Friday, 22 March 2013

Fallas - Valencia's Biggest Festival

Valencia's biggest fiesta is one of the first things Valencians will gush to you about when they realise you're not a native. The word falla is Valencian for torch, which comes from the Latin fax. Each town in Valencia has its own falla and in the city of Valencia there's one on practically every corner. The generally accepted theory about the origins of the festival is that the Medieval carpenters' tradition of burning their offcuts to celebrate the coming of spring merged with the festival of San José (Saint Joseph), the patron saint of carpenters. Over the years, the festival became more satirical and outrageous, until today's gigantic parodies of current events that take a year to create, but are burned on the final night of Fallas.

Fallas is opened with La Crida, a light show at the Torres de Sorrano, complete with fireworks, on the 24th of February. The only non-traditional song they played was Gangnam Style, but we got our first taste of the chanting, Valencian banners, marching bands and uniformly-fleeced Fallas groups. Also fireworks were still a novelty at this point.
After a brief interlude while February finished, la Despertà began: a marching band that went around playing and throwing fireworks at 8am to wake people up. It was hi-larious. Nawwwt. There was also a ten-minute volley of fireworks, called la Mascletà, that was set off every day at 14h in la Plaza del Ayuntamiento. The university area is a good 30m walk from the centre, but it still shakes windows and disturbs lessons to the point where teachers will end them early to avoid the disruption. You can't even see them! It's just a massive load of bangs and whistles with sparks that you can just make out before they add to the ever-increasing wave of smoke, amid cries of VALENCIAAAAA. Still pretty cool though.
From March 1-15, residents of Valencia grow accustomed to seeing toddlers throw firecrackers, and of course to the Mascletà. As the fallas are erected and decorated and the fireworks increase in frequency and intensity, we eagerly awaited for Fallas fever to begin in earnest. 
Having been promised that it was the Carnival (Rio de Janeiro) of Europe, and learning not to blink when you have a firecracker explode near you, the start of Fallas was frankly, quite underwhelming. Initially it was very exciting to see the marching bands and parades of Valencians in traditional dress. But after seeing the same parade sixteen times in four days and hearing yet another brass rendition of Gangnam Style, we were all a bit sick of it.
Even she's had enough
I think it's difficult to fully appreciate Fallas as an Erasmus student here. You really need to be a local to benefit from the collaborative projects, Fallas tents and see/be part of the work that goes on throughout the year. Alternatively, if you visit briefly, you don't have to put up with a marching band going past your window when you're trying to work/sleep at 6am. The best day to visit would be on the Tuesday, for la Cremà - when they burn EVERYTHING. It's very cathartic if those trumpeters have pushed you just a little too far in recent days. I know of some people who visited on the Saturday, which begs the question, why...? Apart from just more fireworks there was not much going on. Bad organizers.

La Cremà kicked off (for us) with la Cabalgata de Fuego, a parade where people were dressed traditionally, in hooded red capes with candles, or as devils running around spraying sparks and fire at people. Lucky devils. They then proceeded to set fire to the fallas infantiles, the children's equivalents of the big fallas. 
As we were watching, I joked that they should light the fire with a firework, which is ridiculous. They lit it with many fireworks! Then once the blaze was under way, the flames discovered the OTHER fireworks they'd put on top of the falla, which were *surprising* when they suddenly exploded.
We missed the burning of most of the fallas because we were studying doing shots in a bar. But we got to the tourist bus falla in la Plaza del Ayuntamiento nice and early to get a good view of the burning and simultaneous firework show. I did get hot ash in my eye, but that made it no less awesome.
On the way home we saw this late-burning falla get out of control. Luckily the firemen were on hand at every fire to prevent it becoming dangerous, which reminded us of both the cost the region invests in public services for the festival and its longevity as an institution: after all this time, they know not to mess around with fire. Though I'm still not comfortable having toddlers throw firecrackers at me.

Other cool events:
The Virgin, seen here as local men weave her cape out of flowers, is situated in la Plaza de la Virgen (obviously). She is offered flowers on the Monday as part of the official Fallas events.
The lights at Calle de Sueca have their own official premiere about a week before Fallas properly starts and continue to have a light show about every eight-fifteen minutes during the festival, choreographed to popular music. Be prepared to hear a LOT of Rihanna and Coldplay.

