The springtime celebration of Las Fallas in Valencia was billed to be a great Spanish festival, but for me, it was more akin to a post-apocalyptic survival scenario. It may look fun in videos, but from experience, I can say that it is a nightmarish scenario that I don’t recommend attending for 16 hours straight.
Think about it: endless hours in a concrete jungle, no free place to sit down, no wifi to communicate with anyone, rain, firecrackers and fireworks exploding at random, enormous crowds, and tall burning structures in the middle of streets… What could go wrong?
Basically, Las Fallas today has transformed into a week-long celebration of various Valencian traditions, culminating in the burning of wooden effigies.There are religious elements, but I’m not entirely sure what they are. But I do know that there is an entire day dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Her dress is entirely ‘made’ of bouquets of flowers! This plaza smelled wonderful.
I only went for one day, the day that the statues were burned. However, before getting into my horrid ordeal, I’ll give a little background as to what Las Fallas is.
Las Fallas was originally created by Valencian craftsmen, as a way of burning their unused materials. However, over time, the celebration turned into more of a form of ritual burning, complete with stylized effigies of disliked people in the community/country. Fallas is known for the its biting satirical edge, and no one is safe from its wrath. However, from what I saw at the festival, politicians are the most vulnerable to being roasted – figuratively and literally – by the Valencian community.
Typically, one statue is funded and built by a neighborhood in Valencia each year. The statues can range in price from a couple thousand euros, to multiple millions. The price doesn’t seem to be an issue for most citizens, and no one I spoke to seemed to make the connection that they were literally burning their hard earned money.
And for what? 3 minutes of fun watching it burn and having their tax dollars clean up the ashes first thing the next morning? For a country that seems to have such a deficit/spending problem, a celebration such as surprises me.
Anyways, so with Las Fallas, with each neighborhood who builds a statue, there are also smaller ones for children that are burned at an earlier, kid friendly time (10pm… Yeah, I know). The Ayuntamiento of the city gives out prizes for the best Fallas created.
This year, the Calle Cuba won first place.
There are parades and other Valencian-centric festivities. Many of the citizens, at some point during the week dress in the traditional Valencian clothing to celebrate their heritage.
Now. Let’s get to my story.
So, I signed up in February for the group outing with the UA to go to Las Fallas. I had heard from everyone that it was marvelous, and so worth going to. So I was excited going in! I didn’t do my homework as to what the festival involved, but figured it was fine.
So, on the Saturday of the burning of the Fallas (March 19th), I woke up bright and early to get on the bus to Valencia at a plaza near my house. 8am wakeup calls in Spain are rare, especially on the weekends. I should have been suspicious then. But I wasn’t.
The bus ride took us two hours, and after a lengthy stop at a gas station, we arrived in Valencia around 11am. Once we got there we were more or less dumped off to go roam the streets until 12am until the Fallas were burned. Then at 3:30 AM the next day, we would be recollected and driven back to Alicante.
Thankfully for me, I decided to glob myself onto a group of girls in my program: Tori, Sage, and Marshall. All girls that I am friendly with, and share the tram ride to school with often. Sage had a friend in Valencia who agreed to show us around for a couple hours.
So we walked. And saw Fallas.
And walked more. More Fallas.
You get the idea.
Until about 2pm, where we went to a main square to see something called Las Mascletas. This mini celebration within Las Fallas, that is a 5 minute firecracker and firework display, probably commemorating something that I don’t know about. Anyways, there isn’t much to tell about this thing… I was in a sea of a couple thousand other Spaniards, sandwiched into the middle of the street. The main event happened about a block away, but it was so packed that you couldn’t get any closer.
Just a couple thousand of my closets friends in Valencia to see Las Mascletas
If you’ve ever seen a fireworks display for the Fourth of July or New Year’s, Las Mascletas is kind of like that, except less impressive, because there are buildings in the way. Also, it started to rain just as the first firecrackers went off. So basically I could only hear the fireworks, and see the smoke, because as soon as one raindrop fell, every Spaniard had their umbrella out like they feared the rain more than unpredictable small explosives.
Anyways, after the underwhelming display of Mascletas, we went back to doing… Nothing. Lots of walking around. At one point we turned into a bar to be able to sit and order a drink, and we were already completely exhausted. Mind you, this was like at 3pm. There were still 12 hours left to be in Valencia. We had no set plans, except for viewing the burning of the Fallas at midnight, and the light show at 8pm.
So we walked.
And saw Fallas.
And walked around some more.
And really, once you see about three Fallas, they all start beginning to look the same.
Cut to 8pm, where it was time to go file into another packed street and see the light show. There was an illuminated tunnel that lead to the 1st place Falla.
The tunnel entrance
The show was cool, but after it ended, I almost got stuck in a stampede. So many people were trying to get in to walk through the tunnel that there was a jam, and no one could get through at all. Given the Spanish custom of having no sidewalk etiquette, nor any conception of space, no one could get through, because not one person would move.
Eventually the police came to unclog the masses, and at that point people were getting angry and starting to push one another. Meanwhile, I was holding tight onto the other girls, doing our best not to get smashed and/or separated in the mess of people. After about 15 minutes we were able to get out…
It was a pretty horrible experience, and I don’t consider myself claustrophobic. It took a lot to stay calm with hundreds of people pushing you off your feet and taking you wherever, like a rip current.
