Travel: Spain makes a spectacle of itself: The Fallas, in Valencia, is an orgy of effigy-burning and boozing. But Simon Calder's girlfriend's mother had a thoroughly nice time

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The Independent Travel
The skies were being ripped apart by a searing display of pyrotechnical arrogance. The square was packed with a crowd in a mood of jostling agitation, straining to witness the fierce flames blazing all over Valencia. Trapped in the midst of this inferno was my girlfriend's mother, an awfully long way from her home in Luton.

'The very concentration of dullness, stagnation and ugliness' said the 19th-century travel guru Augustus Hare - not of Luton, but of Valencia, Spain's third city. The three of us (my girlfriend came too) were here, enduring such bedazzling discomfort, for las Fallas. These days, Valencia's biggest festival seems just an excuse for everyone to get outrageously drunk and indulge in an orgy of pyromania. But originally it was a celebration of the coming of spring.

Carpenters in 18th-century Valencia worked through the winter using lamps. When spring arrived, they would burn the poles used to support the illuminations. One day, someone decided to decorate a pole with the image of a local nerd; the idea caught on, and mutated into a ceremony to herald the imminent equinox. Each March, neighbourhoods compete to build the biggest, gaudiest, most grotesque effigy. Subjects include politicians, footballers and even tourists. Some looked like enormous Spitting Image puppets; others recalled Monty Python.

Several hundred of these papier mache figures of fun - known as ninots - are exposed to the ridicule of promenaders. Every few blocks you see a fresh display of satire and hear hoots of derision. Every night for a week, bonfires and fireworks light up the city, but these are mere trailers for the big event, the Night of Fire (which takes place next Saturday). At midnight, the effigies are set alight, while a firework display approximating to the entire military arsenal of a small nation shreds the sky. Every painstakingly crafted figure goes up in flames - save one: the ninot judged to be the most inventive is spared cremation and preserved in the Fallas museum.

My girlfriend's mother, Iris, had been almost everywhere, so it had seemed like a good idea at the time to take her to the part of Spain described by the late Kenneth Tynan as the 'world hub of anti- tourism'. As I watched the mob hysteria growing at the same pace as the flames, and Iris looked in danger of being submerged in the tide of mass inebriation, I wished I had avoided the place, too. Saturday nights in Luton are rarely like this. Yet, when we finally extracted ourselves from the throng filling the Plaza del Pais Valenciano, it transpired that she had - in the tradition of indomitable English lady travellers - enjoyed the experience thoroughly.

The locals do not suffer from a surfeit of tourists, and therefore are welcoming to visitors - although, like Catalonia, Valencia has its own language, which to the outsider looks horribly unfamiliar. Most streets signs resemble unpromising hands at Scrabble.

The morning after last year's firestorm, the city looked as though World War Three had been fought and lost on its streets. But I got the impression that the post-Fallas debris was merely one extra notch on the civic degradation infecting much of the city. In contrast to the elegant sprawl of Madrid and Barcelona, Valencia is compact - and mostly ugly. Someone with a grudge against humanity has defiled it with countless concrete blocks and underpasses, the stuff of alienation. It looks like an experiment from the Sixties which went horribly wrong.

Stick with it, though, and you discover some gems buried among the ashes of the Fallas. Clumsy modern high-rises are dwarfed in character by baroque and art- nouveau surprises, and the centre of Valencia is unaffectedly handsome: the brusque newer boulevards have to admit defeat when they collide with the city's wayward core.

Civic life revolves around the Plaza de la Virgen, abutting the cathedral. The city's eventful history is encapsulated here: before El Cid built a Christian house of worship, the site was occupied successively by a Roman temple, a Visigothic church, a Moorish mosque. And after the Pythonesque figures of the Fallas, you can see one of the two chalices in Spain with competing claims to be the Holy Grail used by Christ at the Last Supper.

The search for the North railway station can be jolly frustrating, since it turns out to be due south of the city. It is well worth seeking out, however: a terminus of delightful pretension, lingering somewhere between Victorian grand and Hispanic adobe.

Even if Valencia boasted none of the above attractions, its two art museums would justify a visit. One - ancient - is housed in a 13th-century monastery, with sensitively restored galleries and untouched cloisters. The other - screamingly modern - is a feat of architectural daring which demonstrates that squares can be other than ungainly. Outside, the museum's bold geometry imposes order on the gently crumbling north-western quadrant of the city; the interior is filled with cleverly chosen works by contemporary Spanish artists.

The city is constrained within a bleak ring road, which has replaced the old city walls. Beyond it, the suburbs dissolve initially into marshland spotted with dereliction. But 15 miles north of Valencia, you come upon a slice of what I think people mean when they talk of the 'real Spain'. The town of Sagunto is a long, thin urban straggle, providing all the diversions you might need. It starts at the Mediterranean, specifically the Costa del Azahar - a crescent of civilisation pinched between the Costas Dorada and Blanca.

The 'orange blossom coast' is not the most dramatic in Spain, but it is probably the least crowded. The beach at Canet de Berenguet, close to the centre of Sagunto, is mostly deserted. Potentially, bathers are deflected by the prospect of devouring paella at one of the string of low-rise restaurants along the shore. Tea like mother makes it has not yet infused this part of Spain.

The heart of Sagunto is Roman, but it bears traces of successive waves of invaders. We stumbled upon a re-enactment of one of the more recent squabbles, the expulsion of the Moors. Half the town dresses up as Christians, the other half as Moors, and they berate each other among the ruins of the hilltop fortress. After some carefully orchestrated histrionics, everyone disappears to kiss and make up in the cafes hidden in the intricate web of medieval streets.

If all the festivities become too intoxicating, the hills inland from Sagunto offer a fine escape route, and the opportunity to indulge in some hearty walking. The outlying village of Gilet is notable for its imposing monastery, run by friars with an eye to commerce: a bar has been added to cater for the hikers heading uphill.

Whether or not you partake of divine intoxication, the view from high above the monastery is miraculous: the startling crags of the hills as they march inland; the orange groves which give the coast its name; the gentle curve of the beach. And there, farther off, looking not at all bad in the soft-focus haze, is Valencia. You are forced to conclude that it is an outstanding city inhabited by ferociously gregarious people. It isn't Madrid or Barcelona, but it's not Luton either.

The Fallas festival takes place from 12-19 March each year.

Getting there: Only Iberia (071-830 0011) flies direct from the UK to Valencia. The lowest fare for the daily flight from Heathrow is pounds 205, but two people can travel for pounds 168 each. From Manchester, fares on Iberia are pounds 10 higher and you have to change planes in Barcelona. A cheaper option is to get a charter flight to Alicante, which is a two-hour train ride ( pounds 10 each way) from Valencia. To reach Sagunto, take the suburban railway from the Estacion Ferrocarrilles Electricos just north of Valencia city centre. Trains arrive in the middle of Sagunto; buses and taxis are available from here to the beach at Canet de Berenguet, and inland to Gilet.

Accommodation is a problem during the Fallas , and you may have to take a room outside the city; the Spanish Tourist Board (071- 499 0901) can provide a list of hotels.

Reading: Few guidebooks are well-disposed to Valencia: the Cadogan Guide is one honourable exception. And Michael Jacobs's new literary journey through Spain, Between Hopes and Memories (Picador), has an entertaining chapter on the city.

(Photograph omitted)

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