I remember a time when I had impressed my Spanish girlfriend by suggesting we head to Valencia for Las Fallas. This was in 1997 before I had set foot in Spain and knew less than 100 Spanish words. As a Canadian who had never been to Spain, my knowledge of Spanish festivals seemed quite exhaustive. (I riffled through my Spanish travel guide while on the phone with her.) We never did make it to Valencia though.
This year will be the first time I experience the madness that locals are constantly warning me about - “follón de ruido” (crazy noise). I’ll be in good company with my wife and son, plus my parents-in-law who have just arrived for a three-week visit.
Not to be missed: Falla in the street
What is Las Fallas?
This is Valencia’s biggest and loudest festival. (It may just be the loudest celebration in the world.) It officially begins on the last Sunday of February and ends on 19 March but the real festivities are from 15 to 19 March. Firecrackers, fireworks, sculpture, music, flames and reckless destruction - that seems to be what this big party is about.
Origins of La Fallas
Back in the middle ages of gloomy winter days in Valencia, carpenters used wooden boards called ‘parots’ to support candles that they burned to provide a little more light to work by.
When spring arrived, they ruthlessly burned these parots as a way to celebrate the end of winter. (I love the irreverence of the carpenters burning the very material of their trade.) It wasn’t long before more people were getting in on the act.
Burning things can be fun, but why not make it even more fun by decorating the wooden boards and burning local or national figures in effigy?
This ritualistic burning is what fanned the flames of Las Fallas. (The word falla comes from the latin fax, meaning torch.) The church took notice of the celebration and gave its blessing by decreeing that 19 March should be the official day of burning; this is Saint Joseph’s Day, the patron saint of carpenters, among other things.
Today parots are no longer burned but there is no shortage of fuel for the fire. A typical falla is made up of one or two large sculptures and surrounded by any number of smaller figures, called ninots.
The artistry and work that go into these pieces is truly amazing. Many are gigantic – up to 20 metres tall. That’s an impressive amount of effort to make every year for a statue that is consigned to the flames. Of the 500 – 700 fallas created yearly, only one is saved from burning by popular vote and housed with its predecessors for posterity. (The Fallero Museum is worth visiting, especially if you’re not in Valencia for Las Fallas.)
Catching a glimpse: Crowd at Macleta
How Las Fallas is celebrated
Every day at 2 pm during the Fallas, there is an explosion of firecrackers that aims to make the most noise and interesting noise, possible.
Yes, that’s right, the most interesting.
An expat friend of mine very amusedly told me recently about the radio analysis that follows each day’s mascletà (that’s what the daily sound display is called).
The mascletà I can handle – noise at 2 pm isn’t so bad, but I’m not a morning person and the despertà is the thing that has me worried. At 8 am I just don’t think I’ll be ready for the brass bands marching down the street with throwers of firecrackers following behind.
According to my neighbour, the morning ‘wake-up call’ will come a few short hours after the music stops in our neighbourhood. She’s gone to her parents’ house outside of town to wait out Las Fallas.
Another major event is the plantà, where the giant fallas are assembled – these sculptures are big and need to be transported in several sections. There are actually two plantàs, both on 15 March; the first is for the children’s fallas at 8 am and the second is for the full-scale fallas and takes place at midnight. With all of the wonderful sculptures now on display, Las Fallas is truly underway. At 1:30 am this is celebrated with a fireworks display – an event that will be repeated every night until the close of the celebrations.
In the five days and nights leading up to 19 March, the city will be a chaos of revellers. The scheduled events can hardly describe the nature of what we can expect. For example, there are offerings of flowers to la Virgen de los Desamparados (Our Lady of the Forsaken) on 17 and 18 March from which statues of her are made.
Somehow I don’t think that quaint and peaceful description tells the whole story. I don’t know Las Fallas, but I do know Spain and it’s not in the habit of being quaint and peaceful during a festival.
Up in Flames
19 March will be a hot night in Valencia. Apparently it can get so hot when the larger fallas burn that fire fighters often have to douse the surrounding buildings to prevent them from catching fire or melting. And as sculptures are adorned and/or stuffed with firecrackers before being set alight, the whole affair can be quite spectacular.
I’ve heard stories about Las Fallas that sound like near-death experiences; fireballs whooshing towards unsuspecting visitors and mild cases of shell shock from the noise.
Canada has nothing that comes remotely close to this. As the festivities approach, I find myself wondering how the parents-in-law, my wife and I will fare. Oscar, at three, I’m not worried about. The world is a surprising and exciting place for him always and he adjusts in a heartbeat. As we older Canadians start to feel our hearts race I just hope we can keep up with our little fallero.
text: Ivan Larcombe / Expatica
photos credit: Ivan Larcombe
For Ivan, all roads lead to Valencia. After living in Madrid for nearly three years, he returned to his native Canada in 1999 and chose a Hispanic Studies programme at university. He then undertook a series of completely unrelated professional before returning to Spain in 2008. You can read about his experiences on his blog - Ivan in Valencia - and on various other sites, including a fortnightly blog, Ya te digo, to Expatica.
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