Valencia often gets short shrift from people who see it as Barcelona’s inferior neighbour. After all, why would someone want to visit Valencia when they have Barcelona on their doorstep? Luckily, the two million international visitors that this vibrant city receives each year seem to disagree. It was founded by the Romans in 138 BC and its name comes from the Latin for ‘valour’, therefore making its ancient centre an intriguing maze of narrow alleyways and a mishmash of buildings dating from Roman and Arabic times. Valencia has a population of around 800,000, over 55,000 of which are students, and an energetic atmosphere that bubbles up in the bars and out onto the streets.
A FESTIVAL OF FIRE
Each year from March 15th-19th, the whole of Valencia is set ablaze with a festival as mad as it is fun and as dangerous as it is impressive. Las Fallas is the main event in the Valencian calendar and revolves around the construction and eventual destruction of giant papier mâché effigies (ninots) depicting public figures and scenarios from the preceding year. The festival traces its origins back to 1497. Back then, carpenters would spend long hours in their workshops, and during the short winter days they would light oil lamps hung from wooden structures. With the arrival of the spring equinox, the lamps and their structures were no longer necessary, so in an act of celebration at the impending longer days, the whole lot was set alight. The ritual was dedicated to Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, whose feast day falls on March 19th. From then on, people began designing structures that bore humourous similarities to characters from the neighbourhood and, in the 18th century, these structures became satirical gestures relating to well-known public figures and events. Today, Las Fallas are a highly coordinated event involving organising committees, known as comissions falleras, who work throughout the year to create both child and adult-themed ninots.
By car: 3.5-4 hours
By train: from Barcelona Sants to Valencia Joaquin Sorolla. 3-4 hours.
By bus: from Estació d’Autobusos de Barcelona Nord to Valencia Bus Station. 4 hours 40 minutes.
Eating and Drinking
Carrer dels Cavallars: Lively street with bars and restaurants
Plaça del Negret: Quaint square for a coffee or beer
Carrer José Benlliure: Seafood in the old fisherman’s quarter
Preparations go on throughout the year, and on March 5th the completed ninots are received at the modern ‘City of Arts and Sciences’ (Ciutat de les arts y les ciències) and displayed in the ‘Exposición del ninot’ until the 15th, giving visitors a chance to admire the works of art and vote for one of them to be pardoned from the flames. March 15th marks the official start of the festival and sees the closing of the exhibition. The giant statues are then set up at key points throughout the city to await their impending executions. This ceremony is known as La Plantà, and it takes place at 8am for the children’s ninots and later in the afternoon for the adult versions.
With the statues safely in place, La Mascletà can begin. Every day throughout the festival, fireworks are strung up in complex patterns and are set off at 2pm in each neighbourhood. The display ends with the terremoto (the earthquake), when hundreds of firecrackers explode simultaneously releasing multicoloured smoke. The main event is the municipal mascletà in the Plaça de l’Ajuntament, in which rival pyrotechnicians compete for the honour of providing the final display of the festival on March 19th.
From March 16th-19th, each day starts at 8am with La Despertà (wake-up call). The beeping of your alarm clock will feel positively soothing after you have been woken up Valencia-style. Brass bands invade the neighbourhood and march through the streets accompanied by members of the festival committees, who beseige the sleeping barrio with firecrackers.
With all the explosions and excitement, it’s easy to forget the religious side to the celebration, which is embodied in L’Ofrena Floral (the floral offering). From 3.30pm until 1am on both the 17th and 18th, falleros (those belonging to a comissió fallera) from every corner of the region bring an offering of flowers to a giant structure depicting Valencia’s patron Virgin, Our Lady of the Forsaken. The falleros wear traditional costumes and dance to the music of their local bands as they wind their way through Carrer de Sant Vicent Màtir, Carrer de la Pau, Plaça de la Reina and, finally, Plaça de la Verge to gift their perfumed offering. As each group makes their contribution, the flowers are attached to the structure in the correct place, and the end result is a massive floral monument to the virgin.
