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When you think of Spanish festivals you probably think of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his novel The Sun Also Rises. If only Hemingway had traveled a little further south he may have written a much happier book. The city of Valencia lies on the east coast of Spain, about 200 miles south of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast. The city has a lot to offer, seemingly endless beaches, ancient Roman ruins, medieval towers and even the futuristic looking Cuidad de Las Artes y Las Ciencias (the city of arts and sciences) designed by the world famous neofuturistic architect Santiago Calatrava.
But what makes the city unique is the annual festival of Las Fallas, a citywide party centered around giant papermaché statues. The festival has taken place every year in March since at least the middle ages, although the origin of the festival has been lost to time, there are lots of theories most suggest it evolved from ancient pagan celebrations of the beginning of Spring. The one thing I know for sure is this is a land of crazy festivals, and this one makes the rest look somber and boring. This year was my first living in Spain, and even though I have forgotten many of my ‘firsts’, I will never forget my first Fallas.
My girlfriend is from Valencia and while I’d heard stories of Fallas long before moving to Spain, I really had no idea what it was or what to expect. It begins a few weeks before the festival proper with an exhibition of what are called ninots, small plaster and papermaché figures that will eventually be part of huge displays on almost every corner of the city. These ninots gave me some idea of what to expect. They vary from cute cartoon characters to scathing satirizations of celebrities and politicians. Here, at this exhibition the public get to vote for their favorite ninot and the eventual winner receives the honor of being spared from the fire at the end of the festival. Oh! Did I not mention that? When the festival is over these enormous artistic displays (that cost as much as $75,000) will be filled with firecrackers and set alight!
Each display, or Falla, is designed and funded special neighborhood organizations who hold fundraisers throughout the year to hire artists and pay for materials. It’s this community centric element that I like the most about Las Fallas, every neighborhood takes pride in their Falla and during the festival the whole street eats and drinks together outside. Even though I had only been living in my building about a month and barely spoke any Spanish, I was invited to eat some paella and have a drink with my new neighbors, the whole experience gave me a sense of community that I didn’t think still existed, especially not in a big city.
The festival really begins on March 15th, when the Fallas are erected on the streets and corners all around the city and the ninots are taken from the makeshift museum to their respective Fallas by hand, carried or pushed on trolleys, and accompanied by brass band banging drums, blowing trumpets, waving banners, and singing as they roam through the city.
These bands are a constant presence during Fallas, from the 8 a.m. wake up call when they parade through the streets playing lively music while the falleros and falleras (sort of like a festival king and queen for each neighborhood who dress in traditional outfits) throw firecracker behind them, to the mascletá, a progressively bigger and louder fireworks display that takes place every day at 2 p.m., to the random drunken singing and dancing on the streets, these bands are the highlight and backbone of fun and energy for the entire festivities.
The Fallas displays themselves are something neither words nor photographs can adequately describe. 50 foot tall Vikings that have to be erected with the help of a crane, can-can dancers the size of trucks, and literally hundreds of other displays. Some cute, like the angry birds display around the corner from my girlfriend’s house, some educational, like the Albert Einstein surrounded by floating mathematical symbols and lots of satirical displays ranging from local politicians to a puntastic satire of banks with dozens of bad bank puns including bank Gogh, Klu Klux Bank and the pink banker all represented visually in a tower of park benches piled atop a bank, complete with faux Roman columns around its doorway. My local Falla was a beach display with topless sunbathers and a creepy pervert holding binoculars with his tongue hanging.
The entire city is alive for the week long party with amazing firework shows at night, live bands playing free concerts in squares all around the city and churro stands on every corner.
On the 17th all of the Falleras parade through the city to bring flowers to La Plaza de la Virgen where an enormous statue of the virgin Mary is then covered with the flowers. The 19th of March is the last night of Las Fallas, known as la cremá (the burning) this is the night that the displays are cut open, filled with fireworks and burned while thousands of people line the streets to watch and listen to the ever present brass bands. The very idea that they burn the beautiful Fallas after all of the work that goes into to them might seem strange to you, it certainly was to me. Throughout the festival I kept thinking that it was strange, almost crazy that they would just burn their creations, but standing in front of one as the flames licked the sky and the crowd roared felt like a fitting end.
Even though I was new to the city, struggling with the language, and unaccustomed to the heat (90+ degrees in March!) the festival made me feel like I was really home. If any of you reading this are adventurous and love to party I highly recommend you come to Valencia for Las Fallas next year, although I feel I should warn you, you may never want to leave.