The Fallas of Valencia

By Matias Tugores

Every year on the 19th March, the people of Valencia turn into frantic pyromaniacs.

On the stroke of midnight, 400-plus giant gaudy artworks, pitched on squares and street corners, are set ablaze to the delight of a town bursting at the seams. The fire-fighters are there alright, but won't move a finger to put the fires out. Seen from the sky, Valencia must look like a town in the grip of wild rioters.

For Valencia, Spain's third largest town, these fallas (as these lofty statues are known) are just as emblematic as the paella of which it is the home..

March 19 is only the culmination of five days of hearty – and at times emotional- celebrations that will keep the peñas (the organisers) busy almost year round. For the peñas, the year is spent collecting the huge amounts of money to fund them (a cool US $ 1,000,000 for the grandest of them!), hiring artists, sculptors, modelers, technicians of all sorts, carpenters, painters…as well as the obligatory musical band and firework technicians without whom a falla would just not be the same.

Building a falla that often exceeds 10 meters in height and weighs anything from 8 to 20 tons is a consummate art that can only be entrusted to professionals. At a technical school in the working-class borough of Benicalap which has some 70 workshops entirely devoted to the fallero art, tens of young men learn the tricks of a more and more demanding trade.

On the night of the 15th March, lorries and vans carrying the pieced fallas and their ninots (the small-sized characters that go with them) will take them to their respective locations. The fallas must be assembled by 8 o'clock, next morning, and everyone makes haste to meet the deadline.

The streets are crammed until late at night with eager onlookers who gather round the enclosures where the fallas are being put together with the help of cranes and other hoisting contrivances. At a few steps away are the so-called "child" fallas, of a much smaller size but just as witty and facetious as their giant counterparts.

The following day, gaggles of aficionados will be seen wandering the streets, bunching together round the most eye-catching fallas –like the one at Nou Campanar that has bagged all first prizes these past five years. Their makers are men of genius indeed. They draw their inspiration from any imaginable source: the current political and social scene, the great issues of our time, influential figures, daily life, traditions, literature, sport, art

Clustered round the central figure, often at ground level, the ninots (there may be as many as 100 of them) are most often satire-oriented. They lampoon national and international politicians and prominent personalities, they castigate the shortcomings of society and occasionally will delve into the Valencia's ways. One of them, picked up by the public itself through a vote, will be spared the agony of fire and find its way into the fallero museum.

Do not expect to be able to sleep a wink all night, with the brass bands cruising the streets, the rockets launched day and night, or the blaring-out of loudspeakers until late at night.

But this pandemonium is sweet music compared with the din of the daily mascleta when, on the town hall square, strings of jumping jacks hanging from poles are ignited making the ground shake under your feet, converting the plaza into a sound box. For a few minutes the smell of gunpowder will linger over the square –obviously not a place to be in for those with a keen sense of hearing, and neither for those hating crowds.

Just before the big blow-up, at around 2 p.m., I started elbowing my way towards the plaza, a block away, through an already compact crowd, until I found myself literally glued to it, unable even to move an inch forward and miserably missed the show!

The mascleta is one of the highlights of the feast, wedged between the raising of the fallas and their burning.The most moving of them is the offering of flowers to the Virgen de los Desamparados (the Virgin of the Forsakers), Valencia's patron saint. For two days long, from 150 to 200,000 women, men and children (including toddlers in their push-chair!) will come and lay tens of thousands of bunches of flowers at the foot of a 14-m high wooden statue of Mary and on the parvis of the basilica dedicated to her, converting the esplanade into a huge sweet-smelling floral carpet.

The cremà (burning) is the apex of five days of frenzied celebrations. For some, however, it is a sad instant. More than a fallera queen and princess who have acted as "ambassadresses" of their fallas will be seen bursting into tears when it goes up in flames.

Men with axes chop holes in the polyurethane structures, stuff them with firecrackers and douse them with gas, so as to make their burning easier and more spectacular. A safety belt is set around them and at the most hazardous spots firemen, who have covered storefronts with tarpaulins, shower the surrounding façades.

The last fallas to be set ablaze are those that have been awarded prizes; the ultimate one is traditionally the mammoth work fronting the town hall which is burned at 1.30 a.m.; while it goes up into flames, the people thronging the plaza will strike up the "Song to Valencia" reflected back by loudspeakers all over the town.

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