To see photos of the fallas before they were burnt, click here! I made it separate so this post will actually load. You're welcome.

The Fallas Themselves

Click here to see my experiences of Fallas!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Sagunto: A Day Trip in Arse

This week, I decided the best way to spend my Saturday would be to make my friends get up at an ungodly hour (8 am! In the morning!) and go look at some Roman ruins with me. We set off on our merry way in kind of a hurry because it's impossible to be a morning person/do anything on time in this country. After a forced march across town to the Estación del Norte, we got a return ticket to Sagunto for just over 7€. Ker-fricking-ching. Then on the way, the train we were on pulled into Cabernyal station, which is about ten minutes' stroll away from our respective flats and I remembered why I never organise anything. 
Oh good, I was hoping it'd be steep
Luckily, the half hour train ride allowed us to get our breath back, just in time for the massive upward climb to the Castle. Obviously, we stopped off for snacks first, then wandered through the tiny cobbled streets and brightly coloured houses.
Beautiful as Sagunto is, calling it sleepy would be an understatement. Sometimes we'd spot the odd elderly woman sweeping, like a lone deer that we didn't want to startle, but otherwise we just had cats and crazy downhill cyclists as brief company.
At the very top of the hill is the Castle Complex, one of the admittedly few tourist attractions of the little town. When the Romans expelled Hannibal and settled, Sagunto was favoured over Valencia - aka Flatty McInvadeMe Town - for its hilly stronghold potential. I can personally vouch that no one would want to run up this hill, ever. Especially when you don't find the road until you get the top. 
The passage the Celtiberians went through to defend themselves against Hannibal
A toilet!
A barbecue. Note to travellers: never get in a hole without checking for a 15ft drop first. You have been warned.
An oven in the structure of a house
The ruins are seriously excellent. And I come from the South of England; I grew up surrounded by fossils and Roman ruins (we just use that shit as paperweights), so you know the complex is impressive. The epigraphy display is also worth a visit: while the stones themselves might be a little samey for Brits, it's got some great information on the town's history. One interesting fact is that after the expulsion of the Jews in 1429, the former synagogue was occupied by the brotherhood of the ‘Purísima Sangre de Nuestro Señor Jesucristo'. Salt in the wound, friends. The most dramatic upheaval is probably the town being razed to the ground when its inhabitants committed mass suicide rather than surrender to Hannibal in 219 BC. Serious stuff, right? Even though Sagunto's Celtiberian name was Arse
Yep, this will never get old
When we'd exhausted the delights of the Castle Complex, we headed back down the hill, almost missing the Roman theatre. In our defence, all you can see from the front is a very tall facade that resembles a prison. We spent some time trying to break into the theatre through the back passages (oho! because of its na-...never mind), before we discovered you could just walk in the front like a normal person. 
 Although the theatre keeps some of its original stonework, it has been renovated for modern shows, with Roman relics on display on the stage. It's easy to picture Romans lining the absolute curves of the arena to watch tragedies, but the smooth, white renovation makes the seating feel a little artificial.
The Esglesia de Santa María only opens for mass, but we went for a closer look at the centrepiece of the panorama we'd been staring at all day. Gargoyles always remind me of Notre Dame, which is unsurprising - Gothic architecture and all - but despite Sagunto's miniscule size, it's an impressive reminder of the significance this town once had.
Santa María from a distance
Finally, I couldn't resist a walk through la Judería, the old Jewish quarter because shalom, it's one of the must-see parts of the city, renowned for the pretty buildings and that its topography hasn't changed (big selling point for me). 
So pretty! You just can't get away with painting your house coral in England, we don't have the sun for it. Or the nice neighbours. Despite the huge amount of climbing that my glutes are totes unaccustomed to after the smooth contours of Valencia, it was very zen relaxing on a hill surrounded by blooming cacti and a bright blue sky. My conclusion - Sagunto is Arse-ome.

To get there, take the train from Valencia. You can check the timetable on the renfe website but you don't book beforehand, and the timetable lies about the last train. Just get to the station in plenty of time.