The Reunion World Tour, Day 6: Burning the city down at Las Fallas


This morning Nicolette and I woke up at 8am to pack up our things at Rocio’s. Today we were departing Alicante and heading to Valencia to celebrate Las Fallas. If you don't know what Las Fallas is, here's a refresher.

Unfortunately I underestimated the time it would take us to pack up and we allowed ourselves only a few minutes to chat with Rocio about our night and to thank her for her amazing hospitality. We chugged horchata, pineapple juice and scarfed down some chocolate bizcocho before grabbing our bags and walking, no, jogging to the train station. We had thirty minutes before departure and the walk was twenty minutes long.

Nicolette didn’t have faith that we’d make it, but she doesn’t yet understand how the security of train travel is almost non-existent. We had our tickets printed already and we walked into the station ten minutes before departure. Five minutes later, we were on our train, and Nicolette dozed off.

We arrived in the Valencia train station about an hour and a half later, around 11:45am. We paid to use the bathroom, the first time I’ve had to on the trip so far, but it was actually very clean. The vanity mirrors with bulb lights bordering them were quite fancy, and the counter offered hairspray and various other toiletries. The ticket to use the bathroom even came with a ten percent discount at the gift shop! Even so, I think it’s dumb to prevent people from doing their necessary bodily functions without having to pay.

Off we walked to the metro, where we had our first fallas sighting. It was a smaller one at only two stories tall, but it was impressive nonetheless. It got Nicolette and me excited for what was to come.

We took the metro to Campanar, where we met Cristina, Pichon, Lucia and Lucas, who greeted us with kisses and hugs and well wishes. This is the family with whom I lived while I worked in spain about four years ago. We walked to Pichon's parents house nearby where we dropped our things and we caught up as his parents offered us homemade cherry jam and toast, freshly squeezed orange juice, and some jamon. A warm welcome indeed.

Lucia took the time to show us her box of firecrackers, as all the kids here have. You see, in Spain, it’s not just normal, but rather it’s encouraged for children to carry their own personalized boxes of firecrackers, smoke bombs, fuses and other fire-related paraphernalia during Las Fallas. They’re all geared towards different ages, of course, so while Lucia’s box will contain the flaming bees that spin and fly, her four-year-old cousin Alba’s box will simply have some poppers to throw at the ground. Every kid gets a fuse that either they or their parents light, so they can have a glowing ember to light up multiple firecrackers at once.

We walk over to their casal, which is conveniently located near the in law’s home. I see Marina for the first time in years, and she’s as bubbly and big and charming as I last remember. I show her the necklace I’m wearing, one of her originals. She tells me that this year she wasn’t a fallas artist because she was so busy with her jewelry company this year.

The casal they were a part of this year is different from years past, as they switched to the Campanar one near their friends Laura and Maria la alta, who are new mothers. It was more convenient for them to bring their babies and toddlers here with the strollers than loading up the car and driving across town. Cristina likes this one better, though, as it was cheaper, it has more kids for the children to play with, and they get more bang for their buck. There are activities every week on Fridays for the kids, and during Las Fallas, all the food and drinks are completely covered in their food tent. Their previous casal required them to bring drinks or even pay per drink. However, the exchange for all these perks is that their falla this year is a piece of garbage. Not in my opinion, but in Marina’s, and Pichon's, and Monica's, and Cristina’s and any number of people I spoke to's opinion.

Just down the street north of their casal was the 1st place prize-winning falla. We walked around it and Cristina explained the controversy of its prize. This year it was nice, but it wasn’t magnificent. Last year, it was magnificent. But for unknown reasons, it didn’t win any prizes. There was a lot of talk about how it was owed that prize, so this year people think it won first place simply because it was robbed of an award last year. Kind of like how the Oscars work, and how some actors win not for their best roles, but just because they deserve an Oscar once in their lifetime.

I asked Cristina what the prize does, other than provide the casal with bragging rights. She said it brings a lot more foot traffic, and some of the fallas you can pay an entry fee to see it up close instead of from behind the barricades. All of that money goes toward the casal and their future fallas. Also, the concessions nearby earn money that goes toward the casal. More foot traffic means more purchases, which means even more money. So while there is no cash prize, the casal does earn cash in a roundabout way.

We then walked over to a café to have a drink and a snack to kill some time before meeting up with Cristina’s family. We ran into Josep and Maria, who now have a tiny little baby named Alejandra, who is just over a year old. At the café, I tried to convince Nicolette to eat sepia, which is cuttlefish coated in mayonnaise but she declined. I told her I would never order it with just the two of us alone, since I wouldn’t eat it, and she still declined.

We then walked into town past the Torres de Quart, where the old casal was located. Nearby we witnessed some men cooking on a giant paella enough rice for fifty people, as one needs to do for a casal during Las Fellas.

We met up with Cristina’s family in one of her dad’s old workshops for lunch. It was a small area with an office that they turned into a makeshift kitchen, and they placed a long table in the middle and a small one on the side for the kids. We socialized a bit with Monica, José Enrique, and their kids Maria, Dani and Alba (Alba was still in Monica’s tummy when I was here, and born just after my departure), along with Cristina and Monica’s parents Pepe and Alicia, and her cousins and second cousins. The kids played outside with their personalized firecracker boxes, and just before 2pm we made our way near the main government plaza to see, or rather hear, the mascleta.

