Guest blogger Ryan Bennett from HostelBookers’ contracting team has just got back from the loud, proud and crazy Las Fallas Festival in Valencia. He reports from the front line about what there is to see…
I’ve heard about this epic fire festival for years and I’m wrapped to have finally seen it. Las Fallas runs for a few weeks in March, but the last few days are the main event and not to be missed.
According to the roughly 300-year-old tradition, the festivities begin on the first Sunday of March at 5am. Brass bands parade through the streets with a wake up call (La Desperta), and continue every day until the final burning.
This year the main event ran between 15-19 March, with the final night including ‘La Crema’ – the burning of all the ninots (Valencian for puppets).
We got a cheap flight into Valencia on the main day (Saturday morning) ready to party the weekend away.
The night of the burning is what I really wanted to see, but there is so much more on offer.
Things to see
As the festival centres around tradition, expect to see beautiful Valencians parading in costume, floral offerings from the ‘city virgins’, fire processions, children running amok with firecrackers and delicious churros and chocolate on every corner.
There are little children’s ninots everywhere and the corresponding giant falla (big figures) are protected by barricades.
The falla at Plaza Na Jordana is always spectacular – they’ve won the major artistic merit prize for creativity and originality a dozen times. This year did not disappoint – a giant skeleton/reaper with sheath sitting on a tomb. The theme was hell and it was designed to burn slow.
The main falla I saw was a majorly quick burn – the heat that came off it was searing.
If you’re going to view it first hand you may as well get in early and take front centre. As you can see, these giant paper mache figures are stuffed with fireworks, blown up and burned. There is so much art, love, life and light everywhere.
Being in the front row we were warned to get back, but the crowd was huge and we had nowhere to go. Luckily for the more dangerous burns they have a fire truck nearby to douse the flames quickly should it get out of hand.
The cost and prize
Some of these giants, depicting comical figures, take almost a year to complete only to be sacrificed in a blazing inferno. Competition is fierce for the winning figure – and expensive.
Neighbourhoods can spend over €200,000 on their 20m, spectacular creations and use many a great artist to design these feted monuments.
The City Council does give grants, as the festival attracts huge crowds and is great for business. However, raising
the rest of the money is usually from sponsors and donations.
While there is a monetary prize, it is definitely not what drives the festival which is awash with passion, fun and mild danger for all us pyromaniacs!
Gunpowder, rockets, bonfires, parades, tapas, sangria and mischief is in abundance, yet there doesn’t seem to be any serious trouble at all.
While the Valencians come out in force to celebrate the passing of winter, the festival is mostly in aid of their Patron Saint of Carpenters, St Joseph.
There is much folklore surrounding where, how and why the celebrations began. But the best part is that it does still revolve around tradition – taken to the highest extreme and turned into one of the best pyrotechnic displays in the world.
Thinking of backpacking across Europe? Then follow our blogger Ryan Bennett, who travelled from the Spanish city of Bilbao to Bordeaux in France. With itineraries, tips on food, sights and getting around, it’s the essential guide for travelling on a budget…
The route between Bilbao and Bordeaux is a notorious ‘foodie’ route, and you can do it in 10 days. With amazing food, great sites and scenery along the way, it’s also affordable too: Here’s my budget for a 10 day trip:
Easy Jet flies into Bilbao and out of Bordeaux
2 x one way Flights (inc. taxes, baggage & online check in) – £75
Travel expenses between cities (inc. buses & trains) – £70
Main Travel Expenses between 5 cities (3 countries) – £145
There is no doubt that the main attraction here is The Guggenheim, a spectacularly modern piece of architecture that houses some interesting artworks, exhibitions and installations. It is very easy to just fly into Bilbao, visit the Guggenheim (allow 3 hrs minimum) and catch the bus for an hour to San Sebastian. However, an overnight stay in this city is definitely recommended to get to the heart of Basque country and discover what makes it tick.
