Come spring, thousands of Spaniards descend upon Valencia, for the month-long celebrations of Las Fallas. There are no tomatoes or bulls involved; this tribute to Saint Joseph and the arrival of spring transports the city to its medieval days. Adults compete in life-size puppet-making and parade in traditional wear around town. Arriving in Valencia in March 2013, I found each neighbourhood adorned with magnificent life-size fallas — puppets made of papier-mâché and plaster of Paris — animated, comical, and often satirical — depicting contemporary scenes in the country. Accompanying them were fireworks, traditional feasts, and much pomp and show.
Months before the festival began, each neighbourhood raised money to create elaborate fallas , some as tall as the buildings in the backdrop, and began a friendly competition with other neighbourhoods. However, months of hard work would be turned to ashes, literally, on the last day of the festival, with the fallas burnt in one grand show. It is said that Las Fallas dates back to the times when carpenters cleared out their workshops just before spring, and came together to burn the disposables on the street on the day of Saint Joseph.
Making my way among the fallas on display at the ‘Secció Especial’ (special section) in the city centre one afternoon, I landed inside a time warp. Women in graceful traditional dresses (each weighed at least six kilos) and head veils and men and children in sleeveless suits and pants walked in a joyful street procession, led by a modern band, and cheered by onlookers. Later that evening, a similar parade on war and victory, complete with sword worshippers and drummers, took place. None of these carried any impressions of Spain’s economic challenges; only glimpses of a people revelling in their rich traditions and committed to preserving their heritage against all odds.
During the days of the fiesta, the whiff of Spain’s famous Chocolate con churros is never far away. And Valencia’s famous Paella, even in its vegetarian version, is on sale everywhere. Many of the street stalls are run by families who make this special rice at home just for this occasion. The refreshing Orxata, a milk-based cooler, is the signature drink for lazy afternoons while local beers and sangrias take over at night.
The festivities, joyous as they are, have a sombre side too. Every night, the parades pay their respects to a giant statue of Virgin Mary at the Plaza de la Virgen. The sound of drumbeats is replaced by melancholic tunes, and the cheer gives way to silent tears and wailing, asking for love and forgiveness.
But the sight that is forever etched in my mind is the midnight of the last day of Las Fallas. From a vantage point, I watched all but one fallas — the winner that would be conserved in the Fallas Museum for years to come — go up in a giant fire, as the crowds around me cheered, sang and danced.
This year's dates: March 14-19.
How to get there: Turkish Airlines offers daily flights from Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore to Madrid, with a stopover in Istanbul. From Madrid, Valencia is a mere 1.5 hours away on the high speed AVE Renfe inter-city train, a journey which takes you through the charming Spanish countryside.
Visas: Spain is part of the Schengen zone in Europe, and a visit requires a Schengen Tourist Visa, which can be applied for at the VFS Spain centre in any major metro city in India.
Where to stay: Caro Hotel, in the old town of Valencia, is an artistic boutique that fuses Valencia's traditional charm with chic modern amenities, and is a good base to soak in the festivities of Las Fallas.