Thursday, December 4, 2014

Valencia and Las Fallas

This past spring my husband and I honeymooned with a four city tour in Spain.  We did all of the travel planning ourselves with the help of blogs and forums, and there is a wealth of  great information out there if you have the time and energy to plan your own trip. I wanted to add our experience to that online resource bank, because it is so helpful in another country to know, at least a little, what to expect. We picked Spain because my husband had a very narrow 2 week period we could take a honeymoon during, and while perusing my trusted Where to Go When coffee table book we discovered that those 2 weeks happened to line up with a festival called Las Fallas in Spain.  That festival spawned our amazing trip, so here's a look at the city that started it all: Valencia.

We flew into Barcelona initially, and then immediately took a train to Valencia.  Let me digress just a little bit about the Renfe train system. You can absolutely buy your tickets online ahead of time, but they will only become available for purchase 62 days in advance. There are a few ticket options when you are going to purchase, but always buy the cheapest ones.  Just basic tickets are all you need unless you are staying in the country for much longer than a simple vacation.  Also, you need to use your bank credit card if you want the purchase to go through.  No Chase or rewards cards seem to be accepted.  That was a frustration that I want to spare you -- if you plug a Chase card into the website they just keep kicking you back to the main page.  Also, remember you are buying international travel tickets so call your bank before you make the purchase, otherwise your bank is going to deny it and you have to try again.  Yes, it took me like a week to figure out how to buy train tickets.
Travel Time: Barcelona to Valencia by train is about 3 hours and you will arrive in the heart of downtown Valencia when you leave the train station.  Depending on where your hotel is located this could be close or quite a walk, but the scenery is lovely.  Valencia is one of the most picturesque Spanish towns we explored.  We got around just fine without a taxi in the city; everything is very walkable within the general "old city" area.
This picture is how I knew that you should never pair flats with soft pants.  Never.  Also even though it doesn't look nice in photos it is a great idea to bring something for water.  Public water tastes really fresh in Spain (all of those Roman aqueducts laid a really good infrastructure), so I definitely recommend relying on public water with your own container versus paying for water everywhere.  You can buy beer for much cheaper than you can buy bottled water in most places.
This gate shows the signs of cannonball damage after it was attacked by Napolean's troops in 1808.  Spain is never short on history to explore.  
Valencia is a beautiful city, full of history and tradition.  But during the Las Fallas festival it really becomes a kind of carnival scene.  Most local businesses are closed for the celebration so you are going to need to rely on street food for your meals.  No worries, the food is well priced and delicious (if not very healthy).  The street vendor churros we had in Valencia were the best of any other city in Spain, and by far the least expensive.  Eat your fill!  You can live on street churros the whole time if you want.

The streets have a decidedly carnival feel and there are people setting off firecrackers and explosions 24/7.  You aren't going to get much sleep, but why not stay out in the crowds anyway and enjoy the food and exploring!
Las Fallas is a local tradition that coincides with the Easter celebration.  Things start off with the citizens of Valencia donning traditional garb and bringing flowers and donations to the giant figures of Mary and baby Jesus in the center of the oldest part of the city, the Plaza de la Virgen.  All of this takes place outside of the Cathedral of Santa Maria, a stunning Gothic church dating back to the 1200s.  During the festival the church is closed to the public unfortunately, but if you visit in other times you can go inside and see what was once thought to be the Holy Grail.  
Traditional dress as the townspeople parade through the streets to the Plaza de la Virgen to give their donations outside the cathedral.
The Plaza is understandably packed for the entire festival so it was hard to get a good look at the Cathedral and its Gothic architecture,  You can see it here behind the large Virgin Mary sculpture

The big carnival feel to the otherwise religious festival comes from the ninots that are constructed within different neighborhoods around town.  They are large political cartoons, designed as a statement or conversation piece about current events affecting Spain or the Valencian community.  The messages were a little beyond our Spanish skills, but you could get the general gist. I didn't include any of the more controversial ones here, but let me just say Spanish people are a lot less sensitive about potty humor.  A reminder our country was founded by religious purists I guess.

On a side note, when Mark and I went last spring there was a very strong anti-Asian undertone to many of the sculptures.  Here you can see a menacing looking Asian figure cloaking the little girl who is representing Valencia.  Samsung had been getting a larger presence in the Spanish market, and there appears to be some fallout over these two very different business cultures.  Even though Mark is obviously Asian in descent, people were friendly and accepting of us everywhere we went, so this political situation shouldn't detract from your desire to tour!

 On midnight of the last night of the festival, the sculptures are lit on fire to burn away the bad "demons" of the last year and make way for the new with the resurrection of Christ over the upcoming Easter holiday.  There is a lot of music and fireworks and explosions.  Overall a very good time!

If you are traveling to Valencia during Las Fallas, be prepared to do a lot of walking, deal with crowds, and hear a lot of loud noises.  This is a huge festival and most of the people in the city are not locals but people coming in to celebrate and partake in the carnival atmosphere.  Make sure you have plenty of money because most stores or businesses are closed for the holiday and you will need to buy your food at the street vendor stands.  The food is excellent, but if you want traditional meals like paella you may have to work harder to find a vendor that isn't selling churros or street meat. There was plenty of American foods -- people selling hot dogs to the tourists for example, but the traditional food was pretty hard to come by.  During the big fire night of the festival, I recommend staying in the smaller neighborhoods where there is more local spirit and celebration. We went to the city center to watch the largest sculpture burn and the crowds were massive and mostly American tourists haha.

After a few days in Valencia closing out the festival, we hit the train station again to take the under 2 hour trip to Madrid.  Stay tuned for the next leg of the trip!

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