“Then it started and my entire perception of reality was immediately warped by the sudden and intense cacophony of explosions that were unleashed one on another to a bone-shaking-brain-freezing-soul-pummelling crescendo.”
“Keep your mouth open when it starts”, said the local standing next to me. “Or your eardrums might blow out”.
I gave him a sideways look, trying to decide if this was some kind of Valencian joke at my expense. I knew that this daytime firework show is famously loud. But that loud? Really?
Then it started and my entire perception of reality was immediately warped by the sudden and intense cacophony of explosions that were unleashed one on another to a bone-shaking-brain-freezing-soul-pummelling crescendo. I was convinced that the Earth itself had just cracked.
A pall of smoke hung over the 100,000 people all rammed into the main square, the Placa de Ayuntament. They looked like they were applauding, although I couldn’t hear it. In fact, it’d be about an hour before I heard anything. This was Valencia, Spain, and this – the Mascletá – was part of the most bombastic festival in the world, the one they call “Las Fallas”.
Valencia, on Spain’s eastern Costa del Azahar, the “Orange Blossom coast”, has really only arrived on the international tourist map in the last twenty years or so. As Spain’s third-largest city, Valencia has traditionally been overshadowed by it’s two bigger siblings – Madrid as the nation’s capital and economic base, and Barcelona as the cultural and artistic centre. However, since the 1960s, the city has seen major changes. The establishment of now-iconic landmarks – such as local architect Santiago Calatrava’s mind-blowing City of Arts and Sciences – have pushed the city front and centre as a powerhouse of modern art, architecture and culture. Furthermore, significant investment in renovation of the old historic centre – the largest in Spain – and an increase in international flights to Valencia have seen a continued rise in foreign visitor numbers year on recent year.
Las Fallas as a festival has grown too. From a local backwater knees-up celebrating the start of spring and the feast of St. Joseph, to one of the seemingly ubiquitous Spanish festivals that foreigners can’t get enough of (e.g. Pamplona’s “San Fermin”). You could say that Valencia’s Fallas has really exploded – pun intended – and now it attracts over two million tourists during the week-long celebrations. Basically, this more than doubles the city’s population for one week every year. It’ll attract even more visitors, too, in the coming years, since UNESCO declared the event part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in 2016. And if that doesn’t sound impressive, I don’t know what does.
So, what exactly is a “Falla?” Well, its literal translation to English is unclear. It’s generally accepted to mean “fires” but given that no Valencian I asked really agreed with that, the jury is still out. Nevertheless, it generally refers to the giant – and spectacularly imaginative – papier-mâché/plaster/polyurethane models that are erected around the city during festival week. These pieces compete for artistic prizes before being ceremonially burned in the final Sunday night orgy of conflagration called La Créma. A falla is made up of ninots – the actual figures themselves – that are then crafted into an ensemble piece that depicts a particular theme. These themes are usually of a satirical nature and can be whatever that particular group of artists want to mock that year. For example, this year saw a particularly strong showing for the fallas-mocking of Donald Trump’s accession to the US presidency. The UK’s “Brexit” from the EU was also amply demonstrated in various scenes around the city. The satire can be in-your-face explicit, or really quite subtle. Clearly, the foreign visitor may not quite “get” what’s being represented with the ninots of Spanish politicians or celebrities. However, there are themes of political corruption, scandal or general incompetence that should be universally recognised.
Most Valencian barrios will have their own fallas – two in fact, one for the adults and one for the kids, the falla infantile. These fall under the oversight of the neighbourhood committee, the casal faller. There are about 800 of these community associations around Valencia, and the size and complexity of their fallas will depend on how much money – through fund-raising, donations or sponsorship – they have to spend. This can range from a few thousand euros to hundreds of thousands. The most expensive one, in 2008 (thanks to a sole mega-millionaire donor) cost over 1 million euros. However, due to complaints from the other communities, the price of a falla was later capped at 250,000 euros. Just to put that into perspective, during La Créma, a falla will burn to ashes in approximately five minutes. Yikes!
You might think that all this booming and burning is enough sensation for one festival, but not a bit of it. Apart from the extraordinary levels of aural punishment and the mass burning of 800 models in the street, I’m barely getting started. There’s a lot more going on in Las Fallas than this. For example, there are paella-cooking competitions in the street, Valencia being the spiritual home of the dish (don’t let a Valencian hear you say you ate paella in, say, Madrid. Only in Valencia it’s real, and don’t you forget it!)
There are processions where every fallero and fallera dress in traditional Valencian costumes of silk and parade through the streets. With 400 or so casals fallers around the city, involving about 200,000 people, that’s a lot of processions. There’s also the main procession, La ofrena de flors – the offering of flowers – where 100,000 people all make their way to the Plaza de la Virgen and place carnations at the foot of the Virgin herself. The wonderfully named Virgen de los Desamparados, or Lady of the Forsaken, whose model stands 40-feet high and is decked out in a dress of red and cream coloured flowers.
There is the morning wake-up call, the despertá, which is – no joke – a brass band marching through the streets at 8am.Wakey wakey! There’s the magnificent 20-minute fireworks display on the final Saturday night, the Night of Fire, which matches the daily Mascletá for noise and adds a jaw-dropping light-show too. There are the calles illuminadas, where the streets in certain areas are decorated in lights and compete for prizes. Then there’s the final cavalcade of fire, the Cavalcada del Foc, a fire-themed carnival parade through the streets before La Créma. Here, one ninot from one falla will be spared, by popular vote, from the fire and stored in Valencia’s Fallas Museum for posterity.
In short, it’s a magnificent festival. A week-long city-wide street party that, quite literally, won’t let you sleep (see the despertá above!) and will probably leave you in a gibbering heap, such is the sensory overload involved.
However, still reeling from the Mascletá, I knew that, the next day, I’d be right back in the front row in the main square. The festival Queen, the fallera mayor, would come out onto the balcony of the city hall, and say to the officiating madman with his hand on the big red button, “Mr. Pyrotechnic, you may commence the Mascletá”.
Yes, they do call him Mr. Pyrotechnic. And yes, I’m pretty sure my mouth would be open, though just as much out of awe as necessity!