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Las Fallas of Valencia
to the left and to the right every 5 seconds, all colours of the rainbow
on the dresses of the locals jumping in frenzy to traditional music, millions
of people with no sleep for 4 days and giant 15-20 metre caricature effigies
grinning at you at every crossroad, many with hard-punching satire and
even sexually explicit scenes. This is Disneyland purchased by the Lord
of the Underworld, this is Fear and Loathing in Valencia – Las Fallas.
Arguably the craziest urban
festival in Europe, this is one of the most bizarre and fascinating European
attractions, yet it is not a recent invention of new age imagination but
a deeply traditional local festivity.
Valencia, the City of Contrast,
has stepped firmly into the cosmopolitan 21st century, yet it has kept
much of its tradition intact. The social fabric of Valencia is still organised
around the clan-like fallas – neighbourhood co-operatives, reminiscent
of Moorish tribal organisation. The falleros comprise a good 30-40% of
Valencia. Their main job, apart from being a community, is to stage various
fiestas throughout the year, and Las Fallas is their ultimate hay day.
Each of around 350 fallas-communities
of Valencia commissions an effigy – enormous structures made out of papier-mache
on a wooden carcass, lavishly painted in bright colours and intricately
complex in their themes.
Traditionally, the fallas
are satirical. It is everyone’s chance to lash out at whatever troubles
them this year – perhaps a public figure or a policy or a development,
but more often it is a mocking of society, a brave self-reflection on the
morals of today – perhaps greed, vanity, decadence or vulgarity. On this
last one – the fallas are definitely for mommy and daddy as the Valencians
are particularly fond of sex references in the effigies (sometimes even
downright disturbing). However, each falla-community also commissions a
children’s falla to be placed side by side with that of the adults.
fallas cost a lot of money and many months to create. Some poorer ones
are less intricate and smaller, according to the budget, while the better
sponsored-ones can be up to 30 metres in height and about the same in width.
This is the part no foreigner can get a grip on – all this stuff will get
burned to the cheers of the crowd.
The Fallas festival advances
with much anticipation by the locals, like an unstoppable flood stretching
barriers to the limit before bursting out in all its monstrous force.
It simmers throughout the
year with the making of the effigies and selections of the Fallera Mayor
– the Queen of Fallas who will become the face of Valencia for that one
In the end of the February
the first petards hit the floor, the first traditional costumes appear
on the streets and the first music bands march in the afternoon. On the
last Sunday the motley noisy crowd gathers at Torres de Serranos (magnificent
Gothic city gates) to be called upon for “the best party in the world”
by the Fallera Mayor.
From then on it’s all uphill.
Throughout the first two weeks of March more and more music bands rock
the streets of Valencia, the costumes are everywhere, and the explosions
rise in intensity. Every day on the main square there is the mascleta –
a mega firecracker insanity that gets this huge square packed with people
shaking in jubilant frenzy to the shockwaves of extreme pyrotechnics.
Finally, one week before
Las Fallas the first pieces of the effigies begin to arrive for assembly
to the crossroads of Valencia’s streets. The falleros break out nomadic
camps right on the bitumen nearby and commence their binge-drinking and
paella-cooking which now won’t stop for good 10 days.
On the eve of Las Fallas,
15th March, the crowds just can’t hold it in any longer and take to the
streets in numbers, while all of the 700 effigies get assembled at the
same time. After the fireworks the party goes on till late, with mobile
discos breaking out in multiple districts of the city.
The next morning the lucid
trip begins. Huge and wacky caricatures grin at you from everywhere you
look. Distorted and twisted Mme Tussauds has taken over the city. Music
bands and street performers line the pavements. Valencia bursts at the
influx of visitors, up to 3 times its normal population. Smell of gunpowder
everywhere. Ears ringing from an explosion every 5 seconds. Paellas cooked
right on the roads. Battle for survival in the main square at midday, with
the mascleta sending shockwaves through the sea of packed bodies. Lucid
groups of locals with all colours of the rainbow on their gold-woven costumes
skip in frenzy to their traditional music through the streams of human
midnight the mascleta gives way to a castillo – visual fireworks that make
your jaw drop. Valencians are the Mozart of fireworks, often doing major
sports events and New Year celebrations all over the world. Here they bring
the best of the best for their own fiesta, and this is the most lucid transcendent
stuff you have ever seen in the sky.
As sunset there is always
a spectacle in the centre – a parade of Folklore or a parade of Fire. Next
to the main square an altar of offerings takes two days to complete – an
enormous statue of the Virgin is made entirely of flowers, brought in ceremonious
parades by the falls-communities who stop every few minutes to have a good
old dance. These will take two whole days, 14 hours each day, to all bring
their flowers, coming out from every corner and every direction, like streams
joining one colourful river.
That’s just by day. By night
the wild and the deliciously dark rules Valencia. The whole city is given
to the crowds for a mega-party on every single street. Hundreds and hundreds
of thousands drink and go wild together at numerous mobile concerts and
discos, amongst a total war of explosions and absolute urban chaos and
anarchy, as if the government has collapsed.
Yet in the morning there
is no time to sleep. Up early and back to the mayhem of colours.
And like this for four days.
Finally, on the 19th those
who have survived drag themselves over to the effigies. In extreme tiredness,
now oblivious to explosions, people stand, swaying, in wait of the final
act. Another mega-tirade of all kinds of pyrotechnics and the fire starts
licking the sides of the effigies. Suddenly the flames expand into giant
multi-storey size fireballs and fire columns, the heat wave sweeps the
crowds and ignites the spirits once again. Huge chunks of effigies fall
off into oblivion, raising clouds of sparks, ash and thick smoke all over
the city, their last moment of final glory reflecting in the widely open
eyes of the entranced onlookers.
The firemen finish the job.
The people crawl home.
Four days of insanity, colours,
explosions, noise, music, fireworks, party, mayhem, chaos, crowds and fire.
Four days without sleep.
Next morning the streets
are clean as if nothing had happened. Business as usual in Valencia.
About the Author: Alex
is the webmaster of
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