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Spanish Warzone

March 24, 2012
As Spring spreads its wings across Europe, festivals start to spring up all around. Spain takes this opportunity to host another amazing festival, the Las Fallas festival in Valencia.
As the days got longer and warmer, craftsmen would pile up all the things which they would no longer need throughout the summer, and set them alight in celebration. Time went by, the fires became more celebratory, and started taking more defined shapes, often with the age-old theme of poking subtle fun at the governmental forces pressing down on them. Then the Church came along, and the festival it had become was aligned with St Joseph’s day, March 19.
These days, Valencia, is, I hear, quite a pleasant little city. Wide streets, beautiful weather, a gorgeous beach and relaxed attitudes all make for a nice, humble place to live. But I wouldn’t know about that because over the last week the city was totally transformed into a bustling madhouse of fire and noise.
Arriving from the airport into the centre of the city, we were greeted with live music and a great atmosphere straight off the bat. Emerging from the subway station, we made our way through the crowds, around the corner, and there in front of us was a giant African tribal warrior, towering several storeys high and looking over a lion and a young girl. Thus was our first experience of a Valencian Falla.
Around the city there were about 350 of these fallas, huge elaborate artpieces which were not floats, but rather built on to the ground where they stood. They had a wide range of themes, from historical references to fairy tales to current world events to simply gorgeous fantastical designs. There were the children’s fallas, which might only stand as large as a room, up to huge fallas which towered over multi-storey buildings. Each community or area had spent the last year fundraising to cover the costs of materials and skills needed to craft the biggest and best falla they could manage. All were intricately detailed and full of a thousand little features (I’m sure I can’t have caught them all), every tiny little square centimetre lovingly and painstakingly crafted to perfection. The colours and shapes were striking, the designs always breathtaking and sometimes even gravity-defying. Over the next few days I tried to see as many as I could, but of course could never see them all. They were judged on a variety of criteria, and luckily I managed to see most of the highly-ranked ones.
In the meantime, aside from the massive characters looming over every part of the city, the next instantly obvious thing about the festival was the noise. It seemed that every person in town had a personal unending arsenal of explosives yet was determined to try and use them all as soon as possible. These were mostly firecrackers, but not the weak firecrackers I am used to these days. These were the firecrackers of old, the big loud things that would blow your hand off if you weren’t careful. And in fact, they seemed to be doing just that. A few hands could be seen about town without the full complement of fingers. Not that anyone seemed to care. Everywhere I looked, people of all ages, from decrepit grandparents down to barely-walking toddlers were lighting and throwing explosives at each other. Literally at each other. It seemed to be the citywide joke to try and get them to explode just at the feet of passers-by and laugh away when they jumped. It seemed like the kind of behaviour you might expect from schoolkids, who would then be swiftly beaten by their parents and told never to do something so dangerous ever again. Only here, parents were gleefully handing out the explosives to their children. Lighting them first, if the kid wasn’t old enough yet to be able to work a lighter. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say 5 seconds would not go by without at least one explosion. And probably not a minute without one close enough and loud enough to make your heart skip a beat and you jump reflexively. And all the while, there were the skyrockets and screaming style fireworks whizzing about throwing more noise and light into the air. You’ve seen the news clips where the cameraman is hiding behind shelter in the Middle East as gunfire and explosions crash all about him. That is what it sounded like. Constantly. Constantly.
Not to be outdone, the City itself had its own fireworks. And every night at 1am or so, a giant fireworks display was held, much bigger than the English Guy Fawkes’ Night, and about on par with the bigger of the Japanese festival displays. Only they did these every single night. Or rather, morning. I think it’s pretty much a given that nobody in town is sleeping for the duration of the festival when even officially-run cacophonies are occurring in the early hours of the morning. And in fact, they are not just sticking to one per day. Every day at 2pm, in the centre of town there would be another fireworks display. But, you ask, how can you have fireworks in the middle of the day? Especially during the hot, sunny Spanish Spring? Well, I answer, by focusing less on light and colour, and more on, yes, noise. If you have ever considered a standard fireworks display to be noisy, imagine one designed to literally be as noisy as possible. Every day, a mascleta (as it is called) would be held in front of the town hall, each time run by a different company, all of them vying to be the most spectacular and noisy of the bunch. Even standing at quite a distance from the centre of the crowd (the streets were packed), vibrations were running all through my body from the soundwaves, and my ears itched.
