As soon as I got off the plane from Porto and landed in Valencia, the mind fog from waking up at 4am to catch my flight was gone. I was startlingly at ease in my new surroundings and ditched the taxi ride for the subway. The energy was different from Portugal, an extra hint of palpable liveliness in the air, or perhaps just my brain associating this part of the world with fire, passion and saffron. People spoke something that sounded both familiar and completely brand new, and that’s how I learned that Valencians speak Valencian, a dialect of Catalan. I got off at the Xàtiva station and in a literal bang the city flourished in front of my eyes: there was music coming from all corners, churro stands, hordes of people and nonstop thundering sounds of fireworks. The imposing Plaça de Bous, the bullring built in 1850 in the molds of the Roman Colosseum, stood fierce across the street. I was in Spain alright and had arrived for the five main days of Las Fallas, a massive festival dating back to centuries ago, now on UNESCO’s cultural heritage of humanity list.
Las Fallas brings over 1 million visitors to a big street fiesta. It is rooted in an old carpenter’s tradition to welcome spring by burning wood that was used to prop up lights during the winter. It is also a homage to Saint Joseph, the carpenter saint. Women and men, old and young, parade the city in beautifully elaborate 18th century costumes carrying flower offerings to La Virgen de Los Desamparados (Our Lady of the Forsaken) at the Plaza de la Virgen. The walk is emotional and for two full days falleros ornament the Virgin’s mantle with fresh flowers. All over the city neighborhoods host ninots, intricate sculptures made of wood or papier-mâché, mostly satirical depictions of politicians, artists and life in general, with the largest ones costing hundreds of thousands of euros. Their destiny? To burn in massive flames on the last day of the festivities under tonnes of gunpowder. That’s exactly why I chose to come to Valencia during Las Fallas: not only was the city a bucket list item, but the timing felt like the perfect metaphor for my current personal journey. Burning the old to create space for the new felt like the symbolic breath of phoenix I needed.
It all sounded so incredibly exciting, but in reality for four days I wandered the corners of this ancient city not feeling entirely grounded. Firstly, never, never let your path cross that of little kids during Las Fallas for they will see you as the perfect target for their firecracker projectiles. I was mercilessly aimed at by the little suckers. Although adults aren’t that much different either. Once I was sipping my café con leche in an outdoor panadería (bakery) when a group of grownups blew off something so powerful just steps away from my table that my ears went ringing for minutes. Secondly, I was coming from a string of sleepless nights, my body still adjusting to the jet leg and the novelty of being a nomad traveler for the previous two and a half weeks, and topped with the festivities and bitter cold weather my nights in Valencia were inhumanely restless.
I had rented an AirBnB room in a lovely apartment where señor Gonzalo* and Frida, his companion miniature Pinscher, lived. I found enormous amusement in watching their hilariously dysfunctional relationship. Poor Frida, so energetic, so needy! She clearly annoyed the heck out of him but they loved each other in their own intense way. She would come running down the hallway, her acute bark sounding like desperation, and jump on my chest to be held and petted. Trying to safeguard my physical integrity the señor would turn red and yell in falsetto with all the strength of his lungs: Frida, vaya de aquí, vaya de aquí cabrona (“Frida, get out of here, get out of here you little bitch!”). I couldn’t help it but feel like I was inside a Pedro Almodóvar film.
At around 6 p.m. in my first night in town I stopped at a restaurant to grab dinner. The hostess looked at my face in disbelief: “The kitchen doesn’t open until 8:30 p.m.” For a moment I had forgotten I was in Spain, where people dine when I’m already in my second dream. With no energy to endure a late night, I bought a nice bottle of Rioja at the neighborhood grocery store and shared a glass with señor Gonzalo in his kitchen delightfully hearing his stories about Las Fallas and previous guests. Though my host was lovely, my room felt like the cave where the grim reaper hides. I would literally shiver from extreme cold and because in Spain electricity is so expensive I wasn’t allowed to keep the space heater on overnight. Sometime past midnight on night two, my body and teeth trembling from the damp and mortal icy air, fireworks discharging like bombs outside my window (their BANGs and POPs completely immune to my earplugs), a jolt of divine insight descended upon my brain and reminded me that this was meant to be fun, not a chamber of torture. I found strength on my nearly frostbitten hands and booked a hotel for the next three nights.
