winter and the photos we’d Googled looked really cool!
I won’t indulge in an in depth history lesson, as there are a number of theories as to its origins, but essentially neighbourhoods of the city fund raise to build a Falla (seemingly a giant papier mache or wooden effigy), there’s a loose theme each year, and people (no idea who) vote on a winner.
As part of this grand and raucous event, all of the losers (apparently there are over 400 districts registered) are burned to the ground in a huge night of mayhem!
When one finally gets to see how incredible each of these pieces of art are in their own right, only then is their comprehension of how mad this whole affair truly is (apparently it wasn’t until quite recently that even the overall winner was spared this indignity)!
Anyway, we began to check out some of the larger pieces, before ditching the crowds and heading for some backstreets (where the crowds were thinner), all the while fireworks still going off intermittently overhead and the occasional firecracker being tossed around at street level.
It truly felt like bedlam.
It began to feel as we explored, that out in the smaller neighbourhoods, the funds raised were surely fewer as their pieces, seemingly eliminated from the contest earlier were smaller and already being rigged to explode.
There was limited ceremony.
Punch a few holes in the construct, rig up a length of cord laden with more firecrackers and place it at a reasonable (I suppose it was reasonable) distance, splash a bit of petrol about and after a short countdown, light things up!
I’m sure I’ve gotten the particulars wrong in this, but it also appeared that there was a Mr & Miss for each district as well, bedecked in traditional costume, they’d dance their way around followed by a throng.
The women almost always seemed young and attractive (young teens into their twenties), whilst the men seemed older and far less easy on the eye.
Those ladies of their districts… well, they didn’t always seem thrilled by this coupling!
Our meanderings continued (yes, on occasion we found ourselves back at locations we’d already been) and the Falla ranged in height, from that of a person, to that of a 2 or 3 story apartment block.
There were cartoon characters, football (soccer) themed affairs, some devoted to political parody, star wars… it was so varied and they were all amazing!
Once they were burned, the streets (in that general district at least) usually quieted somewhat, so as the night wore on we were channeled, ever slowly back towards the grander neighbourhoods.
It was mad and it was wonderful.
Las Fallas was a visually spectacular extravaganza.
Photos however, can only do so much, and I can think of no better way to convey the grandeur and the madness than through video (am I allowed to say here are some we prepared earlier?)
There were times when we tried our luck climbing atop tents or the poles supporting street lamps for a better view, but for the most part we stuck to ground level.
It likely goes without saying that there was an element of risk in this (climbing to the roof of a tent), especially as others followed suit and the chance that these food and beverage vendors tents could quickly become overloaded.
Fortunately, we never witnessed anything like this come to pass.
Eventually, we were drawn by the crowds to larger open area, the convergence of streets forming a large plaza near the Mercat Central where a large wooden rocket (making me think of the Tintin comic ‘Destination Moon’) stood.
This was to be the evenings crescendo, and it was as mad as the rest of the night had proven…
Like everything else we’d witnessed on this bizarre yet entrancingly amazing evening, the finale was like a scene out of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451… flames galore, cheering crowds and a pair of firemen, perched in a small basket atop an extended ladder, seemingly standing between this tower and disaster for the surrounding crowd (melodramatic yes, but that’s seriously how it looked).
It was a grand conclusion.
That was the bipolar feeling when we rose, reasonably early in this dystopian looking city.
The streets were largely devoid of life.
The odd, extremely late reveler. The occasional street sweeper. Some poor souls on their way to work, and like us, an extremely thin smattering of tourists.
It was also another gorgeously sun filled morning, with only a slight touch of the March morning chill.
We started our day of explorations headed towards the central market, hopeful of finding something for breakfast (or at the very least for it to be open), and we had success on both counts.
Sure, it wasn’t bustling, but it was busy nonetheless, especially given the scope of the previous evening (I think back to home, and how lifeless the streets generally are on New Years Day for example).
The mercado itself was house inside a vast, ornate building, reminiscent of many a grand railway station during the Gustav Eiffel era.
As touched on already, it was also time for breakfast (well in fairness, being the morning and having not eaten, that time was ever present), however here at the market we were provided with the opportunity to indulge in something that is apparently a local Valencia thing.
Given their name, it would be easy to laugh at them in true childish fashion (hey, I’m all for childish)! These are Fartons, which are apparently originally from the Valencian town of Alboraya, a sweet iced bun which apparently you dip into Horchata, in the same manner you might dip a shortbread into a hot tea.
They were novel, didn’t taste all that bad, although our small bag of them was on the somewhat stale side, which given the previous evenings events, I’m not at all surprised they weren’t a totally fresh batch.
Still, it did the job and gave us something to fill the belly and a bit of a sugar rush to get hustling about the city.
Across the way stood La Lonja de la Seda, a 15th century mercantile exchange which serves as a museum and has also been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996.
Within, it housed a lovely courtyard with heavily laden orange trees, some lovely wooden ceilings and an impressive reception room with somewhat unique, spiral shaped columns.
Some nice stained glass proved the icing on the cake.
It was a rich area of the city indeed in which we found ourselves, as just a little further up the road (literally, up the same road) stood the Torres de Quart, twin stone towers from the 1400’s that one formed part of the city walls and gate.
The scars it bore, I’ve no idea if it’s the rigours of time, damage from during the Spanish Civil War, or some conflict older still.
We had no need to tarry long, and we were soon strolling again, back tracking somewhat until we got to Valencia Nord, this time an actual railway station and not a market masquerading as one!
Attractive from out, it was even nicer within, sporting lovely wooden and glass ticket booths to complement a gorgeous mosaic adorned ceiling and lovely brass lighting.
We weren’t just sightseeing however, using the opportunity to also see what time the rail services could whisk us away to Barcelona the following morning as well!
A north easterly amble (taking us very close to our hostel in fact, so we really were re-tracing our steps) got us to Puerta de la Mar, apparently a monument to the victims of the Spanish Civil war and not a ‘Gateway to the Sea’ as I’d assumed (it kind of is Mediterranean side, so maybe it’s both?).
Despite my implications in using the word ‘amble’, we were actually headed this way with purpose, planning on completing our Las Fallas experience, by visiting a small local museum dedicated to the events history.
The museum itself was unassuming from the outside, and it took us a short while to find the correct entrance.
As we figured this out, we were afforded a great view of the impressive and modern looking Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia which I thought was a grandiose opera house, but may in fact be just a broader performing arts theatre (hey, there’s probably still some opera there… right)?
A lone figure, working atop its curved roof gave us a real sense of its size!
Inside the Museu Faller, it was essentially an art gallery, with promotional posters from years of Las Fallas, as well as a collection of Falla as well.
The posters spanned most of the twentieth century, with the sculptures far more contemporary. No surprise here, given until recently even the winning Falla was traditionally burned!
It was all pretty cool, tied in well with the festival itself and was compact enough that we didn’t get bored.
With a breakfast of predominantly just bread and sugar, it was little surprise that by mid afternoon we were quite peckish.
Queue a late afternoon feed of Pintxos!
We chose a few morsels each, found ourselves a nice window perch and people watched over a very Spanish feed…
* Our Eurail 2 country passes allowing 6 days of travel within 2 months cost us $96.00AUD per person (a special travel agents rate).
* To enjoy the festivities of Las Fallas, it is actually FREE to just roam the streets (if a little crazy).