Excursions on the Costa Brava

In the Alt & Baix Empordà

Medieval Villages

Take a driving tour of the highly picturesque, beautifully preserved, charming, atmospheric medieval villages of Pals and its castle tower and rice fields (but is perhaps a bit too-well restored and overly manicured), and the nearby tiny Sant Feliu de Boada, with its lovely 12th-century Romanesque church.  A little further inland is the beautifully preserved walled village of Peratallada, with its defensive walls still intact, a moat and castle-palace, 13th-century church of Sant Esteve and lookout tower-its name means “cut stone”.  Palau-Sator, a sleeper, has a little farm museum that’s open from 12:30 to 9:00 pm is a 10-minute drive north of Peratallada.  Ullastret, a few minutes west of Palau-Sator, is another village surrounded by defensive walls.  You can also visit the ancient ruins of the Poblat ibèric d’Ullastret (Puig de Sant Andreu), the oldest known Iberian settlement, set on a lush hillside just north of Ullastret.  It was inhabited continually from the 7th-century BC until its mysterious abandonment in the 17th-century.  And if time allows, end your driving tour in picture postcard perfect Monells, where the river divides the town-Old Quarter.  It has a pretty porticoed square and flower lined streets.

The villages of Peratallada-Pals-Palau Sator are architectural jewels and form the “Golden Triangle” of the Lower, Baix Empordá, which is often called Catalonia’s version of Tuscany.  The villages are close to one another so you can hit them on one long driving excursion.

For lunch on this loop we recommend the Restaurant Ibéric in Ullastret (their fish comes directly from the Palamós pier), the Mas Pou in Palau-Sator (a Bibi Gourmand selection for value in the Michelin guide), the Can Bonay in Peratallada, Can Dolç in Sant Feliu de Boada, on the main square next to the church, with a children’s play area, and L’Hort del Rector on the outskirts of Monells, run by a Catalán/Canadian couple.  You’ll find this last one on the Monells-Madremanya road, just in front of the Saint Genís church, which has a Gothic apse and a Baroque façade. Its catalán name means “The Parish Priest’s Kitchen Garden”.   But here you should enjoy cod, as most of the main courses are versions of cod in its many guises, the house specialty, although there are main courses and starters for non-cod lovers.


Sant Martí d’Empúries

See the splendid Greco-Roman ruins and Museum of Empúries + lovely sandy beach under shaded pines of Sant Martí d’Empúries next door.  The drive to Empúries from Girona will take about 45 minutes.  These ruins are considered some of the finest, most fascinating ancient archaeological sites in Spain, if not in all of Europe.  The Greek settlers who arrived here in the 6th-century BC developed “Emporion” (the market place) into one of the most significant Greek trading centers in the western Mediterranean.  In 218 BC the Romans invaded, and towards the end of the 2nd-century AD they established a settlement here for their veteran soldiers to the west of the Greek town.  The Roma and Greek settlements were united as one during the reign of Caesar Augustus.  The decline of this once-flourishing city set in around the end of the 2nd-century.

After an Empúries visit you can explore the nearby village of Sant Martí d’Empúries with its beach of golden sand and have a meal at the Impressionist painting-filled Mesón del Conde on the Plaça Major at No. 4.  It has an outdoor terrace and is a local favorite.  This could be an unforgettable day of art, history and nature.

While in the area be sure to visit L’Escala, the anchovy capital, with an anchovy museum.  Buy a tin of local anchovies.  The Museum of Anchovies & Salt is open from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and 5:00 to 8:00 pm.  Admission is 2€.

For one Michelin star dining in L’Escala, you have El Roser 2 with prime views of the bay at Passeig de Lluís Albert.  Chef Jordi Sabadi helms the kitchen and his brother, Rafel, acts as the sommelier.

