city slicker Valencia

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The Independent Culture
Valencia is currently celebrating the annual Fallas Festival, one of Europe's most important festivities. There are parades and fireworks, with the climax tomorrow night at midnight

The festival: Valencia has been holding a festival in honour of the patron saint of carpenters since the 18th century. With the advent of spring, the chippies used to burn their old torches, candlesticks and bits of spare wood, a practice that's evolved into a spectacular annual event. These days, huge wood-and-plaster models up to 60ft high are erected in the city's streets, packed with explosives and then set alight.

Hidden meanings: Each model is a satirical representation of current personalities, so politicians come in for a lot of stick. Consequently, the authorities have always been wary of the festival - it was banned in the 19th century, and Franco tried to put a stop to it. In 1992, the neighbouring Catalans came in for much ribbing about their high-profile hosting of the Olympics, with statues mocking the pretensions of Monserrate Caballe and Freddie Mercury.

Technical terms: The main model is called the falla, hence the popular name of the festival. Each one is surrounded by up to 100 separate little statues, called ninots, which elaborate on the theme; the best of these statues are placed in La Lonja, the old silk exchange, where one will be chosen to be saved from the flames and displayed in a special museum. The Plaza Ajuntament (townhall square) sees the mascleta, a daily rocket and mortar display of great ferocity; while the whole festival culminates in the Nit del Foc, when everything is set on fire.

Other attractions: Fireworks at every turn, but there are also costumed parades, floats, brass bands and the floral tribute to the Virgen de los Desamparados (Our Lady of the Helpless), where the Plaza de la Virgen is carpeted in flowers. If you miss the festival, you can see the best of the smaller ninot statues in Las Fallas museum, where the exhibits go back 60 years.

Festival food: Doughnut stalls do big business, and the local speciality is horchata, a drink made from tiger nuts. And amid all the festivities, you'll come across paella contests in the streets. Valencians claim paella as their own and it's taken very seriously here: steel pans 20ft across splutter over open fires of orange-tree wood, overseen by men with extremely large spatulas.

How to start an argument: You could start by querying the contents of that paella. A true Paella Valenciana doesn't look anything like the ones served up in Benidorm, down the road. No seafood for a start, and heaven forbid if you wanted peas, red peppers and all the others dayglo accompaniments. Instead, you'll get rabbit, artichokes, snails, butter beans and green beans. Pedants could also insist on eels.

Diplomatic skills: Remember that you're not in Spain, you're in the Land of Valencia. Don't, under any circumstances, remark that the Valencian "language", as posted on street signs and maps, looks remarkably like Catalan. Don't even suggest that Valencia used to be part of a greater Catalunya. And never, ever point out that the Catalans like to think they make a pretty good rice dish themselves.

On the town tips: Best place for paella - La Pepica; if it's good enough for Ernest Hemingway and Pele, it's good enough for you. Top serrano ham specialist - Palacio de la Bellota, the self-styled "Cathedral of Ham". Weirdest bar - Johann Sebastian Bach; OTT Gothic mansion cluttered with church sculpture. Sadly the caged lion has been removed.