Gandia is the capital of the county of La Safor, between the mountains and the beaches of The Mediterranean. Like its much larger neighbour Valencia, Gandia greets the arrival of springtime with a spectacular pyrotechnic festival known as Las Fallas. Various events and entertainments take place over the period of a few days, culminating in the Feast of Saint Joseph on 19 March. All the hard work put into the creation of giant figures of wood and paper go up in smoke in the great bonfires that take place in the evening as part of the Gandia Fallas celebrations.
The Las Fallas must rank as one of the most extraordinary fiestas in Spain. Indeed, over the past few years it has gained international recognition as one of those remarkable events that you should see – at least once in your lifetime.
Certainly, the sheer scale of La Fallas is astonishing with the main festivities taking place over five days (15th – 19th March every year). However, the ‘work up’ to Las Fallas starts from February with the last five days of Las Fallas being the explosive (in every sense of the word!) finale, culminating in La Cremà (the climax) on the last night – which is almost indescribable!
Without doubt, you would have to be made of stone not to delight in the humour, excess, joy and sheer lunacy of Las Fallas. Indeed, prepare to be left stunned and over-joyed. The gorgeous parades, the amazing Mascaletás, the great bands, the stunning fireworks displays and massive effigies blazing in the middle of city streets is enough to ‘move’ anyone. This is a fiesta in Spain that needs to be seen to be believed.
In fact, Las Fallas is nothing if not a wonderful mass madness and an antidote to the politically correct, health and safety obsessed world of modern Northern Europe. It is unique, wonderful, a cry of joie de vivre and Spain at its most eccentric – and very best!
But what is Las Fallas, what happens and what is it all about?
History and Location
Las Fallas is a fiesta in Spain that is celebrated in Valencia Province and the towns and villages of the Province. The most dramatic celebrations (in terms of sheer scale) take place in Valencia city itself – however to neglect Las Fallas in the surrounding towns and villages would be a mistake. Somewhere like the town of Gandia has a remarkable Las Fallas and the intimacy of a small town can make the celebrations even more enjoyable than within Valencia city.
Las Fallas, in one form or another, probably dates back at least to the Middle Ages. Indeed, its roots may lie in it being an ancient pagan ceremony celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
More conventionally Las Fallas is thought to have arisen as a consequence of carpenters effectively spring cleaning their premises of waste timber, which they burnt on the day of their patron saint, St Joseph. The latter is also the patron saint of Valencia and of fathers (so his day, the 19th March, is not just the climax of Las Fallas but also is celebrated in the rest of Spain as father’s day).
In any event, over time, Las Fallas developed into a celebration that went well beyond anything Valencian carpenters of old could have imagined and now, despite its Christian elements, is probably closer to what ancient pagans would have wished for. Indeed, they probably now look down upon Las Fallas approvingly!
Certainly, the days of burning unwanted timber have long gone to be replaced by extraordinary effigies that are works of art (Ninots) in their own right. These are often huge (sometimes three or four storeys high) and incredibly detailed.
The sheer scale of Las Fallas (whether in Valencia city itself or the surrounding towns and villages) means that neighbourhoods work on the Las Fallas celebrations all year. Of course, not everyone does this and some Valencians have little interest in Las Fallas. So, the organisation falls upon fallero associations called Casales Faller or Comissiós Fallera who raise money throughout the year to fund the Las Fallas celebrations in their particular barrio (district). These organisations design and commission effigies to be made (Ninots) together with planning the fireworks, parties and other celebrations.
Each fallero organisation also appoints a fallera queen (Fallera Reina) who becomes the focal point of the Las Fallas organisation. This is a much coveted position and one that is considered important for anyone of status. It is also an extremely expensive appointment and it would be rare indeed for a Fallera Reina to come from a poor family. Each asociation Fallera Reina must not just dress in the finest traditional Valencian costume but also has to wine and dine other falleros associations throughout the year.
All falleros, both male and female, wear traditional Valencian dress during Las Fallas which is completely unlike Flamenco dress. It is very decorative, ornate and expensive with ladies dresses frequently costing 3,000 Euros – or very much more!
Las Fallas Effigies
Each fallero association is responsible for producing its own effigies. These vary enormously in size but are always fabulously detailed and are made with extraordinary care and attention to detail. The Ninots, when put up (La Planta) make up intricate scenes or tableaus, the cost of which can be breathtaking. Indeed, corporate sponsors will support individual associations and it is far from unknown for an association to spend 75,000 Euros on their effigies!
In fact, the Ninots are often bawdy (Valencians seem to have few, if any, taboos!) and some are caricatures of politicians or politically sensitive issues. Indeed, the Ninots and the scenes they present are often very satirical and are accompanied by placards with amusing (and often biting) comments.
Alongside the main Ninots are falla infantíl. These are much smaller Ninots and are the children’s effigies, which are well worth close attention as they are often wonderfully detailed, very humorous and, often, form gloriously fun scenes. They are set beside the main Las Fallas effigies.