Begur

Visit, dine and/or shop in the lovely hilltop market town filled with 19th-century indiano mansions and crowned by the remnants of a 17th-century castle, once used as a defense against frequent pirate raids.  The top of Begur commands extensive views of the central Costa Brava and the town itself attracts an international crowd in the summer.  Many of its indiano homes, some porticoed with fading frescoes, have been restored by noted catalán architects, and plaques have been placed in Spanish and English explaining the history of each home.

What is an indiano?
The indianos were locals from all over the Costa Verde (Green Spain) who in vast numbers immigrated to the Americas: Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela and Cuba in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to seek their fortunes.  Once they had amassed considerable wealth in the textile, tobacco and banking industries, they returned to Catalunya, Asturias, Cantabria, Galicia and the Basque Country and built huge, ostentatious palaces to showcase their newly minted fortunes.  In early September Begur will celebrate its annual Fira Indians Festival, a 3-day event that commemorates the relationship between the town and Havana, Cuba.

Figueres

Salvador Dalí’s over-the-top, wildly extravagant Teatre-Museu Dalí in Figueres in the Upper (Alt) Empordà attracts more visitors than any other museum in Spain, apart from Madrid’s Prado.  In addition to the museum, Figueres has a pleasant, prosperous old center.  There is underground parking at Placa Catalunya and the Dalí Museum is walkable from there.  A regular Thursday morning outdoor market is held on the Rambla lined with plane trees.  To visit the Teatre-Museu it’s best to look online in advance, noting the opening hours of each month, and to avoid a long line during high season, purchase your tickets (14€) online at Salvador-Dali.org.

The 11th-century castle that Surrealist Salavador Dalí purchased and restored for his Russian wife, Gala, in this sleepy little village in 1970, the Gala Castell Dalí Púbol, is one of the three points that make up the so-called “Daí Triangle”.  The artist himself lived in this palace until 1984 but moved back to Figueres after being badly injured in a fire here.  The third point is found near rather isolated Cadaqués, his equally outré home, the Salvador Dalí House in Portlligat.

Figueres also boasts another small museum, Museu del Joguet de Catalunya, the Toy Museum of Josep Maria Joan Rosa, at Carrer de Sant Pere, 1, a short walk from Teatre-Museu Dalí.

For lunch after a visit to the Dalí museum, we recommend the dining room of the Hotel Durán at Carrer Lasauca, 5, nearby, off the Rambla, in business since 1855, serving traditional catalán fare at moderate prices.  It’s open daily, and its famous all over Catalunya.

Cadaqués

On a slighter longer trip from Girona, taken during the week to avoid horrendous weekend traffic on a tortuous road, would be the journey to the Aegean looking, bohemian, artsy whitewashed fishing village of Cadaqués, home of Surrealist Salvador Dalí.  If you venture here, wear extremely comfortable shoes as the steep streets of the old quarter, the Barri Vell, are paved with large, rough stones.  There is a market held on Mondays at Riera de Sant Vicenç, Mercadillo de Cadaqués.  The town featires an interesting museum, the Museu de Cadaqués, at Carrer Narcís Monturiol, 15, with displays relating to Dalí’s work and excellent exhibitions of local art.  And the 16th-century Esglesia de Santa Maria is highly photogenic.  It has an ornate gilded altarpiece and the 3rd side chapel on the left was painted by Dalí.  The seafront offers a pebble beach, artist shops, street musicians and cafes and restaurants where Dalí and writers, such as García Marqués, used to congregate.  Read all about the village in 36 hours in Cadaqués.

The best restaurant in town is Compartir at Riera Sant Vicenç.  The dishes here are meant to be shared (hence, the name, “compartir”=to share).  The three chefs here trained at El Bulli and have opened a gastronomic restaurant in Barcelona, Disfrutar, which made number 55 on Restaurant Magazine’s The World’s Best Restaurants for 2017.  It  also earned two “suns” from the Repsol Guide and the personal recommendation of Joan Roca, of Girona’s 3-Michelin starred El Celler de Can Roca.  Another attractive dining spot with lovely views overlooking the bay is Es Baluard.

