Imagine the scene:
You are walking through a southern Spanish town centre admiring the shops when firecrackers go off around your feet, much to the delight of youngsters intent on scaring the hell out of you. The unforgettable firework smell reaching up into your nostrils brings a sense of nostalgia to your inner child on Bonfire night. Then rising out of the smoke you see these enormous effigies towering in front of you, some of which are as tall as a three storey buildings. Amazing works of art, these satirical compositions tell a story of local, national or international events with a humorous twist.
Compelled to admire the artists’ work, your keep your whits about you as the firecrackers continue to test your nerves. Families set alight fireworks in the street, dancing around them in some bizarre ritual of playfulness without any due care for their wellbeing. And then in the distance you hear the sound of a brass band, banging out a tune or two that has you jigging and foot tapping in unconscious merriment. The sight of the entourage looks something like a scene out of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, as trails of young people dressed in national costume parade behind the players, weaving their way through the streets with a partying vibe running through their veins.
Welcome to the Las Fallas celebrations of the Valencian Community in eastern Spain. One of the biggest festivals for the area that signals merriment, artwork supreme and community spirit. Whilst the city of Valencia is the biggest celebration, other towns in the region also pay homage to the traditions. Our experience comes from Denia, in the southern part of the area.
This is one spectacle that must be seen once in your lifetime, although it needs careful navigation and so this is a quick guide to help you survive this mad weekend of festivities and stay safe, sane and enthralled.
The history of Las Fallas goes back to 18th Century – a tradition that to this day is held in high regard, as district communities prepare, present and honour their unique effigies to the town.
Between the 15-19 March every year, this most incredible event delights the locals and onlookers alike and the daily rituals organise the residents’ diary as they lead up to the pinnacle of the celebrations on San José – 19 March.
- Initiating on 15th March, at 8.00am there is a call to the day’s festivities called La Despertà – the wake up call – and the party begins. So if you’re staying close to the town, then bare in mind that sleep may be on borrowed time.
Las Fallas – a winner
- 15th March also sees the Plantà, when the effigies are installed in each of the districts. These effigies are up to 100ft tall, so it’s not like a carnival float type of experience. The effigies remain in their place for the whole period. You must do the visiting.
For Dénia there are 11 districts, so if you want to see each of the Fallas, then you’ll need a map and good walking shoes to see them all as they are in every corner of the town. You can do a walking tour with a guide from Tourist Information on 17 March, which costs €8.00 per person. This is at least two hours and takes you around some of the main districts. Personally, we recommend getting a map and going to visit them yourself. Some of the statues in the outer reaches of the town are not significant so you could probably miss those ones out – keep to the inner sanctum of the town and you’ll get a really good flavour of these masterpieces.
- La Mascetà – a day-time firecracker performance, which happens at 2.30pm each day in different districts, although we saw them twice in the upper section of Marco de Campo. The display is quite bizarre – we’re not used to seeing fireworks light up a blue, daytime sky. I’ve never been near a war zone although I can imagine that the sound of gunfire and bombs must be like this. The sound and vibration fills your entire chest and creates a slightly uneasy feeling in your heart – although you soon realise it’s a celebration not a war-zone. It is a very strange experience.
For a more traditional Firework Display, on 18 March at 2030, there is a huge Mascletada in Plaça Jaume, which is a phenomenal explosion of pyrotechnic brilliance. Highly recommend this one, although get there early enough to get a good position to see it in all its glory.
L’Ofrena de flors
L’Ofrena de flors happens on 19th March at 11.30am along Calle Marco de Campo. This is a procession of flower girls from each district, honouring the Virgin Mary. The flowers are gathered outside the Convent on a huge statue of the Virgin, which is then duly decorated. Arrive at 11.00am for a roadside seat which will cost you €3.00 for a couple of hours entertainment. Seeing the girls and boys with their stunning traditional costumes and headdresses carrying bouquets of flowers is a sight to see. Infants, young and old all take part in this celebration of offering of flowers.
The Virgin Mary
It’s a long procession, although for 90 minutes it is a lovely sight to see. Choose a place that allows you to pop through to the Convent so you can see the Virgin being decorated. Our suggestion is then – go home and have a restful siesta before the evening’s culmination begins.
