A night of fire and fun

Lia Grainger

Communal and cathartic, each spring this spectacular Las Fallas ritual electrifies the citizens of Valencia

We sat around a long table in the floodlit street, the chilly Valencian midnight breeze doing nothing to cool our anticipation. My companions were men, women and children from the Casal Esparteros, a neighbourhood casal (club) whose main purpose was to erect the collection of enormous, cartoonish figures that towered over us as we sat and drank.

It was the second night of Las Fallas, the most important festival in Valencia, Spain, and I sensed these falleros (those taking part in Las Fallas) were looking for mischief.

An older member of the casal unfolded a long, papery spool and laid it in a ring around the table. Then, as we goaded him on with laughs and shouts, he lit one end, and in an instant the long string of firecrackers exploded all around us.

 

In the Spanish city of Valencia,

The Bollywood-themed falla of Casal Convento Jerusalén, 2017

spring is welcomed with Las Fallas, a street festival that celebrates renewal and communal creativity on a colossal scale. Hundreds of local fallera groups or clubs each erect a collection of monumental figures or fallas (puppets) and place them in the street to be admired. On the final night, most of the fallas—except one or two of the more outstanding—are set on fire and destroyed.

Las Fallas is a five-day assault on the senses, celebrated from March 15 to March 19 every year. It’s a barrage of brass marching bands, costumed falleros, fireworks, bullfights, paella, endless drinks, and games with firecrackers. Overseeing the chaos from as much as 135ft overhead are the fallas themselves, spot-lit observers of this annual mayhem.

I’d come to Valencia to gape at the mammoth fallas with the rest of the throngs, so the next morning, Friday, I set out to track down another one.

At 170ft high, the falla of Na Jordana stood even with the three-story buildings that surrounded it. In the thick crowds milling about the monument’s base, I met Alex Campón Moya. A lifelong fallero, the industrial engineer was eager to talk about the festival’s history.

“The festival has pagan origins,” explained Alex. Back in medieval Valencia, the city’s many craftsmen extended their working hours during winter with candlelight. These candles were perched on a multi-armed candelabrum called a parot. When spring finally arrived, workers took their parots out into the street and burned them to celebrate the changing season. Over time, workers began dressing them in old rags.

A “niñot” of Donald Trump

“At some point the fallas became a way to mock well-known locals, like the baker or the carpenter,” said Alex. From this evolution the niñot or doll-like effigy was born. Today, niñots still poke fun at well-known figures; Trump, Obama, Merkel and other world leaders have featured prominently. Somewhere along the line Catholicism was thrown into the mix and today the festival is also a celebration of Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.

“This year our theme is comedia—the theatre,” explained Alex, pointing upward. The falla’s crowning niñot loomed above us, an elegant, Mona Lisa-faced woman with blue hair. She wore an ornate 17th-century-style corset dress, her billowing skirt transforming into a pair of peacocks halfway down her hips.

The work was overwhelming—and pricey. Alex explained that this year’s falla cost €100,000. “Back in the day, the casal would pay for all of it,” he said. Today, fallas are sponsored. Da Jordana’s was flanked with banners advertising Alahambra beer, and a giant Coca-Cola logo made from strings of red and white lights hung nearby.

A“niñot” of a Mona Lisa-faced woman

There was also some not-so-subtle political satire on offer. Alex pointed to a life-sized figure of a white-haired man dressed as an old-time theatrical player and wearing a chastity belt. It’s Ximo Puig, he explains, the president of the government of Valencia.

“He was here a few minutes ago,” says Alex. What did this dignified politician think of the likeness? “He loved it! In Valencia, it’s the ultimate honour to be in a falla.”

 

I headed back to Casal Esparteros for lunch,

The 2017 members of the Casal Esparteros wait for their “fallera major” to join them on a procession around the city

where I’d been invited to try a local delicacy: arrós amb fesols i naps. At one end of the casal’s private clubhouse was a makeshift kitchen with three large gas stoves. A crowd of men stood around an enormous steaming pot that held enough of the rich brew—rice, pork, white beans, onion and turnip—to feed 300.

My explosive introduction to the festival the previous evening had come care of José Vicente López, the president of the casal and a round and rosy character bursting with pride for his falla.

More than art for art’s sake, the fallas are a competition. José explained that as well as a monumental main falla, each club also builds a smaller sculptural work called a falla infantil that is designed to appeal to children. The Esparteros have won best falla infantil (children’s falla) 13 times in the past 74 years—no small feat considering they aren’t one of the wealthiest clubs.

Fireworks exploding before La Cremà on the final night of festivities

While I waited for my piping hot bowl of food to be served, I chatted with Gemma Gómez, a 12-year-old girl who happened to fill one of the most important roles in Las Fallas.

“It’s an honour,” said Gemma. Tiny and pretty with straight black hair pulled back into an impossibly elaborate braided bun, Gemma was the year’s fallera infantil, a designated club princess of sorts. She explained that it was her duty to attend events throughout the year and during the festivities as an official representative of the falla.

