An Explosive End to Winter in Valencia, Spain
By Debi Goodwin

A traveler weary of cold weather finds herself caught up in Valencia's Las Fallas, a boisterous street festival that ends the gloomy months with a bang.

Valencia travel

We followed thousands of locals as they commandeered streets to walk to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the city's main square surrounded for the month by a high mesh fence. Small fireworks were strung across wires inside the fence and seemed to explode randomly. In broad daylight. Which puzzled us. We soon learned locals came not for the sight, but for the sound, a "symphony" of gunpowder intricately planned by master technicians. As the air filled with smoke, there were loud bangs, followed by rapid fire quick bursts and a final crescendo of constant popping. Not exactly music to my ears. But there wasn't a day when the crowds didn't come for La Mascelta.

We went to get away from the end of a hard North America winter, to a city known for its gentle, Mediterranean microclimate. In March, Valencia—an hour by high speed train from Madrid—offers warmer days than just about anywhere else in Spain and we needed that. We knew we'd be there for Las Fallas, the annual festival that has both Christian and pagan roots. Until we were thrust into the boisterous, colorful, in-your-face celebration, however, we had no idea just how seriously this city welcomes the end of their mild winter.

The month of March began calmly enough. Valencia is a city lined with oranges trees, medieval buildings, ancient trading houses, and elegant apartments. Its leafy trees are filled with cafes and fine restaurants serving local wines and cuisine including the Valencian paella of seafood and rabbit meat. But it doesn't draw the tourist crowds of Madrid or Barcelona.

The city is manageable; it offers free art galleries, loads of old architectural gems and one of the most amazing parks I've ever come across, Turia River Bed Garden. It's named after the river that once flowed there and routinely flooded the city. After a particularly brutal flood in the late 1950s engineers diverted the river's path. Spanish dictator, Franciso Franco, thought it would be a great idea to turn the remaining dry river bed into part of a ring road, but city officials wisely kept it as parkland. It's now filled with soccer fields, walking paths, exercise stations and trees that seem straight out a child's fantasy book. When I first climbed down into the trench-like park, I immediately left behind the bustle of the third largest city in Spain but not its history and culture. Walking along five and half miles of trail, I passed under seventeen bridges that date from the fifteenth century to this past one and ended the walk at the modern City of Arts and Science with its planetarium and stunning aquarium.


It didn't take long, though, for a more energetic vibe to stir the city and for the first signs of Las Fallas to appear. Firecrackers began to pop beneath our feet wherever we went. It was easy to tell the tourists by the way they jumped at the sound. The locals—even the dogs—remained blasé. On sidewalks, at outdoor cafés, children lit small firecrackers and threw them as far as they could while parents watched with amusement.

Next the traditional costumes started appearing: women with coiled braids in bright brocaded dresses, men in stockings and short pants. They would walk together in small neighborhood parades. In the indoor market, children in costumes mingled with shoppers looking for fresh oranges and Spanish ham.

In squares and at street corners we began to see shrink-wrapped papier-maché statues that looked part Disney, part Smurf. Committees in each neighborhood in the city began to unwrap and assemble the pieces, known as ninots, into sculptures, with satirical messages in Spanish at their feet, messages of such local interest we never really got them. Each day when we went to the market we watched the sculpture there rise until it was higher than the buildings around it.

shrink wrap

For some parts of Spain—where bullfighting hasn't been banned—spring also marks the beginning of the new season. And the tradition is strong in Valencia, where the first sessions coincide with Las Fallas. In early March, for days, patrons lined up at the windows of the bullfighting ring for tickets to the matches with famous toreadors, paying up to one-thousand euros a seat. We decided we should see a bullfight but opted for a junior session where young toreadors would show off their stuff.

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