Dalí’s home at neighboring Portlligat, a rambling collection of fishing huts, is a fascinating museum that can be visited by advanced appointment only, bookable online.

Don’t forget to try the ‘Taps de Cadaqués’, small buns shaped like corks, eaten at afternoon tea or flambeed with rum as a dessert.

While in the area, you can visit Empordàlia, a wine cellar and olive mill.  There is also the Cellers d’en Guilla near Rabós d’Empordà, and Mas Estela in La Selva de Mar.  Call or email for reservations.

Palamós

Attend the daily fish auction from 4:30 to 5:30 pm on weekdays, Tuesday-Friday, at the port in Palamós, south of Begur.  At the port there is a small Fishermen’s Museum, Museu de la Pesca, which explains the past and present of the fishermen’s work.  Fishing is a huge business in Palamós and its red prawns, gambas de Palamós, are highly coveted and quite pricey.  This thriving town, home to the fishing and cork-producing industry, has a life of its own, independent of tourism.  Its old quarter is a bustling knot of pedestrianized streets centered on its town square, Plaça Major, full of shops, cafes and restaurants.  The tourist office sits at Passeig del Mar 22.

At the working port there is a small Fishermen’s Museum, Museu de la Pesca, which explains the past and present of the fishermen’s work.  Fishing is a huge business in Palamós and its red prawns, gambas de Palamós, are highly coveted and quite pricey.  The museum is open May, June and September Tuesday-Friday from 10:00 am to 1:30 pm and from 3:00 to 7:00 pm.  On Saturday, Sunday and holidays it opens fro 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and 4:00 to 7:00 pm.  In the months of July and August it opens Monday-Sunday from 10:00 am to 9:00 pm. The Espai del Peix was opened in 2011 next to the town’s interesting interactive Fish Museum to raise awareness of the industry and local gastronomy.   It runs a variety of cooking classes/demonstrations.

Have a lunch of the acclaimed prawns at La Salinera, at Avinguda 11 Setembre, 93, a Bibi-Gourmand (great price to quality ratio) selection of the Michelin guide.  During the week it’s only open for lunch but on Fridays/Saturdays it also opens for dinner.  Another Michelin recommendation is La Menta at Tauler i Servià 1, with an outdoor terrace, open for lunch and dinner but closed Tuesdays.  Or a more rustic fishermen’s tavern founded in 1936, a local institution, La María de Cadaqués, with a wood beamed interior hung with artworks, where Truman Capote dined during the two years he lived here while writing In Cold Blood.  You’ll find it on the same street as La Menta, at number 6.  From September 1 to June 22 it closes on Sunday evenings and all day Mondays/Tuesdays.  In July it closes only on Mondays and in August it closed for Monday lunch.

In Palamós the celebrations of the summer solstice, the Festa de Sant Joan on June 23, 24 and 25 are especially lively with music, dancing and fireworks.

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Girona

Spend the day in the multi-layered, beautiful city of Girona, one of Catalunya’s most prosperous and colorful cities, sitting on the banks of the river Onyar.  The highlights of Girona include the Cathedral of Santa María and its museum, with the Romanesque Tapestry of the Creation and 12th-century Romanesque cloister, Museum of Jewish History, its interesting Cinema Museum, the Arab Baths (actually 12th-century Christian), its ancient medieval Jewish Quarter, El Call, and walking along with city ramparts, the Passeig de la Muralla.  It will take about an hour for the drive from Llofríu to the parking lot at Correos (the Post Office), which is the most convenient parking in the modern city, where you can cross into medieval Girona via the Eiffel-designed iron bridge.

Have lunch in El Call of Girona at Cal Ros, located on an atmospheric square and considered one of the city’s best tables for traditional Empordanese cuisine.

