You can love it or hate it, but you cannot ignore it; in Valencia, March is Fallas time and the city goes crazy for better and for worse.
Fallas is the festival of Saint Joseph, or the carpenters, or a Pagan Spring fertility celebration, or just about anything you want it to be.
Each neighbourhood of the city (and sometimes every other street) has an organized group of dedicated people whose HQ is called a Casal, and they work all year long holding fundraising parties and dinners, usually featuring the famous speciality paella.
They pay a Falla artist to build a monument made of wood and papier-mâché, elect a junior queen and a senior queen, and then proceed to celebrate the festival with bands, fireworks, traditional costumes and arguing with unhappy motorists who discover that they have parked their car in a war zone and won’t get it back for a week.
It is then that people remember the traditional, medieval slogan “oh no, not bloody Fallas again!”
The monuments, and smaller ones for the kids called Ninots, are full of social criticism and commentaries about local and national problems, and an opportunity to have a dig at politicians and the rich and famous.
There are more than 1,000 of these monuments built in Valencia and other towns in the Valencian Community each year, which are then burnt in an orgy of destruction on the night of March 19th, before the whole process staggers to a start again, with a slight hangover, on March 20th.
Highlights of the festival are the Despertà, with a brass band and fireworks to wake people up whether they want you to or not, the Mascleta, a ground level firework display comparable to a full scale attack on the Western Front, guaranteed to do serious damage to your ear drums. The biggest is held in the Town Hall Square at 2 pm each day, although smaller ones are held all over the city, usually centred on that parking space you finally miraculously found.
L’Ofrenda is an emotional, floral tribute to Valencia’s very own virgin, when processions from all over town converge on the Plaza de La Virgen to create a replica of the Virgin with flowers soaked in tears.
The Castells are colourful, imaginative firework displays which concentrate on colour and visual impact rather than sound, and are usually held above the old riverbed, although every year there are innovations.
La Nit del Foc takes place on the night of the 18th, when the whole sky fills with colourful explosions and invading aliens turn on their heels in flight from the best defended planet in the Universe.
La Cremà is the last night when everything is burnt, including a few things that aren’t supposed to be, and the Fire Brigade spends the night trying to control the flames.
Food stands set up in the streets, colourful street lighting and an absence of traffic make the festival worth seeing at least once in a lifetime, and the town fills up with visitors, while veterans and neurotic pets head for the hills or the basement and sit it out as best they can.
So, spare a thought for Valencia as the town engages in Spring cleaning; the city will never be the same again, until next year.