Every year Spain's third largest city explodes in a festival of fire. Nicholas Taylor took to the streets, fuelled with gin and paella, and revelled in hedonism
VALENCIA is peopled by pyrocrazed insomniacs who love the sight of their environment burning. This much is obvious as I taxi down a dual carriageway in Spain's third largest city towards the Turia gardens with my newfound Spanish friend Juan. It is approaching 1am and the streets are thick with revelling hordes on foot, scooter, and infectious amounts of adrenaline. All around us fireworks are exploding and spears of light streak before shop fronts and through the narrow strip of park. It is mania, but it definitely looks like fun. "Welcome to Las Fallas," Juan grins. "Here you will see how Valencians party."

Seven hours later and I had truly seen how Valencians party. After relentless hospitality, bucketloads of paella, gin and tonic sold at pounds 3 per pint, half a million people dancing on a ring road and a display of sky-bound pyrotechnics that made 5 November in Britain look like a wet night out with a packet of sparklers, it was time to abandon the festivities of Spanish hedonism and steal some sleep. Welcome to Las Fallas indeed.

Las Fallas ("the bonfire") explodes over Valencia every March from the 12th to the 19th. The city seethes with revellers, the streets and skies shriek with fireworks and eventually the whole thing goes up in smoke. It takes the whole of the previous year to get organised, involves everyone, and for the more sober members of the city is a scheduled week to flee into the hills. Like all good parties, the night is when the celebrations come into their own. But the city constantly teems with a carnival vibe. If the spirit of hedonism seems so complete it is because the Valencians have been preparing for it for centuries.

Las Fallas owes its inception to the ritual of the seasons. In the 18th century, as the year drew to its close, craftsmen would prolong the working day into the evening by lighting a parot, a rustic version of a standard lamp used to hold candles. By the following spring the craftsmen would celebrate the death of winter by burning all their waste materials, together with the parot, in a ceremony that drew together the neighbouring community. The wooden pyres were dressed up like scarecrows to resemble recognisable and derided local characters. Over time, the ninots, as they were named, grew more elaborate and were grouped together according to a theme. Thus the fallas themselves were born.

Today the effigies that litter the squares and alleys of the city are grander and more complex than their 18th-century forefathers. The ritual of burning has also grown into a week long public celebration of culture, satire and riotous fun.

The Valencians intend their guests to party, but they also do their utmost to stop them sleeping. After one hour's coma I am cruelly roused by the sound of la desperta, aptly translated as rude awakening. From the window I can make out, somewhat less than sharply, the local falleros, the older men who organise the celebrations within each of the city's districts. Marching below the hotel the costumed paraders whip bangers to the ground and usher forth a full brass band in their procession. This is an alarm call carnival style. Valencia by day might be sleepier than Valencia by night, but here peace is a relative term. Sightseeing around the basilicas and art nouveau fruit market is an option in the warm afternoon heat of spring, but everything is subordinated to the festival spirit. After the morning wake up call of the trons de bac come the lunchtime tracas - washing lines pegged with gunpowder parcels strung across the streets to ensure sequential detonation.

Then, come early afternoon, when even the most hardened firework fanatic should be in siesta, the mascleta appear: roughly speaking, mascleta means muscle, and in explosive terms, muscle means mortar shells of the sort more commonly associated with Middle Eastern war zones. Loud as it is, the carnival also whisks Valencia into a frenzy of colour. With the mellow Mediterranean light fluttering over the fading baroque facades, the spectacles of the fallas dominate street corners and plazas with all the subtlety of the Monty Python cartoon foot. Eight hundred have been built, some of the larger ones reaching up to 100ft. Conceptually they are reminiscent of Spitting Image puppets. All of them invoke a satirical stare at some or other aspect of modern Spanish society The whole of the previous year is spent planning and constructing the monuments, which are now made out of cardboard and polyester. Yet at the end of the final night La Crema, the destiny of all but one of the fallas is the same - to go up in smoke with the maximum amount of fire and noise.

Beyond viewing the fallas, another reason for wandering the streets is to witness the procession of the falleras and their ofrenda de flores. From the outskirts of the city 200,000 girls and boys march into town, bringing flowers and music to the Plaza de le Virgen. The girls, armed with everything from a single carnation to a sedan-chair's worth of Interflora, bequeath over one-and-a-half million floral offerings during Las Fallas. The girls, dressed in silks and brocades and sporting identical Princess Leia hair styles, deposit their gifts before swiftly parading off again. The motion is simple and continuous; whatever the time of day you can be sure that several thousand young Valencians will be making their annual pilgrimage into the centre.

After a second night of intergalactic fireworks and roadside raving the festival reaches its conclusion. St Joseph's Day falls on 19 March, a public holiday and the night of La Crema; the great holocaust of the fallas. The hours approaching midnight produce a chaos of anticipation that rises up from the streets and hangs over the city. Firecrackers are detonated every second or so, but the nervous system is by now anaesthetised to the shock of the blasts.

Midnight passes in a shower of explosions. Noise and fireworks echo from all quarters of the city, and from the vantage point of a central roof, tracers of cascading embers and whispering flames can be seen licking the horizon. Soon the clear night sky is overrun with black smoke and the whole city is cremated.

In front of our terrace the City Hall fallas, a 80 ft replica of a bronze, Iberian statue, has reached its nemesis. Shooting fireballs preclude the view, rapidly superseded by a chorus of angry mascletas. The statue begins to crackle, then almost immediately a rapid, raging inferno smothers the icon. The nearest swell of onlookers cheer. Within seconds the monument is hollowed out, leaving only a few sturdy wooden struts intact within the enveloping white heat. The firemen centralise the flames with giant hoses and more than a hint of the dramatic, though several charred trees suggest that in previous years they weren't quite so vigilant. Minutes after the first spark flies, the fallas collapses to the ground. With no fuel to feed it, the flames soon tire and fade as well. Effortlessly, instantaneously, Las Fallas is ended.

It is a sad moment. The surreal edifices of the fallas are nothing more than smouldering piles of ash, and even those are quickly removed by municipal cleaning machines. But the Valencians don't have time to mourn the end of this year's festival. After all, they're too busy planning for the next one.

valencia fact file

Iberia (tel: 0171 830 0011) flies daily to Valencia from London Heathrow. For those staying over a Saturday night, fares are from pounds 163 including taxes.

During Las Fallas (12 to 19 March) accommodation is difficult to find so you should try to book in advance, or rent a room in a private house (locals will meet backpackers arriving at train and bus stations). Among recommended budget 'hostals' are the Hostal El Rincn (Calle de la Carda 11; tel: 391 7998) and the Pensin Paris (Calle Salva 12, tel: 352 6766). Upmarket, the grandest option is the central Hotel Reina Victoria (Calle Barcas 4, tel: 352 0487).

Nicholas Taylor travelled to Valencia last year as a guest of the Spanish Tourist Board.