Palagrugell

Tour the recently renovated and enlarged Cork Museum, Museo del Suro, in the center of Palafrugell, to learn all about the world of cork and the importance of its production here in the Empordà. Cork reserves in the nearby cork forest are manufactured mainly into bottle corks.  A boom set in when catalán wine growing expanded following the 19th-century birth of cava, the catalán sparkling wine.  Palafrugell is still the most important cork manufacturing location in Catalonia today.

Jardi Botanic de Cap Roig

Visit the Castle and Gardens of Cap Roig just south of Calella de Palafrugell, a cliff top, 8-hectare botanical garden, which took 50 years to lay out and was finished in 1927.  It was constructed by a White Russian colonel named Voevosky and his English wife.  It boasts exceptional views of the headland of Calella amidst a colorful display of flowers and plants from all over the world.  An all-star music festival is held in the gardens each summer from July 4-August 15.  The botanical gardens are open in summer from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm.  Admission is 6€.

Download Maribel’s Guide to the Costa Brava

The Ribera del Duero

Ribera’s earliest underground cellars, with their distinctive stone chimneys, called zarceras, were built in the 13th century in towns across the region and still serve to protect the wines from the extreme climate changes.  The limestone caves, dug by hand, provide the perfect conditions for aging these fine wines.  One of the best examples of these cellars is the 400 meter long wine storage cellar of Bodegas Ismael Arrouyo-Valsotillo in Sotillo de la Ribera.

Although the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) of Ribera del Duero has only been in existence since July 1982, starting with just 8 wineries, winemaking in the region dates back more than 2000 years to the time of the Romans who had a settlement, Clunia, in what is now the small village of Baños de Valdearados in the province of Burgos.

As of October 2017,  the Ribera del Duero counted 255 commercial wineries with 35,000 hectares in production (about one third the area of their rival, Rioja to the north) scattered along its 115 km length.  Major winemaking is centered in and around the towns of Peñafiel (Valladolid), Roa and Aranda de Duero (Burgos) and San Esteban de Gormaz (Soria), all of which sit along the banks of the Duero River.

The “Magic Mile” lies just west of Peñafiel, where most of the vineyards are located in lower elevations.  Here the wineries employ special towers to move the heavier, colder air that settles in over the river valley to protect the grapes from the dangers of an early fall frost, common to the area.

On average, the vineyards of the Ribera del Duero are planted between 2,500 and 2,800 feet (760 to 850 meters) above sea level (with some vineyards as high as 3,100 feet or 945 meters), resulting in considerable differences, up to 30 degrees F, between nighttime and daytime temperatures.  The predominant grape, the Tinto Fino or Tempranillo actually benefits from this dramatic change of temperature.  It likes to cool off or “sleep”,  lie dormant, at night and warm up during the day.  These conditions yield smaller berries with loose clusters and tougher skin, resulting in more skin-to-juice contact, promoting full-bodied, powerful wines, but retaining the grape’s renowned elegance, which is a signature of Ribera del Duero wines.

The maximum yields are limited by the D.O. to 7,000 kilos per hectare, but the average yields for the past 25 years have rarely exceeded 3,600 kilos per hectare, as the wineries have reduced the quantity in pursuit of quality.

The Wines of the Ribera del Duero

The red wines produced in the Ribera del Duero are designated as Joven, Joven Roble, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, and all will benefit from decanting.

Joven
“Joven Roble” and “Joven Barrica” are terms that refer to wines aged in oak barrels from three to six months.  These wine tend to be fruity and vibrant and are meant to be consumed when young.

Crianza
Aged for 2 years with a minimum of 12 months in oak barrels, these wines are released after the first of October, two years following the harvest.  They have well balanced tannins with a full-bodied and velvety feel.

Reserva
Aged 3 years, a minimum of twelve months in oak; these wine can only be placed on the market after the first of October of the third year following the harvest.  Reserva wines are bottled after 12 months and laid down to sleep until ready to be released. They are typically elegant and intense.