From the airport, a Shuttle bus will quickly take you into town for €1.20. There are 3 stops. The 1st stop is just over the main bridge into town, where you will get a glimpse of the Guggenheim. Get off here if you’re staying in the ‘Old Town’. The 2nd stop is a few minutes around the corner on a main road of the city with lots of other accommodation options, whilst the 3rd stop is actually at the main Bus Terminal, great if you wish to bypass Bilbao and move straight onto San Sebastian.
Situated ‘front centre’ of the Old Town, this is a fantastic base with all points of interest within easy walking distance. The hotel is very secure & modern, and provides an excellent buffet breakfast and internet in all rooms.
Culture, shopping and nightlife are all on your doorstep. The Old Town offers some of the best restaurants and bars in Bilbao, some steeped in family tradition for generations. A jaunt along the river will take you straight to the Guggenheim. There is also central tram line (green) out front of the hotel which will run you directly to the Bus Terminal to keep you journeying onto San Sebastian. The stop for the Terminal is ‘San Mames’.
Eat: ‘Rio Oja’ (C Perro, Txakur Kalea 6).
A favorite with locals, this is a winner if you want to sample regional dishes. Comprised of a casual front room wrapped around a central bar, and a back room for more discreet dining, the restaurant serves big portions and has a relaxed atmosphere with fast service. The bill for 2 came to €40, including 5 shared dishes (2 entrees, 3 main), bottle of wine and digestives. Highly recommended is the Squid in Black Sauce, the Cod and the Tuna & Anchovie salsa salad.
The alleyways and backstreets of the Old Town, behind the Cathedral are chock full of bars servicing the young and funky, similar to the Barrio Alto district in Lisbon. Follow the echoing voices and laughter, grab your beer/cider and bar hop all night. The city has stapled itself over the last decade as a University city and the students sure like to party, but the bars are most vibrant on a Friday and Saturday night.
Visit: The Guggenheim (Avenida Abandoibarra, 2).
What Bilbao has become famous for. A piece of art itself which attracts roughly one million visitors a year, you can take advantage of the excellent photo opportunities from the outside. Comprised over 3 Levels, there are works from artists such as Kandinsky, Chillida and Warhol, and a selection of changing exhibitions and installations.
Entry is €11 and includes Audio Guide. Closed on Mondays (except in July & August)
If you have time, a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts is also worthwhile. You can get a combined ticket for both galleries for just €16 (without audio guides).
Buses to San Sebastian generally leave on the hour from the ‘Terminbus’ (Gurtubay, 1). The cost of a ticket is roughly €10 one way. The bus company is ‘PESA’ and tickets can be purchased from the terminal.
What’s not to like about this city? Set on a picturesque coastline within the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastian is a fun, vibrant and unique playground within the Basque region. Surrounded by hills, there’s a tidal river running through its center and two separate bays to enjoy. San Sebastian offers the traveler a great place to chill out and explore while spoiling yourself with cuisine typical of the area. Enjoy great surf, tasty ‘pintxos’ (tapas) and cider, friendly locals, siestas and shopping.
A small Pension with 6 private bedrooms and shared bathrooms, this accommodation is clean, cheap and central. Found on a great little street within the Old Quarter with an old ‘Churros and chocolate’ diner (Santa Lucia) underneath, which also does a hearty breakfast for a fiver. It’s the perfect hangover cure and you literally just have to roll out of bed to get there!
The main reception is at the Urban House Hostel, which is found on the corner of the ‘Boulevard’ as you enter this district. Convenient if you luck out on a room at Goiko, as the friendly and knowledgeable staff will look after you here. The owners of the Hostel and Pension have joined forces and will soon be opening a 3rd property with a Moroccan vibe!
Eat: Bar Borda Berri (Fermin Calbeton, 12).