La Cremà is the finale of the week’s celebrations where each of the effigies are officially burnt to the ground with pomp and ceremony befitting a Queen. Starting in descending order, from 2100, the burning begins; first the children’s statues and then leading up to the special effigies from midnight through to 3.00am. Fireworks are launched from within the statues signalling the start and what takes months of planning, building and painting is reduced to ashes within 10 mins. Black, toxic smoke fills the streets and air around you. Even the following morning, you can still smell the polystyrene aroma floating around. Flames lick the balconies that overlook the squares that the effigies call home, with Firemen turning their hoses skywards to protect the surrounding buildings. So given the claim to fame of Dénia being the third healthiest place in the world to live, this could be disputed during this weekend.
We headed in to town at 2200 to watch the burning of a couple of the little Fallas and then searched out a medium sized effigy burning at 0045. Remember that most schedules are Spanish time, so be flexible. Again get there early to get a spot and take something to cover your mouth as the fumes are really unpleasant for a time. You will get covered in soot so your Sunday best is not required! Go to Tourist Info on 18 March so you can get the schedule of burnings. Although do bare in mind that these don’t always go according to plan, so follow the crowds and don’t be tempted to walk to the outer reaches of the town as the statues are not always the strongest in the competition.
Our view is, once you’ve seen a couple of Cremàs, then staying for all 11 is not necessary, if your bed is calling. If like us, you have indulged in the festivities throughout the week, this final push is just that. And a couple of burning experiences sufficed for us.
Over all, Las Fallas is one of those experiences that you have to be part of and enter into. We stayed in a campsite about 3kms away from the central hub, www.lospinosdenia.com so managed to retreat from the frenzied activity whilst being close enough to cycle in and feel the vibe. It requires pacing, cameras, videos and good shoes, although certainly worth doing.
For more on our experiences in Denia, 2017, click here in our blog Delightful Denia – Las Fallas:
Pin it for later?
Spain cannot be rivalled for its annual diary of fiestas, each one demonstrating a certain passion for religion, ancient tradition or simply just enjoying a damn good party. One of the things we love most about travelling is being able to, not just spectate, to really throw ourselves into these celebrations and get a real sense of the country’s culture. One such fiesta is held only in the Valencian Community on the eastern coast of Spain in mid March, and it is a spectacle not to be missed.
It was Las Fallas time! (pronounced fiyas, not fallas as this has a whole different meaning, which you might want to google!)
Denia, in the south eastern corner of Spain is famous for many things; its orange groves, its tin and wooden toy history, raisins, its microclimate, and Montgó National Park. And interestingly, it is the third healthiest place to live, according to the World Health Organisation.
This is our third visit to this lovely part of Spain and each time we come back, we fall just a little bit more in love with it and its quirkiness. Albeit on the Costa Blanca coast, there are no high rise towers, no wall-to-wall hotels along crowded promenades, just a very lovely marina, a buzzy tree-lined high street, a Friday market full of tasty, fresh fruit and veg and gastronomic restaurants dotted all around the town. Turn right from the port and you have a 4km promenade, that takes you along a craggy coastline, where you can climb up to the ‘PepperPot’ and the windmills overlooking Javea, or if you’re adventurous, take the mountain-goat track towards the beautiful Tallada caves. So many lovely aspects to this town that, like a onion, keeps revealing more and more layers, the longer you stay.
What stands out in the town’s calendar though are the Las Fallas’ celebrations held during the week leading up to 19 March, which is the day Saint Joseph is honoured. This was the purpose of our third visit as we are so curious about Spain’s fiestas and this one, we had been told not to miss out on. So when we were warned about it being a serious party weekend, I don’t think we were quite prepared for how much revelling we would be doing.
Las Fallas, as a celebration, dates back to 18th century when the locals from the Valencian Community held a simple festival to welcome the arrival of spring. To co-incide with Saint Joseph, spouse of the Virgin Mary, local wood workers would build small statues that in some way depicted local events or characters in a satirical way. During the day, children would collect burnable materials and build small rubbish heaps that they called fallas. These were then burnt on the eve of Saint Joseph’s day.