She has support from the club queen to her princess—the fallera major. This year it’s 29-year-old María Cruz, and she holds hands with Gemma across the table as we chat. The petite princess seems mature beyond her age, until I ask her what she likes best about the festival. She gives a wicked little smile: “The firecrackers.”

 

In Valencia,

 

Gemma is far from alone in her unrelenting love of blowing things up. I’d only been in the city for 24 hours, and it was already clear that the constant onslaught of noise and explosions was at the very core of Las Fallas.

Strolling down an otherwise quiet street, I’d find myself jumping at the sudden bang of a firecracker and would turn to see a child barely old enough to walk with another one ready to go in hand. A parent would usually be casually supervising nearby—or goading the child to light another.

It rattled me, and I found myself wishing for a firecracker-free falla experience, something locals assured me was impossible.

Among those locals was Antonio Monzonís Guillén. At 85 years old, the tiny Valencian poet knew his hometown’s famous festival better than most.

The artistry of it all inspired a young Antonio, and art and poetry became his life work. He even painted fallas—one of his pieces sits in the Museo del Artista Fallero.

Many people like Antonio were able to make a career in the arts thanks to Las Fallas. He explained that to the northeast of the city is a fallero suburb, the Cuidad del Artista Fallero. Roughly 200 artisans work out of some 70 studios, the majority big enough to house the construction of these huge and time-consuming projects.

The next morning I made my way to the artist’s neighbourhood to check out the museum. There I meet Alfredo Nadal, a painter and expert in the history of the Valencian tradition.

“Here you can see how the fallas were traditionally built,” says Alfredo, walking over to an enormous, half-constructed figure. Its wooden skeleton was half exposed, overlaid in places by thin, reed-like strips of wood to give it mass, and then covered with layer upon layer of papier-maché.

As we walked among the cartoonish figures, Alfredo explained that the biggest commissions could take a year to build. Today, though, the traditional wood has largely been replaced with something cheaper and easier to manipulate: Styrofoam.

“This new method has to change,” said Alfredo. When the fallas go up in flames on Sunday, the air won’t be filled with wood smoke, but with black clouds produced by the burning of plastic.

But it didn’t seem to bother the hundreds of thousands who flocked to ogle the monumental structures. The city’s population more than doubles during the festival, to reach upwards of 1.5 million. Endless crowds flowed up and down the cobbled streets, taking in the spectacle and—to my profound irritation—setting off more than the occasional firecracker.

 

Las Fallas seemed to take place everywhere in the city at once,

but every afternoon for a few brief minutes, the festival had a single focal point: the mascletá (fireworks display) at the city hall square.

I arrived early but already a crowd hundreds of thousands strong stood in my way. At 2pm it started, first as a regular fireworks display—bright white explosions accompanied by echoing booms.

Then sound became the main event, a physical sensation as 120 decibels vibrated through every ounce of flesh and bone in the packed square. With one final, heart-shattering boom, it was over.

Though its pagan origins still permeate the festival, there’s one custom at Las Fallas that is undeniably Catholic—La Ofrenda. Over the final weekend, more than 100,000 falleros pay homage to the patroness of Valencia with an offering of flowers. I headed down to Plaza de la Virgen to take in the spectacle. In the centre of the square stood an impressive 50ft-high figurine of the Virgin.

Falleros streamed by in full formal dress and handed their bouquets to a team who carefully placed them to form an elaborate design over the wooden structure. As I drew closer, I noticed that as they finished making their offering, most of the falleros were in tears.

 

By Sunday afternoon,

The feast of Saint Joseph with the floral offering to the Virgin Mary

there was only one event left: La Cremà, the night of fire. In theory, the fallas infantiles are all burned at 10pm, and every massive falla is lit at midnight. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough fire engines and firemen and women to be at every falla at once, so the burnings are staggered.

Several firemen with a massive hose arrived at the Casal Esparteros a little after 10pm, and everyone assembled around the falla infantil. A string of explosive charges had already been carefully laid among the delicate figurines.

The queen and princess, María Cruz and Gemma Gómez, stepped forward and solemnly lit the charge that would destroy their falla.

There was a series of loud bangs and flashes of light, and then slowly, quietly, amber flames began to creep their way up the falla.

The figures melted and wilted, cracking and spitting until nothing was left but the skeletal sticks that once held them up.

Gemma stood to one side in Maria’s embrace, tears running down her cheeks. “It’s over,” she said quietly.

 

I strolled away

from the melancholy scene in search of a giant falla that would burn at midnight and settled upon a Bollywood-themed, 75ft eruption of colour by Falla Convento Jerusalén. As the flames rose five, six storeys in the night sky, I turned to gaze at the thousands of fire-lit faces turned up in wonder.

The cremá felt timeless—something ancient and cathartic that allowed every citizen in an entire city to start with a clean slate. Walking back to my hotel that night, I spotted a small pile of undetonated firecrackers. I took one, lit it, and tossed it into the air, where it exploded with a particularly delightful crack. And you know what? I liked it.