The Ninots usually have a wooden internal frame with their forms made from cardboard, wood, polystyrene and papier-maché. They are then painted beautifully – so much so that it is almost impossible to imagine that they will be set on fire within days of being displayed! Needless to say, they are highly inflammable.
The seven parts to Las Fallas
Las Fallas is a fiesta that is a lot more complicated and ritualised than is apparent to anyone attending the fiesta only between the 15th – 19th March. The latter dates are when Las Fallas is at its most concentrated and overt but the month beforehand is important for all the people involved in the Las Fallas associations. Indeed, Las Fallas is formalised and has seven parts (all of which are accompanied by parties, meals and socialising):
1. Proclamation and nomination of the Fallas Reinas ( Fallas queens).
2. Exaltation. This is when the Fallas Reinas receive their sashes and the Falla chairman makes a speech.
3. La Cridà. This is the formal opening ceremony to Las Fallas and is held on the last Sunday of February. It is accompanied by a procession in full traditional dress with bands (great music!) and, depending upon the association, a firework display. In Valencia city the opening ceremonyof La Cridà is at the Torres de Serrano and the fireworks are set off from the river bed.
4. Cavalacade. On the 6th (adults) and 7th March (children) parades occur though any town celebrating Las Fallas, with all the falleros in traditional Valencian dress accompanied by their bands. These are beautiful processions that are a delight to see. Then on the 17th March there is a fancy dress parade (cavalcade) where, quite literally, pretty much anything goes! It can be enormous fun to watch – and sometimes is quite outrageous…
5. Ofrenda de Flores, a la Virgen de los Desmparados (the offering of flowers Las Fallas). This is a homage to St Joseph and a tribute (in flowers) to the Virgin Mary. Huge processions march to a central point in a given town or village and there present the flowers to assistants who place them around a specially constructed form of the Virgin Mary. The offering of flowers is a beautiful ceremony and should not be missed! Depending upon the town it is held on the 17th and/or 18th March.
6. La Planta. This is when the Ninots are erected. This can often take several days and involve heavy duty cranes! Each barrio will have its own area of effigies and so somewhere like Valencia will have over 300 faller associations, each with their own individual scenes. Somewhere smaller like Gandia has around 27 (the total number of barrios in the town). La Planta occurs on or around the 15th March.
7. La Cremà. This is when the effigies are burnt on the 19th March. The children’s effigies are burnt first (at around 21.00 hrs) with the main fallas burnt from around 23.00 hrs until around 05.00 hrs on the 20th March. It is virtually impossible to know the order in which the fallas are to be burnt – so, to catch the burning requires patience or, sometimes, a good deal of energy or ‘secret’ information.
There is, of course, a lot more to Las Fallas than just the fallas themselves and the processions. Notably, there are some truly amazing firework displays in Valencia. These are held on on several nights depending upon where you are and are often dramatic. The Valencians love fireworks and pride themselves on their firework displays in Valencia which are watched with the attention of truc afficionados. As a consequence, you will often see some of the best displays of your life.
The biggest firework display in Valencia is on the night of the 18th March (La Nit del Foc) in Valencia city. This is normally held in the river bed of Valencia (which is a park!).
However, one of the more extraordinary ‘firework displays’ is something called a Mascaletá. This is only ever held during daytime and is a ‘concert’ of fireworks where the whole point of the event centres around the noise that the fireworks make – as opposed to the sight of them. However, the noise in a good Mascaletá is very cleverly orchestrated, rather like hearing a thousand well conducted drummers producing music from their drums alone.
Mind you, the other aspect to a Mascaletá is to see how loud the fireworks can be! This, as you can imagine, is a challenge that the Valencians rise to with glee and the daily Valencia city Mascaletá is televised and has a noise scanner to see which of the Mascaletás makes the most noise! Incredibly, there is a Mascaletá every day from the 1st March to the 19th March in Valencia city at 14.00 hrs. Other towns and villages generally have a Mascaletá only between the 15th March – 19th March at 14.00 hrs.
You may get some idea of how loud a Mascaletá can be by the name given to the end of the Mascaletá – the Terremoto (earthquake)! This will take your breath away and leave you vibrating like a tuning fork! Frankly, Mascaletás are so crazy that you just have to see one before you will ever believe what they are like…
The biggest Mascaletá is held in the town hall square (Plaza Ayuntamiento)Valencia city on the last day of Las Fallas. Do not miss it!
Meanwhile, wake up time during Las Fallas is called La Despertà and starts early every morning with an explosion of fireworks. So, if you think that you can rest undisturbed after a very late night out – think again! Las Fallas is truly five days of 24 hour partying and activities.
Indeed, with Valencia on holiday, anywhere in the Province celebrating Las Fallas is vibrant with partying and street life. It is a great time – exciting, fascinating, fun and a great delight for any traveller.
So, if you have the opportunity, come to Valencia for Las Fallas and be a part of a fiesta in Spain that you will never forget…