I explained to Nicolette that during the week of Las Fallas, every day at 2pm the government plaza has a mascleta, which is a giant firecracker presentation. There isn’t much to see, as it is a noisy spectacle with rows and rows of cords wrapped in firecrackers. They light one end, and then you hear a solid five to ten minutes of popping and cracking and booming. From where we were standing, the noise was very evident, but it didn’t have the deafening boom that it would have if we were closer, which is just fine by me. It is similar to a fireworks show in the way that it starts at a steady pace, and by the end it’s a frenetic overlapping rhythm of booms and pops until it ends with everyone applauding.

By now it was time to eat, and the main course offered was arroz valenciana, which we as Americans know as paella. However, they don’t call it paella as that is just the name of the dish it’s cooked in. It’s like saying slowcooker. Want some slowcooker for dinner? Slowcooker is my favorite.

They had traditional arroz valenciana made with chicken, rabbit and vegetables, as well as a seafood version. Nicolette had both but I stuck with the traditional, and it was delicious. I overheard the adults commenting they didn’t want to tell me it contained the other white meat, aka rabbit, which I already knew it had. It baffles me why they say such things as I clearly understand them when they speak Spanish and so I turned to them and said “if your’re referring to the rabbit, I don’t mind.” Cristina’s cousins were surprised, as British people typically think eating rabbit is absolutely repulsive. I told them rabbit tastes like chicken so it’s cool by me.

Also on the table was a spread of Spanish snacks and appetizers, including jamon, nuts, pate, crackers, smoke salmon, cheese, olives and more. Nicolette and I were beyond full.

The kids ate quickly and while the adults stayed at the table to chat, the children ran outside to throw some firecrackers. Just as they were about to head out, though, some children from a neighboring casal started throwing the loud, big, booming firecrackers at our door. Our kids tried exiting, but were trapped unless they wanted to walk into the crossfire. Alba was the most entertaining, as she was the youngest and getting the most fired up, yelling at boys twice her age and size, telling them they were being ridiculous. “YOU EVEN WOKE UP MY DOG!" the four year old cried out, and I turned to Nicolette, asking when there was a dog around, but before she even responded with a shoulder shrug, I saw Alba pick up her stuffed dalmatian, waving it around, alternating between making barking noises and shouting that it will never finish its siesta with such noise.

Maria and Alba started complaining to their parents, and Monica got really fired up that her children couldn't go outside and play, to the point that she went outside and started yelling at the kids’ parents. It was hilarious as Monica and this woman were verbally going at it while the casal kids continued throwing firecrackers, albeit in a different direction. It was a classic scene where there were loud booms and pops disguising their swearing, cursing and yelling. “Jodiendo…no me puedo creer que…mierda…madre mia que…!"

Monica’s cousin got pissed because that was our only exit out of the workshop, so if something were to happen, we’d all be trapped. She looked up the Valencia fire code and ran out the door shouting at the woman, waving around her phone that displayed some government website until we apparently reached an agreement. I just don’t understand what the other side (the casal people) would be arguing. Why couldn’t they just move? Eventually they did, and the kids still threw large booming firecrackers, but away from our door.

Alba was by far the most entertaining in my opinion, as she babbled and babbled, and most of it was hilarious nonsense. She was the kid that I knew the least, as she was not yet born when I lived here. I was infinitely amused by her ramblings, like when her mom told her to get a smaller bowl of fruit so she could actually finish it, and she returned with a bowl of the same size. “Well I told Grandma that I wanted to have less fruit because I knew I wouldn’t finish it because she put so much in my bowl at first, and she told me she wouldn’t take out what I had in there but instead I would eat what I could and if there were any left behind I would be able to out it back into the bowl so if anyone else wanted to eat it they would be able to have more." She told this to Monica who quietly nodded, trying to hide a smirk. “Ok honey."

Maria skipped the bowl of fruit and went straight for an ice cream bar, and Monica was like "oh lord please don’t let Alba see" but of course Alba saw her older sister enjoying a much more appetizing dessert and instantly deemed she was done with her fruit. Nicolette and I enjoyed some homemade apple tart for dessert as Maria practiced her English with us. Maria and Lucia are ten years old and both attend an all-English school. Maria is much more open to practicing, so we chatted to her about the classes she is taking and what she’s learning in them.The most interesting part to me was that she has some sort of psychology class in which they learn to talk about their feelings and how to diffuse arguments and verbal conflict. I thought it was so fascinating.

Dani and Lucas, who are both six, called us outside to present to us a homemade mascleta in our honor. They handed me a lit sparkler and rushed me to one edge to light the fuse, and the firecrackers they’d places on the ground popped and jumped and…stopped a little early. When the firecrackers jumped, the connection broke, ruining the presentation. But the boys set it up again and we lit it again and finished the noisy spectacle.