Gran Reserva
These are wines of outstanding quality, made in select vintage years only.  Aged a minimum of 5 years, a minimum of 24 months in oak barrels, followed by additional bottle aging, and cannot be released until five years after the October harvest.  The wines are complex and structured, with great balance and vitality.

The area does also produce a small quantity of rosé, rosado, and Bodegas Valduero produces an outstanding white, García Viadero, made from the albillo grape.

Of Chestnuts, Wine and Celts

Celtic Galicia, Spain’s Ireland

You will need a few weeks to properly explore Spain’s lush, misty, and verdant northwest corner:  a land very different from southern Spain.  This lush, misty, and verdant northwest corner of Iberia, facing the fierce Atlantic, is a place of spectacular seaside cliffs and mighty rivers gushing through deep gorges, of chestnut, pine and eucalyptus forests, of Celtic heritage, legends and myths, of bagpipes, dolmens and petroglyphs.  Romanesque and pre-Roman ruins, and stunning medieval architecture, dot the countryside along the various pilgrimage routes leading to Santiago de Compostela.  The “land of a thousand rivers” is also where you will find wild horses roaming the high Serras, dense wooded valleys with green medows, stately granite manor homes covered with blankets of moss, lively outdoor markets with bubbling cauldrons of pulpo a feira (octopus), and more festivals that one can begin to count.  There are beautiful sandy beaches and sheltered harbors flanked by towering cliffs and some 1,200 kilometers of rugged coastline with unique Rías, or low estuaries, that supply the region with an astounding bounty of fresh seafood and shellfish.

On the Route of the Wines of Galicia

Galicia is blessed with a unique mix of favorable microclimates which, along with lemon, orange, oil and palm trees, afford it’s five principal wine making regions with their own official Denominaciones de Origen, three of which we have toured in depth: the Ribeira Sacra, Rías Baixas and Ribeiro.  These three wine producing areas encompass the provinces of Lugo, Ourense and Pontevedra and are currently enjoying a growing international recognition for excellence, and we promise that once you try them, you will definitely be hooked.

Meandering in the Riberia Sacra

Using the Parador of San Vicente do Pino, a reconverted Benedictine Monastery, in the town of Monforte de Lemos as a base, we spent four intensive days touring the out-of-the-way, exquisitely rural, ancient Ribeira Sacra, or ‘Sacred Bank”, noted as such for its wealth of monastic retreats.  Without a doubt, it is one of the most stunningly picturesque wine growing regions of Spain!  The rich, rugged canyons formed by the Miño and Sil rivers are covered with steeply terraced vineyards, vines cascading down the precipitous slopes to the very edge of the meandering rivers below. The harvests here, like in the Alto Douro, require arduous, back breaking labor to collect the grapes from the steep, plunging slopes.

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Smaller than the Rioja, but slightly larger and with an even more dramatic landscape than the Priorat, the Ribeira Sacra has been growing grapes for some 2,000 years, its terraces (bancales) dating back to the Roman occupation.  They produce lighter, lively, fruity, mineral-rich wines, primarily mencía-based reds and godello-based whites, along with fine liqueurs, or orujos.   Adegas Vía Romana  and Adegas Regina Viarum enjoy two of the most spectacularly beautiful and panoramic locations of any winery we’ve visited and are truly “must sees” for wine lovers.  The Ribeira Sacra wines continue to attract world-wide attention, and we promise that once you try them, you will definitely be hooked!

Along with winery visits, we toured the area’s vast array of Baroque monasteries and Romanesque hermitages and purchased ceramics from the artisan hamlets of Gundivós and Niñodaguia.

Navigating the Rías Baixas

Road signs in Galicia can be challenging, but navigating the Rías Baixas (Lower Estuaries) region proved to be most difficult due to poor or non-existent signage.  Therefore, when touring the area, the help of a local guide is strongly advised.

