Despite hard economic times the annual tradition of Fallas lifted Valencian spirits [AFP]

For a number of years, the residents of Valencia, Spain's third-largest city, have seen their economy grow in tandem with the rest of the country. But as Spain begins to go through a recession, many have turned to a very traditional means of escape.

Every March, Valencia hosts las Fallas, an annual festival of parades, frolics and fireworks.

One local observer calls it "more important than Christmas to the locals. This really makes them happy, it did a whole lot to lift Valencia's spirits. The whole city was awash in colours during the Fallas."

For many Valencians, Fallas offered a welcome respite from the bleak economic picture that is being painted across Spain.

"The money of fun never gets lost. You may not be able to afford a car but during this time you'll have your fun," Ricardo, a local dress-maker, said.

He was referring to a Spanish saying which has become especially apt in this Mediterranean port city during the global economic downturn: "Al mal tiempo, buena cara," - put a nice face to the bad times.

This year, more than a million people filled the streets of Valencia amid firecrackers exploding in the air.

Recession and scandal

Restaurants in Valencia are offering "anti-crisis menus" to ease the recession 
Valencians have been confronted with both a recession and a brewing political scandal involving the ruling Partido Popular (PP).

Large financial bribes are allegedly involved, and although the PP calls it a conspiracy, such headlines do little to bolster public faith in an economic turnaround.

Party officials were not immediately available for comment.

In the empty riverbed of the Turia, a popular green walkway for the city's struggling residents, political apathy runs high.

Alejandro, a veteran political commentator, said: "For me all politicians are the same: shameful."

"It's not surprising that such a political scandal erupts now, and in the end everything will remain hidden from us again. Nothing will happen."

The pensioner says he has lost faith in the ability of the PP to turn things around in Valencia.

"I have no confidence at all, because everything in the region's economy has been based on construction. Now I have no confidence that they will solve anything," he said.

Beauty queens

The financial crisis has so far left the festival unaffected

Nonetheless, Valencians were able to voice their political opinions in the satirical parade of Ninots (puppets) a highlight of this year's Fallas.

Ninots depicting Francisco Camps, the president of the Valencian government, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the prime minister of Spain, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the prime minister of France, were marched through the city's streets, and then burnt in great ceremony on the final day of the Fallas, March 19.

The Ninots parade followed the crowning of the city's beauty queens - each dressed in pompous local garments that are thought to replicate those of 18th century France. One such dress can cost hundreds of euros.

"In times of crisis this year, 90 per cent of people already have their dresses, so we are lucky in a sense. But we noted sales were relatively stuck in the last third of 2008. Maybe this year we will begin to feel it too."

At his shop, Ricardo said he wants to keep these traditions affordable despite the recession and is offering 12-month, interest-free payments for his dresses.

"The obligations – rent, food and transport – are what kills you in this recession," he said.

'La Crisis'

'La Crisis', as the financial downturn is known in Spain, is visible everywhere on the streets of Valencia. Pulsating as the heartbeat of this city during the Fallas, the city centre has come to display the full extent of economic woes on a daily basis.

The number of homeless people and beggars on the streets have increased significantly as a result of the crisis. It is a worrying trend confirmed by church-based charity Caritas, which has registered a jump in appeals for help.

On one bustling walkway at the heart of the city, two beggars were seen fighting for a prominent place: "You are young, go and work," the elder of the two shouted.

But that may be easier said than done - job opportunities are scarce. "There are no sales, no jobs, nothing," said Papa Diop, a legal street seller from Senegal.

"Before the crisis sales were good but now we just come out to do something. No one sells anything, even the big shops around us don't sell much," he said.

Illegal street sellers who offer counterfeit products for low prices say their sales have also suffered.

One man from Mali said: "Our sales are very low now. But at least the police are not so bad to us."

Analysts and charities have warned that with real GDP growth not forecast to return to positive figures until 2011 and unemployment set to rise even further, job-related conflicts may be looming with an estimated four million immigrants currently living in Spain.

But one immigrant from Bulgaria has gone against the general trend and opened a new shop near the breathtaking Plaza de Reina, one of Valencia's tourist hotspots.

Beautiful hand-painted ornaments adorn the shelves, but few have been snapped up.

Tourism boom hoped

Valencia has developed into a trendy alternative to the usual Spanish tourist destinations of Barcelona, Madrid and Sevilla, and tourism could well be the key to economic recovery in the short term.

Traditions like Fallas can save businesses from bankruptcy
Visitor numbers for January reached some 95,000 according to provisional figures – down by around 25,000 from last January. But the last Fallas festival brought a surge of some 50,000 additional visitors, and it is hoped a similar effect will be witnessed this year.

"We believe the European depression can be well forgotten with a Fallas here in Valencia and there are plenty of anti-crisis travel offers on the market," one travel agent told Al Jazeera.

In a city where oranges can be plucked from any tree and have become a staple food of the homeless, one orange farmer has found a highly successful fusion between tradition and modernity.

Federico Aparici, the owner of Naranjas Lola, is selling his oranges through the internet. "It arose out of being sick of losing money in farming," he said.

"At that point it occurred to us to try selling over the internet. Back then it seemed like lunacy."

Now the business serves 400 restaurants, hotels, specialist grocers and delis, as well as around 1,500 individual costumers - just one example of how businesses here are taking on the industrious spirit of the carpenters that founded the Fallas festival to defy the recession.

An olive seller at the traditional weekend market situated in the bull fighting ring said he would look into the internet option. "In these times people need to be reassured," he said.

"Old traditions like the Fallas help them to believe that the world will go on, after all."

Source: Al Jazeera