La Fallas ¡Que quema!

Looking for a way to get to Valencia on a budget (train tickets were upwards of 75€), Nazli and I opted to go with a group we found on Facebook – 25€ round trip by chartered bus (screaming deal!). Well, we were apparently still in dream-land from Cagliari, and neither of us looked too closely into the details of the trip, just sort of bought our tickets. Well, we show up Saturday morning in Plaza Cataluyna and there are hoards and hoards of Erasmus students, and next comes 10 huge buses to haul us all to Valencia. For a little background on the “EU Erasmus Program,” it is basically a student exchange agreement between certain European Union Universities to allow students to spend a semester (or longer) “abroad” at other EU Universities, while earning viable credits towards their degree. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a fantastic program, but these kids are exactly how I was at 19, 20 and in college, especially when you are away from home…”it’s time to PAR-TAY!” So, we come to find out that the bus would arrive at 3:00pm in Valencia and would leave at 4:30am back to Barcelona (approx 12 hours); not to mention the free entrances to various dance clubs with free drinks etc. Not nearly the cultural experience I was looking for, not to mention such little time to see everything…but with a sigh and a reluctant head shake, we got on the Erasmus-Dutch-Party-Bus. So anyways, enough of my complaining. The rest of the blog is mostly a description of the festival for those of you at home, drawn from a little research I did. Although I missed the majority of the festival (sad face), I am happy to say that I DID, at least, get a taste of the special ambiance that is Las Fallas and hope I can make it there again next year.

Las Falles (literally meaning “the fires” in Valencian-Catalan, but I will use the Spanish version here, “Las Fallas”) is undoubtedly one of the most unique and crazy festivals in Spain. Then again, Spain is a country known for its unique and odd fiestas! What started as a feast day for St. Joseph (March 19th, “Father’s Day” here in Spain), has evolved into a 5-day, multifaceted celebration involving lots of fire. Valencia, a quiet city with a population of just over 1 million, swells to an estimated three million flame-loving tourists and Spanish nationals during Las Fallas celebrations every year.
“Ninot”
The focus of the fiesta is the creation and destruction of ninots (“puppets” or “dolls”), which are huge cardboard, wood, paper-machè and plaster statues (some of which stand at more than 4-stories tall). The ninots are placed in the streets of the city as satirical symbols, making some kind of humorous social or political comment. They may be human, animal or vegetable in form, portraying a critique of a local, national, or international incident, personality of character (you can imagine how the Valencianos had a lot of material this year with the current crisis in Spain and shift in governmental power). The ninots remain in place until March 19th, the day known as La Cremá (the burning)…I enjoy the irony of the political figures being part of this sort of grand sacrificial burning at the end.

Starting in the early evening, young men with axes chop cleverly-hidden holes in the statues and stuff them with fireworks. The crowds start to chant, the streetlights are turned off, and all of the ninots are set on fire at exactly midnight. Over the years, the local bomberos (firemen) have devised unique ways to protect the town’s buildings from being accidentally set on fire by the ninots: such as neatly covering storefronts with fireproof tarps and dousing the façades, window blinds, street signs, etc.with their hoses. Each year, one of the ninots is spared from destruction by popular vote. This ninot is called the ninot indultat (the pardoned puppet) and is exhibited in the local Museum of the Ninot along with the other favorites from years past. These days, making fallas is a multi-million industry, as opposed to the festival’s more humble roots. Each neighbourhood of the city has an organized group of people, the Casal faller, that works all year long holding fundraising parties and dinners to fund the $75,000 it takes to build one of ninots.  The fallas sculptures are highly sofisticated works of art created by professional artistas falleros. It doesn’t just take highly specific skills of working with such huge pieces, but there is also a lot of engineering – the fallas are constructed in a precise way, so that when they burn they collapse safely.

The origin of Las Fallas is a bit murky, but most credit the fires as an evolution of pagan rituals that celebrated the onset of spring and the planting season. In the sixteenth century, Valencia used streetlights only during the longer nights of winter. The street lamps were hung on wooden structures, called parots, and as the days became longer the now-unneeded parots were ceremoniously burned on St. Joseph’s Day. Even today the fiesta has retained its satirical and working-class roots, and the well-to-do and faint-of-heart of Valencia often run out of town during Las Fallas. And the “yuppy” locals leave with good reason, because the five days and nights of Las Fallas are a continuous party – set for the hard-core Valencianos and crazy tourists who brave the festival. There are people frolicking in the streets, the whole city resembling an open-air dance party. You see everyone from small children to elderly gentlemen throwing fireworks and noisemakers around randomly in the streets, which are littered with pyrotechnical debris. Explosions can be heard all day long and sporadically through the night. Street venders are selling products such as the typical fried snacks porres, xurros and bunyols, as well as roasted chestnuts and Las Fallas comemerative bandanas (one of which I am the proud owner of!) We also came across a few stands selling fresh, hand-made Valencian orxata de xufa (horchata de chufa in Spanish). In Latin America, we are used to our traditional horchata – rice, milk, sugar and a touch of cinnamon –  but in Valencia they have their own orxata (Catalan) made from tigernuts (also called the “earth almond”), combined with water and sugar. I would compare it to a very “earthy” and unprocessed tasting sweet, soy milk (this is coming from a person that loves soy milk so you can imagine how I was crazy for Valencian orxata!). We also enjoyed munching on just the plain roasted tigernuts as we strolled down the streets!

So, the things I DID see:

Els Castells and La Nit del FocOn the nights of the 15, 16, 17, and 18th there are firework displays over the old riverbed in Valencia. Each night is progressively grander and the last is called La Nit del Foc, (the Night of Fire).

 

La Ofrenda de Las Flores  – The Valencians construct a wooden silhouette of the Virgin Mary in the Plaza de la Virgen in the center of Valencia. Over the days of the 17th and 18th, from 4pm to 1am, this structure is compltely filled in with bouquets of carnations. Entire communities from Valencia come dressed up in their best and most colourful traditional costumes and pass by the Virgin bringing the flowers, which are then arranged by the crew on site. And good news, the huge statue of fresh flowers doesn’t get burned at the end, it stays in the center of town until the flowers naturally wither away and they deconstruct it.
The ladies in their traditional dress, some of these can cost 3,000€!
Loved this precious family with the twins!
The “gents”
Silhouette of the Virgin being filled with booquets
Aside from “La Crema,” the OTHER things I DIDN’T get a chance to see but are on my list for next year:

 

La DespertàEach day of Las Fallas begins at 8:00 am with La Despertà (“the wake-up call”). Brass bands will appear in the city center and begin to march down every street playing lively music. Close behind them are the fallers, throwing large firecrackers in the street as they go.

 

La MascletàThis explosive barrage of coordinated firecracker and fireworks displays, takes place in each neighbourhood at 2:00 pm every day of the festival; the main event is the municipal Mascletà in the Plaça de l’Ajuntament where the pyrotechnicians compete for the honor of providing the final Mascletà of the fiestas (on March 19). At 2:00 pm the clock chimes and the Fallera Mayor (basically las fallas pageant “queen” dressed in her fallera finery), calls from the balcony of the city hall, Senyor pirotècnic, pot començar la mascletà! (“Mr. Pyrotechnic, you may commence the Mascletà!”), and the Mascletà begins. The Mascletà is almost unique to the Valencian Community, hugely popular with the Valencian people and found in very few other places in the world. Smaller neighbourhoods often hold their own mascletà for saint’s days, weddings and other celebrations.

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