I see now how places like Black Friday shopping and crowded stadiums can quickly diverge into dangerous corridors where people get trampled. I feel like things were quickly escalating in that situation, and I’m so glad we never got to full blown panic or violence. It was pretty scary… Even for a fully grown adult like myself. There were tiny Spanish children and babies that had been taken out by their parents, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like for them.
After that awful crowded mess, we attempted to make our way out and away from the wild crowds. However, we promptly got stuck in another crowd vortex, this time trying to get across the street. The problem was, was that the Fallas are constructed in the middle of the narrow streets, leaving little room for hardly any foot-traffic to pass around. Everyone was trying to get somewhere else, and again, things practically dissolved into pure chaos before our eyes. Shouting, pushing, elbowing… It was bad. I got a couple good elbow jabs to my back, and more than once I was pinned against two other people.
Eventually, we got out from the second traffic jam, and made a beeline away from all things Fallas related. At this point there was about 6 hours until we were scheduled to go home, and we were pretty miserable. We had nowhere to sit, our backs were aching, and my ears ached dully from all the firecrackers that had been set off in such close proximity to my head.
After having a series of small heart attacks thanks to the firecrackers – that were being set off at random by small, unsupervised children – it eventually got to be 12am… Thank god. We found a smaller Falla (because we had had ENOUGH of large crowds), and packed into the narrow street to watch it burn.
Then we finally got to see some fire.
Then, there were only two hours left.
We spent those two hours, after stopping into a Burger King for food for the girls, by looking around for benches and places to sit. However, the city workers of Valencia had taken and temporarily removed many of the bus stop and city benches. However, those who hadn’t been removed where soaked in water, thanks to the steady drizzle that had finally overtaken the heavy clouds.
It was raining, the streets were a sea of wet garbage and beer bottles, and many of the Spaniards had resurfaced drunk and rowdy, ready to drink and fight. Shouts were coming from all directions, and police sirens could be heard on a constant loop at varying proximities to our location.
It was as close to purgatory as I think I’ve ever gotten in this world.
By 2:00 am, we had found a couple other members of the UA group, ones who had been similarly splintered and orphaned by the large crowds. They were similarly miserable, which was, in a way, comforting.
We waiting outside the Plaza de Toros in the middle of the city until 3am, when we were scheduled to walk back to our buses, lead by a few useless ‘guides’ provided by the UA.
Eventually, we got on our bus, and I have never felt as worn out as I did then in my entire life. Bus seats, while practical, aren’t usually the most welcoming thing… However, at 3:30 am, after 16 hours of walking on concrete, it was as good as sitting in a cradle made of the softest Tempurpedic foam.
With our sights set out on Alicante, the three UA buses finally, mercifully left the godforsaken hellscape that is Valencia during Las Fallas. We all were so grateful to leave, I practically starting weeping.
Then, I did weep… Because 20 minutes after leaving Valencia, our bus broke down on the side of the road.
That’s right. Just our luck, right? Well, along with an engine problem, the heater went out. So at 4:00 am, we were a shivering mass of 60 students, trying to sleep until our replacement bus arrived to save us.
Instead of arriving in Alicante at 5:30 in the morning, we rolled in at exactly 8:00. Our excursion lasted almost an entire day…. And I don’t really have anything else to add except for how amazing my shower felt when I finally got to my host parent’s house. It was indescribable. Then, crawling into bed in fresh pajamas? Also amazing.
The rest of the day I stayed in bed, too worn out and sore to do much of anything.
If you happen to be a future Alicante study abroad student, the one thing that I can say about Las Fallas is do your research. Fallas is a LOT.
Additionally, I see absolutely no reason to go with the UA group… Perhaps look at other available options. I’m being serious when I say that the excursion could have been cut in half, and you wouldn’t miss anything. It’s a pretty miserable thing, being there and being so uncomfortable for so long, with nothing to do. Mental preparedness will get you through a lot better than I got through. I now feel so fed up with Valencia, because I didn’t know what I was going to be doing there, that I feel like I’ll never be able to return and be comfortable in Valencia.
However, to wrap this up, I should mention, that most of my recounting was just reflecting my personal experience. I’m sure some people had a completely bitchin’ time, and want to go back in the future. I do not ever want to go back; and that choice is mine, and mine alone.
La Fallera, the symbol of Las Fallas
Honestly, I have nothing to complain of. I went; I saw a famous Spanish festival, something that people come to from all around the world to see.
Also, I still have my life.
While I was shivering on a broken-down bus in the outskirts of Valencia, thinking that things couldn’t be worse, in the other direction, up the coast near Tarragona, a different bus crashed into another car and flipped over.
Thirteen people lost their lives. Thirteen study abroad students, just like me. Thirteen girls. Thirteen souls that I very well could have brushed shoulders with along the street, only hours earlier; thirteen people, any of which I could have sat next to at café, trying to shelter myself from the discomfort of outside; thirteen people with family and friends and pets and hopes and dreams and fears. Thirteen people who definitely did not deserve to die.
Their fate could have easily been mine. But it wasn’t. So really, although my experience at Las Fallas wasn’t the best, I should be happy that I’m still here to recall it, to share it with my friends and family… Because there are thirteen souls out there can’t, not anymore. Their lives were tragically cut short, and I’m still here.
I’m fortunate to be able to share my story.
Even when things seem shitty, checking your privilege is a humbling experience. If you’re of a praying disposition, pray for the victims and their families. If you’re uncommitted, send good thoughts their way. Neither one can hurt, and I’m sure they need all they can get.