Valencia’s Las Fallas Festival is perhaps one of the best festivals in the whole of Spain, despite it not being as well-known as Pamplona’s San Fermin (Running of the Bulls), or La Tomatina (the giant tomato fight). It’s a festival about art, fire, noise, and above all, Valencian identity.
History of the Las Fallas festival
Most people imagine giant papier mâché effigies going up in flames when they think of Las Fallas, and while they’re right, the festival is so much more than that. The origins of the Las Fallas festival are believed to have started back in the 18th century, when local carpenters would go out onto the street and burn old pieces of wood.
On March 19th, each year, they would celebrate their patron saint – Saint Joseph, by burning the wooden contraptions used to hold the oil lamps that lit their workshops throughout the winter. Slowly this day evolved, and for fun, the carpenters would turn these devices into satirical figures or dolls. Each year the festival grew, and the figures became more elaborate until 1932 when it was declared an official week-long event.
The effigies at the Las Fallas Festival have become highly elaborate sculptures © Dan Convey
The Las Fallas festival today
Today, the fallas are huge intricate sculptural scenes created from wood and papier mâché, depicting satirical characters, ironic or political situations, or fantastical creations. Around 700 of these fallas are set up across the city, each one almost as big as a building and requiring a crane to lift each character, known as a ninot, into place.
Each sculpture takes around a year to make, and is created by a group of volunteers known as falleros and falleras. On the night of March 19th, each ninot is set alight at midnight. For the visitors, it’s an amazing event, but for the locals it’s also a very emotional time, when they get together with friends and family to watch the creations they’ve spent so much time creating go up in smoke.
Prizes are awarded for the best fallas and one ninot from the 700-some statues across the city is awarded the honour of being saved from the flames. This ninot is then sent to the Museum Fallero, where it will be immortalised for everyone to see.
After weeks of careful work the effigies are burned in one huge citywide bonfire © Dan Convey
When is the best time to go to the festival?
The Las Fallas festival lasts almost the entire month of March so it can be confusing to know when to go to see the big burn up. The last five days of the festival, from March 15th – March 19th are the most interesting.
What else happens during the festival?
Las Fallas is not all about fire, it also celebrates Valencian tradition, culture and pride. During the day, there are parades of locals in traditional silk costumes, who go to make flower offerings to a large wooden statue of the Virgin at Valencia Cathedral. At 2pm each day there's an event called the mascletá in front of the Town Hall – a series of ear-splitting firecrackers and the explosion of 120kg of gunpowder.
Finally, on the night of the 18th – the night before the big burn up, known as the Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) there's a big parade of devils, wielding fire-spraying pitchforks into the crowds. This is followed by an amazing firework display.
A team of falleros building one of the sculptures © Dan Convey
When are the fallas burned?
All the fallas are burned on the Nit del Cremà, March 19th. The children’s fallas go up in flames at 10pm, and the main ones at midnight. All the scenes are burned at the same time, so you can't see all of them, instead, choose your favourite to go and watch. At 1am, the last falla, outside the Town Hall, is burned and there's another big firework display to mark the end of the festival.
Is it dangerous?
Not really, although the kind of health and safety laws you might be used to tend to go out the window in Spain. There are firemen on hand during the festival and nearby buildings are usually draped in wet sheets to stop them catching alight. Sparks do fly though, and there is often a lot of smoke, so you might want to consider bringing a scarf of buying a traditional Pañuelo de Fallero – a checkered blue and white handkerchief – to cover your mouth and nose, or your hair.
On the night of March 19th, the effigies are burned to the ground © Dan Convey
Are there any traditional foods I should try at Las Fallas?
Yes! Stalls will be set up across the city selling buñuelos de calabaza – sweet pumpkin fritters sprinkled with sugar – best eaten paired with a cup of thick hot chocolate.
Where can I learn more about Las Fallas?
If you want to learn more about the rituals involved in the festival, or you're visiting Valencia at another time of year, head to the Museo Fallero, where you can see all the ninots spared from the flames since the festival began.
Where should I stay?
It doesn’t really matter where you stay as there are fallas all over the city, and explosions going off at every hour of the day and night. Accommodation in the old town centre books up fast and can get expensive during the festival, so consider staying somewhere just outside for cheaper hotels and more availability.