Believe me, we had NO idea what we were in store for!
When we booked our apartment in Valencia, Spain for the month of March, I was told that we were lucky — we would be there during Las Fallas, a celebration that happened every year at the same time. I did a little research and was looking forward to witnessing a rich cultural tradition wrapped up in an incredible amount of noise and colour and excitement.
But it was one thing to read about it — and another thing entirely to be there while it was happening. Now don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed it all — the parades, the music, the colourful traditional clothing, the throngs of people in the streets, the street parties, the special food and drink, the amazing papier-mache monuments that magically appeared on street corners and in squares all over the city, the gorgeous, elaborate, moving light displays that rose up over the streets.
Yes, I enjoyed it all — EXCEPT for the firecrackers that went off incessantly — at all times of the day, starting in early March and increasing until March 19, the end of the celebration.
I didn’t mind the mascletà, the fireworks display that took place at 2:00 pm every day in the main city square, the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. This is a display of gunpowder explosions that beats out a unique sound.
The mascletà was noisy, but at least it was predictable. I knew when it was going to happen, so I could manage to be far enough away — preferably in a nice sidewalk cafe eating something delicious — so that the noise wouldn’t startle me.
It was the firecrackers that I wasn’t too fond of. They were totally unpredictable.
As the middle of March drew closer, the frequency with which people throughout the city set off firecrackers increased to any time and anywhere. These sharp cracking sounds often startled me and made me jump. Bob seemed to find this very amusing. “I’m sensitive,” I would say, over and over.
But really, the rest of Las Fallas was fascinating and delightful. It’s astounding to watch as an entire city gets wrapped up in a frenzy of sorts, and as tens of thousands of tourists from all over Spain and other countries converge on Valencia.
I can’t tell you how many times we would be sitting at a cafe having tapas and imbibing a beverage or two and a small marching band would come down the narrow street with trumpets and trombones blaring.
Yes, it’s an excuse for a big party, but it’s much more. What I loved was that it celebrated all aspects of Valencian cultural traditions. You can see every expression of the Valencian identity (music, costumes, rituals). You could not go anywhere for several weeks without seeing girls and boys (falleras and falleros) dressed in 17th and 18th century traditional costumes walking through the streets. And they were usually quite proud and happy to pose for pictures.
So what exactly is Las Fallas? The term actually refers to three things — the celebration itself, the enormous paper-mache monuments in the shape of cartoonish people and things that were often as tall as buildings, and the Fallas community of neighbours that are the moving forces behind the whole festival.
Las Fallas originated from an ancient ritual of spring in which villages put all of the scrap wood and broken furniture from the previous winter into the streets and set it on fire. In a way, it signified getting rid of the old for a new beginning, a kind of purging. The large falla statues have many ninots (smaller figures) attached to them and the whole thing is a feat of engineering. They are constructed in a precise way, so that when they burn they collapse safely. The monuments and ninots generally satirize culture and society, and the themes range from current affairs to local traditions. Yes, Donald Trump was represented.
Before the festivities, we went to see the Exposició de Ninots at the Museum of Science where we could look at the ninots up close. We voted with everybody else (for a small fee) for our favourites, and the winning ones will be saved for next year. The rest are burned on the night of the cremà.
We met a wonderful Valencian woman named Vicky who told us about Las Fallas from her perspective. Most neighbourhoods have a Fallas club, which spends a whole year raising money and holding parties in order to hire an artist to design and construct a large and exuberant statue that would be the focal point of the celebration for them.
As a festival for all the senses, Las Fallas culminate with the cremà, or burning of all the monuments, on March 19, which is St. Joseph’s Day and Father’s Day in Spain. This fire ritual consumes a whole year of work — a whole year of dreams.
At 10:00 pm the children’s fallas are set to the torch, amid music and fireworks. At midnight, Valencia astonishes the entire world each year by burning its street monuments to ashes, ending with the biggest fallas whose budgets are in the range of many thousands of euros.
We decided to avoid the huge crowds downtown and took part in the cremà in our local neighbourhood. The small fires there were big enough for me! I was gobsmacked to see the tiniest of children learning how to set off firecrackers. But Vicky told us that the parents teach them young how to handle them safely. After the children’s falla had burned down, the children held hands and dance in a circle around the embers to traditional music. Oh yes, there are firefighters and hoses present at every burning to make sure nothing goes awry.
The question everyone asks is why burn statues that cost so much to make in time, energy and money?
As one blog put it: “This is simply yet another traditional quirk of the Valencians, channelling their craftsmanship into an event of international status; people who are in love with aesthetics, beauty, fireworks and music; people who outdo the ancient Greeks and Romans in pageantry; people who see the ironic side of life through their ninots yet allow the flames to consume them in a homage to spring.”
I liken it to the intricate and beautiful sand mandalas that Buddhist monks work on painstakingly for long periods of time only to destroy them in the end, revealing that everything is impermanent.
The day after the burning Valencians wake up to a new morning and are already starting to think about the fallas they will build the next spring. It’s spring renewal unlike any I’ve ever seen.