Do not pass on this experience, the food is simply superb, and different to the run of the mill pinxos bars in the city. You won’t find plates of food displayed on the bar there for the taking. Instead, all dishes are made to order. Be warned though, you will not be able to stop at 1 dish. Most dishes are either €2.50 or €3 and dishes may change as ingredients are largely sourced locally. On the day we had seared scallops, blood sausage cannelloni, squid, cow cheek and pork off the rib, all washed down with a bottle of House Rioja. Excellent quality and value, all coming in at under €30!
Drink: Petritegi Sargadoa, (Petritegi bidea 20115).
This is about 15 minutes by cab out of central San Sebastian and is a great place to go with a group of people. A proper Cider House and dining experience that offers all you can drink cider, straight out of the barrels! Really popular with locals in the know. Urban House Hostel is looking at doing a regular run up there, so if staying with them be sure to ask. If going by cab, allow about €30 for a return trip.
Once there, grab a glass and head toward the barrels and vats of cider. Twist the taps and the cider shoots out, with everyone standing around catching the streams in their glass (or mouth!). Food wise, for about €20 a head you get dishes of sausages cooked in cider, salads, meats, fish, omelets, bread, cheeses and of course, all the cider you can stomach!
Visit: La Concha, Ondarreta and La Zurriola.
You won’t be able to stay away from these beautiful beaches. Whether it’s surfing, kayaking, boarding or just working the tan, this is what it’s all about! Even if the weather is below average, you can still walk along the stretch of coast or up to the old fort, Castillo de la Santa Cruz de la Mota. This is the ‘Jesus statue’ on top of the hill, where you will be met with sweeping views of the surrounding environment. In the area below you will find the Aquarium and the harbor with its fleet of boats.
There are 2 Train stations so make sure you got to the EuskoTren. From here, you need to catch a train to Hendaye, which is right on the border of France. It costs €1.50 and takes just over 30mins. Once you get to the final stop of Hendaye, go directly to the ticket booth and purchase your ticket for Biarritz. It is timed so there is usually a connecting train waiting. Cost of ticket to Biarritz is €7 and again it takes roughly 30mins.
The city may also lie on the Bay of Biscay and offer some great surf, but that’s where the similarity to San Sebastian finishes. Distinctly different in style and cuisine, Biarritz is more of a ‘resort town’ with some great sporting facilities. If you want to learn to surf, the beaches here are perfect and there are almost a dozen surf schools to choose from in the area. You will find yourself purely in holiday mode here and if travelling off season, you can snap up some excellent accommodation deals.
From the train station on the hour, there is a local bus service into town. Not the most attractive name, the STAB service will take you into and around Biarritz. Single journey is €1.20. Otherwise, a taxi into town is roughly €13.
An excellent choice right in the heart of Biarritz, this hotel comes highly recommended from Lonely Planet, so try and book in advance. However, as stated, Biarritz is a resort town so you can grab come absolute bargains off season. Try the 4 star ‘Residence Biarritz Ocean’ , where you can grab a 1 Bedroom Apartment (sleeps up to 4) with a kitchen and balcony, for just €70 per night!
Eat: Ahizpak (13, Avenue de Vaerdum).
This restaurant in the heart of town is a real gem. Prices are about the same compared to most other restaurants of this town, around €7 for entrée and about €15 for main. Difference here is the quality of the food is fantastic and the portions are substantial. The establishment is actually run by 3 sisters – one chef and two front of house. There is a relaxed and elegant ambience and a good wine selection. Dessert of the day with a coffee is only €3. Overall, an excellent choice if you want a nice night out enjoying locally produced dishes typical to this southern region of France.
Drink: Newquay, (20 Place Georges Cleamenceau).
Whilst not an elegant drinking hole or club, this bar is smack bang in the middle of all the action. It gets a mention as there are also two internet terminals for those who need to connect. It also caters for everyone, with a good dose of sports and live music being served up alongside its pints of Guinness and typical seaside bar menu. Friendly staff and generally a good crowd from all over so a very social hub.
Visit: Musee Asiatica, (1 Rue Guy Petite).
