On the 5th January, The Three Kings arrive at Valencia’s Marina by speedboat and are then whisked to the city centre in a flashy car. They drive through the streets throwing sweets into the crowds and this joyous ritual is possibly more important than Christmas for the people of Spain.
The 6th January is the final day of the Christmas and New Year festivities and traditionally Spanish children write letters to Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltasar instead of Father Christmas, to echo the story of the gold, frankincense and myrrh, presented to baby Jesus. A special cake, called the Roscon de Reyes is baked to look like a jewel studded crown. Inside a small toy baby is buried and whoever finds it will be lucky throughout the coming year.
In El Cabanyal, the three kings are a bit more home-grown. They ride around in a horse-drawn carriage (or on one occasion a Fiat) and have more of a local pantomime feel which befits this magical neighborhood.
In the Plaza de la Cruz de Canyamelar there is a busy, noisy market which is open all night long. It spreads down the main street and into a few side streets and is a last chance for parents to buy gifts for the children, presumably as specified in the letters written to the Kings. It’s heaving with shoppers and revellers and even at 4am is going strong.
I am puzzled by what they’re actually buying. The toys are cheap and tacky and most of the merchandise looks as if it won’t last the night, never mind the whole year. The best stalls are selling sweets, in the most lurid colours imaginable and oozing sugar. These help to fuel the children, who at 1am were still running up and down the square, with gusto I could only admire as I watched them from my balcony, while clutching my hot water bottle.
Naughty children receive a piece of coal made from sugar and naughty adults celebrate with a glass of vermouth. Everybody is basically in a state of high excitement enhanced by alcohol or E numbers.
The classiest stalls are right in the square and local bookshop, La Batisfera has its usual enticing mix of Spanish and English books, which raises the tone enormously. There are a few makeshift bars and everything is open, even the local electrical store. It’s marvellous to behold and Valencia is in full-on fiesta mode.
The parade itself was a bit of scrum. No-one seemed all that bothered about the kings themselves, but were more interested in the boiled sweets which their majesties hurled from the carriage, often hitting people in the face. Grown men scrabbled on the dirty pavement to get as many as possible. We also spotted children taking stock of their loot afterwards, which they had amassed in huge piles. It felt rather Dickensian but the mood was also truly Spanish.
Today the market has completely disappeared. The streets are spotless and there’s not a boiled sweet in sight. At around 2pm, families and friends will assemble to eat the Menu del Reyes – another sumptuous meal featuring lobster and Cava, on offer on most restaurants and cafes. And then tomorrow, it’s back to reality. For a while at least, because more festivities are looming.
At a time when Britain is battling with Brexit, I am very happy to be here, where it’s easy for everyone to celebrate being alive, even if only with a lump of sugary coal and a plastic unicorn.