OK, so I want to preface this article by saying that Las Fallas is an incredible celebration, and I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t go. If you can, it is definitely an event I would recommend experiencing. But if you’re thinking about visiting this area of Spain, you probably already know a few things about it. Here, I want to shine some light on a celebration you’ve probably never heard of, but that, in my experience, is just as good, if not better! Although La Magdalena has much in common with Las Fallas — plenty of fire and mascletàs, festival “queens” dressed in elegant, traditional clothes, and lit-up gaiatas which compete to win prizes in a similar vein to the fallas — it also has so much more, and is well worth checking out!
La Magdalena: What is it?
La Magdalena is a week-long celebration held in the city of Castelló de la Plana, an hour’s train ride north of Valencia, home of Las Fallas. It celebrates the origins of the city when the people of the original village in the nearby hills moved down onto the plains in 1252, hence the current name of Castelló “de la Plana” (“of the plain”). They moved overnight carrying canes (canyes) with lanterns and traditional doughnut-shaped bread (rotllos). This is celebrated by the annual romeria, or pilgrimage, from the current city to the old village’s chapel at the start of the festival. The whole city spills out onto the streets to walk to the chapel, carrying canyes and rotllos, and wearing green ribbons, the colour of the city.
OK, but why should I go and celebrate the origins of a city I’ve never even heard of?
1) It’s Less Touristy
While Las Fallas is an internationally-recognised festival which around one million tourists visit every year, La Magdalena is a much more local affair. This means that there are fewer crowds, and it’s cheaper, which is always appreciated by a traveller on a budget! It also has the benefit that it feels more authentic. This is not to deny the strong local tradition and culture around Las Fallas. But it also has to prepare and provide for the international visitors. On the other hand, the only tourist I remember seeing during La Magdalena was my friend who visited me from England! You know that all the activities are prepared by and for the locals, making it feel more special.
2a) There is Still Plenty of Fire
Two important elements of Las Fallas are fire and gunpowder. There is a giant parade of dimonis and other fire-related groups, people setting off firecrackers in the streets, the daily mascletàs, firework displays, and of course the famous burning of the fallas on the last night. Well, La Magdalena has just as much! Minus the fallas, which are unique to Las Fallas (unsurprisingly, given the name), La Magdalena has all of this too, albeit in some cases on a smaller scale. However, I actually like the smaller-scale correfocs (parade of dimonis) because you can participate more. The Valencian version was more impressive to watch. Still, in Castelló, I was able to dance under the sparks myself, which added an extra level of excitement.
2b) Extra Fire
On top of this, La Magdalena has the Nit Màgica. As a pyromaniac, it was one of my favourite nights not only of La Magdalena but of the whole year. Health and safety rules would definitely NOT allow it in England! It is basically a kind of extreme correfoc. The people of Castelló don denim jackets (less likely to catch fire) and crowd into the street. They chant a traditional rhyme, and then the chaos begins! Dimonis spray sparks around your feet and over your head, wheelbarrows with flaming horns dash past just centimetres away, and as you try to dodge all of that you hear explosions down the street and sparks start to rain down from overhead, while other fireworks whizz along wires between streetlights. This chaotic excitement gradually makes its way along the streets of Castelló, with those less inclined to get singed watching from balconies.
Once the mass of people and fire reaches its destination, there is a firework display. It was accompanied by the rhythmic drumming that has followed the procession around the city, now up on a stage. The year I was there, one of the fireworks set fire to a palm tree, and firefighters were either unable to reach it or just didn’t come. So people started shouting “¡Échale agua!” (“Throw water on it!”), and spectators threw buckets of water from their balconies! At one point, I turned to my friend and said, “am I on fire?” and indeed I was, so she patted my smouldering T-shirt to put it out! (I’d worn multiple layers of old clothes, as we only had one denim jacket between the two of us). We wondered at the etiquette of what to do if you see a stranger’s clothes on fire — can you just hit them?!
3) Paella Competitions
Paella is commonly eaten during Las Fallas too, but as far as I know, there is no official paella-making contest. Well, in La Magdalena, there is! Standing in an open space and seeing a giant paella being cooked over a wood fire every few metres is pretty impressive. You might wonder, “what’s the point?” if they’re all just rice and ingredients. But living in the Valencia region for 3 years, I have learnt that paella-making is an almost sacred process and recipe, and don’t you *dare* ever put chorizo in it! From village to village and even family to family, there are very strong feelings about the correct way to make it and whether or not to add artichokes, peas, etc. (this can seriously start full-blown arguments!) If you know someone involved, you might even be lucky enough to get to eat some paella after the judging!
Of the many processions during the week, from local dances and regional food to fallas-like sculptures and lit-up gaiatas, my favourite was the confetti parade. A child at heart, I arrived early to get a spot close to where the floats pass. I had just as much fun as my 12-year-old students, who ended up next to me when it started! The floats drive slowly throwing out confetti. For hours, people stay on the street making their own confetti showers from what’s left afterward. While most other events in La Magdalena have traditional roots, I’m not sure where this one came from, but it’s lots of fun.
Pilota Valenciana is a traditional sport from the region. During La Magdalena, there is the opportunity to try out some of the street variations. I love that balconies and non-standard building shapes are built into the rules; you don’t need an artificial place to play. There is also an important professional match for higher-level action that you can watch. Be careful, though, because the spectators are part of the game area, and the ball may be hit in your direction as a tactic. In this case, you can use the foam mat you are given upon arrival as protection, as the ball is very hard!
You may have heard of castellers, human towers that are traditional in Catalonia. Well, muixeranga is the Valencian equivalent and is actually the origin of the now more famous castellers (a fact that Valencians are quite sour about!) On the second Saturday of La Magdalena, you can watch this incredible activity in action. The Conlloga Muixeranga de Castelló hosts an afternoon of jaw-dropping human towers in different shapes and sizes. This includes invited groups who showcase the figures they have been working on. If you know someone involved, you can even be part of the pinya — the base that provides the figure’s stability. But only if you forget about the concept of personal space for a while, as any gaps could lead to injury. It’s an intensely emotional experience, either to watch or be part of.
I had the best time during La Magdalena, but there is one thing to note before booking your flights there right now. If you don’t like fire, explosions, or loud noises, it’s probably not for you. Or at least you’ll have to accept that you won’t be able to avoid it that week. There are plenty of non-fire-related activities. But while walking around the city during La Magdalena, you can’t escape people setting off firecrackers or unexpected fire events! However, this applies to Las Fallas too!
So, should you go?
My answer is a resounding YES! You don’t have to go instead of Las Fallas, but since they are at a similar time, why not fit a few days of each into your visit? With its fair share of fire plus a greater number of different activities, its local feel, and cheaper accommodation, La Magdalena is an interesting, lesser-known alternative that is definitely worth checking out.
by Kira Browne