Las Fallas de Valencia is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular festivals in Spain — the whole town is literally set ablaze!
Does the smell of gunpowder excite you? Do fires make you smile? Do you secretly harbor pyrotechnic urges that are only socially acceptable on the Fourth of July?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then Las Fallas festival is your kind of event — a loud, smoky, high-spirited fiesta where flickering flames dance in the streets and plazas of Valencia! Find out the most important facts you need to know about the festival, and when you come to Valencia you’ll feel right at home among the falleros and falleras.
The origins of the festival are uncertain, but there are a few main theories. The most popular version says that Las Fallas comes from a centuries-old Valencian tradition in which the city’s carpenters would burn old materials they didn’t need on the day before the day of St. Joseph (March 19), the patron saint of carpenters. They would also burn the wooden instruments used to hold up the oil lamps they needed to use to work at night. (Since the festival is held right around the spring equinox, at this point of the year the days lasted longer and the extra hours of sunlight meant that the carpenters didn’t need the light of the oil lamps to work.)
Another theory claims that the practice dates back to time immemorial, from the ancient tradition of setting fires to celebrate equinoxes and solstices (i.e., changes of the seasons). In this view, Las Fallas comes from a long tradition of fires celebrating spring. Lastly, there is an old European tradition in a which dolls or figures representing a persona non grata would be hung from balconies or posts before being flung into a fire. This theory explains the satirical nature of Las Fallas as it is celebrated today.
People may disagree about the origins of the Las Fallas, but we do know that the festival is hundreds of years old: the first written record that mentions Las Fallas is from the second half of the 18th century, when the Valencian government made various laws governing where the fires could be set.
You may hear or see the festival being referred to as Fallas (in Spanish) or Falles (in Valencian). In both cases, the word is the plural of the Valencian word falla (Spanish and Valencian form plurals differently). But what exactly does falla mean?
Over the centuries, the word falla has come a long way from its original meaning: torch. As the meaning of the word has evolved, it has taken on the connotation of the fiestas during which special torches were lit (this meaning can be seen in 13th-century Valencian texts) to referring to a bonfire lit on the in the middle of a gathering or fiesta (16th century), to referring to a fire used to burn old furniture and other discarded objects. In the 18th century, a falla became a fire lit to burn ninots (puppets or dolls) used in satire, and eventually, the figures themselves also came to be known as falles (or fallas).
Today, the word fallas has many different meanings: it may be used to refer to the festival itself, the fires that form part of the festival, the scenes that are built and later set on fire, or the communities of neighbors who manage and carry out the construction of the figures.
Valencia, a quiet city with a population of about 800,000, more than doubles in size when over a million fire-loving revelers are drawn to Las Fallas celebrations like moths to a flame.
The festival lasts five days, from March 15 to 19, but the atmosphere starts to build weeks before: starting on March 1 (and continuing through March 19), a thunderous firecracker show called a mascletà is held every day at 2 p.m. in Plaza del Ayuntamiento. The firecrackers shake the ground for next 10 minutes, as the mascletá is an auditive experience rather than a visual one. (Incredible visual fireworks displays are also held every night from March 15-19.)
The festival really gets cracking on March 15, with La Plantà, when more than 700 enormous ninots (puppets or dolls) are set up around the city, and most roads are cut off to traffic, making way for all the people and activities that will fill the streets during the days and nights the fiesta.
For many, the main focus of Las Fallas is the creation and destruction of ninots, which are huge statues made of papier-mache, cardboard, wood, or plaster. The ninots are extremely lifelike and usually depict bawdy, satirical scenes and current events. Many ninots are several stories tall, and cranes are needed to move them into their final locations in Valencia’s parks, plazas, and intersections. Several ninots are organized together to make the multi-faceted story of each falla.
Over the next few days, people walk around the city, admiring the artistry and humor of the creative masterpieces and enjoying the traditional pastries being sold on (seemingly) every street corner. For the most authentic local experience, try the Valencian classic bunyols de carabassa (pumpkin fritters) with a cup of chocolate.
The ninots remain in place until all the fallas are set aflame on March 19, the day known as La Cremà (the burning).
Each year, one of the ninots is spared from destruction by popular vote. It is called the ninot indultat (the pardoned ninot) and is exhibited in the local Fallas Museum along with the other favorites from years past.
In addition to the daily firecracker extravaganzas and the climactic burning of the ninots, a myriad of other events also form part of Las Fallas. Festival goers can enjoy an extensive roster of bullfights, music, parades, paella contests, flower offerings, and beauty pageants around the city.
Can’t make it to Valencia in March? Check out other Spanish festivals to plan your trip around.