Night comes, and each committee organises a street party known as a verbena that welcomes both locals and visitors alike in a hedonistic celebration involving music, dancing and lots of drinking. Streets are illuminated for the occasion with artistic streetlight displays and often compete to be named the best decorated street; the Ruzafa district is especially attractive. Try agua de Valencia; a potent concoction of cava, orange juice, sugar and spirits invented in the Twenties. Each night during the festival, there is a staggering firework display along Passeig de l’Albereda near Pont de les Flors at 1.30am. It becomes more extravagant as the festival progresses, culminating on the Nit de Foc (March 18th) with a spectacle of pyrotechnic brilliance. This ‘fire night’ is traditionally the biggest party night and this year falls on a Friday, meaning there’s nothing to stop the fun.
As the five-day festival continues, the intensity is cranked up as we hurtle towards the explosive climax. At 7pm on March 19th, the cabalgata del fuego (procession of fire) snakes through the city starting on Carrer de Russafa and finishing at the Porta de la Mar. Fire embodies the spirit of the festival and the procession brings together traditions from around the world that have fire at their core. This is a noisy parade involving music, costumes, street performances and, of course, gunpowder. The procession winds its way menacingly through the streets as the moment approaches for the ninots to face their fate.
Shortly before midnight, the statues are sacrificed to the flames in a ceremony called La Cremà (the burning). The streetlights are turned off, the fire brigade is on hand and, having been stuffed full of fireworks, the structures are set ablaze. The noise is a pounding cacophony that strikes you to the core. Your ears will be ringing, the smell of smoke will linger in your nostrils for days after, and on the morning after the La Cremà you’ll understand the ‘valour’ part of the name Valencia; you need a strong nerve to survive the night in this city.
MUST SEE, MUST DO
A round-up of what to see and do in Valencia
1. Mercat Central
Situated in the Plaça del Mercat, this ornate art nouveau structure built in 1928 houses one of Europe’s oldest fresh produce markets.
2. La Llotja de la Seda
Opposite the Mercat Central is Valencia’s former silk exchange, a gothic building resembling a medieval castle that was completed in 1548. A demonstration of Valencia’s key role in the silk trade and its mercantile prowess.
3. Torres de Serrano
Completed in 1398, the Torres dels Serrans are one of 12 former city gates of which only the Torres dels Serrans and the Torres de Quart survive. The towers represent the Valencian gothic style and are among only a few remnants of the defensive city wall.
Torres de Serrano
4. Plaça de la Verge
The Plaça de la Verge has been a central part of public life since the Roman times when it was the forum and it continues to be an important public space. The majestic square houses three of Valencia’s most iconic buildings: the Basilica de la Virgen de los Desamparados, the cathedral and the Palau de la Generalitat.
5. Plaça de l’Ajuntament
The resplendent, neoclassical City Hall (Ajuntament) building and the Central Post Office dominate the Plaça de l’Ajuntament. In the centre a lavish fountain sprays majestically, illuminated by colourful lights at night.
6. City of Arts and Sciences
The Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències is a giant UFO-like building that touched down in 1998. Designed by architects Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela, this avant-garde structure is one of Europe’s most modern and cutting-edge centres and is dedicated to cultural and scientific exhibitions.
City of Arts and Sciences
7. Riverbed Garden
From the city centre, the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències can be reached via a walk along the former riverbed of the river Turia. After a catastrophic flood in 1957, the river was rerouted and the riverbed redesigned to create an innovative urban green space that winds its way through the city. The adventure playground in the shape of a giant reclining Gulliver is popular with kids.
Valencia is the home of orxata, a milky drink made from tiger nuts and accompanied by fartons—sponge fingers that can be dipped in the orxata. Orxaterias are easy to find throughout Valencia and are a delicious way to refuel during a day’s partying.
9. Paella Valenciana
Authentic paella valenciana doesn’t contain seafood; it is made with chicken, rabbit, snails (these are often optional) and vegetables. While in the birthplace of Spain’s national dish, head to La Utielana (Plaça Picadero Dos Aguas 3) and try it for yourself. For good seafood, skip the seafront restaurants and head to the old fisherman’s quarter, Carrer José Benlliure and the surrounding streets are full of good tapas restaurants including Casa Montaña, one of the oldest restaurants in Valencia.