And so, day by day goes by. Each day started with a wake-up call at about 7.30am with large explosions and brass bands coming out on to the streets all across town to rouse the people. From then, it was a non-stop racket (peaking at 2pm and 1am) until probably around 4am when the explosions had thinned down to become merely intermittent. A couple of hours later, the bands would be back. Amongst all the noise, the main attractions were of course the fallas, but also parading around town were the falleras, women and girls dressed in the traditional clothing and hairstyle (along with their less-impressive and less-common male counterparts, whose name I did not hear and did not bother to learn). They parade through the streets constantly, which may account for the tired looks on some faces a few days down the track.
A large part of their function is to offer flowers to the Virgin. In the town centre (not in front of the town hall), a giant wooden Virgin Mary was constructed, bearing only a face and hands. The falleras march through the streets day after day, delivering flowers to the men who are working on the Virgin, and who arrange the flowers on her wooden body frame. Over a few days, she begins to take shape and by the end of the festival, she was fully dressed in white and red. The falleras themselves seem to be quite integral to the festival, and seemingly important ones were frequently singled out for applause as well as several representatives appearing on the balcony of the town hall for each mascleta to be cheered by the crowd (only, this time, they also caught alot of the flak sent up to the politicians in the form of political protests held immediately after each mascleta). They seem to emotionally invest in their role, and as they walk away from the Virgin after offering their flowers, many can be seen to be crying.
On, then, to the final night. The final mascleta was amazing, and followed by a more-emotional-than-usual greeting from the falleras on the balcony. This would be their last appearance up there. That night, a gang of people dressed as devils paraded through the streets blowing fire as crowds started to gather around their favourite falla in town. And at midnight, these fallas were all burnt to the ground in the festival’s climax. Firefighters were on stand by as fireworks were thrust into strategic positions at the feet of these giant artpieces. Then, lights were cut and the trigger was pulled by a local authority sending fireworks into the sky over the falla as charges exploded within them. Small fires started to appear, and given the highly-flammable nature of the sculptures, quickly engulfed them, turning these beautiful pieces of art into enormous flaming infernos. The heat emanating from them was intense, and drove the crowds back several metres beyond the safety barriers set up. The flames soared far off into the sky and those unlucky enough to be downwind caught massive amounts of toxic black smoke, filled with paints, lacquers and all other sorts of flammable materials. The sculptures started to collapse, and before long they were no more than flickering wreckage. To witness a year’s worth of time, money, blood, sweat and tears be deliberately destroyed like that was an emotional experience, and on the news the following day there was no shortage of crying participants. But for a few hours, all around town, the city was engulfed in flame, fireworks and explosions, as everyone drank and celebrated the Night of Fire.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2012 11:44 am

    Delighted that you’ve absorbed the spirit of Las Fallas. It’s one of those events you simply have to see, hear and experience. How did you find accommodation?

    ‘Elf ‘n Safety’ would have a coronary if they saw this ! 🙂

  2. Pete permalink
    March 31, 2012 12:42 am

    it looks fantastic and i would like to see it(perhaps with earmuffs?). What a shame those fantasticsculptures are burned.. at least you have the images. The state of the spanish economy does not seem to have restricted spending on these.

  3. April 3, 2012 12:25 am

    Yep it was fantastic! Very worth experiencing. Booked flights and accom. back around November of last year, so in adequate time. The hostel guy said there wasn’t a spare room in Valencia over the festival, and I’m not surprised! I love that there are still places that haven’t been taken over by safety precautions and where people still hold some kind of personal responsibility for doing stupid things. Allows much more interesting things to happen!

    It must be truly upsetting to see your own sculpture burnt, but then again, there is no way they could continue to store these things one after another in successive years! The fallas are privately funded so as long as the locals feel it is worth it, it will continue, I guess. It’s important to have something to look forward to, and it’s a huge source of income for many of the artisans living there! The tourists must bring in a serious amount of money, too.

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