Then, Monica and Cristina and their kids joined me and Nicolette to look at a few more fallas. They wanted to show us which won second prize this year as it was surely deserving of first, had their not been such controversy over last year’s loser. I agreed, the second place one was more detailed and had far more figurines, leaning out from the sides, taunting that they would fall over once the whole thing burns, despite the calculated construction ensuring that it would not.

As we walk around, Maria proudly takes on the role of translator to Nicolette, telling her every part of the conversation she is missing out on, as well as chatting with her on her own about Trump and how she fears for WWIII. Nicolette later tells me she was so humbled speaking to a ten-year-old Spanish girl in English about the Trump presidency.

Among the snacks we enjoy from the street vendors, we’re both most fascinated by the raw licorice, which are essentially wooden twigs that you gnaw and suck on. Nicolette loves black licorice, but these don’t quite taste like anise. Rather, they taste like artificial sweetener. We also stop by a cart to get ladles of ice cold horchata, which I down in one gulp.

We return to Pichon’s parents house while the rest of the family returns to their casal, as it’s now around six in the evening. We debate whether to rest or just power through our exhaustion and we decide on the latter. Nicolette and I popped out to the casal to say hi to all of Cristina’s friends that I knew. I saw Laura, Maria la alta, Marina, José Enrique’s parents and more, as well as their respective kids, all in the baby or toddler stages.

Earlier, Cristina told me how Maria and Josep’s daughter, Alejandra, had a stomach virus about a week ago, which spread to her parents, who were down for a day, then Cristina, who was home sick for a day, then Monica, and her kids, and basically through the entire circle of friends with the exception of Lucas and Lucia. Cristina hoped the virus would die before her kids caught it. Monica was carrying baby Alejandra and retelling the story to someone from the casal and basically telling them how the baby was patient zero, waving her around like a dangerous contagion squealing “VIRUS VIRUS VIRUS,” cracking us all up.

Nicolette and I rest our feet for a moment and then head out. It’s around 8pm now and we have three hours until the first of the fallas burn…no time to waste! We head off to the Russafa neighborhood, where there are several casals that invested in massive light displays. Nicolette is impressed by the small lights we see hanging as we exit the metro stop but I insist she hold back her excitement because when we finally arrived near the center of the fallas in the Russafa area, it was truly impressive. Lights lined the streets so brightly it was like daytime…or at least like standing in the middle of Times Square. It was beautiful. We stuck around this area until around 11pm, when the winning falla infantil was burned. The street was packed with people, and we stood on a step near a storefront to get a better view as fireworks shot up in the air and the popping soon turned to the crackling of fire. Firefighters stood by to hose down the nearby tree as sprinkles of water and ash showered down on us. It was spectacular.

When the majority of it had burned, which was rather quickly as this was one of the small ones, we rushed off to a nearby falla a few blocks away to witness the same flaming fury. Then we rushed off a few blocks later, but by now it was around 11:30pm and most were in the crumbling ashes stage and we had to wait until midnight for the next big event, the burning of the large falla in the government plaza.

I realized that I still hadn’t purchased any postcards and despite the late hour, the city was alive with most stores and restaurants packed with people. We made our way to the plaza but the barricades were out so wide that it was difficult to go down any street without encountering a dead end. We needed to make it back to Campanar to meet my host family to see the first place falla burn at 1am, so we decided to skip the government plaza. We stopped into a souvenir shop and I got my postcards, a set of photos of the major fallas of this year, which could not be a more perfect choice. We hadn’t eaten since lunch earlier this afternoon, so on our walk back to the train, we stop at a food cart and get a BBQ pulled pork sandwich. YUM.

We make it back to Campanar with only a few minutes to spare, and we rush toward the front of the crowd, but not too close as I know how hot it will get. We rushed all the way here and it’s now 1am and… nothing happens. They still are setting it up and the members of the casal are snapping pictures with it, singing “We are the champions” and the firefighters prepare the area around it and ensure the barricades are at the right distance. A pyrotechnic strings the sculpture with firecrackers and sprays some lighter fluid and thirty minutes after its assigned burn time, the event begins.

Music plays as the fallera takes to the fuse and lights it up. A five minute fireworks show proceeds, and finally the falla catches on fire. We watch as the eight-story tall structure burns to a flaming wooden frame, the heat pressing against our faces. This particular falla is tall and thin, so I want to wait until the whole thing topples. As these are constructed precisely to avoid utter chaos upon their collapse, we didn’t have to worry if there would be any fatalities.

As it got hotter and hotter and the amusement of watching the structure topple had ended, we met up with Cristina and Pichon to head back to their house in the outskirts. Gin welcomed us to their home, purring and rubbing up against our legs expressing either utter love or hunger. Cristina filled his bowl just in case.

They helped me call a cab for a 5am pickup so I could head to the airport for my 6:30am flight to NYC. It was about 2am right now and I thought I’d get less sleep but I forgot that the airport is only a ten minute ride from their house. I showered, but the hot water ran out so I went to bed with wet hair and Nicolette and I both set alarms for me for the next morning…er…for two and a half hours from now.