Like the Ribeira Sacra, this D.O. is divided into 5 sub zones, the largest being the Val do Salnés, Salnés valley, consisting of rolling fields laced with stone and wire trellises (parrales) used to lift the vines away from the damp soil, towards the sunshine and to provide ventilation and prevent rot.  The vineyards are planted predominately with the resistant albariño grape (Spain’s most expensive), and these rather feminine wines taste intensely fruity- peach, pear, citrus flavors.

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Along with the Palacio de Fefiñanes, located in the wine capital of Cambados on its handsome medieval square, we found the countryside Pazo de Señorás and Agro de Bazán to be the most charming and welcoming.  Both boast stunning Pazos, or ancestral manor homes, these usually with private chapel, garden, hórreo (stone granary built on stilts) and dovecote.  And both wineries produce delicate, aromatic wines that pare perfectly with the region’s superb seafood.

Although we based at the Parador del Albariño in Cambados, we can also recommend the elegant, Belle Epoque spa hotel, the Eurostars’ 5-star Gran Hotel La Txoa, on the pine covered island of A Toxa, as a pampering, relaxing base.

While in the area one should also visit the 12th-century Monastery of Armenteira, the 16th-century Monastery of Poio and picturesque village of Combarro with its lineup of hórreos facing the river.

Into the Ribeiro

Ribeiro (Ourense province), the oldest appellation in Galicia, in medieval times, under the reign of King García I, saw its wines, the potent tostados, exported from the court of Ribadavia to almost the whole of Europe.  Ribadavia’s thriving Jewish community became rich thanks to the pre-Inquisition wine commerce.  In the 16th-century Ribeiro wine was revered throughout Europe and even shipped to America.  Cervantes described Ribadavia as Spain’s “Mother of Wine”.  But in the 18th century the vineyards suffered a sharp decline as foreign wine merchants moved on to Porto.  Then in the 19th-century a vine plague devastated the Ribeiro wine industry.

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The vineyards here are situated in the deep green hills that slope down to four rivers that irrigate this pastoral land. (Ribeiro in the Gallego language meaning “River Bank”).  At his Viña Mein estate in Leiro, ex-attorney Javier Alén has been a pioneer in the renaissance of Ribeiro wines, returning to its native grapes,  and bringing the Treixadura, called the “queen of all white grapes”, on to the world’s stage. Adjacent to the winery, the owners have created a cozy and charming 8-room B&B from the original stone farmstead, which makes a delightful retreat for oenophiles.  Viña Mein also owns a strikingly avant-garde, boutique hotel, a member of the prestigious Rusticae group, in the hamlet of San Clodio, adjacent to the Monastery.

Other noteworthy wine estates to include on your Ribeiro itinerary:  The Coto de Gomariz dating from the 10th-century, and Casal de Armán, an 18th-century winery with atmospheric 6-room hotel and delightful bistro with heavenly views.

Northern Portugal’s Minho River Valley

From the Ribeiro we crossed the Miño river and stepped back 30 years in time.  The Portuguese Minho, far more pristine than its Spanish counterpart, is endowed with a number of highly photogenic fortress towns with their defensive walls and watch towers intact, filled with magnificently restored churches, beautifully manicured gardens, quintas  (noble estates) and mosaic cobbled squares, along with thermal spas.  Vila de Cerveira, Caminha, Monçao and Melgaço all delight visitors with their Old World charm.

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In Melgaço, gateway to the Peneda-Gerês National Park, we dropped in to sample the area’s crisp, refreshing, slightly effervescent alvarinho vinho verde.  Sampling here couldn’t be more pleasurable in the village’s Solar do Alvarinho wine center,  a showcase for these fresh white wines, along with local cheeses, sausages, honey and handicrafts, including exquisite embroidered linens.