Today, the event bares no resemblance to its historical sibling. These days huge statues, as tall as three buses are created, taking months to lovingly craft and which are assembled in the centre of each district’s heartland – and competition is rife between the fallas’ artists. Although intended to unify a community, the modern-day celebration is more about neighbourhoods trying to out-do one another to produce the best effigies possible. Each one is a complicated structure of steel, wood and polystyrene, which take a whole year to plan, organise and construct. Each statue tells its own satirical story and is judged based on their detail, character’s facial expressions and the degree of skill shown by the artist in their composition and balancing acts. It is reported that some of the larger effigies cost up to €20,000 to construct and they are truly magnificent. Before being part of this fiesta, I had an image of a parade of statues on wheels that would move, in procession like format through the streets, much like a UK carnival. Not so and when you see the size and complexity of these works of art, you’ll understand why they can’t move.
Once the effigies have been presented to the town on 15 March – which is called La Plantà, each district begin to visit their neighbouring counterparts and honour their fallas, with dancing and brass bands parading up and down the streets. The partying is pretty intense as you get closer to Saint Joseph’s day, which is when ‘La Cremà’ – the burning takes place, bringing the celebrations to a close. The week’s festivities have a strict schedule and although each town might do things slightly differently, the intent is all the same – party, party, party! By Sunday the revellers look physically exhausted having not slept for three days.
Our experiences in Dénia were a sensory explosion; Our ears were battered from daytime firecracker displays and young children setting off fireworks right beside your feet, making your nerves jangle. Our eyes feasted on the formal night-time fireworks that lit up the sky and the processions of stunning regional costumes that put Joseph’s Techni-coloured Dream-coat to shame. Our hearts vibrated with the feet tapping brass bands that popped up from every street corner and the vibe that bounced off the buildings was palpable. Each statue took its pride of place, demanding your respect, as their characters towered above you, reach for the clouds. The colours, design and story behind each work of art was a sight to behold. You could take 20 minutes looking around each statue and every angle offered you something unique and yet more intrinsic in detail. It over-shadows Disneyland for its fairy-tale composition. What a tragedy that they burn them!
All day and most of the night there is something going on during Las Fallas and you can’t help getting taken along with the energy that dances around every street corner. Although the pinnacle of the festival is La Cremà, where the fallas are burnt ceremonially on 19 March in honour of Saint Joseph. Now this is no normal, health and safety organised event where you are miles from the central stage – for La Cremà you are up close and personal. These are fires that burn in street Plazas adjacent to apartments, bars and restaurants. We felt distraught to see these masterpieces be strung up with fireworks and then offered to the God of Art as flames consumed every inch of the constructions, reducing them to soggy ashes on the concrete beneath them. Months to create and 10 minutes to destroy and yet, paradoxically we saw each district rejoice in the burning ceremony and the party continued. Most bizarre.
We felt a little underwhelmed by the burning and not really sure why. I can’t think what my expectation was, although somehow it didn’t quite match my image – perhaps I’ve been to too many Bonfire Night events. Or may be the lack of organisation played a part trying to reach the burning at the right time. Or perhaps being so close to toxic smoke-filled air was too much to bare. I suspect that staying up to 1.30am to see La Cremà and a certain exhaustion from the weekend’s events played a part in our reaction. Still seeing the flames flirt menacingly with apartment balconies was an intriguing experience, although the Firemen had it all under control. Our faces looked like something out of a Chimney Sweep’s convention by the end of the evening, as hoses constantly dousing the flames sent soggy ashes into the sky only to float down to the throng of observers below.
And so our Denia love affair continues after the buzz of their La Fallas celebrations. Strangely as we took a quiet day post-party, it was amazing to see how clean the streets were, after only a few hours. There was simply no evidence that any fiesta had taken place. The roads were as clean as a baby’s bum and no ashes were to be seen. Just the subtle smell of burning polystyrene that lingered in the air, reminded you of the fiesta’s presence.
We were so glad to have experienced this unique event and it will remain in our memories and our lungs I suspect. For a Guide on how to Survive Las Fallas, click here – and put it on your Spanish To-Do-List for next year. Love from the Motoroamers. xx
Pin for Later?
Check out our gallery