Valencia and Las Fallas (Burn, Baby, Burn!)
At first glance, the festival of Las Fallas – which takes place in the port city of Valencia over a two-week period every March – just seems just like a good excuse to blow up and burn as many things as possible in a crowded urban environment. And while it is certainly that, it is also at its heart a deep celebration of community that unites and excites the people of this great city in a way that transcends man’s mere desire to blow #*%! up.
Preparation for Las Fallas takes all year long. In a nutshell, each neighborhood competes in building enormous, colorful floats that look like something straight out of Disneyland. Each Falla (float) is the size of a building and usually features comic-like characters along with satiric commentary on the current political situation. Here is a picture of the 2014 first-prize winner:
You can see that these must take months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and there is one on every plaza and small square in the city. Which is what makes the ultimate goal of Las Fallas so utterly shocking: burning every single Falla in a single cathartic night of fire and chaos. Awesome.
Everything about Las Fallas is done on a grand scale, so it is fitting that the whole thing is kicked off by the world’s largest and loudest firecracker/M83 show. This show take place in the city’s main square every day at 2pm for TWO WEEKS straight. Here is a video that gives you an example of how insane this is:
So basically, Valencians are shocked and awed every single day for a fortnight…and they love it. Every day when the bombs finally stop, the pyro-technicians run out into the square and are given a roaring ovation of approval from the crowd as they wave like conquering heroes. Laura and I arrived and met up with our friend El, who was staying in Valencia with her cousin’s best friend. The friend was with her entire family, including their 8-year-old daughter. They had arrived two hours early to see the show (called the Mascletá).
As we drank beers, jawed sunflower seeds and played cards with them, they casually explained that the show happens every day at 2pm and that they only miss a show if work gets in the way. They also said with a straight face that the bombs are so loud that you have to keep your mouth open in order to not have damage done to your ears. As the moment of truth arrived, the huge crowd got excited and let out spontaneous cheers. Then the show started and did not let up for 5 straight minutes. Fireworks, firecrackers, M83’s, and pyrotechnics we had never seen before dazzled us and shook us in our very bones. You could only smile and yell as the explosions got louder and louder and filled your whole being. It was like a cross between a rock concert and a WWII bombing. We were there on the last day and the family we were with literally has tears in their eyes as we cheered for the pyro artists. It was like the end of Christmas for them.
Anywhere else, this would have been enough for a great festival, but in Valencia, we were literally just getting warmed up with the high-intensity carpet bombing. After the show, we met our friends for a delicious meal of paella in the Valencian style (chicken and rabbit) and arroz a banda. We then walked around the city, filled at every square with huge Fallas and beautiful architecture. One of the square featured an enormous Virgin Mary made entirely of white and red flowers, which you can see in the background, here:
All this touring was punctuated by the sounds of firecrackers being set off – literally every few seconds. When you first arrive, you jump every time, but by the end, we were getting used to it. Everyone from parents to 5-year-old girls were running around and setting of firecrackers and sparklers. By this time, the Fire Parade was ready to start and we snagged a spot by a roundabout capped with an impressive victory arch. As we watched, every time of spark-throwing device ever invented was walked by us, from guys on bikes with sparklers attached to the wheels, to people on stilts with whips that shot sparks out of the end. Then there was the giant armored turtle float that shot sparks out of it every 30 seconds. The whole place smelled like gunpowder the entire time. Just for good measure, the Parade ended with a close-range, super-intense fireworks show that was shot from the huge arch just in front of us. I’ve never seen fireworks so close before – we literally had to shield our eyes from the falling ash and paper scraps. It was like Chinese New Years on crack.
THEN, we made our way down the nighttime streets to the giant light castle, which was a huge structure made of lights about 6 blocks long. It’s lit up so brightly that you feel like you are inside and waking through a cathedral made of stained glass windows. Then, as if that weren’t enough, they set the whole thing to music and it flashes along in time with the beat. See for yourself:
This is a good time to mention that this is apparently all put on by the various neighborhood Fallas Committees and not by some central government body. This is just a good old case of keeping up with the Gomez’s, and the result is astounding. During the entire day we heard marching bands, people in fancy traditional dresses, and thousands of vendors selling everything from doughnuts made of fried squash dough (buñuelos) to cold beers and sausages.
After a quick outdoor pit stop for some delicious food (where we watched teenagers with a red and green sparkler launcher chase each other around pretending to be Harry Potter wizard-dueling and young families help their young daughters light tricky M83 fuses), we made our way to the first-prize Falla to watch the midnight burning.
Around midnight, nearly all of the Fallas are burned to the ground, city-wide. These burnings take place in tight quarters, surrounded by flammable buildings. We watched for about an hour as the bomberos prepared our area for the burning. Giant tarps were unfurled from the surrounding buildings and then drenched in water for 20 minutes straight, literally creating curtains of water. Then a firework was set off, the crowd cheered, and the Falla went up in smoke before our very eyes. We could feel the heat pushing us backwards as the crowd balanced curiosity with the need to not burn alive. Hot, wet ash fell down on our faces as the fire fighters’ water hose kept the flames relatively at bay. Flames rose high into the air for about 20 minutes and then only the iron frame was left, all that work and effort gone in just minutes, reduced to a pile of smoldering ash. See for yourself:
Perhaps the biggest miracle of all this is that nobody appeared to be acting badly during the entire celebration. No teenagers shooting firecrackers at old people, no fights, none of the horrible things that a festival like this would bring out in the US. It was a great example of how Europeans can be infinitely more liberal (“lets combine firecrackers and small children and fire!”) and yet so much more civilized and orderly than their American counterparts. I feel like this type of celebration is only possible here in Spain.