As soon as the shy morning light rose under the soft rain, I quietly packed my suitcase, my host still sleeping in the room next door, Frida and her antics far away from sight. I left señor Gonzalo a respectful goodbye note, called a taxi and smiling triumphantly from cheek to cheek headed to warmer grounds. Feeling re-energized with the change of scenery, I checked in into a hip boutique hotel, all white and minimalist décor, a deliciously comfortable king size bed and a heater with remote control that I immediately turned on to 29 C (84 F). But because I was destined to suffer in aliveness, it was steps away from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the 24/7 prime gathering location for hundreds of thousands of visitors attending the festivities and the epicenter of the mascletà, a gargantuan pyrotechnic event that took place daily at 2 p.m. On Friday night at around 11:30 p.m. a troupe playing drums parked in front of the hotel bar while I sipped a shot of orujo de hierbas, a pomace brandy from Northern Spain, my eyes heavy, my soul in both awe and misery with the unfolding mini-rave.
I wandered around Old Town and its 11th century buildings stepping on the same streets that El Cid once ruled or enthralling at a row of buildings that were once bombed by the Italian fascist forces in WWII. So much blood stained in these European streets. So much resilience. I spent the days watching the parades, joining a paella cooking class and even venturing out in a bullfight. Being alone while surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people didn’t bother me and there were only a couple of times when I wished I had company. People seemed to eat nonstop at the restaurants, cafés, pastry shops, bars and street food stands located in each corner. I tasted delicious shellfish that I’ve never eaten before and ordered boquerones (fresh anchovies in vinegar) in each opportunity I had. I drank horchata (a beverage made of sweetened tiger nuts) and tried buñuelos de calabaza (pumpkin fritters) with hot chocolate from street kiosks. Thought my Spanish is fluent, everybody asked if I was Italian. When I said I came from Tejas people thought it was the most exotic destination. On Saturday afternoon I traded the gothic cathedral that supposedly hosts the Holy Grail for a manicure (is there a pardon for that?) and the nail lady told me that she would never visit Texas because over there people shoot at each other the whole time. She’s not entirely wrong.
On Saturday night I felt a jolt of relief building up inside of me. The cremà, the act of setting the Las Fallas sculptures on fire, would mark the end of the celebrations, which meant that the noise and chaos would finally stop. I’ve partied well enough in my 20s and 30s to acknowledge that today I’m 100% fulfilled in the crazy party department. I chose a Salvador Dalí themed falla just steps away from my hotel and waited in the cold rain for almost two hours to ensure I had a prime view of the spectacle.
The firemen arrived to prep the space, breaking parts of the sculpture in the process. The arm of Jesus fell cold on the muddy ground and the crowd reverberated a big “OHHH” of horror. A group of 20-year old Italians grabbed Jesus’s arm and scratched their backs to the glory of their Instagram feeds. A crew member handed me an eye and I felt a sudden rush: “I’m the chosen one, I behold the surreal eye that sees through infinity.” Finally, the fallera-mor in her 18th century dress and perfect hairdo kindled the flame. Moments later Dalí, his ants, winged angel and broken Jesus were burning high in the skies, the mass watching the blaze destroy the artwork in amusement and shock. “The eye must burn,” I firmly whispered. I moved through the crowd and requested a crew member to shove it in the flames for it was meant to let go, an allegory of no attachments, only the present in its pulsating glory, for if the breath of now is correctly harnessed it can also see into the future. Smelling of charcoal and with muddy shoes I walked back to my hotel, and except for a few isolated bursts of firecrackers I melted into the best night’s sleep I had in days.
*Name changed to preserve privacy