This is actually one of the more fascinating places in Biarritz and is well worth a visit. It is touted as the 5th most important private collection of Asian art in Europe. There are antiquities from India, China, Tibet and Nepal which cover over 5,000 years of history. Entry is just €5.
If this isn’t to your taste, then maybe chocolate is! The ‘Planete Musee du Chocolat’ may be small but is a heralded attraction of Biarritz and its tradition of chocolate making. Entry is €6 and includes a few complimentary chocolates and a hot chocolate on departure.
The ‘Musee de la Mar’, or the Aquarium, is also worth a visit. Biarritz was an old whaling town, so it seems fit to drop in and view the collection. There are seal and shark enclosures, with the seals being fed as part of a show twice daily (10.30am and 5pm). Entry is €7.
Lastly, check out the lighthouse. From the hill top there are amazing views straight down all the surf beaches. A nice place to soak it all in and relax away from the crowds.
From Biarritz Train Station there’s a train every couple of hours to Bordeaux, taking approximately 2 hours. The one way journey is €16 and you will arrive at Bordeaux St. Jean (TGV Atlantique).
A nice city which is easy to navigate on foot. The region is, of course, known for its excellent wines. The city itself is UNESCO listed and built alongside the river, with some beautiful buildings and great examples of Roman architecture. Bordeaux is fairly refined and offers some great dining and shopping experiences, most of which are centered around the main pedestrian street of ‘Saint Katherine’. Day trips are essential to understand what this city is all about – the wine!
Just a five minute walk from St Jean Station, Teneo Suites offers an excellent standard of budget accommodation. There is a self check-in system next to the main entry. Great value and close to the main market place of Bordeaux, this hotel has easy access to main areas of the city.
Eat: Le Marche des Capucins, (Courts de la Marne).
How could you pass up the freshest produce in Bordeaux? Under the roof of this market you will find delectable local cheese, meat, seafood and fruit and veg. This is the best place to sample food in bulk at a minimal cost, such as fat grilled sandwiches stuffed with goat’s cheese and salmon with side portions of wedges (€6 ). Seafood plates (more like platters) can be found for €18 at ‘Bistro a Huitres’, and outside the market is a small restaurant named ‘Le Cochon Volant’, a favorite for locals which dishes up very typical food of the region.
Drink: Clos La Madeleine (Saint Emilion).
Okay, so it’s not in Bordeaux city. But as mentioned, you must get out of the city to understand what Bordeaux is all about. If you don’t like the thought of a full day tour, then the region of Saint Emilion is for you! Just 40 minutes out of Bordeaux from St Jean station, a trip costs just €16 return and you are rewarded with excellent wine and beautiful scenery.
‘Clos La Madeline’ comes recommended from the Tourist office in town. You must have an appointment to visit the wineries/chateaus, but the tourist office will organize this for you at minimal cost and provide excellent reading material.
The town of Saint Emilion is quaint and scenic and provides insight into the process of wine making. It is also one of the most expensive regions of the wine world, even outstripping the ‘Champagne’ vineyards. In Saint Emilion, each hectare sells for anything between 2 – 4 million Euros!
Visit: Bordeaux city center.
Bordeaux has UNESCO status for its many beautiful buildings, and is relatively easy to get around on foot. If you do visit the market, continue up the main road until you come to the open square with the twisted obelisk (Place de la Victoire). At the base of this you will find a city mascot, the turtles munching a bunch of grapes! From here, it is a direct walk down to Saint Katherine, the center of town.
Places of interest include the Palais Rohan (Town Hall), the Grand Theatre, the Porte Cailhau, Saint Michel Bell Tower, the Palais Gallien, the Saint Seurin Paleo-Christian site and the Petit Hotel Labottiere.
Take the airport bus from Gare St Jean. This whole area out the front of the station is being re-developed. About 20 meters in front of the taxi ramp you will find the stop for the Airport Bus. Cost is $7. Journey time is 45 minutes and there are actually 2 other pick-up points in town, so it’s worth looking into if you are staying far away from the train station.