Lexy Burton / Contributor

It takes a lot of time to plan and prepare a vacation.

I learned that the hard way. To go somewhere without doing all your research first. Yes, that sounds irresponsible, but unraveling the unknown in a foreign place is a liberating experience.

While studying abroad in Madrid, Spain, I traveled everywhere with a TripAdvisor travel guide in the front pocket of my burnt orange Osprey backpack. I used the travel guide to research and read about every destination I planned to visit, to navigate and explore a new city most effectively. I planned vacations with purpose because I disliked the idea of experiencing a new place without prior knowledge of the community or culture.

"Neither the Internet nor my travel guide could prepare me for the festival of a lifetime."

When my roommate and I sat down one afternoon to plan our ten day spring vacation, we talked about all of the places we wanted to visit. Valencia, a small city on the west coast of Spain, was at the top of her list. She persisted we visit Valencia the third weekend in March because it was the last weekend of a weeklong festival, Las Fallas.

I love festivals. They are perfect for people watching, discovering new music and gorging on street food. However, before booking a flight to Valencia I tried to look up more about the festival in my TripAdvisor book. I was disappointed to discover that although my travel guide highlighted La Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias, one of the most renowned modern architectural structures in Spain, it had no information about the festival. So, I turned to Google where I learned Las Fallas represented a festival of light and renewal. Neither the Internet nor my travel guide could prepare me for the festival of a lifetime.

My roommate and I arrived in Valencia a few weeks later.

When we first began exploring the city, I learned atypical behavior was normalized, even excused, during Las Fallas. Every main street was blocked off and children played with firecrackers on every corner. As we began exploring more of Valencia on our first day, we were welcomed by a parade that never ended. We stood on one side of the barricaded street for an hour watching men, women and children in traditional Valencian attire. Frilly white satin dresses and coordinating white or black lace veils for the women. Vests and jackets decorated with gold buttons and triangular hats for the men.


With no help from my travel guide, my roommate and I didn’t understand the purpose of the procession, so we began questioning, hypothesizing and gathering context clues. We decided to navigate the city by following the parade which helped us get more information about the festival. We learned each neighborhood has their own statue or collection of statues called fallas— elaborate paper-mache sculptures filled with fireworks. On the final night of the festival every statue in the city is ignited and burned to the ground. We walked around the entire city looking at the beautiful fallas before they were scheduled to burn.

While we were partaking in the festival activities I reminded my friends we had to visit La Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias before the evening was over. My friends didn’t want to leave the festival or the excitement, but trusted my travel guide. We parted ways from the festival activities and explored the western area of the city. The architecture of La Ciudad de lost Artes y Ciencias was remarkable, however the planned excursion wasn’t the highlight of the trip.

"Why was a little girl selected to light the falla? Why was it so important to burn the falla?"  

On our walk back from visiting La Ciudad de las Artes y Ciencias we saw more intimate spaces of Valencia, the streets not mapped out in travel guides or highlighted on travel shows. We walked by small family owned restaurants, kids playing street soccer and laundry hanging between alleyways. It was the road less traveled that highlighted the city's character.

While walking through a small neighborhood we watched a young girl light a rope and ignite four green and red fireworks that blew up a falla. Witnessing art blow up in flames was captivating, but I still didn’t understand the significance of the ceremony. Why was a little girl selected to light the falla? Why was it so important to burn the falla?

I had to know more. I asked a stranger to explain. He informed me every year during the festival one woman or young girl is selected to represent each neighborhood in Valencia. This "princess," if you will, then is responsible for lighting her neighborhood's falla on the final night. During the day, members of her community escort her from their neighborhood to the cathedral where a large statue of the Virgin Mary is created by flowers offered by each member of that community, which explained the purpose of the parade. The stranger went on to explain las fallas are destroyed and burnt to represent renewal.

"The best travel memories are most often unwritten or undocumented."

After watching the ceremony I still didn’t fully understood the importance of the festival or how every part of the festival was orchestrated, but I was satisfied without knowing every detail. For the first time traveling abroad, I realized how important it is to experience something not in a book or travel guide. Instead, I grew to understand the heart of a city isn't made up of it’s great destinations or top tourist attractions, but rather established by people who have developed small businesses, created families and participated in community celebrations, like Las Fallas, for generations.  

Travel is never simple, it is stressful, crazy and unpredictable.

Experiencing Las Fallas helped me discover travel can be more rewarding with a balance of purpose a spontaneity. I believe travelers can be enticed to visit attractions and destinations listed in a travel guide, but Valencia taught me it is important to experience a variety of destinations as a traveler. Don’t always create your must-do or must-see lists. The best travel memories are most often unwritten or undocumented.

You can follow Lexy's adventures on Instagram and LinkedIn.

July 5, 2017