And a visit to the northern Minho valley wouldn’t be complete without an unforgettable gourmet lunch at Adega do Sossego in Peso.  A tucked- away charmer, it serves gargantuan portions of local specialties, such as grilled trout stuffed with country ham, washed down with the house alvarinho wine, and ending with a complimentary miniature vat of their homemade digestif.

 

Fallas

The festival in Valencia, Spain’s 3rd largest city, is similar in many ways to the Fiesta de San Fermín in Pamplona; open and welcoming, people of all ages and stature coming together, long days and late nights in a city that never sleeps, thousands of participants immaculately dressed in traditional regional costumes, food stands serving chocolate y buñuelos (hot chocolate and fritters), massive crowds filling the streets and plazas, daily bullfights featuring the country’s most prestigious matadors, spectacular fireworks, 700 streets blocked to traffic and all the pageantry surrounding the Feast Day of San José.

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But Las Fallas has its own unique level of intensity and beauty, one created with papier-mâché and flowers, ignited by gunpowder and fire.

Spread about the city squares are more than 750 Fallas, which are enormous monuments, created from wood and papier-mâché. These structures are composed of artfully painted and sculpted figurines, the Ninots, which serve as humorous or satirical caricatures of local and national public figures and current events. These genuine works of art, scattered all over the city, create a huge open-air sculpture garden. And all but one of these figures, the ninot indultat, the “pardoned one”, go up in flames on the fiesta’s final Night of the Bonfires.

Marching bands, like the Peñas in Pamplona, play tabalets (traditional drums) and dolçainas (woodwind instruments) on every street corner, and each day at 2:00 pm, a deafening explosion of some 250 pounds of gunpowder, the mascletà, takes place in the Town Hall square. This unique pyrotechnics spectacle is often described as a fireworks “concert with barrage upon barrage of sheer rhythmic noise”.

On March 19, Saint Joseph’s night, the burning, or Cremà, of all of this artwork takes place in hundreds of bonfires throughout the city. The fallas are doused with gasoline, packed with fireworks then set ablaze. Tradition dictates that the fire must reduce each monument to ashes, purging away the sorrows or the evils of the previous year, like a dramatic “spring cleaning”.

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First, the children’s fallas are set ablaze, then the full-scale monuments, then the crescendo an hour later at 1 am, the burning of the city council monument, which belongs to all Valencianos, on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. With our press passes we were able to witness the burning of this enormous Falla from the City Hall roof top, above the tens of thousands of spectators, and we marveled at both the intense heat and at how only a handful of firefighters managed to control this enormous blaze.

Like San Fermín’s Pobre de mí, this is both a sad moment, marking the end to the festival, but also a happy one, symbolizing the coming of spring and the start of the preparations for next year’s Fiesta

And just as the municipal sanitation workers undertake their heroic chore of cleaning Pamplona’s streets after the chupinazo on July 6, for the daily encierro and following the Pobre de mí ceremony on July 14, the Valencia municipal fire brigades perform their own Herculean task of collecting the ashes and debris so that the following morning the city can return to normal.

One of the most beautiful and moving aspects of this unique festival is its religious act – the Ofrenda. This is the solemn procession of the Fallas commissions, the falleras and falleros dressed in richly embroidered silk costumes, who parade from their neighborhoods to the Plaza de la Virgen, accompanied by their marching bands. In front of the Basilica of the Our Lady of the Forsaken, la Virgen de los Desamparados, a 15-meter high wooden structure is erected, topped with the face of the Madonna and Child. On March 17 and 18, from 4 pm to the early morning hours, a steady stream of falleras and falleros makes the pilgrimage to the square to present their floral offering to Valencia’s patron saint. The falleras hand their bouquets to the Virgin’s “dressers” who create a stunning tapestry of flowers which form the Virgin’s mantle, the design of which changes each year. Along with these bouquets, the falleros place flower baskets at the feet of the Virgin. During this ceremony an astonishing 25 tons of flowers are used.