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, rather 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 traditions intact. The social fabric of the city is still organised around the clan-like fallas, neighbourhood co-operatives, reminiscent of a 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; Las Fallas is their ultimate hay day.
The ultimate hay day
Each of the 350 fallas commissions an effigy – enormous structures made out of papier-mâché 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, a policy, a development, but more often, it is a mocking of society, a brave self-reflection on the morals of today – greed, vanity, decadence, vulgarity. On this last one – the fallas are definitely for mommy and daddy; Valencians are particularly fond of sex references in the effigies (sometimes even disturbing). However, each falla also commissions a children’s falla to be placed side by side with that of the adults.
The fallas cost a lot of money and take months to create. 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 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, 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 year.
At the end of 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, 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 a good 10 days.
On the eve of Las Fallas, 15th of March, the crowds just can’t hold it in any longer. They take to the streets in numbers, while all 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 Madame Tussauds take over the city. Music bands and street performers line the pavements. The city bursts with the influx of visitors, up to three times its normal population. The smell of gunpowder is everywhere. Ears ring from an explosion every five seconds. Paellas are cooked right on the roads. There is a battle for survival in the main square at midday, with the mascleta sending shockwaves through the sea of packed bodies. Lucid groups of locals in all colours of the rainbow on their gold-woven costumes skip in frenzy to their traditional music through the streams of human traffic.
At 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; the most lucid transcendent stuff you'll ever see in the sky.
At sunset there is always a spectacle in the centre – a parade of folklore or 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 ceremonial parades by the fallas communities that stop every few minutes to have a good old dance. This will take two days, 14 hours each day, to bring all the 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 rule. The entire city is given over to the crowds for a mega party on every single street. 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.
In the morning, there is no time to sleep. Up early and back to the mayhem of colours. This goes on for four days. No one sleeps.
Finally, on the 19th, those who have survived, drag themselves over to the effigies. In exhaustion and oblivious to the explosions, people stand – swaying, waiting for the final act. Another mega tirade of all kinds of pyrotechnics and fire lick the sides of the effigies. 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 the effigies fall off into oblivion, raising clouds of sparks, ash and thick smoke 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.
Alex is the webmaster of Valencia Tourist Information – an independent resource on travelling in Valencia, Spain.